I was laying on our bed looking at the details in the ceiling while Matteson was at the desk, taking notes and poring over some books he’d snatched from the library on our way inside. I was pretty sure we were both trying to avoid thinking about the same thing, and after a while I decided I couldn’t do it anymore and rolled over to face him.
“I didn’t know,” I said, softly. He set down the pen he was using and turned toward me.
“Didn’t know what?” He asked.
“My family doesn’t know anything about the magic work the Hudsons do. I learned about that since we got here, that it was purposefully hidden from us. That it’s what my grandpa wanted.”
“I…I don’t know.” I sat up and thought about that for a moment. “We never got to discussing why we weren’t supposed to know about our ties to magic.”
“That feels like something you should find out. Did you at least learn about that thing, what was it you said? Jackie found a block?”
“Yeah, there’s something hindering magic in me. Which she thought might be on purpose, and I suppose if I was part of some powerful line or sorcerers it would be necessary to keep us from finding magic on our own.”
“Major success there,” he said with a scoff.
“Yeah, that didn’t pan out.”
“Look, this is all seeming really hard on you. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I think I just need to ask Roderick some more pointed questions. And maybe find some way to get my mind off things until then.”
“You don’t want to just go and ask him now?”
“It is Valentine’s Day, John. I would like to end our night’s outing some other way than talking to a hollow set of armor.”
“You have something in particular in mind?” He asked. I sighed, mentally reminded myself that he doesn’t think about these things quite the way I do, and then patted the bed next to me.
“Why don’t you come over here and find out?” He looked at me for a second, then chuckled, closed the books, and slipped into the bed.
We were walking back from the restaurant when Matteson suddenly stopped and started staring off into space, his nose flaring as if he smelled something foul and goosebumps erupting on his arms. I stepped forward to look him in the face and barely stopped myself from jumping back when I saw his eyes, dilated and bloodshot.
“John?” I asked, resting my hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay?” He muttered a reply, almost in a droning voice, then met my gaze and told me he was sensing the flow of magic from the site being activated. So he frantically called Benedict and, after telling him what was going on, turned back to me.
“I guess I should call you a cab,” he said. “Sorry our date has to end like this.”
“Absolutely not!” I crossed my arms and stared into those seemingly bottomless eyes. “You are in no condition to go alone, and I’m certainly not letting you walk into some nest of evil without some kind of backup!”
“What are you talking about? I feel fine.”
“You don’t see what I see.”
“Okay, we can talk about that later, but, this might be dangerous.”
“Yeah! And you’re not doing it alone.”
“We can stand here arguing about it or we can follow the trail. Your call, babe.”
He sighed and nodded, and off we went. It was weird watching him, he moved almost like a bloodhound, his eyes always fixed on something that wasn’t visible to me, his attention fully absorbed in the sensory trail he was following. I realized how accustomed to it he must be when I realized he was still aware of things like traffic and obstacles, but it was impossible to tell he was aware of anything physical until he reacted to it. We didn’t talk the whole way. I was thankful I’d worn flats when I realized we were leaving the town center, and more so when we finally stopped outside an abandoned stone manor nearly a half hour later.
Following the trail as we were, we arrived at a plain wall instead of the door. We went around the building, like we had for other obstacles along the way, but by the time we were around the other side he whispered to me that the energy wasn’t continuing on from this place. Whatever was happening was happening here. So we crept back around, listening for any sign of activity, and I peeked in a couple windows as we went until I got a view of the parlor through a broken door. I tapped his shoulder and waved him toward the window, and we watched as four people in hooded robes paced around a large basin. We couldn’t hear them, but when we saw the basin his eyes narrowed.
“I think they’re scrying,” he whispered.
“That’s the bit where you watch things elsewhere?” I asked, and he nodded. “Do we have any way to know what they’re scrying on?”
“Not from here. Jackie or Michael probably could, though.” We both slipped away from the window and he called Benedict again, explaining where we were and what we’d found. As he was talking, he made his way to the corner of the house and I followed. We saw a pair of headlights appear over a rise down the road, then park, and Matteson confirmed he saw them before hanging up. “Now comes the fun part,” he said, turning to me. “You can still go to the car.”
