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Black Dog - Chapter 35

Putting on her coat, feeling for the reassurance of the small slip of paper in her pocket, Olivia walked out into the early twilight and down to the phone box. She could only pray that Grace might still be with her friends, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the cheery voice on the other end of the line told her to wait just a minute.

"What happened to you?" said Grace, skipping the pleasantries.

Olivia cringed: she'd meant to phone Grace earlier than this. "Me? Nothing. I mean, not much. Um…" Probably oughtn't surprise her with news of a death so soon in the conversation. Instead, she raised the issue of the letter.

Grace listened to that story in stony silence. "So," she said at last, "you wrote a letter to a ghost?"

"No. I mean, I didn't think that's what I was doing. He could be haunting some place, couldn't he? But I wouldn't even know where to look since he's obviously not at the house."

"I don't understand. Why did you write him a letter if you were never going to send it?"

Olivia felt her whole face turn red and was glad to be having this conversation over the phone. "It's just something I do. I've been doing it for years. It's like a diary."

"So why didn't you just keep a diary?" 'Like a normal person,' Olivia imagined silently tacked onto the end of that question as if Grace had any right to be talking about 'normal.'

"I'm delightfully eccentric," Olivia muttered.

"'Eccentric'? That's just another way of saying 'mad.' You've definitely been spending too much time with Verity."

"Grace, just - do you have any idea what he might have done with my letter?"

The long, drawn-out pause on the other end of the line was not encouraging. "It's getting to you, being cooped up in that old house. Come and stay with me. My friends won't mind."

"I can't. I'm sorry, I'd love to, but I can't."

Grace sighed noisily. "Yes. Your responsibilities, I know. How was your weekend?" She meant the full moon, of course.

"Not too good, actually," Olivia confessed. "Eli, um -" She heard the sharp hiss of breath on the other end of the line.

"Eli what?"

"I, uh, got really very angry about something, and -" oh God, where to begin? "Verity -"

"Ugh, what's she gone and done now?"

"She's dead. The other night, when we met at the train station. I came back home, and they'd killed her. Brought her back. I thought she'd be safe enough there for just a couple of hours. I couldn't have known, could I?"

"Oh, Olivia. Oh, you poor thing. How's she taking it?"

"How do you think?" A memory had surfaced, pushing other thoughts aside. The pale and elegant figure, ghostly in the moonlit churchyard - Grace, waiting and watching as if she'd known Olivia would try something stupid. On the other end of the line, Grace was offering condolences, but Olivia barely listened, drawing up the thread of memory, out of the murky depths. "There's more," she interrupted Grace. "I had a run in with Eli last night."

"You went into the woods again? After I told you -"

"I didn't mean to! I tried to fight him, but -" surely, if Grace had been there, she already knew all of this. "You were there; you must have seen what happened."

"It can't have been me you saw. I was here at the farm all night," said Grace, a little too quickly. "It was probably just a dog."

Olivia couldn't trust her hazy memories, but "I could have sworn it was you."

"Look, you've had a couple of nasty things happen to you lately. That kind of thing can shake up your brain, make you remember things all wrong. Come and stay with me."

"My clothes were gone when I woke up."

"Yes, that's normal," said Grace, with tried patience. "You can't go running around on four feet in a dress and cardigan."

"And I couldn't remember…" Olivia's voice shook, her palm sweating against the plastic of the phone despite the cold.

"What, you're afraid he dragged you off into the woods to have his way with you? Really? While you were a wolf?"

"No! I meant afterwards!" Grace was as bad as Verity, talking about puppies.

Grace sighed. "Olivia, what he did to you - he tried the same thing with me, a long time ago. Trust me; it's not about sex."

"Then what was it?"

Another long pause on the end of the line, hiding the truth. "It sounds to me like he just wanted to teach you a lesson," said Grace, at last, sounding not so much the friendly face Olivia remembered. "Be glad it wasn't any worse."

Olivia nodded silently, chastened. What she'd done sounded so stupid and dangerous in the sober light of day, and she shouldn't have expected sympathy. "About my letter, though," she said, keen to change the subject, "You seem to know Eli better than I do - what do you think he's done with it?"

"Oh, drop it, why don't you?"

How Olivia wished she could forget about it all, run off to another town and start over like Grace had. She wished unanswered questions didn't gnaw at her. She wished she didn't care.

"Olivia? Are you still there?" The remorse in Grace's voice sounded real, a raw contrast to the way she'd sounded earlier when they'd talked about Verity's death. "Olivia? I'm sorry I snapped at you."

