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Black Dog - Chapter 14

Olivia wallowed in the rapidly cooling bathwater, slipping slowly back towards sleep, knowing that she shouldn't sleep in the tub but too tired to care. Her thoughts tumbled like autumn leaves, in gusts and drifts of vivid-coloured dreamlike images. Downstairs, she could hear doors open and close, people coming and going. It sounded so normal, so every day. She'd listened to the distorted sounds of conversation from the kitchen below - Auntie Imogen's comfortingly familiar voice and Verity's higher pitch - but the words had been just out of reach, and she'd allowed them to slip away.

Gradually, she became aware of another voice, singing. She didn't recognise the song, something melancholy and gentle, but the singer had a pleasant enough voice. In Olivia's half-dreaming state, it seemed to be coming from above her, and that in itself was enough to tell her that it was a dream, because she knew there were no rooms directly above the bathroom.

She slipped down a little deeper, and cold water rushed up her nose. She flailed and splashed to get her head above water again, then sat in the bath scowling as her nose dribbled unpleasantly. The music had stopped and she could hear conversation in the kitchen again. When Auntie Imogen began to raise her voice, Olivia perked up, curious. She could almost make out what they were saying.

"No! I won't allow it!" Auntie Imogen shouted, her words quite distinct.

The voice that answered was low, male, possibly that of the stranger Eli. Olivia couldn't make out his side of the exchange.

"I'll have you know," Imogen was still loud and clear, "I'm a hair's breadth away from telling Olivia exactly what you just said, and then leaving you to explain everything to her. Is that what you want?"

Olivia didn't hear his reply.

"Well then," said Auntie Imogen, and nothing more.

Olivia sat in the cold water, rigid and silent as a statue, straining her ears for footfalls on the stairs, before she remembered that Auntie Imogen's steps no longer made a sound. The bang of the front door made her jump, and she heard Verity call out a greeting.

Climbing out of the bath, Olivia threw on her old flannel dressing gown and stomped off to get dressed. By the time she went downstairs, Verity was alone in the kitchen, making sandwiches.

"Hello," said Verity, smiling as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. "Do you feel any better for that?"

"I feel fine," said Olivia, "considering I'm dead, or a werewolf, or some nonsense. You need to tell me what's going on here."

"I'd love to," said Verity, flashing a brilliant, pointy-toothed smile. "If you'll just wash those dishes, then you and I and Eli can sit down for some sandwiches and a nice cup of tea." She frowned. "If he's still home, that is."

"Eli?" Olivia pounced on the name, completely missing the comment about home, "He's still here, is he?" she demanded, trying her best to look stern. "Who is he, anyway?"

"He's a friend of Imogen's. Don't just stand there: help me out and wash those dishes."

Olivia stood her ground. "This is supposed to be my house, in case you'd forgotten." It hurt to say, it didn't feel true, but who did this strange girl think she was?

Verity gave a mock growl and waved the bread knife admonishingly. "Just wash the dishes, Olivia, and stop making those faces at me. I've done you and your auntie a big favour, keeping her busy, planning a little get-together for the weekend. A chance for you to get to know your neighbours. And as for 'your' house -"

"She left it to me!"

"Well she didn't realise she'd be staying here after she died, did she? It's her house, Olivia. She can do what she likes with it."

"But she's dead!"

Verity stopped chopping, her knife paused and gleaming above a tomato. She glared at Olivia, her nostrils flaring. "Your point being?"

All of a sudden, the house had gone very quiet again. "Nothing," said Olivia, looking at the floor. The bigger part of her already wanted to just accept it and back down. This was Auntie Imogen's house and these were Auntie Imogen's friends. Wasn't it only natural and proper that they come to visit her? Olivia herself had been unwell, and they'd helped take care of her when she'd been too sick and delirious to even know where she was.

Slowly, Verity resumed her chopping.