“Not a chance,” I said. “If this is what you do on a regular basis, I want to know what it’s like.” He grudgingly accepted that answer, and we went to get into position. It had apparently been agreed upon by the others that they could handle the cultists themselves, if Matteson cut off their extra power while I played lookout to tell him when to stop. I asked how he intended to do that, and he led me back to the wall where we originally arrived at the house and explained that the energy was flowing along a ley line, where he was now standing.
“Ley lines are pretty durable,” he explained, closing his eyes and cracking his knuckles. “The simple presence of an Anchor on one isn’t enough to disrupt them, unless it’s over some years, like if I lived on one or at a nexus site. But I can serve as a dam on one, or cap a nexus site entirely, if I try hard enough.”
“Have you ever tried that before?”
“No. But Jackie’s told me about it, apparently she’s seen the results of it.” He slowed his breathing and began moving his hands as if pushing down against resistance, and soon I could taste a bit of static in the air. There was a faint, tangible crackle, and then something like a pop. I heard the people inside react immediately, apparently aware their power was gone, and got to the window just in time to see Michael’s team charge in.
I was having dinner with my parents when Matteson called. The phone ringing caught us all off guard, my friends were so used to not calling at this time on Saturdays that I hadn’t bothered silencing my phone in months. I checked the screen and, seeing it was Matteson and realizing he probably didn’t know that this affair isn’t really meant to be interrupted, I asked leave of my parents to answer. But they were very curious about this man they hadn’t yet met, so they insisted I take the call there.
“Good evening,” I said, answering.
“Hey, I know you said you were doing something tonight, is this a good time?” he asked. Seemed to me like the sort of question that would have been better as a text message.
“Only if it is very important.” He sounded a little bit off, and I suspected he’d been drinking, but was not about to say that in present company.
“Well, okay, I guess that depends on how much weight you put on Valentine’s Day.”
“I suppose that depends on what you’re planning to do instead.”
“I’ve been hired to go do some work for a Michael Hudson in England. It’s a…magic thing. I don’t know all the details yet.”
“Michael Hudson? John, are you doing work for the estate of Lord Hudson?” I asked, looking at my parents. They perked up at the name.
“Uh, yeah. You know much about lords and shit?”
“Well, some. But the Hudsons are of particular interest, being that Michael is my cousin.”
“Is every rich person related?”
“We happen to be. Listen, John, I actually think I have something for them, right?” I looked to my father, who nodded and called Mary over.
“Be a dear and fetch the box labeled ‘Hudson’ in the foyer closet,” he said. Mary nodded and slipped out of the room as he turned his attention back to me. “If you’re going to visit you must return it.”
“What’s going on there?” Matteson asked.
“Well, last time they visited, which was probably a decade ago now that I think about it, they left a couple things behind and we all agreed it would be better to hand deliver it than deal with postage. But then we never really got together again, you see. So I should bring it along.”
“John, you don’t know the first thing about dealing with the nobility, and I haven’t seen my cousin in years, and I’m certain they’re sending a plane so it will be no bother adding one more person. Besides,” I said, leaning back in my seat, “it would be nice to be in the same country as my boyfriend for Valentine’s, don’t you think?”
“Okay, okay, fine. I’ll have to tell Benedict.”
“The priest. I wasn’t going alone.”
“You’re taking a priest?”
“More like a priest is taking me. Us. Anyway, okay, then, I guess I better get you the flight info as soon as I have it.”
“That would be splendid, thank you. I should get back to dinner now, though.”
“Well that sounds like it’ll be a fun trip!” my mother said, as soon as I was off the phone. “You’ll have to give them our best when you get there.” Mary entered with the box, which was set on an open chair next to me.
“Now, you take this back to your place tonight,” father said after he’d dismissed Mary, “and make sure you take good care of it. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to see you all grown up. In the meantime, maybe put your phone on silent?”
I nodded, changed the phone volume, and we went back to dinner.
31 January 2007
Jackie and I weren’t planning on meeting today, but I showed up a little bit earlier than I needed to, anyway. I didn’t bother knocking before I went inside, having started to get used to the idea that I could, and headed down to the basement when I didn’t see her on the first floor. She wasn’t down there, either, and I began to consider that I was wasting my time being here without actually verifying anyone else would be. I grabbed a book I had been curious about, something about auras, and went upstairs to sit on the couch and flip through it. After a minute of that I heard water in a drain and then footsteps, and I glanced up to see Jackie coming down the stairs wrapped in a towel with another one wrapped around her hair. We both paused when we saw each other, then she coughed a little and explained that her clothes for work were in the dryer and slipped through the room toward the basement. I sat for a second, wondering if I should apologize when she comes back or pretend I hadn’t even noticed, and ultimately decided that either way, it would be best if I wasn’t staring into space when she returned. So I returned to the book, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I wasn’t quite alone.
