Chapter 1: First
His first kiss had been quick, and unexpected. He had just glanced up at the call of his name when dry lips pressed against his own. The shock of it made him drop the stick he was using to poke at a beetle and fall to his haunches. “Why’ve you done that for?” he demanded. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand.
“Now you have to marry me,” Lily said. She primly smoothed her dress over her lap where she sat on the dirt beside him.
“I don’t want to marry you!”
“Well you have to. Those are the rules.” Lily shrugged. She didn’t seem bothered by his denial, or concerned over the wedding. She took up his stick and began digging into the earth as before.
He considered. He liked Lily. They played outside every Sunday after the service while the grownups were busy talking. She didn’t mind playing army as long as he allowed her to be the queen of some foreign land giving a rousing speech to the troops. She could count to ten in French. Sometimes her brother let them watch the older boys play. In all, it didn’t seem like a bad deal to marry her. And if those were the rules…
“Alright, I suppose I’ll marry you,” he said. Lily smiled. “But don’t kiss me again.”
“We have to at the wedding.”
“Well, just that once.”
His first real kiss came at 15. Sarah sometimes made deliveries for her father, her basket full of rye loaves and her smock spotted with flour. She smiled at him when their paths crossed; all his friends teased him for it. They insisted he do something about it before someone else swooped in for her heart.
He wasn’t certain he wanted her heart, but she was pretty enough, and kind, and there was a war on. There was no sense in delaying anything when Germans could reach their shores any day.
And so a plan was contrived. Toby helped him draw a map of the village and placed Xs at strategic locations where they might ‘happen’ to bump into each other out of sight from both their parents and the nosy Mrs. Bartholomew.
He tried to put the plan to action the next day. He wandered around the town, sometimes breaking into a jog if he thought no one was looking, to try and intercept her. But it seemed she was a wisp of smoke, always gone from the street as soon as he turned on it. It wasn’t helping his nerves, which were already making him feel he might be sick any second.
In a fit of frustration, he ran to the bakery, skidding to a stop at the end of the road. He would simply wait at the corner until she came back. Sod the plan, sod the pretense of fate. Sod everything. As soon as he saw her, he would tell her he was in love and wanted to get married.
Well. As soon as he saw her, his stomach twisted, his mouth went dry, and all plans of both prepared speeches and spontaneous declarations left his mind entirely.
Sarah asked if he was unwell. He ignored the question and offered to walk her home. She glanced the short way back to the bakery and said, “I think I forgot a delivery. Why don’t you walk me there?” She took his arm.
A few streets later, neither having said a word, he could no longer stand it. He stopped walking abruptly and pulled Sarah’s hand from the crook of his elbow to hold it in his own. It was best to get it over with. “Might I kiss you?”
She blushed demurely, but without hesitation said, “You may.”
So they did. And it felt like nothing. Her lips were warm, and his lips a little wetter when he pulled away. But other than the physical sensation of contact, there was no emotion, no euphoria, no joy that she was his. It was, if anything, disappointing.
Later, he told Toby she was a bad kisser. And later when the rumor had spread sufficiently, Sarah found him outside the schoolhouse and bloodied his nose.
The first time it meant something came two years later.
The war was still on. He tried to join up, but the recruiter denied him.
“Come back when you’ve had another growth spurt.”
He tried to argue he was well within the height requirements, but the recruiter shook his head and said, “Put some meat on your bones. Eat more eggs.”
Eat more eggs! – as if they weren’t hard enough to get! There was no way he could take up his family’s rations, even if it would help the war effort.
“What’s so hard about finding eggs?” Jon said when he’d told him. “Birds lay ‘em all the time.”
“I can’t go taking a farmer’s eggs. It’s not on.”
“Forget about farmers and chickens. There’s more than one kind of bird, you know.”
He wrinkled his nose and made a sound that was a cross between incredulous and disgust. “You want me to go out and eat what? Sparrow eggs? Crow?”
“Quail eggs – people eat that.”
And so the two went out quail hunting though they did not know where to find the natural habitat of the quail and wound up simply walking through the fields swishing the tall grass with sticks and sometimes whistling or hooting what could charitably be considered a bird call. An hour or so later, just when they were about to quit, Jon suddenly grasped his arm and pointed to where a small brown bird was perched on a fallen branch. Jon made a few incomprehensible hand signals, which lead to a silent fight that ended in a frenzy of smacking hands until Jon gave him a shove and hissed, “Go around.”
He crept through the grass towards the target. In his peripherals, Jon came up on the other side. Closer, closer. And then – Jon lunged forward, the bird flapped frantically to the air, and they both jumped to catch it. The bird was quick, though, and they only succeeded in thwacking each other.
“You startled it!” Jon cried.
“I did no such thing!”
“You did; we’re never going to get eggs with you clomping around like a pack mule!”
Eggs! He had forgotten about the purpose of the mission in the excitement. “What have we gone trying to catch the bleeding bird for!”
“That’s where the eggs are, stupid!”
He attacked him, then. Jon went down easily, and they rolled along the ground, trying to stay on top, pinching and pulling and grunting out curses at each other.
“You have – no – understanding – of birds – or eggs – you absolute – pillock!” he gasped out.
Jon got a good footing and rolled himself deftly, straddling his waist and holding his wrists down.
His face was inches from Jon’s. Jon’s eyes were bright. Jon panted above him, out of breath but clearly enjoying himself. And Jon’s lips were inches from his own.
On instinct, he craned his neck forward and closed the gap, pressing his lips against Jon’s, and for a brief moment he felt euphoric with the warm earth on his back and the warm body on his front, perfectly pinioned. His stomach flipped, electricity tingling along his limbs.
Jon pulled back and swung off. He looked at him with confusion and disappointment. He wished he could laugh it off, quip that it was a quick way to win the fight but the rejection weighed so heavily on him that he could move to even speak.
“I known you a long while,” Jon finally said. “So I won’t tell anyone. But you can’t go doing that again.”
For the first time, people would not stop kissing the Captain.
The first time came shortly after his entrance to the afterlife. The people of the house had begun to use the room again. For the first few weeks, like a superstition, they avoided stepping in it, their eyes darting to the spot where his body fell as if they would see a mark on the carpet. But life, for them, went on. The room began to fill, heeled shoes grinding into the floor where his last breath had puffed, and no more care or thought was given to him.
