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Black Dog - Chapter 32

Olivia came home much later than she'd intended, surprised to see lights in the windows. She ran up the path to the front door, splashing in the puddles, singing cheerfully to herself as she hung up her wet coat in the hallway. It had occurred to her that Reverend Milton might not be much help if all he did was talk and Verity refused to listen, so straight after work she'd met with Grace at a cafe by the train station. Grace might not have helped Verity, but on realising there was a child involved she'd changed her tune. The two of them had talked long into the evening, discussing what could be done, and Olivia had finally come home excited to be the bearer of good news: Grace knew a girl in need of someone to share a flat; the flat in question was far from the nest of vampires; Grace's friend was quiet and discreet. Grace had talked a lot about Olivia moving in with them as well, but Olivia insisted she'd have to wait and see about that, with her responsibilities at the house.

The house was unusually quiet, indifferent to Olivia's noisy return. With the rain turning torrential, thundering on the roof, battering the windows, surely even Verity had the sense to come in out of the rain… And then the sharp metallic bite of the smell of blood caught her by the throat. At sounds of hushed, urgent conversation from the kitchen, she stood statue still, listening. Eli and Imogen. Imogen's distressed whispering, '-too soon, I'm not ready! Just let me talk to her!' and Eli's words indecipherable under the rumble of the rainstorm. As Olivia entered the kitchen, the conversation broke off abruptly.

"Ah. Olivia," said Imogen, approaching as if her niece were some flighty animal that might bolt at the first wrong move. "Stay calm - everything's going to turn out right." She darted a nervous glance over her shoulder at Eli, sitting at the kitchen table and wearing a hideously yellow jumper, a jarring contrast to his usual sombre clothes and the grey pallor of his skin. Neither the musty smell of the old jumper, nor the many and varied scents of the open first aid kit, could mask the blood in the air, strongest over the kitchen sink full of fabric swirled in rusty red.

A panicky sick feeling roses up Olivia's throat. "What's going on?" Verity's vampire friends, had they been here, at the house? Perhaps still in the house? "Where's Verity?"

"She'll be just fine," Imogen smiled the worried and worrying smile of a woman who has no reason to believe what she herself is saying. "Won't she?" she asked Eli sharply. "She'll be up and about in no time, isn't that so?"

"Don't know," said Eli.

"She will," Imogen insisted, still smiling fixedly.

"She's dead. Don't get your hopes up."

His words hit Olivia like a physical blow. She'd left it too long; she was too late. She spotted bandages around Eli's wrist, under the too-short sleeve of the hideous jumper. He must have fought them. "Are they still here? What happened?" Olivia demanded, too shrill, nearly hysterical.

"He killed her!" Imogen blurted out. "Oh!" and her hands flew to her mouth. Whatever she said next was lost in mumbling, but when she'd composed herself sufficiently to speak, she added, "She's buried out in her usual place. I told him to bring her back but then he said it might not work. Please don't be angry with me for my part in all this, love!" She rushed to Olivia, engulfing her in the dark icewater depths of a ghostly hug. "I'm praying she'll come back. I honestly am praying, love," she whispered.

Olivia had frozen like a rabbit caught in onrushing headlights, while the overwhelming need to run shivered in the thick muscles of her legs and her back. But where could she run to? She was already 'home', for all the good it did her.

This isn't happening.

This isn't happening.

This -

Common sense kicked in, a welcome companion to the healthy dose of self-preserving fear. "I'm calling the police."

"No, no!" Imogen hurried after as Olivia headed for the living room. "Please don't! Please!"

"She's up," said Eli, the look in his eyes distant, like an animal listening intently to something beyond the range of human ears.

Olivia shook her head. No. A lie, a ruse to keep her -

And then the back door opened, and Olivia's heart fell.

Verity came in out of the driving rain, tottering like a small child just learning to walk, one hand grasping at chairs, table, wall for support, the other hand clutching the front of her dress. Blood ran between her fingers, mud streaked her face, clinging to every square inch of her dress. Her black curls were clumped with dirt and plastered to her skin. She headed for the stairs without a look at anyone, as if there was nobody in the world but herself. Olivia forced herself into motion, reaching out for an arm, but Verity pushed her away without a word. She climbed the stairs as if they were Everest, and disappeared from view on the landing. Her footsteps, and the final slam of the door to the attic room, echoed throughout the hushed hollow shell of the house.

Olivia made a dash for the living room and the telephone. She'd expected Eli to make a grab for her, hold her back, but it was Imogen who blocked the doorway to the living room before Olivia even saw the ghost move. Olivia balked; to walk through a ghost was chilly and unpleasant; to do so deliberately would be as disrespectful as slapping her in the face.

"Auntie Imogen, please, let me past," Olivia begged.

Imogen shook her head mutely. She had her thin-skinned bony hands pressed hard against opposite sides of the doorframe, more connected to the house than any living person could be.