She returned a couple minutes later, fully dressed but still with the hair towel, and sat down on the recliner. She lit a cigarette and took a couple drags from it before either of us spoke.
“You’re early,” she said. “Was traffic light?”
“It was a bit,” I answered, setting the book aside. “But I also wanted to talk to you for a minute.”
“Okay, cool. What’s up?”
“I’ve been thinking, and I really appreciate your help, and I want to know more about magic and stuff, but. I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep trying to figure out how to unlock it myself.”
“No?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah, it’s just, I dunno. I didn’t even know any of this stuff was real two months ago, it’s not that pivotal to my life. And if moving forward is dangerous, and if I need to be distracted from my schooling to do it—”
“That’s all fair, Alice,” she said with a smile. “No one needs to learn magic, even if they have a knack for it.”
“I guess. I just thought, you know, Matteson talks about it like it’s unavoidable.”
“Well, for him, it probably is. And people in his life need to be prepared for that. But for you and me, this is something we get to choose. We can decide how much of it we want in our lives, and while being with him does mean you’re choosing a certain amount of it, you don’t have to choose any more than that.” I exhaled hard, as if I’d been holding that breath the whole time I’d been here.
“Okay. Thanks for understanding.” She laughed.
“Well. I don’t understand. Remember, I chose magic. But I respect it.” I nodded. “If it makes you feel any better, I haven’t found anything that would help you progress yet, anyway. Whatever is blocking you is alien to the magic I know, and it’s starting to look alien to the magic Henry knew about.”
“Are there kinds of magic?”
“Oh, yeah. I mean, most of them are at least intelligible to other types. It’s like, if you tie a rope into a knot. Different schools of thought may use different ropes or different knots, but the basic knowledge of how to untie it and put it into a new knot is pretty universal. But, there are some things that are really different. I’ve just never encountered many of them.” She looked to the empty space next to me on the couch. “Though I have started to notice one lately.”
“What?” I asked, looking to the space and then back at her.
“There’s a satyr here, named Kastor. Has Matteson mentioned him?”
“Yeah, he has. He’s here? You can see him?”
“Frequently, and I find it helpful to know where all the eyes are when I’m bathing.” She glared at the spot for a moment. “You need to give me a reason to believe that one.” Then she turned back to me and continued, “But anyway, he’s a pure spirit, and of a type that is well outside of my natural element. It could be argued that what he does isn’t even magic, really, since he only affects his own realm and doesn’t use ours to do it; but whatever it is, it doesn’t look like anything I know how to do.” I looked between her and the spot a couple more times.
“Can he see me?” I asked, softly.
“And hear you, yes. He can’t fully manifest in the physical realm, but he can get close, closer than most spirits. I think we look to him the way ghosts look to us.”
“That’s so weird to imagine. Uh, hi, Kastor. How long have you been there?” There was a pause.
“He says he sat down when I went downstairs to get dressed.”
“Oh. Okay. Huh.” The door opened and Matteson walked in.
“Ladies. Kastor,” he said as he started walking over. He leaned down and gave me a kiss before sitting down on the opposite side of me as the place Jackie had been looking.
“Well now it’s just weird that I’m the only one who can’t see him,” I said.
“Then let’s go somewhere else.” I agreed, and we headed out.
10 January 2007
I arrived at Matteson's house a little earlier than expected and then learned he was going to have to stay a bit late at work. Jackie let me in, but once we were inside she explained that the door is basically always unlocked, anyway, if Matteson was the last to leave or enter. It never occurred to me that he would do that, especially with that library in his basement. When I expressed this surprise, Jackie shrugged and said she didn't fully understand it, either, but Rick and Charles and others seemed to have the same habit and they were all used to just walking into each other's homes. I can't imagine that ever flying in my parents' house.
Jackie and I had started to get to know each other recently. We both had some insight into the other's boyfriends that we found invaluable, but also, she was just an interesting person. She had apparently lived in Chicago for some time, and we commiserated about living in cities and how different Sharon seemed from our expectations. She had some fascinating stories from her life in the Midwest, raised by her grandmother, and she knew more about magic than I could have figured out on my own. Since we had some time to kill, I decided to try to explore that.