"It's just that on paper this house is mine," Olivia blurted out. "Legally speaking…" Her voice trailed off again as she watched the knife flash down repeatedly on the chopping board. It seemed unwise to provoke Verity, but Olivia had to say her piece. "So I think I've got a right to have some say in what goes on here. I know it's her house, and I never wanted to take it from her. Just don't treat me as if I have no right to it, because, in the real world, this house is my property and my responsibility now." It was very much in the vein of what she'd said to her parents, not so long ago.

Verity sniffed. "All right, all right. I get the point. I'm sure Imogen appreciates your generosity in allowing her to stay in her own house."

"I couldn't very well kick her out, could I? Even if I wanted to, which I don't. I mean, what could I do? Get a priest in to do an exorcism?"

"You keep that priest out of this!" Verity snapped, slamming the knife down on the counter and glaring, her eyes cold and hard.

Olivia had backed up two steps before she could stop herself. "I'll do what I like," she said, but without conviction. "Maybe I will talk to Reverend Milton."

Verity laughed, a nasty laugh, cold and sharp as that knife. "Oh, you just wait 'til you see him next. You'll see him with new eyes now you're dead."

"Technically dead," said Olivia, even as she worried what on earth Verity was talking about, "and I've only got your word for that. I don't even feel unwell. In fact, I think I'll go for a walk."

"If you think you'll get any help from that vicar, you're barking up the wrong tree!" Verity called after her. "Woof woof!" And she giggled as Olivia stormed out into the garden, slamming the door behind her.

*

Olivia, desperately needing to see a friendly face, remembered at once Reverend Milton's offer of a sympathetic ear, but she couldn't forget Verity's ominous comments. The new job at the library didn't start until Monday, so Olivia found herself doing nothing not immediately demanded of her, in the hopes that all this was nothing more than an unpleasant and long-winded dream. On Saturday morning, not long before noon, she put on her dressing gown over her nightdress, fetched herself a bowl of cornflakes and slumped on the sofa. Eli was there in the armchair by the French windows, reading a newspaper. Auntie Imogen's friend, Olivia reminded herself. Well, he might be Auntie Imogen's friend, but he gave Olivia the creeps, with the impossibly quiet way he walked, the way he watched her.

She was tempted to retreat to the ruined shell of the guest bedroom, but instead, she turned on the radio, hoping for something to occupy her mind, to keep submerged the fears and hysteria lurking below the surface, to dull the sharp edge of anxiety and keep her thoughts in safe soft torpor. She fiddled with the dials, but every station crackled and swerved away from her fingers, music, and voices lost in the storm of static. Olivia gave up. The house always seemed so quiet since the accident: the phone never rang; the television set sat dark and voiceless in the corner, and even the clocks stopped, no matter how often Olivia tried winding them.

She sat back down on the sofa with her breakfast, listlessly poking the orange mush with her spoon. The new old scar at her shoulder was uncomfortable - not painful, but sitting at the edges of her awareness. "Am I really dead?" she asked at last.

"Wish it was that simple," Eli muttered, not looking up from his newspaper.

"I mean," she thought of Auntie Beryl, "have I gone to hell?" It wasn't hell as she would have pictured, but the prospect of an eternity of days like these - the bleak pointless routine with strange and awful people - certainly made her miserable enough. And by all accounts, she had died.

"You don't know what it is to suffer," said a morose voice from the doorway, and Olivia spilled half her breakfast into her lap.

"Excuse me? What?" She looked up to see a fat, dour-faced man come in from the hallway. "Do I know you?" Olivia asked pointedly. She was sick to death of uninvited guests in what she had thought for a while was her house.

The fat man dropped a bundle of newspapers into Eli's lap. "Jim Fletcher. Pleased to meet you," he said, although he couldn't have sounded much less pleased.

"Get us a cup of tea while you're up, Jim," said Eli, as Jim went to sit down beside Olivia.

Jim grumbled, but trudged back out into the hall nonetheless.