Behind Olivia's back, a chair scraped heavily back across the tiles, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. Bracing herself, she strode swiftly through the ghost. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she was saying, even as she picked up the receiver. She was well out of her depth and three little numbers away from help.

"You can't do this, Libby," Imogen pleaded. "It'll only make trouble."

Eli stood in the hall, looking up the stairs into the darkness.

Hastily, Olivia hooked the dial round to 'nine' three times, the hysterical thought bubbling up, 'but what am I going to say?'

Imogen, panicked and desperate, slammed her ghostly hand down into the body of the phone, and it died without connecting. "I'm telling you, it won't do any good," she said, baring her teeth in an uneasy smile. "If you get the police involved, he'll just disappear, you know. Without a trace." When Olivia didn't put the receiver down, she added reluctantly, "It's happened before. A long time ago, before you were born. There was trouble, and before the police could get here, Gabriel was just… gone." The thought, irrelevant, flitted across Olivia's mind - when had he been Gabriel? "He didn't come back for thirty years," Imogen continued. "And the last ten years without him have been…" she faltered, looking away. "I've been so lonely, Olivia. It's not right that a person should have to be so alone at such an age. Don't you dare make him leave again." She wiped her eyes. "If you want to do something useful, fetch cold water and set to work on those stains. If we don't get them out now, we never will."

"You can't hide this!" Olivia cried. "This isn't like your baby!"

The look in Imogen's eyes turned vicious in an instant, unfamiliar and frightening. "Suit yourself," she said, her voice as sharp and cold as a blade. She gestured to the phone, inviting Olivia to dial again. "I look forward to being an audience to this. I do so want to hear you explain how the deceased got up and started walking about." And she stared until Olivia dropped the receiver back in its cradle. "Thank you. No more silly ideas from you, please. Those muddy footprints need cold water, then salt."

Wounded and frightened, Olivia shook her head stubbornly. "Eli can clean up his own mess." It was cold consolation, that small act of defiance, but Olivia didn't know what else she had. Imogen was right that no good would come from calling the police. At best, they'd laugh at her; at worst, they might lock her up as a madwoman. And what then would come at the next full moon? She'd be a captive aberration, never to see her loved ones again, never to taste fresh air, a subject for study and dissection…

A scream of fury sounded from high in the house, a crash, the murmur of unintelligible sobbing. Verity and her child were past saving.

*

Up in the attic room, Verity sat at the dressing table swept clear of its mouldering old books and stared in dismay at her reflection in the clouded mirror. Gingerly she wiped at what the rain and mud had left of her eyeliner as high-pitched laughter echoed eerily around the sloped ceiling.

"Don't you have some chains to clank or something?" asked Verity, her voice flat and dull, her brief moment of rage having left her exhausted.

The laughter tapered off. "Why would I do that?" asked a faint voice in its place.

Verity sighed. "Never mind." She made no effort to place exactly where the voice had come from, this ghost, like many others, didn't like to be seen. Verity peered closer at her own reflection, picking at the tangled muddy mess of her hair, wondering if she'd ever get a brush through it again. Careful not to pull too much at it as most probably it wouldn't grow back. She'd washed as best she could in the little sink, but couldn't help wondering whether a long hot bath would be a wise choice. She desperately wanted the grave dirt off her skin, the death-weary ache out of her bones but on the other hand, she didn't want to make a stew of herself.

She remembered Siobhan vividly. Dull eyes, sunk too far back into dessicated sockets, cheekbones, jaw and collarbones pressing out against paper-thin skin, the stiff awkward movements, falling apart slowly. A dead thing, not invisible to most like Imogen, not able to pass for human like Eli, she'd be consigned to lurking in the shadows for the rest of her days. Under the mud, Verity found her skin still soft and fresh, but her time would come.

In the mirror, a face appeared beside hers, sharp as daylight and close as a twin, though Verity couldn't feel the girl's presence at all. She was about Verity's age, her clothes clearly nineteenth century.

"Hello, Penelope." said the apparition, smirking. "Your ears must be burning: they can't stop talking about you downstairs."

"Mm..." Verity was concentrating hard on repainting her eye makeup, and it was still going on crooked. "Hello, Verity. Do you think you could push off? This is hard enough as it is." Her fingers felt numb and cold, and nothing would ever warm them up.

"I saw it all, you know," said the ghost, glancing at the grimy cobwebbed window up under the peak of the roof. "I wish I could have heard as well. What did you say to that evil creature in the churchyard? Ooh, and what's this?" A ghostly breeze lifted the tail of the wide purple sash Verity had tied tight around her waist, making her clutch it anxiously.

"Leave that alone!"

"Will all your guts fall out if I pull this?" asked the ghost, plucking at the sash again. "It serves you right. Taking my name and my grave."

"I told you before," said Verity stiffly, holding the sash tightly in place. "You no longer had any use for the former and as for the latter... well, I had no intention of actually ending up in it. You can blame Eli for that."