"So, you research magic?" I asked, while we were in the library with our coffees. She was browsing the shelves and I was sitting in one of the chairs.
"Yeah, I do."
"Sounds like a fascinating topic. Do these books have a lot of useful information?"
"Well, kind of," she said, pulling one out and sitting down. "Matteson's great-grandmother started this collection, and she didn't seem to know a whole lot about how to tell if something was accurate or not. So there's a lot in here that's pure speculation or just an attempt to harmonize various beliefs about the spiritual without much knowledge or concern about whether the result was better than its parts. But," and here she opened the book and flipped through to a page, which she showed me was heavily notated, "Henry was a fierce academic. I don't know how he got some of this information, most of it really, but his insight is amazing."
"But how do you know? Is there a way to verify this information?"
"Same way you do, really. Test it in the field. See, this book proposes an idea called the Ontological Gap, which is the conceptual space between the physical person and the spiritual person. The distance between our two main parts. And it presents the idea that this gap is how things like possession and mind control and stuff work; they function by placing something inside that gap, interfering with the messages from the soul to the body and hijacking the body."
"And you can test that?"
"Not directly. But, it does account for something that we can test, which is why liminal beings are immune to those things."
"Living things that exist as a bridge between the realms. Nephilim, which are half-human and half-spirit; and Anchors, like Matteson. The idea is that, as liminal beings, their Ontological Gaps are smaller or nonexistent, so there's nowhere for things like possession to happen."
"But Matteson's immune to all kinds of magic, not just possession. Does this Ontological Gap account for that?"
"Maybe. It's hard to say. Honestly, I haven't seen any of these books think to ask that question." I smiled.
"That's what happens when you get a scientist involved."
"A scientist who believes in magic. There can't be too many of you."
"I wasn't, until I saw the echoes."
"It's odd that you noticed them in the first place. The way Matteson described them, most of them shouldn't have been strong enough for someone to notice unless they were a mage or liminal being."
"Mandy and Rick noticed the screaming."
"Yes. But they didn't notice anything else. Did you?" I thought for a second.
"Well, yeah. I heard talking, and someone going down the stairs."
"That, right there? That's a bit unusual. Most people wouldn't pick up on that. Not unless it was a very powerful memory."
"What are you suggesting?"
“So we don’t talk about this much, but there is some speculation that there is a certain amount of sensitivity people can have to magic that makes it easier to learn it.”
“So, you think I can learn magic because I heard some ghosts?”
“Anyone can learn magic, it’s more of a discipline than anything. But some people require more effort than others, and the theory is that people who catch on faster do so because they have a certain level of magic already in their blood. A family line, for instance, that includes a spirit somewhere in its past.”
“Like Matteson’s great-grandfather.”
“Exactly. After a few generations, there might not be enough magic left in his line to produce something as powerful as an Anchor, but there may be enough that people are more aware of magic and find it easier to pick up, if only a little bit.”
“And you think my family is like that?”
“I think it’s worth exploring. Would you like to try learning magic, see how easily you take to it?” I thought about that for a moment. Even if I never learned any magic, maybe going through the work with Jackie would at least give me a lot more insight into it than I would get otherwise.
“Okay, yeah. How do we do that?”
“Well…we don’t do it when Matteson is around, for one.”
“Because he breaks magic?” She nodded. “That sounds reasonable. I think we can figure something out.” We heard footsteps on the floor above us, and Jackie patted my knee.
“Well, I should get to my studies. We’ll give it a shot soon,” she said, leaning back in the chair and opening her book as Matteson came down the stairs.
We were on the way back from the party when I mentioned that I was hungry. We had eaten dinner there, but it was kind of small and hours ago by this point, but I was only mentioning it in passing as something I was planning to amend when I got home. But Matteson took that as a request, and ended up pulling into an Eat’n Park that was still open. When we were asked about the smoking or non-smoking section, he looked at me, so I sighed and said smoking was fine.
“So,” he asked, while we were looking over the menu, “how about them flying squirrels?” I gave him a confused look over the top of my menu.
“What…about them?” He laid his menu down.
“Well, the thing, where they were proposed as having rebounded enough that they didn’t have to be endangered anymore?” I thought about that for a moment before remembering an email I’d received the day before.
