“Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about them,” Roderick said, practicing some stretches in tandem with the people showing on an old VHS exercise video. They looked like the tape had been originally made in the 80s, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he hoped to accomplish when there didn’t seem to be any sort of body inside the armor. Around him, the room had become vibrant, free of dust and clutter with beautiful colors on the walls much more visible than they’d been in my last visit. Michael was lounging on a sofa eating an orange, his notepad laying on a table with the red spiral showing.
“Come now, Roderick,” Michael nudged, “isn’t knowing things your entire job?”
“I know what the estate knows. And the estate has never known this Brood of Nachash.”
“Well maybe we’ll have better luck with the boyfriend,” he grumbled, before looking to me. “Anything much there?”
“We’ve been working on it,” I said. I was in an armchair, switching my attention between them and a set of notes. “Unfortunately, we may not yet even have enough information to know what to look for. All we really know, he said, is that they’re accessing power. He joked that for all we know, they’re using it to repair a van.” Michael laughed at that and looked back to Roderick.
“You know what the estate knows, right? Does the estate think he’s getting anywhere?”
“He is unknowable to the estate,” Roderick answered, turning the tape off and turning to us. “Anchors cannot be read or properly remembered.”
“So there’s a gap where he should be?”
“More like static. Armed with knives.”
“Perhaps this is the wrong approach.” Roderick sat down and faced me. “Can he track the energy?”
“Oh,” I said, setting the notes down and thinking for a moment. “I don’t actually know. I never thought to ask him that.”
“Magical energy flows through almost everything. As a liminal being, he should have some ability to track that, even if he has never exercised the ability. I expect you will find answers faster by seeing where the energy is going than by sitting in the library joking about vans.”
“You know, he has been working on tracking ghosts.”
“It should be similar to that. Pity I can’t explain how to apply it.”
“Maybe I could. Jackie was teaching me about that.”
“Was she?” Roderick asked, leaning back in his seat. “And how did you fare at that?”
“I had limited results. Something was blocking me, we think.” I gathered my notes and stood. “But maybe it’ll be enough to guide him just the little he needs, right?”
“Do the two of you have plans tonight?” Michael asked, nodding toward the clock. It was getting well into the afternoon.
“Oh, not yet,” I answered. “Though I suppose we’re running out of time.”
“I’ll call Chez Davineau, make sure there’s a table for you this evening.”
“Thank you,” I said, patting his shoulder. “I’ll go see what we can do. Thank you both!” As soon as I got out of the room, I glanced down at my notes, and added one about finding out what it meant that Roderick knows what the estate knows, before making my way back to the library. I decided to let him think we just happened to stumble on the restaurant later, since he’s probably had too much rich folk things for one day to handle the concept of reservations very well.
Akshainie and the boys left around 9 to go investigate the site Michael had found. Matteson seemed relieved; he was visibly uncomfortable the whole night, but didn’t seem to want to talk about it. I gathered it was the atmosphere of the estate itself, and determined to talk to him about it some time after they returned. In the meantime, however, I was going to have a pleasant visit with my cousins.
My grandfather and Michael’s grandfather were brothers, with mine moving to the United States around the time his inherited the estate. We didn’t talk about why that had happened, but it seemed to have been cordial at least, since our families maintained close relations afterward. But now that I knew there was magic in their blood, and possibly in mine, I had questions.
“Oh, I suppose it would be impossible to hide from you under the current circumstances,” Melinda said when I finally raised the issue. She was Michael’s mother, and my guide to the estate while her husband was tending to some business at Parliament and everyone else was away. Michael’s siblings were away at school, and Melinda seemed disappointed that she hadn’t known I was coming early enough to call them home for the visit.
“But why was it hidden at all?” I asked. We were, by that point, carrying the box I had brought down a hall off of the main house. It was the first chore I’d seen her personally do, and I started to notice that there were no servants working down this hall, and felt it safe to ask in the relative privacy.
“Because it was requested. Actually, there is someone better equipped to answer these questions just ahead.” She stopped in front of a door and handed me the box, before she drew a key from her pocket and opened it. The room beyond was dark and a bit dusty, with cobwebs gathering on the corners of furniture that looked like it had been crafted hundreds of years earlier. She led me in and then took the box from me, setting it on a table and digging around until she produced a visor that I now realized matched a set of armor on display in the corner that was missing the same piece. Melinda took the visor over and reattached it, then stepped back and clapped the dust from her hands. As she did so, a dim light started to emanate from behind the visor, and after a moment of that the armor began to stretch like a man waking.