He could not hold the tears back. He sat in the room next door listening to the laughter of the dinner guests and shook. Robin came slowly and sat silently next to him for some time. The Captain tried to compose himself, but Robin placed a calloused hand on his thigh and said, “You cry good while. Feel better after.”
A sob forced itself out and he let himself succumb to it. Robin moved his arm around his shoulders and kissed the top of his head. Nothing was ever said of it.
Kitty liked to stay up late, giggling as if it were naughty of them, as if any rules still applied to them. And when the Captain finally convinced her to go to bed after hours of indulging her gossip of centuries gone by, she would kiss his cheek and go through the wall to her room. The first time was a surprise, but it became habit. On the days when the rest of the ghosts’ antics distracted them and they did not have their ritual, the Captain found he quiet missed it. And when one night Kitty distractedly said, “Goodnight, Papa,” the Captain quickly dashed to his room to wipe the tear from his eye before anyone could mock him for it.
Thomas often sulked about lamenting the state of his poetry. He didn’t care to be disturbed in those moments, but he still managed to take up so much space in the house with his languished sighing and dramatic draping across furniture. All the Captain had done was snapped a synonym at him to shut his whinging, but Thomas lit up, looking almost alive again. He practically skipped to the Captain, grasped both his shoulders, and smacked a loud kiss on his forehead before dashing off.
Even Fanny, on high holidays, would kiss his cheek or at least pat his hand. He did not think he had ever been touched so much since becoming intangible.
There were no things in life he could not have in death.
Chapter 2: Bone
Thomas sucked his teeth and poked around with his tongue but it was no use. Some piece of tendon or vein had gotten well stuck in there. He scoffed in disgust and pushed the body off the chair. And the man had a hairy neck. Absolutely disgusting.
He wasn’t going to debase himself by picking his teeth with his own fingernail, so he made his way upstairs to the Captain’s room. There were a few strangled cries and thumps coming from inside; Thomas knew the Captain would be cross for interrupting, but it couldn’t be helped. He knocked loudly on the door. “Pressing question!” he called.
A few moments later the Captain jerked the door open about a foot, his body blocking the frame so Thomas couldn’t see inside. His collar was eskew and blood smeared his chin. “Blast it all, what is it Thorne?”
“Do you have any floss anywhere? I’ve got a bit of my chap stuck in my teeth.”
“Floss? That’s what was pressing?”
“Well, yes.” The Captain huffed and made to close the door. “It’s incredibly vexing! I can’t get it out.”
“Of course I have floss. We all have floss. Have you not been using it?” He narrowed his eyes at Thomas, and Thomas spluttered for some excuse but could not think of any before the Captain slammed the door in his face.
“The nerve! The rudeness!” Thomas cried at the door. He glanced around the hall to ensure it was empty and tugged his waistcoat down before lifting his chin and marching to his bathroom. There was, in fact, floss in the medicine cabinet. Two full packets of it. He didn’t know when that arrived. He gave it a go, but it proved useless to floss blindly, trying to chase his tongue. “Damnable existence!” Not being able to see his reflection was probably the thing that upset him most in his 200 years. The others could adjust his tie or doodle his outfit to show him, but he didn’t believe they took the same care in his appearance as he would himself.
The stringy bit of meat sat mocking him in his mouth. He would need assistance.
“Humphrey!” he yelled. Humphrey did not immediately turn up, so Thomas went cursing and stomping around the house calling his name until he spotted him trying to exit the other side of the library just ahead of Thomas. “No you don’t! I saw you! Come to me when I call you, Humphrey.”
Humphrey muttered under his breath as he retreated back to Thomas. “Yes, sire ? What petty task that could be easily be performed by yourself do you need me for this time?”
Humphrey was easily the most insolent and lazy familiar Thomas had ever had. He made it very clear he hated his job: he had his great grandfather’s contract laminated and hung it in the kitchen by the whiteboard where he kept a countdown of the days until he could kick them all out of Bone Manor for good. He had ten years left (though the Captain kept trying to think of schemes to get him to extend their stay). The seventh Baron Bone had agreed that to spare his and his family’s lives, the local vampires could live in the house and use the family as their familiars for the next 200 years. It would have been longer, but during negotiations Robin got overly excited and started shouting out numbers less than Bone’s proposals.
Thomas thrust the floss into his hands. “I have something in my teeth. Get it out.” He opened his mouth expectantly, like a baby bird ready for mother’s meal.
Humphrey made no move. “You want me to floss your teeth.”
Humphrey contorted his face like he would refuse. This would be the moment that he snapped and went on a vampire killing streak. He would rather they kill him than lower himself to these tasks any more.
“Humphrey.” Thomas snapped in front of his face. He tilted his head again, pulling his lips back to expose his fangs.
The conviction left Humphrey and he let out a world-weary sigh before digging in. A large chunk of artery popped out from between Thomas’s molars.
“Now was that so difficult? The body is still in the drawing room. And get me someone without a beard next time.”
Humphrey threw the used floss on the floor. “Why don’t you shove –”
“Humphrey!” The Captain entered the room looking irate and disheveled. His regular suit jacket was gone, leaving him in just his shirtsleeves and trousers. Blood had soaked through the whole front of him, making his shirt stick to his skin. It would take ages to get the stains out, Humphrey knew.
“Bit of a gusher?” Thomas asked sympathetically.
“Quite. Look here, Humphrey, I know you don’t appreciate this job, but it still must be done properly. That man was not a virgin. And don’t say I can’t tell, because I can. And he told me himself.”
“I’m not trolling for virgins anymore!” Humphrey shouted. “Just eat them! It doesn’t matter!”
The Captain spluttered. “Doesn’t matter? Are you insane?”
“So you’d be fine if we fucked your lasagna then?” Thomas added.
“That’s completely different!”
“It is not,” the Captain said. “No one wants to eat something another man’s penis has been in.”
“Speak for self,” Robin said as he passed the open door.
“I’m walking away,” Humphrey declared. He turned and made good of his word. His voice faded as he got further but he kept speaking: “I’m walking out the door, and out of the grounds, and out of the county and I’m walking directly into the sea.”
“What a drama queen,” Thomas said, and the Captain agreed.
