January 11th: Indoors
I thought of offering to help Dannon over the large hole in the porch, but it seemed wisest not to. He gauged the distance, took in the worm-eaten pet corpse, then carefully found a way around the mess. I waited patiently in the living room, scanning the place for things I might have missed before.
"Say what you want, I do not like this."
"No one expects you to, Joseph. Rather the opposite."
"Easy for you to be glib about it," he snapped. He was too serious, though. Practically
I moved farther into the room, keeping an eye on Dannon, who appeared to be finding his own way into things. He was already heading for the closet. Carefully, like a small child testing his mother's eyesight regarding the cookie jar.
And like said mother, I shook my head and held up a hand. "Wait a minute." You'll spoil your dinner, ha ha. He slumped a bit, but held back, looking around the room with nearly tangible reprehension. I turned back to Joseph. "He isn't going to replace you. You have obvious seniority, you're already my partner"
"And I'm deader than the cat in that hole." He saw me cringe, and grinned smugly. "Closed casket, Hollowmark. Why didn't you tell him that?"
"I did, you heard me."
"Yeah, but you did it nicely. There's no place for nice in any of this."
"Are you two old ladies going to chat all day, or are there things to do?" Dannon's words were a little whiny, but at least it didn't carry into the actual sound. He was standing right in front of the closet now, moving debris around with his cane. "The way you were talking before, I thought"
"Fine." I took long strides over to the closet.
"You did sound like you were in a hurry."
I could have burst out laughing from the reproach in his tone. A smart person would have apologized. Not so, Dannon Hancuff. No wonder Joseph wanted to shake him off, the boy could have been his son.
Well, his nephew, in any case. I opened the door and stepped back to let Joseph in, holding Dannon back with one arm.
He gave me a questioning frown, but I just smiled. "Joseph's been doing this since he was younger than you."
"Can't have been that long, then."
At first, I couldn't think why he'd say that. I watched Joseph trying to coax the child out from behind the pea coat. He looked like himself. Windswept hair and prematurely weathered skin with a few unwanted early wrinkles, an unexplained birthmark or scar on his neck
the same person I'd seen every day for years.
Too many years. His image now showed him as he'd looked when he'd been younger. Ghosts could make choices about those things, in a way. He looked the way he saw himself, the way I saw him. It was a representation, after all, not a body, or even a photograph. He just looked as old as he felt.
The round little face poked out through the bottom of the coat. "Is it okay to come out now?"
Joseph took her hand and pulled, but she didn't move. "It's okay, kid, come out. We're here to"
"I'm supposed to wait for Daddy to come and say it's all okay."
My stomach rolled in an unhappy ellipse, fighting against realization. Dannon pushed my arm aside and stepped into the closet. "I've seen this before. She's stuck in a loop."
"But she can see us!" I'd heard of ghosts getting stuck, even seen a few, but the ones I'd seen had snapped out of it after we'd gotten their attention properly. I looked at Joseph, but he just shrugged.
"Maybe part of her is trying to get out," he said. To my surprise, he turned to Dannon, expression professionally blank. "Have you really seen this before, new guy?"
Dannon nodded, his eyes riveted to the little girl. "She's gotten
fractured, is what I call it. Most of her spirit is living out the moments before her death in an infinite loop, but"
"That's not right. Daddy has to come get me out. He had to get the thingy first." The puzzled fear on the little girl's face made my head ache.
It wasn't helpful to see Dannon take the situation with such calm detachment. "Easiest thing in this case would probably be to find this thingy she's talking about."
"Color me impressed, Prepared Von Student-pants." Joseph didn't look impressed at all, but he probably was, at least a little. "What do you suppose a thingy looks like?"
Dannon avoided the argument and started rifling through the pockets of the girl's coat. I didn't think that would be very helpful, but it kept him from fighting, so I said nothing. The little girl drew forward, her face sliding through Dannon's leg with a rather smoky blurriness tugging at the edges of her image. "Don't tell him I'm hiding. He'll get me!"
I shivered in sympathy, but he didn't seem to notice. "We left after she got to this point," I told him, not sure if it even mattered. The boy had taught himself to be an extractor. He obviously hadn't become a mediator, not the way he moved or spoke.
He slid the coat out of the way. If I'd been planning on saying anything else, it curled up into a hoarse cough. It was difficult to tell through all the shades of varying blue, but the little girl was definitely covered in blood, and she'd wrapped a sweater around the bottom half of her leg. Her image rippled and wavered like a television screen about to go out. She didn't seem aware of anything but the repeating memory.
The half of it we were seeing wasn't very helpful so far. Dannon let go of the coat and took some rather shaky steps back out of the closet. "I remember reading about this a few years ago. Her name is Margaret Hingham."
What happened next was like watching a video repeat itself. Without any natural movement, Margaret was further back, huddling her knees to her chest as though she was hiding. Dannon had moved the coat, but she didn't see that. In her fragmented mind, the coat was where it was supposed to be. Where it would always be.
I didn't put up any resistance as Dannon shuffled me back out into the living room. I didn't want to see that play out again. "How do you know her name?"