“Oh, finally,” a male-sounding voice said from within the armor. “That was a nice vacation but honestly, Melinda, would it have been a bother to ask them to carry me around from time to time?”
“And how would you like me to have explained that request, Roderick?”
“Must everything be explained to you people?” Roderick sighed, then waved his hand in a circular motion. As he did so, I felt a faint crackle in the air and all the dust and cobwebs swirled together and vanished, the sconces lit, and every wooden surface began to shine as if freshly polished. The armor walked forward and sat in an armchair before pointing at me. “And what are you doing here?”
“I—” I started to answer, before realizing I didn’t really have a good answer for him.
“This is our cousin Alice,” Melinda stepped in, sitting on a freshly-cleaned chaise. I slipped onto a cushioned bench. “She brought you home from the States.”
“Yes I know that,” he snapped, “but if it was so hard to explain me to her, then why is she here?”
“The young dear has learned about magic, without any involvement from us.” He turned to face me, and while I couldn’t see any real change, it felt like he was narrowing his gaze as he stared.
“And how did that come about?”
“Well,” I said, “you see, I’m dating an Anchor, I think you call it, and his friend is a witch, and—”
“Oh please tell me that isn’t your entire knowledge of magic, an Anchor and an American witch? What is she, Dutch? One of those people trying to reclaim what they think the Celts practiced?”
“She’s Latina, actually.” I heard him groan and his head angled back into the chair.
“She has questions that I think are very sensible ones for her to ask, Roderick, so be nice,” Melinda said sternly, “before I shove you back into a box.” He grumbled and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms.
“Fine. Ask your questions,” he said, finally.
“I guess the main one is, why was I never told about the Hudsons having magic?” I asked.
“Because you weren’t supposed to be told.”
“That was the point, Alice. Your family went to the States to leave the magic behind. It was agreed that, in respect for your family’s wishes, this side of the family would not discuss the matter.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“That’s my job.”
“Roderick is the family memory,” Melinda said. “He knows basically everything about who we are and who we have been and, sometimes, who we will become.” She turned to him. “And your insight has been sorely missed.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure it has.” He turned to face me, but didn’t say anything, as if he was considering me somehow.
“Well,” Melinda said, standing, “I suppose we should let you get comfortable. Alice knows where to call on you now. Though do be careful coming out while she’s in town.”
“The Anchor, yes, I know,” he said, standing. As I took to my feet, he walked forward and rested his hand on my shoulder. “Be mindful of that one, cousin. He isn’t safe, and you will need to decide what risks you are willing to take. Choose wisely.”
“Oh, um,” I said, patting the metal glove, “thanks, Roderick. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Please do.” And with that, we slipped out of his chambers and made our way back down the hall. The place looked different now, more alive, and I began to wonder just how much influence he had on the estate.
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.
27 January 2007
Jackie and I had spent a couple days working on magic, when she was in town, while Matteson was at work and before Jackie had to go in for her shift. I was learning a lot of magical theory, about how this hedge seemed to divide the realms and how the general concept of magic was little more than using one realm to make a change in the other. I wasn’t yet actually accomplishing anything—we had tried to get me to cast some minor spells, but it never worked—but I couldn’t deny that when Jackie did magic near me or I tried to do it myself, something stirred in me. It was like there was something deep in the fabric of my being that recognized the magic and wanted to connect with it, but just couldn’t. I didn’t understand what it meant, and try as we might, we couldn’t seem to push past it.
Today, however, Jackie asked me to meet her at the dam. I had to figure out what she was talking about, and then find my way there, but once I did it was easy enough to find her. She was meditating on the side of a foot trail, down by the water at the bottom of the dam. I made my way down to where she was waiting, and sat on the blanket next to her. The sound of the water coming out of the dam was loud and concussive, but not overwhelming, apparently because only one stream of water was being allowed through. As I waited for her, I took note of the little bits of wildlife I could see. I loved doing work in the basement, with its smell of books and comfortable chairs, but being outside was a nice break.
“Try to connect to the energy around you,” Jackie said, softly.
“Oh, right,” I said, snapping back into the present and adjusting my position. I closed my eyes, slowed my breathing, and tried to sense the world around me. This had never worked before, but she had said multiple times that the house was somewhat resistant to magic just by virtue of being Matteson’s, and that it was always easiest to connect to some specific element of the world than to just broadly try connecting to everything. For her, this was water; she wasn’t sure what mine was, and maybe now we were going to begin trying to find out.