“Watch The Friends?” the Captain suggested.
“After you.” They walked out to the tv room, calling at Thomas’s meal to shut up his groaning as they went past.
Chapter 3: Fear
The moment of Thomas's death
Thomas had never been in a position where bravery was necessary before. Even reading in front of a crowd came easily to him. It was exuberant. To feel the swelling of the poetry inside him, the rapt attention of the audience, the applause after. He felt so wonderfully alive. That had only been an hour ago.
Cowards die many times before their deaths
When that man – that knave – accepted his challenge, saliva had rushed to his mouth in threat of vomit. He had never dueled before, had only witnessed one. But though Isabelle’s affection had waned, his love would not stand for any man to insult her. She could be married five times over without another glance at him and he would still defend her honor with his life.
There’s beggary in love that cannot be reckoned
They agreed on the French method, 20 paces. The soldier had been insistent on that. He felt the phantom touch of his hair or shirt as they stood back to back, close but not touching. Thomas let out a strong breath. He would not tremble before the man. It was not his satisfaction to have.
The valiant never taste of death but once
He might not have noticed the shot were it not for the noise. The bang, and the scent of gunpowder even from such a distance. Then a pain in his back, like someone had prodded him with a stick.
His own gun dropped from his hand, firing when it hit the ground. More gunpowder burning. A squawk and thump as a bird fell from the sky.
“Sorry,” he said. The pain was gaining on him now. His back did ache, but his front – he held his hand to his side where warm blood was soaking into his clothes and running down his skin.
He stumbled a bit, but Francis was there to catch him.
“We did not get to twenty.”
“He cheated, the coward.”
Francis helped him to the tree a few paces in front of him. His legs were shaking now. His core was cold, but his skin blazing hot. Was it bravery now? Francis sat him against the tree, and Thomas clutched his hand.
Why, courage then! What cannot be avoided ‘twere childish weakness to lament or fear
Breathing was becoming harder. Each gasp pulled at his wound and each exhale rushed more blood over his hand. He could feel it between his fingers, sticky on his wrist. There was no doctor at the party. Thomas had waved off the discovery; he did not expect to die, or if he did he expected it quickly. Now he begged for the sure hands of healing.
If he could not have a healer to his body, he would have him for his soul.
“I know she does not love me, but please will you fetch Isabelle so I might say goodbye?”
The course of true love never did run smooth
Francis ran off, and the rest of the crowd dissipated. His vision blurred, and went dark around the edges. There was no pain now; he felt weak, drunk almost, in the dizziness. He was to die. He tried to tilt his head to see her coming. If only he could see her face before the darkness overtook him. He was so cold. If only her hand could burn hot in his own. His mouth was dry. If only her lips could moisten his own. Just let him last until that moment – Just let death be the sweetness of Heaven where he might be reunited with her again – Just let it not be nothing –
There are more things on Heaven and Earth
Chapter 4: Family
For once, it was Pat’s fault. Well, also Julian’s fault. And sort of Kitty’s fault.
It started when Julian googled his daughter. He found her twitter and instagram and refreshed them as often as he could. He discovered how to bookmark pages so he didn’t have to type it out each time, which proved to be a menace when Mike was working and suddenly his tab changed to Rachel Fawcett. But, as far as Julian’s regular computer habits went, it was fairly innocuous.
Then Pat asked to look up Daley. Daley’s accounts were private, so Pat could only see his profile pictures, but he still checked every day to see if they had been updated. He begged Allison to “add friend” him but Allison refused on the grounds that it would be creepy to add a man she’d only met once at the site of his father’s tragic death.
Their obsession with refreshing drove them to distraction.
“Pat, it’s time for Food Club!”
“In a minute, Kitty, Julian’s just checking if Daley’s got an Instant Gram.”
Pat adjusted his glasses and shifted into scoutmaster, “It’s a place on the internet to save photos. Alison and Mike and Rachel have all got one.”
“Alison has one?” Kitty said excitedly. “Oh, do you think she’ll have one of me!”
Julian gave one last strained cry as he hit enter and then said, “How would she get a photo of you? You’re dead.”
“I had my portrait painted twice , actually,” Kitty said.
“Maybe Alison could search for them. Like we searched for Rachel and Daley,” Pat said.
It snowballed from there.
Soon all the ghosts wanted Alison to search for their family members and before she knew it, Alison was pulling out her credit card to sign up for the free trial on an ancestry website. “It’s 14 days,” she warned, “and then I’m cancelling.”
Julian, Pat, and Fanny were excluded quickly. They knew enough of their family’s fate already. Humphrey already knew he was the last of his line and didn’t care to check in on any distant cousins. Mary was able to see her granddaughter’s church record for her christening, but then the trail ended. Robin was a lost cause as well, but he didn’t seem upset about it. He only shrugged and said, “We all family.”
That left only Thomas, Captain, and Kitty. Alison told them she would spend two hours with each of them to find as much of their family tree as they could.
Kitty, the most excitable, was first.
“Search for Eleanor. After she was married and left the house I never saw her but three more times.”
“Right… Here we go.” Over the next hour, Alison traced Eleanor's family line until she said, “Kitty, look!” She tilted the screen towards her. A young woman with dark skin, long braids, and a bright smile stood posed next to an exotic flower at a botanical gardens. The caption read So much fun this girls weekend!!!!!!! #girlsdayout #botanicalgarden #beesstayawayplease
“This is your great great great… well, a lot of greats – niece.”
Kitty leaned forward in her seat so far that her front phased through the desk. She was silent for a long time, longer than Alison had ever known her to be. Finally she said in a small whisper, “She looks like me.” Her eyes filled with tears. “She’s got a yellow bow in her hair, like mine.” She touched the ribbons on the front of her dress.
“Are you alright, Kitty?” Alison asked gently. She wished she could have put a hand on her shoulder.
Kitty wiped her eyes. “Oh, I’m wonderful . A niece! And she looks like me.” Alison smiled. Another instagram page to bookmark.
Chapter 5: Poetry
Rating shoots up to E for this one.
“Now is that understood?” The Captain stood bouncing on the balls of his feet, his swagger stick gripped tightly behind him. He was stiff and upright, tense – he was always tense, but now … Now it seemed he was electric.