Olivia stood silent a moment longer, the phone still pressed to her ear, as she gazed up the hill to Imogen's house, a brooding black block against the dusk sky. She'd have to get back indoors soon, away from prying eyes, before moonrise. "Sorry. I was miles away."

"Hmm. I know," said Grace, as in her eyes this summed up the problem entirely.

"These friends you mentioned, at the farm: you said they wouldn't mind me coming to stay?"

"Of course not. As long as you need." Just from the bright tone of Grace's voice, Olivia could vividly picture her broad sunny smile.

"Maybe I should get away from the house, just for a while," Olivia admitted. "It's not as if I'm making any real progress here."

"Oh, good girl!"

Flurries of snow danced under the glow of the streetlights, and in the rich blue-grey velvet of the darkening sky, the night's first star shone bright above the looming black shape of Imogen's house. Imogen was welcome to it.

*

Olivia almost expected Grace to come marching straight back to the village to fetch her the moment she put the phone down. Instead, Grace asked her to endure the next two nights locked up safe in her room, and Olivia did as she was told, hurrying back up to the house, racing the rising moon.

Of course, it was too late in the day for her to pack her things and get a train. She barely had time to strip her room of breakables - the bedside lamp, a glass of water, a vase on the windowsill - and lock herself in before she felt the early warnings of her impending change. She put the key safely under the bed with the letters to Uncle George and settled down to wait, itching and fidgeting.

The door handle turned, the creaking of it too loud in the quiet house then sprang back into position. Olivia stared, holding her breath. The bright strip of yellow light at the bottom of the door, interrupted by the shadow of waiting for feet outside, drew her eye. Who would come for her at full moon, and why? He tried the door again.

"Go away!" Olivia shouted, "I'm trying to sleep! What do you want at this time of night?"

No answer came. The shadowy feet disappeared, unaccompanied by even the lightest of footsteps. It could have been a ghost if it weren't for the fact that Olivia had not yet known ghosts to let locked doors stand in their way.

The more Olivia thought about the business with the letter, and the night spent locked in the garage, the more she convinced herself that Eli was just playing, in the way that a cat plays with a mouse. She'd seen such things often enough at Imogen's house, always ending the same way. It was well past time for her to end the game and take up Grace's offer - to get away and work out what she had to do next from a safe distance.

 

 

*

Olivia's first mistake was to go and break the news to Imogen, who at once threatened Olivia with reminders of what would happen if she spoke to anyone of what had happened at the house, then begged her not to go. The ghost refused to listen to reason or reassurance, vanishing suddenly into nowhere Olivia could follow.

Olivia ran upstairs, throwing her clothes and essentials into her suitcase. She shouldn't have said anything until she was ready to go. Nobody but Imogen had needed to know. At the tap of light footsteps on the stairs, she shoved the suitcase under the bed, readying herself for another confrontation.

Verity appeared in the doorway, grinning and clearly oblivious to what was going on. "Here," she sat down on the bed, bouncing cheerfully, "look what I can do:" She lit a cigarette and took a deep lungful of smoke. Then she propped herself against the pillows and relaxed. "I can hold it for ages and ages and ages," she informed Olivia breathlessly, but as she spoke the smoke leaked out of her mouth. "Oh, rats. I haven't quite got the hang of it, you can see. I got the idea watching Eli. He breathes, doesn't he? Doesn't need to; not as far as I can tell, and neither do I, now. But I think it's one of those subtle details people would pick up on. You see people sleepwalking through their lives like sheep, never really seeing the world around them, but then they notice the strangest little things sometimes. So I've been practicing all day, but then I get distracted and forget, or I can't concentrate on what else I'm doing because I'm trying so hard to breathe normally."

She prattled on happily until Olivia asked her to demonstrate her trick again, which seemed the only reasonable way to shut her up. Verity obliged, on the condition that Olivia time her efforts, and then lounged on the bed while Olivia tried frantically to come up with some way to get rid of her so she could pack the last of her things and escape quietly.

"Olivia?" Imogen called from down the hall; her voice cracked with crying. "Olivia? Where are you, love? We need to talk." The ghost appeared, and Verity hastily dropped her lit cigarette into half a cup of tea that Olivia had left on the nightstand. She needn't have worried - Imogen didn't even notice.

"Talk about what?" said Olivia. "It's not like you'll listen to me."

Imogen glanced over at Verity, who looked wild with barely contained curiosity, but was forced into silence by the smoke she still held.

"I thought you were happy here," said Imogen.

"Well, I don't know why."

"Oh, Libby! Please don't leave."

"Leave?" Verity burst out in a cloud of cigarette smoke. "What? Imogen, what's going on?"

