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Black Dog - Chapter 12

Olivia woke with her head pounding, her vision blurred as a dark shape loomed over her, sickly-sweet floral perfume stifling her. Voices washing in and out like waves crashing on the shore. Fragments of memory exploded in her aching head. An impulse came over her, to run and run until her legs gave out. Heart bounding, she threw herself out of bed, tearing at the sheets that tangled around her shins, and she crashed onto the floor when her legs gave way under her. She lay there, holding her breath as she tried to remember where she was and why she should run. A pale face, haloed in black curls, leaned down to peer at her, looking concerned.

"You're not going to be difficult, are you?" the girl asked.

The room tilted and shuddered as Olivia tried to get up and failed. Someone lifted her back onto the bed, held her in place there, and the girl leaned in again, saying "You need to rest."

Olivia didn't want to rest - the impulse to run still screaming in her muscles. She couldn't breathe. She fought harder, clawing at the noose tightening around her neck.

"I told you to take that collar off her!" someone shouted. "She's going to choke herself!"

"She's lying on the chain, it's wrapped around, I think..."

"Just get it off her!"

"But she might bite me!" the girl wailed.

"Lie still," growled a man's voice, much too close to Olivia's ear, the stench of dirty smoke enough to make her retch. "You'll only hurt yourself."

"I'm not going to hurt myself!" Olivia screamed, managing to break free one arm and claw at her throat. "I'm going to hurt you if you don't get off me!" The world-consuming rage coursing through her only burned hotter when she realised her threats were quite empty, but her futile struggles grew weaker. How cold his hands felt on her hot, dry skin…

"What's the matter with her?" demanded a woman's voice, distraught. "Grace said she'd be fine!"

"Lie still."

Gradually, Olivia's brain began to catch up with her body. Was she sick? Was she in hospital? She relented, forced herself to relax, and the band around her neck loosened enough that she could breathe.

"All right, I'm not going anywhere," she panted, disturbed when she heard the hoarseness of her voice. "Let go of me."

The man, who she supposed must be an orderly, stepped back to give her space, and she looked around blearily. It didn't look like any hospital she'd seen before. With effort, she was able to focus her eyes on the face of the girl at her bedside, an unnaturally pale girl with unruly black hair, her lips painted a dark shade of red, and her eyes a startlingly bright blue against black eyeliner.

"Well, somebody's excitable this morning," said the pale girl, angry at the fright Olivia must have given her. "Take the collar off," she said to the orderly. Except, of course, they weren't in a hospital, and the man wasn't an orderly, just a tall grim-faced stranger, whose hands were rough as he took the collar from around Olivia's neck.

"Now get out," said the girl, who seemed to be in charge. "Anyone can see you're scaring her, the poor thing."

"I'm not afraid of him." Olivia almost choked on the words, her throat dry and cracked.

The tall man sneered, and turned to the black-haired girl. "If you need me again -"

"I'll shout for you if she tries to get out of bed again, thank you Eli."

"Don't let her go anywhere."

Olivia looked around the room again: the bare floorboards, the torn and peeling floral wallpaper, the light of a winter's morning shining weakly through the tattered pastel blue curtains. The guest room at Auntie Imogen's house. She'd been decorating, hadn't she?

And then…

She couldn't make sense of the jumbled fragments of her memories.

"What happened to me?" she croaked. She tried to sit up, but couldn't summon the strength. Strange shadows and disturbances flitted at the edges of her vision.

"Calm down," said the black-haired girl, putting her hands on Olivia's. Jewellery jingled when she moved. "How are you feeling now? What do you remember?"

Olivia's chest tightened and she could feel her heart picking up pace again. Something bad had happened, she knew that much from the look of gentle concern on the stranger's face.

"What happened?"

She forced herself to pick over the shards and splinters of her memory. The funeral, her horrible Auntie Beryl, the emptiness of the house without Auntie Imogen.

This was her house, Auntie Imogen's final gift to her, and she latched onto that fact in the turmoil of her thoughts. What had happened to her, and what were these strangers doing in her house? She thought she recognised the girl's face, her black dress and cameo choker. Verity. Their meeting at the funeral came back to her in a rush. "What are you doing in my house?"

"Your house?"

"In a way, it is," said a new voice, and Olivia turned her head too quickly to look up, going dizzy again.

"You mean the will?" said Verity. "I'm not sure how much that counts for. I mean, I know it counts in the eyes of the law, but..."

