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Black Dog - Chapter 19

On the Monday, Olivia started her job at the library as planned. She might have been apprehensive but after the turbulence of recent events the library gave her a rock to cling to. Olivia spent the day dealing with pleasantly dull people and things she could easily understand, surrounded by books and order. She made tea for the two librarians, a middle-aged married couple equally quiet and patient and received polite thank-yous for virtually everything she did. She was settling, finding her niche, and then the day was over.

She could cycle the distance between the house and library easily and on the way home she cut through the churchyard. The wind that had ravaged the trees the night before had slunk away and died, leaving still drifts of fallen leaves and unseasonably strong sunshine had dried up most of the rain. It made all the colours brighter, the sky as blue as a child's painting, the green of the grass striking against the reds and golds of the autumn leaves. The air was crisp and invigorating as Olivia headed towards the vicarage. The way the ghosts gossiped about poor Reverend Milton, though she'd tried not to listen, she felt sorry for the poor thing and she still craved normal company.

The vicarage garden, which always looked so pretty in summer, lay drab and dormant but somebody was busy raking up the leaves.

"Come in!" Reverend Milton called.

Entering at the neatly-painted wooden gate, a path of stepping stones wandered through the rose bushes towards the front door of the vicarage. Some trick of the shadows almost made it look like…

As Olivia walked closer, the strange shadows refused to resolve into anything sensible.

"Hello," said Reverend Milton. "It's nice to see you again, Olivia. I was beginning to wonder what had become of you."

Olivia realised she hadn't been to church on Sunday, but her guilt over that was rather overshadowed by the large pair of glossy-feathered, raven-black wings sprouting from Reverend Milton's back. "Ah. Yes," she said, trying hard not to stare. She was seeing things. Vividly. "I've been so busy, getting things sorted out at the house." It was over-tiredness, that had to be the explanation. Overwhelmed, taking on too much at once, just as she'd been warned against.

"I understand," said Reverend Milton, smiling genuinely. "Hectic modern life and all that. Nevertheless, God can be a very calming presence in difficult times, and you're always welcome in our church."

"Yes, thank you." The image of the 'no dogs allowed' sign by the church door flashed up in her mind and she shoved it away again.

The vicar, looking concerned, glanced over his shoulder. "Is everything all right? Oh, it's the wings, isn't it? I didn't realise you could see them."

"I didn't notice them before," she said, feeling ridiculous.

He frowned suspiciously, an expression that sat uncomfortably on his soft, gentle features. "Strange. Any idea why you can see them now, when you didn't before?"

"I suppose it's the same as with the ghosts." She didn't want to say it. To contemplate the weird turn of recent events in the privacy of her own head was one thing, but to say it out loud would be highly embarrassing. She looked once more at the huge feathery wings. "I was bitten," she said, leaving it as ambiguous as she could. "By a… wolf? Dog? Dog, I suppose. We don't get wolves in this part of the country, do we?"

"Ah," Reverend Milton sighed. "I see."

"You think I've gone mad, don't you? I think I might have gone mad. I mean, ghosts are one thing. There are rational explanations. Marsh lights, grief doing silly things but... an angel?"

Reverend Milton smiled gently. "A number of us spend time in the mortal realm in order to guide lost souls in a more direct way. You're not losing your mind, Olivia. You're coping admirably with a curse that's turned your life upside down." He stripped off his gardening gloves and headed for the front door of the vicarage, beckoning Olivia to follow. "And of course, you're not the only to have had a surprise when you saw me!" he laughed. "That friend of yours, the girl with the curly black hair. I'm afraid I don't know her name."

"Verity," said Olivia, although any friendly feelings she'd harboured for the girl had taken a beating recently.

"She has the Second Sight, doesn't she? A terrible gift, for a mortal man or woman. It makes them vulnerable to all sorts of unnatural influences." He put away his gardening tools in the little porch over the front door. "Come in, come in." He ushered her in under the low doorframe, and into a cosy sitting room with two armchairs facing each other across the hearth. "It would be quite a relief to think that poor girl has a level-headed friend her own age, to give her the support and guidance she needs."

Olivia didn't want to tell Reverend Milton that Verity was likely well past that sort of help, in the eyes of God and the church. Instead she settled for "Verity's pretty strong-willed."

"Oh, but she's such a frail-looking little thing and we all have our fears and weaknesses."

"I suppose so." It was understandable for Reverend Milton to think Verity was shy and retiring after her stubborn refusal to speak to him, but bossy little girls like Verity were far from incapable of looking after themselves. "She's been dealing with this sort of thing for longer than I have, you know." A lot longer, she didn't add.

"So talk to her, lean on each other. Now, how do you take your tea?"

Reverend Milton didn't pry any more into Olivia's experiences in the world of the dead. Instead, he congratulated her on her successful first day at the library, and then seemed quite content to while away an hour or so chatting about books, their favourites; the classics. Uncle George's books.

"I really ought to get back to the house," said Olivia reluctantly. "Before Auntie Imogen starts worrying."

Out in the churchyard, dusk was curdling into night and the cool wind had grown sharp teeth. Reverend Milton came out with her, and he shivered, rustling his feathers. Olivia wanted to touch them, to know if they felt as real as they looked but didn't dare ask.

"Don't forget," he said. "You're welcome to stop by any time you like. The same time next week, perhaps?"

"I'd like that."

Reverend Milton's smile dropped, a mildly worried expression clouding his open features as he looked at something over Olivia's shoulder. "There he goes again."