As I cleared my head and tried to focus on this idea of some natural energy, I started to feel a bit distant. Like I was ever so slightly moving, not so much away from where I was, but relative to it. Like, I was in the same place, but the place itself was moving around me just a little bit; or, more accurately, like I was occupying more of it as it began to move. The sound of the water started to fade, and I could hear every non-migrating bird near us singing or scratching at the snow. I leaned into that, tried to connect with it more, and soon it felt something else. Movement. Slow, quiet, barely there, but definitely moving, just faintly. I turned my attention to it, tried to find it in my mind, and the other noises began to fade away as this one impulse loomed large in my mind. Then I heard a heartbeat, and I reached out, trying to touch it, to find that specific noise, and suddenly my head began to throb like I’d run straight into a wall.
I gasped and my eyes flew open. Everything was a blur, and it took me a few moments to focus and figure out where I even was. Jackie was kneeling in front of me, calling my name, but it felt distant and tinny until I blinked a few times and everything began to return to normal.
“Alice! Are you okay? What happened?” I was breathing heavy and my heart was thumping in my ears, and as I started to take in my surroundings I noticed something on my lip. I reached up to touch it, and when I pulled my hand away it had blood on it.
“Hey, hey, take a deep breath with me, okay?” She took in a long, loud inhale, and I copied her, exhaling as she did and taking in another breath on cue. Slowly, I found everything back to the way it was before I started meditating.
“Jackie, I…I heard something.”
“What was it?”
“At first it was just the birds, you know, but then it was something else. Something slow, and quiet, and when I focused on it I think I heard a faint heartbeat? But then it just…everything stopped, and my head felt like I’d been in a car wreck or something, and I’m bleeding?”
“You had a faint nosebleed, it looks to be drying up some, but maybe tilt your head up just in case.” I did and pinched my nose while she dug around in her bag for a napkin, which she gave me and I started dabbing at the blood. “This is amazing.”
“What is?” I asked, trying to ignore how odd my voice sounded while I was holding my nose closed.
“Okay, so, three things stand out to me about your story. One is that you got anywhere near that far. I mean, yeah, it’s easier out here than at the house, but to pick up that much on your first real shot at it? That’s impressive. There’s definitely some kind of spark in you.”
“Well that’s good, I think. Does that mean I have a demon great-aunt or something?” She chuckled.
“Maybe, but we can’t possibly guess at that based just on this.”
“What were the other two things?”
“Well, I get it now. Not all of the elements mages connect to are what might be classically considered elements. Earth, fire, water, air, sometimes wood. The elements, as far as magic is concerned, are all of the sources of energy in our world, all of the ways it is moved and changed and gathered. You, a biologist, started to connect to some kind of animal energy. I don’t know if it’s specific, like birds or mammals or something, or just generally animal, but you were drawn to that element. I think you have some fundamental connection to it, and I bet it’s part of what drew you to biology. And I would bet money you’re better with most people’s pets than they are.” I smiled.
“Okay, that does tend to be the case, yeah.”
“You seem to be done bleeding.” I looked at her again and finished wiping my face.
“The third thing is the one I understand the least, though,” she said, in a lower tone, as if we had to hide our conversation from the ears of the snow.
“What do you mean?”
“People sometimes have a physical reaction to strain, that’s normal enough. But you hit a hard limit.”
“And that’s less normal?”
“The only cases of it I’ve ever even heard of involve trying to deal with an Anchor. Happened to me when I tried to jump into Matteson’s dreams in Chicago.”
“Was there no ontological gap to jump into?” I asked with a smile. She smiled and nodded.
“Yeah. It sure lent credibility to that theory, let me tell you.” She leaned forward, wrapped her hands around mine, and locked eyes with me. “Alice, what you were doing was clearly something surprisingly natural for you to do, but something stopped you. There’s a story here, somewhere. To my knowledge, that doesn’t just happen.”
“What do we do about it?”
“I don’t know. We shouldn’t push it, though, until we understand it. If it pushes back too hard, it might be dangerous.” I nodded, and she briefly squeezed my hands before letting go and sitting up. “I’ll try to look into it, but we should take a rest from this until we know more about it.”