“Oh! Yeah, I heard about that, but I hadn’t looked into it yet. I probably should. What did you want to say about it?”
“Oh, uh, well, that was basically all I know about it.” I started laughing, and he tried not to as he continued. “I just kinda hoped you would know more about it.”
“It’s a two-day-old news story, Matteson. I haven’t had a chance to dig into it much.” He kinda blushed and picked the menu back up, and I set mine down and reached over to touch his hand comfortingly. “But I appreciate the effort.” He smiled at me, and I picked my menu up and continued looking. The waitress came by and we each ordered, and after she was gone he leaned back in his seat a bit.
“Are they cute?”
“The squirrels?” He nodded. “Yeah, they are, though that’s hardly the point. It’s always so much easier to get people invested if the animal is cute, you know, but that isn’t a real ecological niche. Things need to be protected even if we don’t want to put them on Lisa Frank notebooks.” He laughed and told me he had forgotten about those notebooks, and I confessed that I had a few during my school years. We spent the next couple hours talking about our time in high school, and answering each other’s questions about them, since we apparently had very different experiences. I had been in private school, and generally tried to do the best I could with it, while his school sounded far more chaotic and violent than mine. He told me it wasn’t too bad—it didn’t have to involve most people if they didn’t want to be involved, and it’s fairly easy to let it become background noise—but I had to know if he’d been in any fights himself. He said that he had, though they rarely lasted long. His dad had taught him to fight at a young age, and he had always had a habit of working out, so he always had an upper hand. I told him that most of the drama at my school was academic or something to do with money, and while I’m sure there were some fights after school I never heard more than rumors about them.
I told him that his childhood sounded odd. Most people I know don’t have parents who teach them multiple languages, let alone dead ones, and intricate metaphysics, and how to fight. So what was going on in his house? He was quiet for a moment, then told me it was his grandpa. He didn’t say much about it, but he did tell me that his paternal grandfather, the son born to the couple we saw as echoes in my house, was apparently very powerful and very deranged. His dad had been involved in battling him longer than Matteson had been alive, and all the evidence Matteson had found so far suggested that he had been trained specifically to finally put an end to the old man. He warned me that this might be a thing if I keep hanging around with him, if this grandfather finally showed up. I took his hands in mine.
“John, this…this doesn’t sound healthy. Are you okay?”
“I mean, it’s been fine so far.”
“No, I mean. Have you ever talked to someone about this? Kids shouldn’t be raised as weapons.” He hesitated.
“I never really thought about it, I guess. But I mean, what do I say? Just tell some shrink I can see ghosts and my century-old grandfather controls water and I might have to kill him someday? There’s no way that ends in a way that will help me.”
“He’s a hundred years old?”
“Something like that. I don’t know exactly what year he was born, but I’m under the impression it was nineteen-oh-something.”
“Okay, well, you can talk to me. I’m not a professional, but I mean, I care.” He pulled his hands back and lit a cigarette.
“That kinda depends on you sticking around, though. And I gotta tell you, if he shows up and things go south, it’s gonna be a lot worse than a bit of ghost fire.”
“Do you want me to stick around?” He took a thoughtful drag, and watched my eyes for a moment.
“Look, Alice. I like you, I really do. And I like to think this is going somewhere. I just. There are only so many people in this world who can put up with this stuff very long. I can’t get away from it. It’s always going to be a part of my life, and I just—”
“You want to know if I’m easily scared off.” He paused, then nodded. “Look, I don’t know. This is all very new to me. I don’t know what I can and can’t handle when it comes to magic and ghosts and everything else you do. But, you know, I’m willing to find out. If you’ll let me.” He smiled, and reached down with his left hand to lightly rub my hands.
“And how do I let you?”
“You tell me a whole lot more about this stuff and what you do. Preferably, all of it.”
“That’s gonna take a pretty long time.”
“We’re young yet.”
“Okay. But it’s late, maybe I should start telling you stories tomorrow.”
“I’m on break from classes. Do you work in the morning?” He shook his head. “Then come on. I’ll make us some cocoa, we can bust out some thick blankets for the couch, and you can tell me some ghost stories.” He laughed, but he got up and tossed some cash on the table for a tip and jammed out his cigarette before we went to pay and head back to my place.
17 December 2006
The whole way up, I was torn about whether or not I should even be doing this. I mean, he didn’t exactly give me his address personally, and our only interaction was supposed to be professional but ended up…not being that. And he probably didn’t almost catch my house on fire, but it kinda still feels like he almost did. But he did tell me it might be dangerous, and I told him to do it anyway, so really, whose fault would that have been?