"I really don't want to go into all that again right now, Verity dear. I just want to see Olivia." She came closer and sat down beside Olivia on the edge of the bed. Olivia couldn't quite bring the old lady's features into focus, and the effect was unsettling, especially when Olivia realised she no longer had trouble focusing on anything else.

"How are you feeling, love?" asked the old lady.

"I'm all right, I think," said Olivia, without much confidence. "Feeling a bit fragile. What happened?"

Verity and the old lady exchanged a look.

"There was an accident," said the old lady. "You were badly hurt, but you're getting better now."

She bore an incredible resemblance to Auntie Imogen. They could have been twins and she must be family, but Olivia didn't find that reassuring in itself.

"I'm sorry, you're going to think I'm awful. You look so familiar, can you remind me of your name?"

The old lady looked hurt. "It's me, Libby. Do I look so different?" she asked Verity.

"This has to come as something of a shock to her, Imogen," said Verity. "She took it badly enough when I passed your message along. And I did warn you she wouldn't appreciate it, didn't I?"

The elderly woman rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Yes dear, you did indeed."

"And she didn't appreciate it, did she?" Verity persisted.

"Auntie Imogen?" Olivia realised she was shaking, and took a deep breath in an effort to compose herself. "Auntie Imogen died." She'd been to the funeral.

"Yes," said the old lady, gently. Olivia could see the floral pattern of the wallpaper faintly through her. "I died, but I didn't move on. I'm a ghost, Libby."

"We know it's difficult to come to terms with," said Verity. "Most of the living don't believe in ghosts, but that's only because they can't see them."

Olivia could feel her mind crunching into gear. "But then you can't be a ghost, because I can see you. And she just said the living can't see ghosts, so there."

The old lady's face fell. "Oh…"

"That's the other thing," said Verity, although she didn't then go on to explain what she meant.

"What 'other thing'?" Olivia demanded. A tall, dark figure appeared at the doorway at the sound of her raised voice, and stayed there, silent and watchful. It was the man from the graveyard, and he wasn't about to let his little black-haired girl come to any harm. While the house might belong to Olivia on paper, she found herself in no position to take charge. Reluctantly she leaned back against the pillows. Best to find out what was really going on, so she could act accordingly.

Verity sat quietly, picking her nails and looking as if she was searching for a tactful way of saying something. She must have given up, because the next words out of her mouth were, "You're dead, too. That's why you can see Imogen."

"Dead?" Olivia laughed, too loudly. "That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard." She held up her hands in front of her, where they looked as live and as solid as ever, not like the supposed ghost. Then she wiggled her fingers to show Verity that she was definitely not dead. How could a dead heart beat so hard and so fast? The fear was coming back a towering wave of it that would break over her any moment. "What are you talking about 'dead'? What do you mean?"

"I mean you stopped breathing, your heart stopped and you died, you silly girl," said Verity. "And then you stayed dead for… oh, somewhere around twenty-four hours, all told."

"Twenty four hours? That's not possible. There'd be brain damage or something after that long."

Verity gave her a disdainful, feline look. "Hmm, yes. It's beginning to look that way, isn't it?"

"Verity!" the old lady scolded. "That sort of comment is quite uncalled for."

"Sorry," said Verity, "I can hardly remember what it was like when I met my first ghost, it's been such a long time."

"You should be more sensitive. I'm sure this is a very difficult experience for poor Libby." The old lady went to clasp Olivia's hand in hers, but Olivia only felt a sudden chill as the ethereal hand rushed right through her flesh. She flinched and pulled away.

"Oh," said the ghost, looking down at her hands in dismay. "I'm sorry. I'm not used to this either, dear. I tried to get through to you before, but I must say you were rather slow to catch on."

Olivia thought of the book that had appeared in the hall, seemingly out of thin air. She stared hard at the blurred but familiar old face. "Auntie Imogen? Is it really you?"

For a moment, Auntie Imogen looked as if she might come back with a sharp answer.

"Yes, love, it really is me. I know it's hard to believe. I could scarcely believe it myself at the funeral, knowing it was me in that box…" Her voice trailed off, and she looked down again at her hands folded in her lap. "And there's more yet. You must promise to keep an open mind, now. Please? For me?" She took Olivia's stunned silence as a cue to continue. "Where to begin. Do you remember what happened the night you…"

"Died?" said Olivia, finding it extremely difficult to keep an open mind, especially with the thundering headache.

"That's right. This is..."