"The crazy guy, Abney
He cut her foot off." Dannon shuddered, for a moment looking so vulnerable that I nearly made him leave. "I didn't read the rest of the article."
"Names help," Joseph said, almost kindly. "Except in this case, I think you're right about the 'thingy'. How can we find out what it is?"
Moving like a person underwater, Dannon crossed the room. Occasionally, he would stop and tap a floorboard with his cane. "Abney didn't take anything from the house. From the people who lived here, yes, but not from the house."
"She thought he was here to take something, though."
"Yeah. Something that must have mattered to her dad. Probably with a long name she couldn't pronounce, or maybe she just couldn't remember."
"When we lived in a house, my dad kept his bank records in the crisper drawer," Dannon went on.
"The crispy what?"
He shook his head and waved a hand at Joseph dismissively. "Crisper drawer. The place in the refrigerator where the carrots go."
The idea of Joseph eating a carrot was so unthinkable that the best I could manage was an orange cigar. "So you think Margaret's father kept his whatever-it-was in the fridge."
I found the way into the kitchen first, and the size of it made our little group seem altogether too large. At first it was hard to tell it was a kitchen at all. The room was not just stripped of furniture, it was strip of wall decorations and fixtures, and the cabinets had been gutted by
"A crowbar," I said quietly kneeling to get a better look at it. "That explains the cat, doesn't it."
"Don't touch that."
I shot Dannon a scathing look that actually made him flinch and step away from me. "I know Abney set bits of himself inside it, I'm not completely useless. Besides, you can see his blood on it, there and there." Being able to tell it was Abney's blood was no great trick for someone who'd run into his ghost, but it was impressive to anyone who hadn't.
However, Dannon didn't take the time to look impressed. He headed straight for the fuzzy white refrigerator. It had originally been bright blue, so far as I could tell. The door had smashed in, then been levered out, and whatever food had stored inside had gone violently feral. Mold evolved before our eyes, and I was nearly as sick over it as I had been over the cat. My stomach gurgled, but I didn't turn away.
"Let's hope thingies aren't perishable. Joseph said, a hint of a smile on his face. He always had more fun in situations that made me nauseous. I'd never really figured out if it was just the way he was, or something he didn't on purpose. Possibly an even split between both.
Dannon ignored him, and scrubbed a path through the mold with a plank of wood from the splintered cabinet doors. "It could be financial records, or diagrams of some kind, but those are just paper," he said.
"Paper would have rotted in this mess," I pointed out, searching for a longer bit of wood. That mold looked remarkably sentient, as well as vicious, and I didn't like how it appeared to be creeping closer to Dannon's fingers.
He tossed the plank away and reached into the bottom-most part of the refrigerator. I cringed while Joseph chuckled at me.
A metallic knocking sound broke the silence, shortly after, Dannon tugged out an old-fashioned metal lunchbox. It was so rusted-over, I was surprised there weren't any gaping holes in it. "D'you think this might be a thingy?" His face was pale, I wondered if he was replaying lectures about bacteria in his head.
Of course, not that all the living people present were thoroughly ill, Joseph was all grins. "How old was that kid? She had to be pretty young if she couldn't say 'lunchbox'."
"She was nine," Dannon said, just barely in the range of hearing. "I think it may be more likely that she didn't know what was in the lunchbox." He set it down on the floor.
I dragged him away from the box before he could get rust and mold on his face. "How long ago did you read that article?"
He shrugged. "Dunno. Four, five years ago? Maybe."
How old are you?"
"Dunno. I can check." He was grinning now, like a shark with lockjaw. "Really, it's not important. There are ghosts upstairs, aren't there?"
"This may be the key to helping them get
wherever they're supposed to be." He held up the rusty lunchbox, and something buried deep in my chest made me want to slap it out of his hand.
Instead I took off my coat and used it as a sort of glove, or perhaps an oven mitt. So long as no one's skin was touching that thing. I snatched the lunchbox from Dannon, and held it away from both of us. "We'll take it back to the dormitory then, they can open it up and figure things out."
"So you actually live in that place." The expression on Dannon's face was one that invited a good smacking-off, but I stayed stock still. "And I get to go back with you?"
Joseph threw his hands in the air. "That's it, I'm dead all over again! Just point to the nearest gate and I'll make things easy on you."
Reflex came close to jerking my arm to the left. There was a yawning, slow gate just behind him, and it had been bothering me for some time now. I gritted my teeth and glared at him. "Stop. Whining. No one is sending you anywhere so long as I am alive." It was the best promise I had to offer, after I was dead, I'd probably rank lower than the vending machines.
Joseph didn't respond, not in a way that I could work with, anyway. He just smoked up a terrible fog and hid his unoccupied hand in his coat pocket. A full inch of the bottom of his image evaporated. Perhaps my theory about legs was correct.
" The fearful child-like apology would have been almost funny if I'd been looking at Dannon when he spoke. Disembodied, it was frightening and woke things up. "We can all agree that Margaret didn't know what's inside the lunchbox, right?"