Mandy was surprisingly eager to give me Matteson’s address, on the condition that I told her what happened as soon as I left. Sometimes I worry that girl is too invested in knowing everything about everyone, but I couldn’t deny it was helpful at the moment. I parked across the street from his house, took a deep breath, grabbed the box, and headed for the door. A woman answered, and I faltered for a second.
“Oh, uh, hi, sorry, I was looking for John Matteson?” The woman glanced down to the box quickly, but smiled.
“I can go get him, who should I say is here?”
“My name’s Alice. If he’s busy, I—”
“Alice! Rick’s friend?” I nodded. “Oh it’s nice to meet you! I’m Jackie, Rick has said so much about you. Come in, come in!” She stepped aside and I walked into the living room. I forgot Rick had said his girlfriend lived in the same house as Matteson. Seems like the sort of thing I should have made sure to remember before coming here. Jackie closed the door and ran off toward the kitchen, vanishing around a wall, and I stood looking around. Based on what Rick had said about Matteson and Jackie, I expected to see some bookcases; but all I found in this room were seats, and a tv, and some kind of multi-part stereo system. I was looking that over when I heard Matteson’s voice behind me.
“That was my dad’s,” he said. I spun around. “Had it as long as I can remember, and now it’s mine. Should probably get some new records for it.”
“Right, yeah, that would be good,” I said, tucking my hair behind my ear. “I was just expecting something different, I guess.” He raised a brow.
“Oh, well, uh, books, mostly.” He smiled and motioned with his head before walking back to the kitchen, and I followed. The place where Jackie had vanished was apparently a stairway into the basement, and when I got down there I felt my breath catch in my throat. The very back was devoted to a washer and dryer, and some exercise equipment, but the rest of the room was a fully furnished library. Jackie was down there, looking through a book with alchemical symbols on the front, I recognized them from that year I spent reading everything I could find on The Philosopher’s Stone after Harry Potter came out. “Ah, yep, there they are, then.” He nodded, looking over the room.
“Yup. Still organizing a bit,” he said, pointing to a stack of book-filled milk crates near the stairs, “figuring out how to work my books into my dad’s collection.”
“There’s still a lot of him here, huh?”
“I imagine there always will be.” He took a sad breath and then turned to me. “So, what brings you by?”
“Oh! Right!” I set the box on the table in the middle of the room and opened it, and he stepped forward to peek inside. “Well, you know, now that I own that house, I had gone looking into the property history. And after our encounter with, uh, your family, I went back and looked over it again and found some records of their time there.”
“Oh, wow,” he said, pulling out a copy of a notarized form from when the property was given to Aaboukingon. “This is amazing!” We worked through the box, talking about the stuff we found and what Matteson knew about it, and Jackie told me about how she’d met Aaboukingon now that he was part of the river again, and it was really nice. After a while Jackie went to work, and the two of us kept talking. He showed me around the library a bit, how the books were arranged, which ones were in which languages (and which of those languages he could read), and I asked some questions about the books that were out and being researched. He told me he had been learning to use his abilities as an Anchor by reading some theories about how the metaphysical realm worked and what his part of it was. It was starting to get late in the afternoon, so we went back upstairs and he insisted I stay for dinner, at the very least to make up for overcharging me about the ghost that wasn’t even a ghost. So I went back down and grabbed a book on alchemy, and flipped through it in the kitchen while he cooked and we talked. He confessed pretty early on that he hadn’t done much work with alchemy, specifically, but he was sure the book would give me some helpful tips if I wanted to dabble at it. It was old, the pages felt like they were written on vellum and the cover was certainly leather. I couldn’t even start reading it until I’d smelled it a couple times.
“How do you keep old books like this safe?” I asked. He shrugged.
“Some books are just like that, I guess. Usually ones about magic or some other powerful and important topic. It isn’t magic directly that keeps them intact, otherwise they wouldn’t last around me, but something like magic just seems to have become part of what they are.” Over dinner, he asked about what I do, and I explained my biology degree and my hopes of getting work in the conservation field, and he seemed legitimately interested so I ended up telling him all about how I got into it and my little side projects of setting up trail cameras behind the house.
“You know, if we worked together, I bet we could find a proper cryptid,” I joked.
