January 11th: Upstairs
The floorboards creaked ominously as we navigated around the holes. Some were smaller than a golf ball, but others could have easily let an encyclopedia through. Either to brag wordlessly or to make the going easier on us livies, Joseph went right through the middle of the hall, where the floor was in the worst condition. I gripped the banister and made my way very slowly. I hardly dared so much as check on Dannon's progress.
If I had made the mistake of offering assistance, he almost certainly would have bitten my hand off at the wrist. I could hear him swearing under his breath, along with a few bizarrely worded prayers that seemed to be cursing God rather than requesting aide.
As we neared the nursery door, I began to wonder if vomiting onto the ground floor would have any effect on the stability of the second. I had a weak stomach at the best of times, and right now was as far from those as was possible. It should have gotten easier as we reached the nursery.
"Do you smell something?"
"I'm trying not to," I gasped.
"Where's it coming from?" Joseph looked around like a blind person who'd been tapped on the shoulder from behind.
I held my breath and let Dannon figure it out. He sniffed the air, then wrinkled his nose and shuddered from his face to his knees. "The master bedroom."
"Found some of the bodies then, I'd say."
Still fighting my stomach for control, I opened the nursery and hoped we wouldn't find any in there.
It was almost entirely intact. In comparison with the rest of the house, the room was clean. There was no upturned furniture, nothing was broken
but the repulsive smell was present in here as well. Not as strong, but definitely present.
I stepped back quickly and kept Dannon from coming in. His chin bumped into my shoulder. "Ow! What gives?"
The door creaked urgently as I slammed it shut. "We're leaving."
"But what about"
"There are people trained for this. We aren't. Get out or I'll drag you out by your ear."
Obedience and Dannon had obviously never met. He tried to shoulder past me, but I summoned up everything left over from high school soccer and held him off. For a moment we just stood there in the most awkward impasse I'd ever encountered. One wrong move and we'd both go through the Swiss-cheese floor.
In the end, survival instinct won out. Dannon backed off, glaring as if looks could severely injure. To his right, I could see Joseph wearing a much less venomous but inquisitive frown. I'd talk to him later. Dannon was a kid, he could run into horrible things when I wasn't around to act like a dad.
I pointed down the hall and very nearly told him to march. "We'll have to back up very carefully."
Meanwhile all those spirits will go mad while we naff off to have a cup of coffee."
"Good lord, people trust you with coffee?" Although I hadn't meant to say it, it was the best thing I could have said. Joseph burst out laughing, and after a few tense seconds, Dannon joined him. I gripped the wall and chuckled rather weakly, staving off hysteria. Neither of them had seen. If self-defense mechanisms were worth a page of any of the books written about them, I'd forget it very soon. Oh, how I hoped I would forget it.
Joseph came to my rescue, leading the retreat. "He's right, kid," he said in a nearly friendly manner, "we're part of an organization, and like it or not, you are too, at this point. Different people get sent out to take care of all kinds of cases."
"And you guys are the softies?"
"We prefer to call ourselves the nice ones."
Halfway to the top of the stairs now
Just a few more feet and I could sprint out into the clean air. Minding the hole in the porch, naturally. I gripped the banister and grasped at the fraying threads of the conversation.
Dannon was scoffing at something that had been said. "Ghosts don't belong in this plane of existence. The longer they stay here, the more psychotic they get."
Now I was certain he'd never met Tact or Social Intelligence, either. I shook my head and swallowed a groan while Joseph puffed on his cigarette. "You have three seconds to add 'present company excluded'," he said quietly.
"I'm still deciding about that."
I pushed past him and ran out the front door. I needed to stick my head in a snowdrift and count to thirty.
The hole seemed larger when I reached it, but I just hopped to the side and climbed over the porch rail. Never mind dignity, I needed to sit in the cold, damp air and think about nothing but the color white. I sat there for a while, filling my mind with blank spaces.
A hand on my shoulder jarred me back to the world. I looked up and saw Dannon looking a good deal older than eleven for once. I gave myself a shake and stood up, but his hand was difficult to shrug off. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it." I wasn't sure what he was thanking me for, but I didn't want to prod it for fear of disturbing maggots.
Obvious complications aside, it had been a good thing I'd left my car keys at the dormitory. I couldn't have driven just then, and I had no idea if Dannon could. He walked with a cane, yes, but that was too vague to base much of an assumption on.
"When's the next bus?"
"Half an hour." Dannon took his hand back and looked around. "We should probably start walking, though. The spirits here are getting upset, and I really think we should leave as soon as we can."
I blinked. Odd that he was sensitive in that respect. Most people were, but he seemed to have set himself up as an extractor, and they either couldn't feel human distress in a spirit, or they ignored it. This, I'd always thought, was only good sense. I let him lead the way a good distance ahead so I could hold at least a whispered conversation with Joseph.
"I'm not going to accuse you of anything," he said, before I could even start.
This made me laugh. "Thank you for that."
"You did promise."
"And I did mean it. Stop being paranoid."
"Can't help it."
Really, he couldn't. I knew that, after all, I couldn't help it either. "There may be nothing else to count on, but I don't change."