The courtesy of mid-morning tea didn't extend to Olivia, as she discovered when Jim returned. She recoiled when he wedged himself onto the sofa beside her. He was a bulky, clammy man, and he smelled of bad meat, old shoes, and worse. "So, you're a friend of Eli's then?" Olivia asked, for want of anything more useful to say. A dreamlike sense of calm had descended upon her, smothering.

Jim snorted. "Friend? You know what -"

"Isn't there something you're meant to be getting on with?" Eli cut in suddenly, and Olivia found herself the umpire of a brief but tense staring match. It wasn't long before Jim conceded the point, hauling himself back off the sofa and shuffling out into the hallway, his string of irritable mutterings fading out of earshot.

"Don't come back without it!" Eli shouted after him, just as the front door slammed, rattling the plant pots on the shelves in the porch.

Olivia was alone again with Eli and the cats. The ghost cats. She wasn't afraid of them, and why should she be? They took no interest in her. One of the more adventurous amongst them jumped from the back of the armchair onto Eli's shoulder, though. Eli scratched his ear at the supernatural suggestion of fur, but the cat - long and lean and mottled like the ghost of a jaguar - was not deterred. Olivia watched in horrible fascination as the feline spectre began kneading its claws down Eli's chest. She pulled a spare notebook from her dressing gown pocket, wiping milk and disintegrating bits of cornflakes from the cover as she searched for a handy pen. Mustn't stare, she scolded herself, it's rude. Don't even think about the stupid cat, or whatever Eli is. Just write something.

But what is he?

Olivia smoothed out the crumpled page and began to scribble a note to Uncle George in an effort to distract herself. She couldn't get the image of that ghost cat out of her mind's eye, though.

Mum and Auntie Imogen never saw eye to eye on the subject of cats. You probably know that Mum isn't fond of them at all, but she'll usually put up with them. A couple of years ago, we visited Auntie Imogen at Christmas, and everything went smoothly enough until Mum announced over Christmas dinner that it was ridiculous to name a furry little psychopath 'Mister Fluffy'. I agree, but at the time I kept quiet.

Mum's comment might have been ignored and even forgotten, if she hadn't been determined to push the conversation in that direction. I don't know why. Mum insisted that Auntie Imogen was a sentimental idiot, blind to the true nature of cats. Auntie Imogen countered with her usual defence that cats can't help being carnivores, and that it didn't make her poor babies evil. It nearly turned into a theological argument shortly after that, and I kept well out of it. I just slid lower and lower in my chair as I watched Auntie Imogen's fork trembling in her clenched fist - she looked as if she might hurl it at someone any minute.

Later, while Mum and Auntie Imogen were having tea and biscuits in the living room, Mister Fluffy sauntered in to present half a dead mouse at their feet. If cats can smile, I swear Mister Fluffy was smiling up at Mum. Scowling, she excused herself and went for a long, long walk.
It must have been three or four days later that we discovered the litter of kittens in the garage.

Auntie Imogen handed Mum a bundle of helpless white fluff small enough to curl up in the palm of her hand, and asked if Mum would like to name the thing 'Lucifer', or 'Ripper', or 'Fang'. Mum didn't want to end the visit on a sour note, so she tried to laugh it off. Still, Auntie Imogen insisted, in poisonously polite tones I don't think I've ever heard from her before or since, that Mum name the new litter.

Oh, speak of the Devil and he shall appear! This is how there comes to be a fluffy white cat called Caligula now curling up against my leg. Mum named the other kittens Attila, Genghis, and Vlad. Auntie Imogen took that in her stride, but Mum must have been angrier than I realised, because before we left, she brought up a forbidden topic - Uncle Constantin.

Olivia stopped and looked up from her notebook, absently scratching Caligula behind the ear. She tore off the last few pages and stuffed them in her pocket. Later, she'd seal it in an envelope and it would join her other letters to Uncle George, in the shoebox under her bed.

Uncle Constantin. The thought came back to her, unwanted. Uncle Constantin was better left forgotten.