“So you can poke at them?”
“Mr. Matteson, I told you, I have a heart for conservation. I would, at worst, tag them.” We both laughed at that one, and I asked him if he really did know anything about cryptids. He told me that he had heard rumor that most of them were just spirits that got stuck on this side of reality, but he hadn’t asked one to verify that. I almost chickened out and left immediately after dinner, but I took a moment to compose myself and then went for it. “Hey, so, look. My program at school has this Christmas party in a few days, and I was wondering, you know, if you’d be free on Thursday.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I could be. Should I pick you up, or meet you there, or…?”
“Pick me up, I think that would be best.” He nodded. We paused for a moment, and then I quickly waved. “Okay, well, see you then!” He smiled and agreed, and stood on the porch to watch as I returned to my car and drove away.
15 December 2006
It was a couple days before I heard from Matteson, but once I did, we were able to arrange a time for him to come by and check the place out. I don’t know exactly what I expected, honestly. Based on Rick, and what little I had learned about his friends, I guess there was a part of me that suspected I’d open the door to find some guy with dyed hair and a coat with holes in it, carrying around some kind of device from one of those ghost hunter shows and talking about weird conspiracies. The person who showed up on my porch, however, was a broad-shouldered black man wearing a black wide-brimmed hat, a dark long coat, a white button-down shirt, and gray slacks. About the only thing I saw that seemed to fit what my head had drawn up in advance was the smell of cigarette smoke. I was certainly not expecting him to be attractive.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, because he was late, by about twenty minutes. “Your police seem to think only white people come here.”
“Well, you know, near as I can tell, that’s probably accurate.” I offered him a handshake and he accepted, and then I stepped aside and invited him in. He entered, scanning the room with eyes that seemed sharp but tired, like they’d seen too much to risk missing things now. He carried himself like a professional, stern and without any slouch, and stopped just inside the door to check if he should remove his shoes. I told him not to, and he seemed only slightly bothered by that, but wiped his boots and finished entering all the same. “Should, um…would you like a drink?”
“Oh, uh, sure. What do you have?”
“Coffee, tea, water, probably some milk.” He smiled and requested a tea, and I slipped off to the kitchen to get that going. I had received some new coffee maker thing with little disposable cups as a housewarming present, so I quickly made a cup of tea for him and a cup of coffee for me as I rehearsed in my head how to explain to him what was happening and not stare. God, I couldn’t stare. Would he know it was because I liked his look? Would he think I was freaked out by his skin? I had to imagine either option would make him uncomfortable. “Come on, Alice,” I whispered to myself, “you hired him to do a job, just let him do it.” Wait, money. We never talked about money. I had no idea how much I was supposed to be paying him! I called out asking if he wanted cream or sugar, and he said sugar would be nice, so I put the mugs and some sugar on a platter and carried them over to the dining room. When I looked on my way by, I saw he was standing right where I had left him, though he now had his jacket off and folded over his arm. His much more muscular than I expected arm. I called him in, and he followed to the table, laying his jacket across the back of his chair.
“Do you usually offer hirelings tea?” he asked. I laughed a bit nervously.
“Do you usually accept tea?” He smiled and put some sugar in his mug as he sat down.
“Full disclosure, Miss Templeton—”
“Call me Alice.”
“Right. Fact is, I’ve never done this before. Not officially, anyway. I mean, I work with an investigation firm, but I’m not exactly in the field usually, and we don’t deal with ghosts.” I sat down opposite him, realized I hadn’t put any creamer in my coffee yet, and ran off to the kitchen to grab it.
“What do you do there, then?” I asked as I returned.
“Mostly paperwork, looking stuff up online, that sort of thing. Really, the job is mostly tracking people down for debt collectors and the occasional person looking for dirt to use in a divorce hearing, anyway.”
“I always thought it was a bit more, I dunno, active than that.”
“So did I. And maybe it was, once. But I’m told this is pretty common across the industry.”
“Would you rather be doing stuff like this?” He smirked.
“Do you mean having tea with pretty brunettes, or investigating ghosts?” I barely stopped myself from choking on my coffee.
“Ah, um…well, I—”
“Sorry, that was probably—”
“No, no, it’s fine. You’re fine. Really. I meant the ghost thing, though. Maybe we could…talk about the other one some other time.” He chuckled and looked around, as if hoping the answer to my question was on the wall somewhere.