“Yes,” Thomas said. He swallowed against his dry mouth. He stood awkwardly next to the bed, unsure if he was meant to sit or lay.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but try not to disappoint me, Thorne.”
Thomas shook his head. If he needed oxygen he would have been lightheaded for how shallowly his breath was coming. His clothes felt heavy on his skin, the normally soft linen itching and tickling like an insect crawling along his arms. Waiting for his instructions felt decadently torturous.
“Well, up on the bed, hop hop,” The Captain said. He gestured with the stick, then quickly pulled it behind him again as if embarrassed he had forgotten his posturing.
Thomas sat on the side of the bed and swung his legs up, scooting up to the headboard.
“No, no,” The Captain snapped.
“Oh,” Thomas said. He himself was surprised by how small his voice was. Already he had been a fool! Emotion bubbled up inside him; hot shame, cold fear. The Captain grabbed his knee and pulled it back to the edge of the bed.
“Sit at the edge so I can – sit at the edge.”
Thomas repositioned himself so his legs dangled off the bed and his hands supported his weight behind him.
“That’s it. Good.”
Thomas breathed in sharply. Yes, he was good, he would be so good.
The Captain groaned as he got onto his knees. His joints popped and clicked loudly on the way down. He set the swagger stick on his lap so it wouldn’t reappear in his hands at an inconvenient time. His palms rested on Thomas’s thighs. A thumb rubbed circles against his breeches. Thomas allowed himself to look down at the Captain staring back up at him. His own pupils blown wide belied the control he presented. Captain cleared his throat. “You may begin.”
Thomas closed his eyes. He focused entirely on the sensation of Captain’s hot, hot hands running up and down his thighs.
“All thoughts, all passions, all delights/ Whatever stirs this mortal frame, /All are but ministers of Love, /And feed his sacred flame…”
Fingers crept to the buttons of his breeches, and soon his prick was exposed to the air. A hot puff of breath, and then a hand helping it out of the trappings of fabric.
“Oft in my waking dreams…”
The Captain’s hand pulled up and slid back down slowly, dryly. Thomas moaned, and the Captain squeezed. “I don’t believe that’s the next line, Thorne.”
“... do I / live o’er again that happy hour.”
A tongue peeked out to lap the head to get Thomas squirming, but obediently he kept his hips and hands on the bed, so was rewarded by a broad lick from base to tip. And then, God, then the Captain tilted Thomas’s cock forward so he could wrap his lips around the head. He let it lay there, heavy on his tongue, teasing Thomas with the promise of wet heat and hard suction on the rest of him.
Thomas continued his recitation. The words stumbled over his lips, stuttering out and sometimes interrupted by a gasp or whine. He got through three stanzas and the Captain still hadn’t taken him fully in his mouth. He had pulled off and begun licking again, running a fingernail over the crease of his thigh, sucking what would have been a bruise over his pubic bone. He wanted to beg, but he had promised he would be good.
His arms could not hold him anymore, shaking as they were. His elbows buckled and he let himself collapse back. The Captain did not begrudge him it. In fact, he was rewarded.
“The statue of the arméd man,” Thomas said and then his cock was enveloped. He could not help the string of helpless cries of “oh” that were pushed from his diagram and out of his mouth.
The Captain shuffled closer. His hands came up and both held his hips while his head bobbed. How badly Thomas wanted to touch him in return, but no, he knew what he was meant to do.
He was nearly done. He was nearly undone. He wasn’t even sure if he were reciting the poem correctly anymore. He could not think. Tears streamed down from the corner of his eyes to his temples as he lay there, his hands clasped above his head to prevent himself from burying them in the Captain’s hair. His hips twitched when the Captain wiggled his tongue along the underside of the head, and light scrape of teeth on the glans. Oh the devil, the bastard, he was good at it even if he claimed he would never debase himself to this station. How quickly his tune had changed when Thomas had offered a practical demonstration and after crawling back up his body and whispering to him sleepily, “I’m not debased, dear; I feel euphoric.”
“Two stanzas,” Thomas gasped. He had no idea if he were lying or not, but he needed to be close.
The Captain pulled off and said, his voice scratchy, “You’ve been so good Thomas, you’re nearly there.”
Thomas sobbed. The praise was almost enough to end it all. If the Captain could be sucking him and speaking to him simultaneously, Thomas would be ascended from the mortal and ghostly plane.
“'Twas partly love, and partly fear, / And partly ’twas a bashful art…”
The Captain sped up. He laved his tongue along Thomas’s length, one hand holding the base of his cock steady and pumping what was left untouched by his mouth. The other hand stroked along his side, soothing him but leaving fire in its wake. Thomas dared open his eyes and craned his head to see – the Captain with his eyes closed, flushed so pink, a string of saliva caught from his lips to his knuckle, and now that Thomas had paused his speaking, he could hear the delighted moaning the Captain made as he worked. Dear God, he was enjoying himself as much as Thomas and –
Thomas sped through the last lines, stuttering some words, slurring them together but at last salvation, he had done it he was a good boy he had earned his reward. “That’s it, that’s it,” he gasped.
The Captain pulled off again. “Good boy, Thorne. You may come at your leisure.” Whether he would put his mouth back on him, Thomas didn’t know, for at those words, with his hand still working, Thomas arched his hips up and came, losing all feeling in his body except for the pleasure in his cock and tingling in his limbs. His seed splashed against his waistcoat, slid down the Captain’s hand still holding him; he would have enjoyed the sight if his eyes had been screwed up in ecstasy.
The Captain crawled onto the bed and laid himself half on top of and half next to Thomas. “Now you remember this each time you want to recite a poem, Thorne,” he whispered. “This is how it should be done.”
Chapter 6: Picture
All regular morning activities had been suspended; instead, the ghosts were gathered around the kitchen table talking, shouting, pestering, and generally being a nuisance as Alison tried to work.
“R-O-B-I-N,” Robin recited for her.
Alison added ‘caveman’ in brackets and capped her pen. “All done.”
Robin jumped around excitedly, pointing to the paper and then to himself. “Is me, is me,” he chanted.
“Yes we can tell,” Fanny said with a roll of her eyes.
“Is even better than painting brother made,” Robin said.
“You had a cave painting of you?” Alison asked.