"You stole my name!" the ghost Verity squealed indignantly. "I was a good girl! And then you came along, pretending to be me, flashing your bare legs, making saucy remarks, keeping with devils and ghosts -"

"You are a ghost, you stupid little bitch!" Verity snapped, stumbling away over the scattered papers and broken-backed books, retying her sash and yanking the knot extra-tight.

"And what are you?" said the ghost. "Some revolting undead abomination, rotting forever. That's what you are."
Verity screeched, lunging for the biggest tome and hurling it at the ghost. It sailed through the mists of her infuriating smile, crashing into the mirror, shattering it into a billion sparkling pieces.

 

 

*

Olivia had meant to arrange a meeting with Grace's friend to discuss the details of sharing a flat, but she couldn't see the point of it after Verity's death. Her mood was too bleak to work on the house. She wrote half-heartedly to old friends from school, the cluster of girls who'd vowed to keep in touch no matter where life scattered them, but what could she say? She wrote at length to Uncle George instead, putting those letters away under her bed.

The full moon had crept up on her again and soon she'd have to lock herself alone in her room: away from people, away from Eli, away from the woods. She'd sleep away as much of the night as she could, waiting for sunrise. It seemed a lonely sort of life, but as she roamed the house, flickers out of the corner of her eye reminded her that she was far from alone.

She climbed the stairs to the attic room but when she knocked at the half-sized door it creaked open a fraction, left unlocked, where Verity had been so protective of her privacy before. Darkness and silence awaited within.

"Verity?" Olivia called softly. Nobody had seen the poor girl for days. Olivia ducked her head and crept into the attic room, her eyes adjusting slowly to what grey light oozed from the small high window. She found and lit the paraffin lamp beside the bed. Wherever Verity went to be alone, it wasn't here any more. She hadn't kept it tidy before, but this…

Anger welled up in Olivia's chest. There couldn't have been a book left whole anywhere in the attic. Torn pages lay crumpled all around, on the floor, the dressing table, the narrow bed. Glittering broken glass crunched under her shoes: silver slivers of mirror, curved sea-green shards of wine bottle. She nearly went flying when something rolled underfoot. Steadying herself, heart racing, she bent to pick it up: a stick of chalk. A strange design drawn in the near-luminous white of it on the floorboards nearby. Reverently lifting the maimed books, she found more of the designs, more and more, a circle of them, scuffed by footsteps. With shaking hands, she tore down several pages of notes tacked to the frame of the dressing table's broken mirror. Amongst them she found the chalked design in miniature, haphazardly annotated in a spidery hand. She shuffled through the pages without making any sense of them. Broken phrases, solitary words. Verity had clearly never intended these notes for any eyes but her own, but the keywords 'black dog' appeared more than once and then Olivia's own name jumped out from the scrawl. She snatched up a handful more of notes from the bed, finding more of the same.

Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she smoothed out a page of the notes on the dressing table in order to decipher as much as she could. She almost missed the sound of the girl, singing. Distant at first, the same song she'd become accustomed to hearing from time to time, without ever making out the words of it. The soft, eerie notes drifted closer with no accompaniment of footfalls. Olivia, still angry over the fate of all those books, turned and braced herself to meet the unseen singer.

Presently, an insubstantial figure drifted through the wall - the ghost of a young girl, who glanced disinterestedly in Olivia's direction, then jumped and clapped both her hands to her mouth. "Oh!" the ghost cried in shock, "What are you doing up here, you great big horrible..."

"Excuse me?" Olivia interrupted her, "This is my house."

"I remember you! Horrid Lockwood child! I don't keep company with your sort."

"Olivia... my name's Olivia. Who are you? And what's wrong with 'my sort', anyway?"

Reluctantly, the ghost Verity introduced herself and told Olivia how that nasty girl Penelope had appropriated her identity. "But it caught up with her in the end, didn't it?" the real Verity smirked. "And it serves her right, ruining my good name like that." She tilted her head and drifted an inch or two higher so she could more easily look down her nose at Olivia. "I was a good girl."

"I didn't think I'd seen you before," said Olivia. "Can't you come down from the attic, is that it?"

The ghost Verity made her expression a perfect blank slate, and said nothing.

Olivia took another guess. "I suppose you're the one who told Eli the truth about Verity?"

"Penelope, you mean," said the ghost.

Olivia stifled a growl of impatience. "If she's ruined your reputation like you say, then you've got more reason than anyone to spread the truth."

The ghost looked genuinely insulted. "I never tell secrets. Tempting as it is to see certain people face up to what they've done."

"Hmm. I know how easy it is for a ghost to eavesdrop without being noticed," Olivia pointed out.

"Well, I'm hardly the only ghost in this house, am I?" said Verity, with the hint of a smile. "I can see I've given you a lot to think about," she added, and then without another word she flitted light as a moth back into the darkness.

 

 

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