Imogen ignored her. "Please don't go. Please don't rush off like this. It'd be like losing George all over again." At that thought, her words choked off in a flood of tears, and she hid her face in her hands.

This is nothing like what happened with Uncle George! But Olivia couldn't say that to her crying aunt. "I'm not trying to hurt anyone," she said gently. "I just want to get away somewhere quiet for a while and clear my head."

"It was selfish, what he did," Imogen growled. "I don't know if he didn't stop to think how much it would hurt us, or if he just didn't care, but it was selfish. Do you want to be like him that much?" she demanded. "Do you? Because if you leave, you will be hurting me. You think about that before you go running off." And with that she stormed out, an icy wind slamming the door behind her, the walls shaking.

In the silence that followed, Olivia's gaze fell on the stark black frame of the unmade bed, and she remembered the first morning she'd awoken after her death: Eli holding her down until she promised not to try and get up again. The thought of being put in the collar and chained to the bed again, who knew how long for this time, spurred her into action. She wrenched the suitcase from under the bed, quickly scanning the room for anything important she might have missed, any stray letters escaped from their shoe box.

"You're leaving?" said Verity.

"Not forever," said Olivia, although she knew in her heart that once she left the house, she'd never want to return. "I think it's best for everyone."

"No, it's not! You're hurting us like Imogen said." Verity sounded as if she was trying to cry - another trick like the smoke, an act she might perfect in time. For now, her eyes stayed dry. "I thought you were my friend."

"No, you thought I was your pet!" Olivia snapped.

The look of shock on Verity's face was brief but satisfying. "What about the house? What's going to happen now? Where am I going to go?"

"I don't care. Go to hell, the lot of you."

Verity had given up on tears. "What, your poor old Auntie Imogen, too?" she sneered, showing her little-pointed teeth.

"Imogen will be fine," said Olivia, wishing she felt more confident of that fact. "She can stay here as long as she likes, nobody's going to bother her. What you're really sorry about is that you won't have anywhere to have silly tea parties with your dead friends."

"Shut up!" Verity screamed. "I hate you! I hate you, you fat selfish bitch! I'm going to get Eli - he'll make you stay."

"No!" But before Olivia had a chance to grab her, Verity had leapt from the bed and dashed out the door and down the stairs, shouting for Eli as she ran.

Olivia, lugging her suitcase, stumbled out of the front door, breathless with fear. Snow fell in big fairytale flakes that frosted the garden like Christmas cake decoration, distastefully unreal, and Grace waited at the gate, arms crossed as she huddled into her bright red coat, her breath clouding in the stinging cold night air.

"Grace!" Olivia hissed, hurrying down the garden path towards her.

Grace smiled warmly, her eyes sparkling in the lamplight. "Hello. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, but we need to get moving." Olivia could see no sign of Eli but knew Verity's threats had been far from empty. They stowed Olivia's suitcase in the back of Grace's little car, their shoes crunching on freshly fallen snow that glittered where the yellow light caught it. Eli's steps would make no sound, Olivia knew. She bundled herself into the passenger seat, watching the house anxiously as the car pulled away, slow and cautious on the icy road.

"Going to miss it?" asked Grace, mistaking Olivia's worried watching for sentimentalism.

Olivia felt guilty then, and selfish, like Imogen had said. "It's my responsibility, you know."

"Yes, well, it's not going anywhere, is it? Your safety's more important right now. Duty can wait. How's Imogen?"

Olivia couldn't answer that. She thought of the Auntie Imogen of her childhood: kind and generous, her eccentricities endearing. All those good things about her seemed to have moved on, leaving behind something sadly incomplete: bitter, resentful and jealous. Imogen, of all people, should have been a friend to Verity in her hour of need. "Ghosts aren't happy creatures, are they?"

"I don't know a lot about ghosts," said Grace, watching the dark, twisting road carefully. "I know you worry about your Auntie."

"She'll be all right, I think," Olivia lied. "I must have given you the impression we were closer than we really are. She only left the house to me because she didn't want anybody else in the family getting their hands on it." A hurtful voice in the back of her mind whispered the truth she feared: that Imogen and Eli had chosen Olivia because they hoped she'd be the easiest to bend to their needs.

The snow fell thicker and faster, dancing in the headlights, racing past the windows. It felt like a dream. She'd lost all control of the situation. She'd never felt so weak and useless, such an abject failure, as she did while Grace drove her through the surreal monochrome of the snow-crusted night world, further and further from the house on the hill and the grave in the shadow of the yew tree.

 

 

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