Robin nodded. “Gone now. But now have this. Hold up,” he demanded. Alison obliged him, holding the paper next to Robin as he smiled widely at the rest of the group. She moved to tack it to Mike’s ghost board; Robin made a sound of disappointment.
Thomas rushed to her side, making her jump a bit. “Is it my turn, fair Alison?”
“Yeah, alright.” She sat back down and picked out the marker pens she would need. Thomas was on the other side of the table, awkwardly posing his arms with one on his hip and the other draped over his head.
“Like this?” he asked. “Or would you prefer me sitting?”
“You don’t have to do anything. I know what you look like.”
“Oh but to get the right shading –”
“There’s not going to be any shading.” She drew a circle for his head and carried on from there. Thomas pouted, coming around to watch her.
“Can you not do it on paper without lines?”
“That’s not… quite what my hair looks like. Is it?” he added with panic to the rest of the ghosts.
They all spoke at once: “Spitting image.” “Incredible detail.” “It’s like a photograph.”
“Oh, you mock me! And poor Alison! Ignore them, dear heart, they mean only to rile you.”
“I think they mean to rile you .”
“Quite right,” the Captain said. Thomas pulled a face at him, and the Captain tilted his chin up to disguise his self-pleased smile.
“All done,” Alison declared.
Alison added Thomas to the corkboard and stood back to admire her work. “Not bad.”
“Like a family photo,” Pat said behind her.
“Perhaps after a bit of practice you could draw again –”
Chapter 7: Secret
Talking Club, as they termed it, had become a semi-regular occurrence. It was never scheduled or announced; just occasionally, one of the ghosts would say, “I’ve got something to share,” in a different tone of voice, and they would all sit down to listen. It was usually Kitty or Thomas who began, but they had all taken advantage of their new format.
All but one, of course.
The Captain was patient enough to listen, keeping his huffs and eye rolls to a minimum except when Thomas spoke, but he always declined a turn. He had nothing to share, nothing of interest. The rest prodded, some more subtly than others, but still he kept his stiff upper lip.
“You will feel better for it,” Thomas said. “It’s cleansing.”
“We’re all here to support each other,” Pat said.
“Nothing will shock us,” Julian said.
But no use, until one day quite out of the blue the Captain said, “I’ve got something to share.”
The ghosts hushed immediately. Robin and Julian had been arguing about a chess game but shut up mid word.
“Go on,” Pat said gently.
“I’ve never told anyone this,” the Captain said. “But it’s been eating me up inside. I know you all have a certain view of me – stuffy old army captain, no fun, straight as a ruler. And I must say I pride myself on that reputation. Rising to captain was one of the proudest days of my life, really. And I got there with discipline, hard work, and a strict following of the rules. But, ah. I suppose we all have our faults.
“You see back in ‘45 after I’d left Button House I was stationed in Belgium for a time. You know there’s an awful lot of waiting goes on in the army. And there were some days, weeks even, where we were just traveling or waiting for orders. And boredom can lead mischief – as you all well know.
“Well one night… Bally hell. One night myself and a few chaps in the camp got into a bit of revelry. Yes, I admit there was some drink had. And we thought, ‘dear God, there’s a war on and we’re clambering for excitement!’ So we… good Lord. It’s a bit harder than I thought to admit this.
“We… we left the camp. Went into the little village and got even more drunk. There was this man… oh it’s been so many years I can’t quite remember, but he was a performer of some kind. An accordion perhaps? Or a puppet show? Anyway, we watched him for a time, lots of laughs, shared a smoke. Was gone three in the morning by time we stumbled back to camp.”
It was silent for a moment and then Julian impatiently said, “And?”
“And what’s the big secret you never told anyone?”
“That was the secret!” The Captain spluttered in his usual disbelieving way. “We left the camp, man! Without permission! Absent without leave! We could have been flogged if we’d been caught!”
The rest of the ghosts stood up and dissipated, grumbling their disappointment.
“Well what were you expecting me to say!”
After Pat had finished his second telling of the ghost story for Mary, the ghosts found they could not sleep. The ground was hard and cold; though they could not actually feel the sensations properly the knowledge that it was so was enough to make them uncomfortable. They shifted restlessly, one of them sometimes making the odd sound of a tired settling groan. The adrenaline of the horror story left them feeling fuzzy, as if less solid than they normally were.
Kitty was the first to leave. She had not stopped trembling since she came outside; she had not even tried to close her eyes. “I want to sleep with Alison,” she whimpered and ran out into the night. Mary was soon to follow.
“Scaredy-cats,” Pat said good-naturedly. He, the Captain, and Thomas shared a brief chuckle and then lay in silence.
There was nothing in the woods that could harm them. It wasn’t as if their lives were in danger. An owl hooted, and they all jumped.
Pat laughed weakly. “Can get spooky at night.”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” the Captain said.
Something not far from them snapped a branch and rustled through the dead leaves of the underbrush.
“What was that?”
“Just an animal, Thorne.”
“It sounded like a big animal.”
“You’ve listened to too many of Robin’s bear stories. There’s nothing going to get us.”
Thomas awkwardly got to his feet. “You know, there’s no reason for us to be out here anymore.”
The Captain scoffed. “Running off too?”
Thomas stomped his foot. “I am not. It’s just pointless for us to be here. We only came to keep Alison company.”
“You only came for that. Patrick and I are real men who enjoy the thrill of sleeping rough, as it were.”
“There’s a built in groundsheet, mate, it’s not exactly rough.”
“Well you know what I meant.”
An animal cry interrupted their argument. It was a wretched sound; prey succumbing to predator. And it was uncomfortably near.
“You know, if animals can see us maybe…”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Patrick.”
“I’m leaving!” Thomas cried. “I don’t care if you follow!” But he hesitated outside the canvas a moment before going.
Pat cleared his throat. “You know, maybe we ought to go check on the others. Alison and Mike are still outside. They could need our help.”
“You know, you’re quite right, Patrick,” the Captain said quickly. “No man left behind and all that.”
Without any more discussion the two darted up and back towards the house, quickly catching up with Thomas. A sharp look told him to keep his mouth shut.
They joined the rest, all asleep except for Kitty who sat up staring into the middle distance.
“Alright Kitty?” Pat whispered.
“I’ve decided to stay up all night long,” she replied without looking up at them or blinking.