“Okay, yeah, that makes sense.” I took a deep breath, then got to my feet. “So what now?” She shrugged, then stood and picked up her backpack.
“Now,” she said as we started folding up the blanket, “I suppose we have some time to kill. You hungry?” I was, as it happened, so we debated on the way back to my car where we would grab a bite to eat.
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.”
8 December 2006
It was a few more days before Rick and Mandy could come down. They probably would have come faster, but I didn’t want to sound crazy over the phone and decided to hold back on explaining the situation until they got here. They were excited to see the new house, and we had arranged for them to stay the night with movies and snacks like when we were teens, before she moved north. I had expressed some interest in meeting Rick’s girlfriend, who Mandy said was a witch, but she wasn’t available.
I gave them the tour of the house when they arrived, since they hadn’t seen it yet, and we talked about the layout and the beautiful tub upstairs and the railing on the stairs. I explained that it had been built sometime early in the 1900s, on the site of a previous house that had been torn down or something. The records were kind of murky once we were looking that far back. I had ordered delivery, and when it arrived we all gathered around the living room and caught up on what’s been new with them and how school was going, and it was a really nice time that I wasn’t sure whether or not to interrupt. But I knew Rick liked talking about this stuff, so I slipped in a question about whether or not he had seen anything weird lately. He turned off most of the lights and told some extravagant story about a place called The Devil’s Church where he insisted he and a couple of his friends nearly died. Mandy rolled her eyes every time he said that, which made me laugh, which made him insist that we had no idea how lucky we really were to have him still around.
“Well,” I said once he was done, “what’s it like being such a fearless expert of the unknown?” Mandy shoved me and laughed, but he took a heroic pose.
“It’s all part of the job, ladies.” We threw fries at him until he sat down.
“Okay, okay, so tell me honestly. If there was a ghost here, for instance, how would you find out?”
“Ah, well, about that—”
“He wouldn’t!” Mandy cried out. “Don’t let my cousin fool you, he’s just along for the ride. It’s that Matteson that’s supposed to see ghosts.”
“Oh, really?” I asked. “You never mentioned that!”
“Well, I did say he was there, you know,” Rick offered.
“There, he says. It was Matteson’s idea. Well, that night, anyway, Tony convinced us to try going before,” Mandy said.
“Us? Did you go to this Devil’s Church?” I asked, turning to her.
“Well of course I did. I was with Matteson when Rick called to invite him.” Rick cleared his throat and Mandy rolled her eyes again. “Rick doesn’t like me talking about that. But we went to the Devil’s Church, and someone freaked out, and we left. Nothing happened. Maybe nothing happened when they went back, either, who knows?”
“I know,” Rick said, “and it definitely was not that nothing happened.”
“So why haven’t I heard more about this guy in your stories?” I needled, reaching over to poke at Rick’s stomach. He swatted me away with a laugh.
“He doesn’t like not being the center of the story,” Mandy said, “you know how he is. But oh! You should meet Matteson. I think you two would get along great, he’s a bookworm like you. But he’s in my band, too.”
“At any rate, I’m always excited to meet your friends, even if it does sound like you just made him up based on the town I moved into.”
“His name’s John,” Rick explained, “his ex started calling him Matteson, that’s his last name, because it set him apart from the other Johns in town, and I guess it just stuck.”
“Why are you asking so much about ghost stories anyway, Alice?” Mandy leaned forward, staring into my eyes. “You don’t normally ask about ghost stories.”
“Oh, no,” I waved the question off, “no reason, really.”
“Is it this old house?” She gasped in mock drama. “Are there ghosts in this old house?”
“Now, Mandy, come on, I just—” She jumped up and walked into the hall between the living room and the stairs, calling for the ghosts. I started to shake, and Rick must have noticed because he sidled over and rested his hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, Alice, you alright?” he asked. I nodded and gave him a fake smile, and then we heard that scream again. It was like a man in agony, echoing from somewhere far away, but loud. Loud like it was inside the house. Mandy screamed, too, and ran back into the living room. We all huddled on the couch, peeking over the back of it for something to follow her into the room, but the sound ended and nothing new happened.
“Shit,” Mandy whispered. “There are ghosts in this old house.”
“I’ll get you Matteson’s number.” I nodded, and we all resumed watching for a little while, before they started asking me about it. I confessed that there was no evidence I was in actual danger, but I certainly wasn’t comfortable with this going on, and we decided to turn some comedies to calm down.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.