"Oh, just look at you!" she said to Caligula. He was the first of the cats to approach her in days - even Banana had been standoffish just recently - and now that he was up close she could see how dirty and matted his white fur was. She picked out the dead grass and burrs, and began to unpick the tangled clumps of fur. You were supposed to brush long-haired cats, she was sure. Auntie Imogen must have a brush around somewhere that she could use.

But it was no use trying to distract herself. Olivia wished the memory of that Christmas had never resurfaced, because now she knew why Eli looked familiar. Tall, gaunt, weathered but difficult to guess his age, with a face that looked like it had never smiled, and of course those pale staring eyes. He looked so very much like Uncle Constantin. It might well explain why Auntie Imogen had taken a liking to him.

Caligula decided that was quite enough grooming for one day. He hissed, and Olivia didn't snatch her hand back fast enough to dodge the white cat's claws and fangs.

"Ow!" Olivia said reproachfully to the cat, pushing it away and examining her wounded hand. Blood welled up from bite marks in her wrist, globules of dark red blood. Eli was watching her with mild interest. Olivia glared at him, sucking her wrist to try and stop the bleeding. "Stupid animal," she grumbled. "I was only trying to help."

Mum and Dad had said Uncle Constantin wouldn't be coming back, hadn't they? They'd refused to tell her what had happened, but they'd instructed her not to ask Auntie Imogen about it. Even at ten years old, Olivia had known well enough to read between the lines.

Uncle Constantin was dead.

Olivia got up, gathering her notebook and pen, and went off to clean up her injured hand. Pausing in the hallway just outside the door, she glanced back at the tall man hunched over his newspaper. She'd believe he was a ghost, colourless and quietly resentful, but she remembered all too clearly how he'd held her down when all she'd wanted was to run away.

"Strange creature," came Verity's voice at her elbow. "I'd like to put you in a cage and study you."

Olivia jerked round to stare in surprise at the strange girl standing beside her. "I beg your pardon?"

"Not you. Him." Verity wore a thoughtful frown as she watched Eli. Her bright blue eyes glittered fiendishly. "Don't you just love a puzzle, though? Will you be joining us for tea later? We're having a few of the neighbours over for afternoon tea."

"We?"

"Imogen thought it would be nice to get to know some new people."

Olivia knew she ought to be angry, but a snide "Oh, nice to know I'm invited to a tea party in my own house," was all she could manage, and Verity remained utterly unruffled.

"Your house? Oh, I suppose you do see it that way, don't you?"

"You suppose?"

Verity shrugged and wandered off. Olivia stared after her, still disoriented. She was slowly arriving at the conclusion that she could never count Verity as a friend, but Verity was the only one who could give her any answers to her uncountable questions. Verity was certainly the one who Auntie Imogen turned to when the intricacies of undeath confounded her.

The strange girl knew more about ghosts than even ghosts could tell. The way she acted like owned the place grated on Olivia's nerves, but in the aftermath of that incident with the dog, Olivia's own footing was too shaky. Maybe it was the shock of it all, but she found herself relieved to hand over the responsibilities and choices regarding the house to someone - anyone - who even gave the appearance of knowing what they were doing. Olivia's plans didn't accommodate finding Auntie Imogen still occupying the house. She wished she felt happier to have her favourite auntie back.

Verity came running back, not two minutes later, and grabbed Olivia by the arm, grinning impishly. "I've just had the best idea ever! Run down to the shops and get some nice cakes, won't you?"

Olivia looked down at her. "What?" Verity really was too much, ordering her about like that.

"Please? Please? Everyone's been so tense, but I know just the thing. I'll give you the money for the cakes, if you think I should." Verity started for the table where she'd left her handbag.

Olivia pulled her back. "No, it's fine. Keep your money, I'll get the cakes."

As Olivia trotted obediently off down to the village, she wondered why she'd folded like that. Uneasily, she reasoned that she was a nice girl, too nice to fight over some petty amount of money, when she had plenty and Verity perhaps had very little. She resolved to be a better host. Or guest. Whatever she really was in Auntie Imogen's house.

 

 

 

 

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