A chill raced up Olivia's spine and she whipped round to see who he was talking about. It took her a minute to spot him, beyond the boundaries of the vicarage garden, out amongst the tombstones. The tall, thin figure stalked through the long grass and the shadows.

"It's just Eli." Olivia's voice came out closer to a whisper than she'd intended.

"I know," said Milton, his voice uncharacteristically flat and guarded. He held his glossy black wings high and forward, as if he wanted to cocoon them protectively around himself and Olivia. The arch of the wings reminded her of the arched back of a defensive cat. Eli hesitated, scowling at the angel, and came no closer.

A feather brushed against the back of Olivia's hand, light but disconcertingly real, making her jump. She glanced across at Milton, and when she looked back, Eli had slipped away, back into the night.

*

Grace, in her matronly capacity, made only one very brief house call to check on the new werewolf, before declaring that it didn't do anybody any good to mope around the house, and that Olivia needed to get up off her backside and get outdoors more often. She'd even offered to take Olivia running some time, something she'd determined they'd both enjoy. Olivia had been all set to make some polite excuse and forget about it, when she'd remembered that she had packed her running shoes.

When she came downstairs the next morning, freezing cold in running shorts and T-shirt, Grace had already arrived and was warming up in preparation, stretching and bouncing, cheerfully ignoring the disdainful eyes of Verity and several of the cats upon her.

"Ready to go?" Grace challenged brightly, already heading for the door.

"I think so." The chance had passed to back out of it, as she followed Grace outside and down the garden path. Grace paused to let Olivia warm up a bit, but past the gate, the blonde broke into a run without ceremony.

"You're going a bit fast, don't you think?" asked Olivia, once she'd caught up.

"Oh, would you like me to slow down for you?" There it was again, the challenging edge to her cheerful voice.

"No! I'm fine." Olivia just didn't think she'd get very far at such a pace. "We shouldn't overdo it, though."

"I've been running for forty years," said Grace. "I know how to pace myself."

"Fourteen? You must have -"

"Forty," Grace corrected her. "Four. Oh."

Olivia glanced at her running partner, who didn't look old enough to have four decades' experience of anything. She looked to be at the peak of physical perfection, running with surety and focus. Olivia felt large and lumbering by comparison, but she was strong, and she was keeping pace, breathing easily. "So how old are you, then?"

"As old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth," said Grace.

"Really, though, I thought you must be about twenty-one. Is this..."

"Is this the silver lining to our black cloud? Oh, yes. That, and I like to take good care of myself. Of course, I can eat like a pig without getting fat, and drink like a fish if I want to, but I do believe it'd catch up with me eventually. I don't understand how it works, but a friend of mine says it has something to do with metabolism. I'll introduce you two some time," she promised. "You'll like him; you're both brainy types."

Although Olivia found she could run faster and more easily than she'd expected, she suspected Grace had slowed down for her benefit after all. "Is this friend of yours… like us?"

"He is. Quite a few of my friends are."

Up ahead the road ended but a wide path continued through the woods.

"Some of the others don't really like people like us, do they?"

"Well, no. But it'll only affect you if you let it, and you can always talk to me. Don't get all caught up in their politics, and you'll be fine."

Olivia thought of her spiteful aunts and cousins, turning up at Auntie Imogen's funeral just to dribble venom over everything. She'd be only too happy to avoid a similar situation at the house. Suddenly she was running alone, and she stumbled to a halt, turning to look back along the road. "Grace?"

The blonde girl stood there in the morning sunshine, shifting her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, her eyes fixed on the path ahead. "I don't want to go that way."

"What? Well, we can go whichever way you like." Olivia rejoined her and they started off again the way they'd just come.

Grace had gone strangely quiet, not to mention picked up her pace.

"Is there something coming after us that I can't see for whatever reason?" Olivia panted. It seemed horribly likely, after the last few days.

"No. No, it's just, it's not nice to go through the woods."

It had looked pleasant enough to Olivia: even ground, sheltered from the cold wind amongst the tall pines. "Muddy?"

"Just not nice. I don't want to go that way," Grace said again, stubborn as a child. "You shouldn't go in there either."

"Dangerous?" asked Olivia, though she was running out of breath to spare for talking.

Grace gave this a moment's thought, slowing as she remembered she had less athletic company in tow. "Not safe for girls like us. I don't want to talk about it. Promise you won't go there alone?"

Olivia promised, thinking it would be an easy promise to keep, and they ran the rest of the way back to the house in silence.

 

*

Despite that strangeness near the woods, Olivia returned to the house with a new rush of enthusiasm. Her head had cleared and the fog of depression surrounding her had finally begun to melt away. The sun shone determinedly through the grey clouds, sounds and smells were somehow brighter. She spent the afternoon stripping the rest of the wallpaper in the guest bedroom. When she'd finished, she wiped her hands on her dungarees and cast around for her next task. There was one thing she'd been wanting to do for days, and now she thought she might just have the courage to try it. That man Eli wasn't welcome in her house, and it was about time she told him so. She thundered down the stairs, heart thumping with anticipation.

The frayed old armchair by the French windows was empty, the stack of newspapers apparently untouched since the previous evening. Olivia paced up and down the empty living room, at a loss. Half a cup of tea stood on the coffee table, stone cold. Marmalade XIV, asleep on the sofa, stretched and chirruped, paws twitching as she dreamed of chasing blackbirds.

"Eli?" Olivia called, but the house was quiet, and Olivia had missed her chance.

 

 

 

 

 

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