“Er, okay then.” Pat found an empty spot and lay on his side. He settled in comfortably. Mike’s tent, being closer to the house and in the open field, was not plagued by the rustling of wind in dead branches or the night-stalking of animals. Any other sound was drowned out by the easy breathing of the others, and Pat was asleep near instantly.
The Captain laid down as well, still rigidly on his back with his swagger stick resting on his stomach. Thomas settled next to him. “You were scared too,” he whispered.
“You were.” His eyes were closed, but the Captain could still sense the smile on Thomas’s lips. Thomas shuffled a little closer and pressed his cold nose into the Captain’s neck. The Captain allowed himself to briefly rest his hand on Thomas’s arm.
Slowly, Thomas’s breathing evened out and when the Captain was certain he was asleep he whispered back, “Wasn’t.”
Obsessed with how they all moved into Mike's tent after Alison left.
Chapter 9: News
“I order you to touch re-do right now,” the Captain barked.
Julian waved his arms in agitation. “I need a break! I’ve been at it all night!”
“Damn your eyes! And damn your finger as well! News could come any second!”
“I know that, Thomas,” Julian snapped. “But I can’t touch it when I’m too tired.”
Kitty began to wail. She had been off and on for hours; one moment joyous and giggling and the next convinced the worst had happened. The worst, in her mind, had been getting worse as the evening progressed. She had first cried that Alison wouldn’t like her anymore, and now she was terrified that the entire hospital had caught fire.
Mary winced at the thought of a fire, a puff of black smoke rising above her. “Oh, I do wish theys had stayed home.”
Fanny nodded. “Every Button has been born right in this house for centuries.” But it was not the disgrace that upset her; she too kept hounding Julian to refresh the email open on the laptop and paced the room.
Alison had been calm when they left. She held a hand on her lower back as Mike dashed around her, grabbing bags. “It’s time, guys. We’re leaving now. Mike will email you updates, I promise. And he promises, right Mike?”
“What?” Mike paused, his coat half on and the ready-bag half open in one hand and his phone in the other. His eyes were wide, sweat already gathering on his forehead.
“You’ll email them.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll email the ghosts before I even tell Mum.”
“This is not the time for sarcasm,” the Captain snapped.
Alison ignored them both and opened the laptop. “Julian just needs to press a key every now and then so it doesn’t turn off, okay?”
“Did you hear that? You are crucial to this mission, do not drop the ball,” the Captain said.
Julian wiggled his finger. “You can count on me.”
Alison gave him a tight smile. She made her way to the door, but suddenly gasped, reaching out to steady herself. Her arm waved through Thomas who was at her side.
“I’m sorry, fair Alison!” he cried. “If only I could be the strength you need!”
Mike rushed up and held her arm as Alison doubled, gritting her teeth against the pain.
Twelve hours had since passed.
“I was a nervous wreck when Carol had Daley,” Pat said with an awkward laugh. He had told the story twice already that evening. “Pacing around the waiting room. World Cup was on the tv but I couldn’t pay attention to five minutes of it. And then when they let me in to see them, nearly fainted!”
“I was in Belarus when Rachel was born,” Julian said quietly. “Never really regretted it until after I… you know.”
“She’ll be fine,” Fanny said firmly.
“She shoulds be at homes,” Mary repeated. “I did help for dozens of babies being borns, and naught but three ever died before their sixth month.”
“The doctors know what they’re doing,” Pat said.
“Tosh and flops! What do doctors know if they did never have a babe in them.”
“Will you just cease this chatter and touch re-do!”
“Fine, fine.” Julian got into his usual stance of wide spread legs and gripping his wrist. He had gotten much better at typing in the years since Alison’s arrival, but after being on call for so long he was phasing through more often than not. He grunted and groaned with effort but finally was able to connect.
A new message from mcooper100 appeared. The ghosts all began shouting and demanding Julian open it while he continued his moaning.
Baby born!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Alison ok!! Little girl!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Attached was a photo – the small thing wrapped snugly in a white and pink striped blanket. She had a tuft of dark hair still wet and sticking to her forehead. Her eyes were shut and mouth open in a cry. One little hand jutted out of the blanket, and Julian reached out and pressed his own finger to it.
Chapter 10: Wait
He was gone now. Everyone was gone now.
Robin stood partly behind a tree watching the living. It was pointless to hide, but it comforted him; being so exposed made the hair on his arms raise. A little girl ran across the field, dodging the rows of vegetation the people had started planting in rows. It was so different from when he’d been alive, yet it hardly seemed much time had passed. But he didn’t know these people now.
When he first became a spirit, he followed his family and watched as the children had children. He ached to hold the little babes or show the toddling ones how to make a sound with a reed or show the almost-men how to throw a spear. When someone died, he cried with them, tried to touch the items they prepared for the burial. Then he wished that the person would stay. Usually they did not. He watched the blast of light take the smoke-image away and stood on tip toes as if hoping it would take him up too. It never did.
Occasionally, someone would stick around and Robin finally had someone to talk to. Try to at least. It was hard to keep up with the language when you had no one to speak to for practice. Even without words, though, companionship was nice. Someone to see always as the living moved where they could not follow or grew old and died and were replaced with new faces. Someone to touch – just to grasp a hand or lay with to sleep. Robin had never slept without another body against his until he died.
Stan had stayed for the longest. His words were similar to Robin, and soon they melded their languages together and were able to speak freely. He stayed for many season cycles; Robin was hopeful that he would stay forever with him (or selfishly, that Robin would depart first). But it was not so. Stan, like the others, found the burst of light and was taken with it.
Why Robin could not prompt the light himself he didn’t know. He tried so hard to conjure it but to no avail.
The little girl was followed by a boy; they both laughed as they ran and jumped around the field. They drifted to Robin’s tree and began climbing. They spoke, but Robin had not met a ghost of their speech yet and could not fully understand them. So many new people had come and brought new words with them so quickly.