I nodded. Joseph turned away before growling something like a yes.
"So that's probably all we need to get her out of that closet."
I didn't wait for Joseph to decide whether to concur or complain. I strode back to the closet and yanked the door open wide.
"Is it okay to come out now?"
Hearing her say the same thing for the third time in perhaps as many days, somehow helped me detach myself. Whatever the reason, I was grateful for it. I knelt down and held out the lunchbox. "He didn't get it," I tried.
"I'm supposed to wait for Daddy to come and say it's all okay."
Frustration gripped my vocal cords. "It's right here, what your father was hiding! No one stole it
I waited for her to deliver her third line, but it was taking too long. She stared at me like a sleepwalker who had just been shaken back to the world of the waking. Then, after what felt like years, she said, "He didn't take it?"
"No. It's right here, in this box." I had to fight the rising hysteria to stop myself touching my chin to check for a beard. How long had we been trying to help this poor child? "But that's the only good news."
"I kept it secret," she said, back to her own world, but at least creating a present for it. She was beginning to fade.
Behind me, I heard a set of three footsteps come to an angry stop. "Tell her where to go, Hollowmark."
The fact that it was Dannon who had shouted jarred me from wherever I had gone. I set the lunchbox down, determined not to look at my coat/glove. "You need to crawl a little to the left," I said, trying to be gentle, but firm. I just ended up sounding sick.
"This way? Why?"
My brain shut down. Behind me, Joseph said, "It'll make your legs stop itching."
"Will I get my foot back?"
I could have cried then, and I hadn't cried over a case in years. "We'll find it, and you will." That was the worst part of extraction, finding bodies. If I was going to get my waywhich I probably wasn'twe would make a team of extractors do the finding. This was too much for me.
Margaret practically beamed. "And Mom's arm?"
"Everything," I blurted. It was a tall order, 'everything', but we all needed this to peter out into a small ending. It was the only way to move on to the next thing we had to do.
"Okay." She crawled towards the gate, occasionally looking back at me for, I assumed, confirmation. Each time, I nodded and forced the kind of avuncular smile that people expected.
The gate closed after she'd gone through, and the feeling of being crowded in the closet lessened a bit. Dannon stood solidly at my left, then slumped against the wall. A gate opened an inch away from his arm, he scuttled away from it. Despite the weariness in my limbs, I laughed. I'd always avoided gates even before I'd known what they were, but I'd expected Dannon to be the type to examine them carefully, even try to goI stopped laughing. "Sorry," I said. This appeared to be good enough.
"Let's get upstairs." Joseph made a sharp about-face and drifted out of the closet. "Most important thing is to get these spirits started at resting, then we can improve the quality."
Odd way to put it. I tried to catch his eye, but wasted no time speeding halfway up the stairs. One of these days, I was going to have to set aside some time to talk to him
There used to be enough time to set aside for things like that.
"This place is wrong."
"Most haunted houses give you that feeling," I said, pushing past Dannon as politely as I could. He hadn't so much as fidgeted since he'd moved away from the gate.
He shook his head, and even that was peculiar. The movement was short, sharp, even flurried. As though he were shivering, or trying to wake himself out of a doze. "I know that, I've been in plenty," he whispered. Whispered. Who was around to hear him aside from us? "There's something really wrong with this one."
"I'm not surprised." Talking loudly was one way Joseph combated the world, but he was also rather far away from the majority of the conversation, physically. I decided not to call him on it.
With much inward resignation, I declared myself the official peacemaker and took Dannon's arm to lead him to the stairs. At first I thought he might be offended and step on my foot with his cane again, but the 'wrongness' of the place must have had him preoccupied. He let me half-drag him all the way to the second floor before pulling away with a glare.
"I don't need any help."
Extending my role to include annoying peace-keeper, I smiled winsomely and said, "I know that. I'm just impatient."
The upstairs was worse than the below. Holes pockmarked the carpet in a way that made me think of beanbag boards. Five points if you get it in that hole there by the master bedroom. Family photos were slashed and burnt, seemingly by a small flame, like that of a lighter or matches. Someone had dragged a knife along the wall, tearing through the wallpaper and leaving an occasionally bloody wavering line.
"I think I know what you mean about 'wrong', now," I half-whispered. Dannon just nodded.
"Hey, you read about Abney," Joseph said, his own voice only mildly hushed. "What was his deal while he was alive? Drugs or something?"
Dannon sneezed a few times, then shook his head. "Just running on his own natural bug-eyed craziness, I think." He sneezed again, an explosion of thick noise. I winced and gave him a packet of tissues I always carried in the winter.
While he blew his nose and otherwise maintained, I looked around and tried to figure out which direction we should start in. "Joseph, which room is the baby in?"
He closed his eyes, but his face didn't melt away. "At the end of the hall, by the master bedroom. It's probably a nursery."
Right. It would have to be. He hadn't been wrong about the baby. I'd known it, but a couple of days away from the place had been the perfect way to convince myself of the possibility of Joseph being wrong. He always had chosen the worst times to be right, and about the worst things.
At least he didn't do it on purpose.