“I dunno. I never thought about the idea that it could be a thing. I guess we’ll have to see how this case goes.” We were both silent for a little while, and then he smiled at me. “So. Mind if I look around a bit?”
“No, of course not, do, you know, whatever it is you do.” He nodded and stood, finishing his tea and setting the mug down before heading for the hall. “Do you need anything from me?”
“Don’t know yet,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets and vanishing around the corner. I took a breath and finished my coffee before gathering everything up and taking it back to the kitchen. I saw him looking around at the base of the stairs as I passed, but he didn’t seem to be paying attention to me. I put the dishes into the dishwasher and the creamer back into the fridge as I heard him on the stairs. The cold from having the door open when he was coming in, and now the fridge, seemed to finally catch up with me, so I went into the living room to grab a knit shawl before going to look for him. Matteson was, by then, coming back down the stairs.
“Anything interesting?” He was frowning.
“Well, not really, but. Okay, let me explain.”
“In the living room? It’s more comfortable there.” He paused as if taking that in, and then nodded. I led the way and sat down on the couch, and he took the loveseat facing me. “So what do you mean by ‘not really?’”
“So the metaphysical realm is complicated, and malleable. The way people think about it seems to shape it. So while ghosts are real, and so are spirits, and I can see and interact with those, there are also…less real things in it.”
“If they’re not real, how are they there?”
“Well, it’s not that they’re not real, exactly. Just that they’re not real ghosts or spirits. I call them echoes, they’re like…memories, or something, embedded in the fabric of the metaphysical realm, that flare up occasionally. Like, maybe something very important happened, and even though the ghosts of the people involved have already moved on, that embedded memory still flashes now and then and seems like a ghost.”
“And you think that’s what’s happening here?”
“I think it’s a very real possibility. Any ghost or spirit that was close enough to the physical world to draw your attention would be close enough for me to see, and I just didn’t find any trace of that.”
“The alternative is?”
“The alternative, as far as I know, is that what you encountered was either a spell made to look like a ghost that accidentally got dispelled when I got too close to it, or wasn’t supernatural at all.”
“Do you just, normally dispel things by accident?”
“Oh.” We sat for a second as I thought through what he was saying. “Okay, so, let’s say it’s the echo thing. Do you have a way to test that?”
“I might. I’ve been reading a bit about this, and I think there’s something I can do, but I’ve never tried it before.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“I have no idea.”
“If it is dangerous, what would happen?” He took a sharp breath through his nose and leaned back, crossing his arms and thinking.
“Well, I suppose, the most likely bad thing would be drawing the attention of local spirits. Which, I mean, the danger of that really depends on what spirits you have kicking around here. But unless they’re very monstrous, I could probably just wait around a bit until they show up and then ask them to leave.”
“Would they just leave?”
“I’d probably have to convince them, explain that it was an accident, but there’s like, I dunno, a 60% chance they wouldn’t keep bothering you?”
“Did you just make that number up?”
“Maybe.” I laughed, then stood.
“Okay, magic man. Let’s try this experimental ghost-calling thing.”
“I am absolutely not calling it that,” he said as he rose from the seat. I directed him to where the sound seemed to be coming from, and he closed his eyes and started to breathe very slowly and carefully. Slowly, his hands started to raise, until his palms were facing straight ahead, and then his fingers began to close. I started to hear whispers, a few different voices, but they were garbled and distant enough that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I inched closer to Matteson until I felt myself press against him. The voices grew more clear and soon I could start making out forms, then faces. There was a woman, and a set of stairs that certainly didn’t belong to this house, and a man walking over from the stairs. I turned around and saw three more men, they were all yelling about something to do with the river and a curse. Matteson’s eyes were open now, wide open and his hands were shaking slightly. One of the men pulled a gun and fired a shot and I screamed, and then Matteson grabbed me and spun us both around. He was covering both of our eyes from seeing the men, but I could see the woman bleeding out on the floor and I started to freak out. Then I heard the scream, that scream I had already been hearing, but now it sounded real. It was loud, and close, and tinted with pain and rage and these terrible wet crunching noises. Matteson was muttering, and it took me a second to realize he was swearing under his breath.
“What’s going on? Do you know what this is?”
“Yes,” he said, quietly. He tilted his head to indicate the couple in front of us, the man now kneeling down to check on the woman. “These are my great-grandparents.”
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.