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HomeSupernatural StoriesBlack Dog - Chapter 13

Black Dog - Chapter 13

Verity found Imogen in the kitchen, standing and staring in bewilderment at the kettle. The ghost sat carefully down at the table, folded her arms, put her head down, and burst into tears.

Verity's first impulse was to put her arms around the old woman's shoulders, but of course, she couldn't. Instead, she stood there awkwardly at a distance. For the most part, Imogen had coasted through the first few days after her death, taking in new revelations with a sense of academic curiosity. Whatever she wanted to know, she had only to ask Verity or one of her fellow ghosts, who'd been so welcoming that it had considerably softened the blow of losing those of her friends still in the land of the living.

"Imogen?" said Verity, quietly. "What's the matter?"

The ghost gave a choked laugh, muffled by the sleeves of her thick woolly cardigan. "It's nothing, dear. You run along now, I'm just a silly old woman."

"Don't be ridiculous," said Verity sternly. "If there's anything you need to talk about, I'm right here."

"Oh, I don't want to distract you from your own pursuits. You should be enjoying life."

Verity sniffed disdainfully. "Life?" She dragged a chair up to the table. In the quiet of the house, she heard footsteps pad along the corridor upstairs, and then the burble and rush of a tap running. Olivia was doing precisely what Verity would have wanted to do under the circumstances, and was taking a long hot soak in the bath. She would likely stay up there, locked in solitude, until the water grew uncomfortably cold. It was a shame Imogen could no longer benefit from such simple comforts.

Verity found it an effort to look directly at a ghost for long, or to see details clearly. It started to hurt the eyes after a while, so she hadn't tried too hard for a long time, but Imogen appeared more out of focus than usual. She sniffled occasionally, her head still bowed.

"I want a cup of chamomile tea," the ghost whined into her folded arms.

"I can't help you there," said Verity, as gently as she could.

"I know," said Imogen quietly, and slumped even further in defeat. She looked up, every one of her eighty-three years suddenly and clearly visible in the lines of her despairing face. "What am I going to do with myself? For - well, I was about to say 'the rest of my life'. You know what I mean. I love this house and I want to stay. I can't touch anything. I can't cook, I can't go out and potter about in the garden, I can't so much as pick up a book! I don't know if I belong here any more…" her voice trailed off into a whisper scarcely more than the wind whistling through the cracks in the window frame.

"Oh," said Verity, flatly. "That." She sat silent, contemplating her hands spread out in front of her on the tabletop. It might be the first time this topic of conversation had cropped up for Imogen, but not so for Verity. It hadn't grown any easier to deal with over time, either. The majority of ghosts made for poor company: sad, hopeless sorts of creatures, prone to wallowing in self-pity, in many cases didn't honestly want to be dragged out of the pit of their own misery. She hated it when ghosts moped about, banging on about unresolved problems that rarely had any plausible solutions, but she hated it, even more, when her new friends pulled themselves together, took stock and moved on. It always happened just as she got to really like them, and they left her behind without so much as a second thought.

A chip of her wine red nail polish was flaking away, and she picked at it single-mindedly. "Of course it's awkward sometimes, being dead and not having moved on. I can't speak from experience about the lack of a physical body, but you do get used to it, I can assure you. How long has Lady Jane been dead? Two hundred years, or is it more than that. She'll tell you it's not an insurmountable pain. You have friends here, and I suppose," she paused, aware that she was making quite a commitment with what she was about to offer, "I suppose I could always help out, until you get the hang of that poltergeist thing a bit more. Don't try to give me that butter-wouldn't-melt look: I saw you knock over the hatstand the other day when you were angry with Olivia for breaking that pretty plate, so I know you can do it. At the time, I had to blame it on a cat, and I don't think Olivia believed me at all. And I could read to you from that library of yours. Only a bit at a time, mind you, because my voice gets tired quickly. And I'm sure there are other things I could lend a hand with, if you like, so the practical side really isn't all that terrible."

She looked up from her nails. The ghost had regained some of her composure, and the moment seemed right to ask: "I just have one question. Only because it might help to know, not because I'm pressuring you to do anything about it, but why did you stay here after you died?" She didn't want to be responsible for putting any silly ideas in Imogen's head, but the question had been nagging at her, as it often did when she met ghosts. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want," she added, while secretly hoping Imogen would confide in her there and then. "It's often not an easy thing to talk about. Very personal business, more often than not."

Imogen looked for a moment as if she was about to speak, then cast her gaze down to her interlaced fingers. They were bony and thin-skinned, with knobbly arthritic joints, and her nails were talons, thick and long.

"Really," said Verity, I'd understand if you didn't want to share it. I won't be offended or anything."

"It's not that, dear. It's just," Imogen frowned deeply and looked away, "I don't quite know the reason myself. Does that make sense?"

"Mm." It was unusual for souls to linger after their deaths without good reason, or what they thought was a good reason. Verity tried to keep her suspicions to herself, and thought of the reasons other ghosts had for remaining in the mortal realms:

Lady Jane Lockwood spent most her time waiting in the churchyard, watching the road below for the return of her husband, and each night she paced the ancient boundaries of her land, never admitting defeat even when a wild and helpless hope was all she had left.

An earlier Lady Lockwood and her Lord had died at a time of some great turmoil in the family, and had lingered to keep a watchful eye on their descendants. They obviously felt that matters hadn't improved sufficiently for them to risk moving on just yet.

Some ghosts stayed behind to haunt certain individuals. Sometimes the victims of these hauntings deserved it, and sometimes they didn't, but either way, those ghosts didn't talk much to others of their kind.

Some ghosts were just afraid of what they might find in death, whether they believed they would go to Hell for some transgression, or they were atheists afraid to find an afterlife, or uncountable other reasons.

"I've led a good Christian life," said Imogen. "For the most part," she added reluctantly, not pausing long enough to give Verity a chance to ask questions. "And I had so many friends who, while I can't say for certain that they're in Heaven, they aren't here. When they died before me, I could at least take some comfort in the hope that I'd get to see them again in the afterlife. I honestly don't know why I haven't moved on yet. I'd rather hoped that you or one of the others might be able to shed some light on the situation."

I can't shed light on the situation when you're clearly hiding most of it from me, thought Verity. "Sorry," she said instead. "I'm afraid death doesn't come with this blinding white light and sudden knowledge of the meaning of life. We're all still just muddling through, hoping we're doing the right thing. Sorry," she said again.

"Oh. How depressing," said Imogen. Then she straightened up in her seat, giving Verity a curious look. "Do you know how to bake a cake?"

This caught Verity off guard. "It's been a while. I'm not that fond of cake personally, but yes, I could probably still manage it." Then it clicked. "This is about my offer to help you with things, isn't it?"

"Well don't volunteer for things you don't really want to do, that's all I can say."

Verity squirmed. "But, baking?"

Imogen wiped the last of the tears from her eyes, smiling weakly. "You did offer to help."

"All right, all right," Verity grumbled. "Next Saturday morning, before our guests arrive. There may as well be somebody around to eat the wretched thing." She glanced at the clock, and pushed her chair back with a squeal on the tiles. "I've just remembered, I said I'd -" How much did she want to tell Imogen, when there was no trust between them yet. "I'm going out, but I'll be back soon." She grabbed her coat and parasol and hurried out, pocketing the spare key on the way. She'd have to spend a lot more time with Imogen if she hoped to gain the ghost's confidence, and spending an hour or two in the kitchen would be a small price to pay if it helped her learn the truth and satisfy her curiosity. But not right now.




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