The boy reached the top of the tree and hooked his knees over a branch to hang upside down. The little girl struggled to meet him, her arms too short to reach the next hold. Then – a burst of determination made her leap for it and her fingers grazed the bark before she fell to the ground. The boy began to shout, clambering out of the tree and running to the made-cave they slept in. Robin knelt by the girl and held his hand out above her head, as if to stroke her hair. He hoped she would not join him. It was always a sad thing when the young ones did. The last time, a girl about her age, she cried for five moons. Later, when her family left and she couldn’t go with them she cried again for two seasons. Robin would hold her in those times. She had been frightened of him at first, but by then Robin was carrying her on his back most places and always slept with her curled against his side. When she left in the light, Robin had been glad for her, but wept for her loss.
The girl took a sharp intake of breath and began to scream. Robin tried to hush her, but found that he still went through her and she was looking beyond him. Not dead.
A man came running out and scooped her up, carrying her away. The sound drifted off with them and Robin was alone again.
He didn’t want to watch the setting of bones; couldn’t stomach it. He did not think she would die from it. He would wait until the next day to check her, and wait seasons more for another to join him.
Chapter 11: Cry
Beatrice stared with wide eyes; the world seemed to go in slow motion. Her curls bounced along her shoulders as she whipped around, her blue ribbon drifting behind her. Thomas took in a very deep breath and began to scream.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry!” Beatrice begged.
The palms of his hands and his right knee were bloodied and dirty. His trouser knee was ripped and already the blue fabric was staining brown. He held his palms up helplessly towards Beatrice as tears fell down his ruddy cheeks.
“Shush, shush!” Beatrice knelt before him and blew on his hands. It did not quell him so she grasped his wrists and began harshly rubbing the dirt off the wounds.
“Mama!” Thomas cried.
“No, shush! Don’t tell, it was only an accident, Thomas, I didn’t mean it!”
Beatrice put her hand over his mouth. “I’ll let you swat me if you don’t tell! I’ll let you have my new parchment, and I’ll give you half my potatoes!”
Thomas gulped his tears. He really did want her parchment. She had been gifted a new sheaf and he had fallen in love with the texture and smell. He wanted to make his loops and curls of ink on them, but Beatrice had said he was too young for such fine paper and he would only ruin it with his awful penmanship.
“Is it a deal?”
Thomas sniffed. His skin still burned and he did want mother, but the parchment beckoned stronger. “Yes.” Beatrice gave him a hug to seal it.
Later when they went back inside for tea, Mother saw his torn trousers and stains where he had wiped his hands. “Oh my darling! What’s happened?” She ushered him over and he obliged in climbing into her lap to be cuddled and kissed.
“I fell,” he said.
Mother kissed his hair and cupped his cheek. “You must be more careful, darling boy; I couldn’t bear you getting hurt. Don’t play such rough games again.”
“Yes, Mother.” He glanced back at Beatrice, a small smile creeping onto his face.
Beatrice stuck her tongue out at him.
The Captain’s gloom irked Thomas. Every day the Captain walked the halls doing his perimeter checks and humming disapprovingly at the living. He had found an ally in Fanny on that front; the two were often together yelling into ears that could never hear them about the disgrace of a place setting or unlatched ground floor window.
Thomas tried to avoid them both, but however big the house seemed to an outsider, to those who had to spend every second trapped within, it was beastly hard to not run into someone you didn’t want to see. It was especially difficult when one party didn’t seem to know to avoid the other.
“Excuse me, sir, this is my sighing spot,” Thomas said when he found the Captain at his window seat.
Thomas sighed. “This is where I come to compose my verse. The view offers inspiration.”
The Captain shuffled over in the seat. He cast his gaze back out the window. Thomas craned his neck to see that some friends of the Buttons had come and began a lightly spirited game of cricket on the lawn.
“Did you play?” the Captain asked.
“It had not yet been a sport,” Thomas said. He had watched a few moments of games, but never enough to understand the rules. “Robin likes it.” He nodded towards the window; Robin excitedly raced along the men playing, sometimes pretending to throw the ball.
“I was quite good in my day.”
Ah, so it was time for him to be maudlin. Well, he could pick his own spot for that.
“If you don’t mind, sir.”
“Hmm? Oh yes, join me if you like.”
Thomas furrowed his brows and set his mouth in a petulant pout. But the effect was lost on the Captain who did glance his way. Thomas sat himself heavily on the bench with a grand sigh. The Captain said nothing; Thomas supposed that if he were quiet, it wouldn’t be terrible to share the seat just the once. He set his sight past the game and watched the window ruffle the tops of some pine trees at the edge of the property.
“Oh! Jolly good play there! Did you see?”
“I wasn’t watching,” Thomas snapped.
The Captain cut him off before Thomas could comment further. “Now look at that one.” He gestured with his stick. “He’s got a strong arm, that bowler. Managed to get in a good beamer.”
“I don’t –”
“Don’t know the rules, do you?”
“No, as I said.”
“Not to worry, I can explain. See there, that’s what’s called the wicket. It’s made up of the stumps, the stakes you see, and the bails on top. Now the aim of the bowler is to get the batsman out before he can score a run. There are a number of ways to do so, the most obvious being to hit the wicket behind the batsman. If the batsman succeeds in hitting the ball, the bowler’s team can…”
Thomas allowed the speech to roll over him. He had no interest in knowing how to play a sport he would never physically be able to play, and had never had much interest in sport to begin with. He couldn’t bring himself to interrupt, however, as it was the most lively he had seen the Captain since his death a few years ago. He hummed and nodded when he sensed it was appropriate but otherwise let his mind wander back to his art.
Though, funnily, he could not keep his focus on the treetops or garden whatsoever. His gaze kept falling back on the Captain. Natural, of course, when he was listening to the man speak. But Thomas found himself watching the lines of the Captain’s jaw and cheek as he spoke. The creases of his eyes no longer denoted age, but rather excitement; his moustache, usually fusty, now twitched with delight; and his mouth did not turn downward in disapproval or pining for life, but widened in a smile as declared a play to be excellent or dove into another set of rules. It was, perhaps, not a lost cause to write poetry that day.
Ben owes me financial compensation for the psychological damage of having to look up the rules of cricket
Chapter 13: Wish
There was finally (barely) enough money in the budget to fix the insulation in the attic, so Alison and Mike had to drag everything up there and shove it into various rooms for two weeks. The boxes were coated in so much dust (and cobwebs) that they went through non-drowsy antihistamines at an alarming rate. It was too much to go through the boxes, but they did appraise the larger pieces to see if they could be salvaged. There was a nice chair that needed reupholstering, an end table, and a brass telescope.