Silence crept up on us, but time was getting so hard to find in the right places. I cleared my throat. "About what I saw
"Don't tell me." The cigarette muffled his words round the edges. "Not out here."
Hopefully not anywhere, ever. I glanced at Dannon, wondering if he was going to turn around and try to include himself. "What do you think about the kid?"
"I think he's an obnoxious, selfish, single-minded protozoa."
I chuckled. "Never mind the compliments. Now tell us what you really think of him."
Joseph hunched his shoulders, as though protecting himself against the cold. It was a bit like watching a very good mime with one fatal flaw in his routine. "He's dangerous, Hollowmark. His thinking is all wrong."
It didn't matter if I agreed or not. I sighed. "Best to be with us, then. No safer thinker than me, right?"
"I can actually name quite a few thinkers who are more concerned with safety than you, Mr. Escape Through the Window."
Dannon stopped walking so abruptly I almost crashed into him again. He grinned at me and held up his thumb. "So I'm going back with you, right?"
There was nothing else to do with him. "Yes," I said slowly, drawing the word out for all it was worth. "You may end up getting a partner"
I gritted my teeth. "No. I'm just trying to tell you that I can't hold your metaphorical hand once we get there."
"What about my physical hand?"
It took me a few seconds to backpedal and force my brain to wrap around the comment. When it had, I frowned down at him. "You are funning with me."
"I thought I was allowed." He smiled and fluttered his eyelashes like a poorly made doll. "After all, you both call me 'the kid'. It seemed appropriate."
The bus rumbled towards us, rather like an old uncle. I blew on my fingers and rubbed my hands together. "I will do what I can for you."
Because I feel I should be responsible for you. And moreover, you remind me of someone I really was responsible for, a lifetime ago. I pretended not to have heard him over the screeching sigh of the bus, and beat him onto it.
The bus was only half full, but I couldn't bring myself to sit down. Perhaps bolstered by his own principle, Dannon didn't sit either. He stood beside me, making room for Joseph to fit between us, which he did, immediately. I smiled a little at that. "Hi."
They both answered, and I nearly started laughing.
While the bus lumbered along the roundabout route that would eventually take us back to the dormitories, I ducked my head and cleared my thoughts. The memory was already glazing over with disbelief and conditioning. I took a deep breath and held it for several seconds.
Three feet between the head and the body.
A shudder ripped through me so sharply that I bumped into another passenger. She gave me a strange look, then turned away and moved closer to the front of the bus. I stared hard at my shoes.
I didn't look up. We couldn't have reached our stop so soon.
"Let's stop off here."
My neck hurt with the mental effort it took to keep my head down. "Why here?" Where is 'here?'
For a moment, all I could hear were the normal bus noises. The comfortable hum of the engine, an immature conversation going on a bit too loudly at the back, a fussy toddler refusing a bottle
Dannon tapped my shin with his cane. "Because I want a hot dog, and they sell them here."
Mystified, I followed him off the bus. Right in front of us was a very small donut shackthe word 'shop' would have walked away with its nose in the airwhitewashed with accents painted in medicine pink and mint-stripe green. I couldn't even blink. "They sell hot dogs here."
"Yup. Really good ones."
Frowning dubiously, I followed him into the building. The door chimed.
The interior was less painful to look at, even though there was a fake fish mounted to the wall. I steered clear of it in case it was the sort that sang about rivers. There weren't any spirits around at all. That was weird, in a place this old-looking.
A large rosy-cheeked woman stood behind the cash register, thumbing idly through a regency romance with a Portuguese title. When she saw Dannon, she put the book down on the counter and walked round to greet him. "Oh, you're back already!" She had a resonating voice, not loud so much as almost invasively cheerful. She didn't hug Dannon, she clapped him on the back like an athlete or warrior acknowledging an equal.
His back should have caved from the blow, he was so much smaller than even her hand, but he stayed upright and kept smiling broadly. "Hi, Mrs. Young. How are the kids?"
"Experimenting with bugs and dirt." The smile flickered when she looked at me. "Who's this? Your father? Uncle?"
I nearly choked. "No, ma'am. I'm
" Come to think of it, what was I?
"My partner." Dannon winked at me, and I had to put my hands in my pockets to prevent myself reaching out to stop Joseph from strangling him.
I couldn't even turn to look at Joseph and shrug. He's just taking the piss, don't pay it any mind. "Johnathan Hollowmark," I said to Mrs. Young, and held out my hand to be shaken.
She had a grip like a mountain. "Good to meet you," she said, although there was a guarded edge to her tone that made me nervous. "I always enjoy meeting Dannon's friends."
The woman was like a force of nature. I didn't dare ask her what she was to Dannon. I don't think I could dare ask for her opinion of the weather. Words refused to come, so I just tried to smile. Failing that, I put my hands and faded into the background as best as I could in such a confined area.
This seemed to be an acceptable course of action. Joseph mimicked the way I was standing, while Dannon charmed the frightening woman into selling him a sloppy-looking hot dog. I muttered under my breath and hoped Joseph was just listening very closely. "Why is danger so much more apparent when other people are around? The living kind, I mean
"Living mucks things about," Joseph said, obviously enjoying himself despite Dannon's way of introducing me. "And you're scared pantsless of people who actually do much of it."