"Wait!" Vague memories loomed out of the darkness of the past few days, coming forth now like shady witnesses. "I remember a dog. That man in the churchyard with the big dog. Yes, you." She glared at the tall man still waiting in the doorway. "That dog of yours, which you obviously can't keep under control. It came at me and.." Her stomach flipped over as her final memories of that night unravelled. She turned back to Verity and Auntie Imogen. "And I thought, well, I can run pretty fast. I t wasn't that far, I almost made it to the gate. I didn't know a dog could run so fast."

"That's it," said Verity. "He's not a dog, he's a werewolf."

"Oh, so now you're telling me werewolves are real, too?" Olivia felt she was being expected to have rather too much faith in this strange girl.

"Don't you even know your own family history?" asked Verity. "The Curse of the Black Dog?"

"Of course I know about that, but it's not true. It's not even about werewolves."

"It's not?"

"No! Not like the usual werewolf legends, anyway." Olivia had developed her own theory on the Black Dog as metaphor for the inevitability of suffering, but she didn't feel up to explaining it.

"Define 'usual' when it comes to mythology," said Verity. "Besides, you're a werewolf too. You can't very well not believe in your own existence."

Olivia laughed.

"I'm a werewolf?"

"Don't be so dim, Olivia! Giles literally ripped your throat out!"

"Verity, please!" Imogen protested.

"Of course you're infected!"

Olivia's hands went automatically to her throat, finding scar tissue that had most certainly not been there before. A thought flashed up - a memory? - of powerful wolfish jaws tearing into her flesh, before her mind stalled.

"Giles? What kind of name is that for a werewolf?"

Verity gave a scornful bark of a laugh.

"Obviously his parents didn't plan for their son to become a werewolf when they named him. They probably expected him to grow up to be an accountant or a greengrocer or something. My God! You really are stupid."

"You're winding me up!" Olivia's voice grew louder, angrier, but she didn't care any more. "I don't know how you've arranged all this, and I don't want to know what enjoyment you get out of pulling this sort of prank, but it's not funny!"

"Oh for the love of... How do you think we could have set all this up?" Verity demanded. "How long is it going to take to get it through your thick skull that this is real? I had other plans for this week, you know."

"So get out!"

Olivia!" Auntie Imogen scolded. "Verity's a friend of mine, and I'd thank you to mind your manners."

At her aunt's stern tone, an apology almost bubbled up unbidden from Olivia's throat, but she remembered just in time that she was no longer a child, no longer a guest in this house.

"And him?" she said instead.

Auntie Imogen hesitated, glancing guiltily at the man Verity had called Eli.

"Yes, and him."

Verity sat with her arms tightly crossed and her blue eyes narrowed peevishly.

"I'm waiting," she said.

"For what?"

"My apology."

"Don't hold your breath."

Auntie Imogen gave up.

"I think Olivia's still rather tired, dear. She's usually a very nice, polite young lady," she said pointedly. "Perhaps we should leave her alone to get some rest. I'm sure we've given her a lot to think about." Her expression softened as she gazed at Olivia. "We've put the hot water on for you, love, so you can have a bath if you like." And with that she drifted off through the wall. Verity gave the invalid a thoroughly dirty look, and then flounced off, leaving her in peace.

Olivia, however, was in no mood to rest. Testing her feet more carefully this time, she got up. Before she even reached the door, she had to sit down, exhausted and aching as if she'd run a marathon. As she sat there on the floor, she noticed something sticking out from under her fingernail. Grimacing in squeamishness and pain, she pulled out a long raw sliver of wood that had been sitting just under the nail. Then she stared in suspicion at the long deep grooves in the bare wood of the door frame. How on earth could she have done that and forgotten it? She wouldn't think about it. She couldn't think about it. She checked the hallway for anybody who might still be lurking there, and limped to the bathroom. She ran a deep hot bath, letting the sound of running water drown out her thoughts.

Just as she was about to get in, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. The new scar was pale and silvery where the muscles of her right shoulder met her neck, looking like an old scar that simply hadn't been there last time she looked. She poked and prodded at it, finding it sensitive and decidedly real. She thought of the dog in the churchyard, how huge it had been, how furious.

She said it aloud, tasting the word: "Werewolf?" she could hear the disbelief in her own voice. It sounded a vaguely silly word, but there was the scar: just right to fit the shape of the big dog's jaws slamming closed. "Oh, God," she murmured. What if Verity had been telling the truth after all?

 

 

 

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