After a bit of vinegar and scrubbing with an old toothbrush, the telescope was actually in good condition. Mike set it in the library next to the globe and thought nothing more of it.
The ghosts weren’t too interested in it either. Most of them had seen it around before and besides, Mike had pointed it the wrong way, so unless they wanted an up-close examination of the carpet it was useless to them. It was largely ignored.
Until Robin took notice of it.
The telescope, though functional, was never more than ornamentation in the house, and so Robin never paid much attention to it or knew what it did. Then Alison shouted at him (unnecessarily) to be careful when he walked backwards into and through it.
“Sorry, Robin. I don’t want anything to happen to it. It’s actually pretty cool.” She adjusted it so it pointed towards the window.
“Is just big sticks,” Robin grumbled.
“It’s a telescope. You can see through it. Give it a try.”
Robin hummed, unimpressed, but crouched down to peer through the eye piece. He jerked his head back immediately. “What’s that?”
Alison looked herself. “It’s a tree.”
Robin looked out the window and then back through the telescope. “But tree over there!”
“Yeah. It makes things look closer. Usually, you’d use it at night to look at the sky. Like the stars and the moon.”
“Yeah.” Alison smiled slightly. She didn’t like to indulge the ghosts because they became too demanding, but she did have a soft spot for Robin and the moon. “I’ll bring it outside tonight, if you like.”
Robin beamed. “See moonah up close.”
Mike was the one who brought it outside, in the end. It was solid brass and awkwardly big, and Alison had to give up after 20 feet out of the library.
“Why do they always want us to move heavy shit,” Mike grumbled after he got in place. He turned it so it was pointing to the ground. Alison fixed it and Mike said, “Ah, why’s that?”
“Tell him move,” Robin said. He side-stepped and shuffled around trying to get close to the telescope without getting walked through.
“Alright, Mike, Robin wants to see. I’ll adjust it, tell me when you can see it.”
Robin nodded and nearly fell over when he dropped down and phased through the eyepiece when he eagerly shoved his face towards it. “Left a bit. Left a bit. There!” His expression was mostly obscured in his position, but Alison saw his mouth open in soft amazement and his hands reach up as if wanting to grasp the telescope. Twenty minutes passed before he sat back on his heels. “Is…” He scrubbed his face. “Beautiful.”
Alison smiled. She looked up herself to see the three quarter moon glowing against the dark blue sky. Even in the country they didn’t get many stars out, but certainly more than she had ever seen in her life before Button House. She wished she could see the sky as Robin had known it - bright, speckled, strewn with white and purple like a streak of glitter. A shooting star arced across the sky low on the horizon; Alison gasped. “Robin, did you see that! You have to make a wish.”
“Don’t need one.”
Chapter 14: Boo!
It wasn’t their place to judge. That’s what Alison and Mike kept telling themselves, at least. If a couple wanted a little personal flair at their wedding, it was fine. They weren’t going to turn down the check just because of a little eccentricities.
This wedding was definitely testing that rule.
“And… they’re sure they want him there for the whole reception?”
“They are.” The wedding planner gave them a tight smile. It wasn’t his place to judge, either.
“It could be fun,” Mike said. Alison and Martin both shook their heads.
The requests kept getting more bizarre as the wedding day got closer. Over the last 8 months or so, they had gotten a good stash of wedding decorations to reuse, but none of it was any use this time. They had to scour the internet and party supply stores to get everything for the theme.
The week before the wedding, they got out all the purchases and began unwrapping and laying it all out together for the first time. It was horrendous. Striped tablecloths, bright primary blue, red, and yellow plates, clearly plastic flowers to be arranged in the dozens of top hats as centerpieces. There wasn’t a single thing that didn’t make Alison cringe as she tallied it all up for the invoice.
“Oooh what’s all this?” Pat said as he came into the kitchen. “I didn’t know you were doing a party before the wedding. Business is getting busy!”
“There’s no party. This is all for the wedding.”
Alison pressed her lips into a straight line. She didn’t want to have to explain any of this to the ghosts, nor listen to their criticism of it. “This is what they want.”
Pat darted his eyes over each piece, his face contorted in confusion and disgust. Then, he broke into a wide smile. “You’re kidding. There is a kids’ party.”
“Alison, Alison, would you write down this verse for me – what in God’s name is all this?”
“Kids’ party,” Pat said.
“I’m sorry, Pat. There’s no party. This is for the wedding.”
“You cannot be serious,” Thomas said.
“It’s what they want.” It was all she could say.
“Ghosts don’t like it either?” Mike asked as he brought in the helium tank. He was actually looking forward to the wedding. Alison wouldn’t be surprised if he spent the whole evening with a balloon hat.
“Has Fanny and the Captain seen this yet?”
“No, and I’d like them not to see it until the last minute. The less I have to hear it –”
“Alison! No, no, no!” Fanny rushed into the room, an slyly grinning Julian right behind her. He must have popped in, seen the mess, and gone straight to get her.
“Oh, you bastard,” Alison said to him.
“This will not stand. We cannot have such, such…! Well the mind reels to even find a word to describe it!”
“Right!” Alison slammed her hand on the table. The glasses rattled. “These are the decorations. This is what the couple want. So this Saturday, we are having a clown themed wedding, whether you lot like it or not. It’s not our place to judge.”
“It’s certainly my place,” Fanny said. “This house will be the laughing stock of the whole county!”
But Alison would not budge, despite Fanny and the Captain (and Thomas, and Pat, and Mary) begging her to change it.
The couple made their grand entrance to the reception on unicycles through the balloon arch that Mike had spent three hours putting together. The cake was rigged to spray them with water when they made the first slice. Boo the Clown performed through the whole meal and disco (Mike found him great and even took his business card; Alison employed the Captain to alert her if he was coming her way so she could hide).
It was tacky and loud and Alison took four paracetamol before the end of the night, but the couple looked genuinely happy and in love.
“It was perfect,” the bride said before she left. “I know it’s unconventional, but it’s us.”
Alison smiled. “We were happy to do it.” Once they had made their exit she said to Mike, “We are never agreeing to a themed wedding before knowing the theme again.”
At that moment, Robin and the clown both snuck behind her and shouted, “Boo!”