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Black Dog - Chapter 37

The turning of the moon marked time. Olivia didn't return to Peter's Cross until the autumn, and even then she did so reluctantly, skirting around the graveyard so she could walk up to the vicarage by road, considering it well worth the extra shoe leather if it kept her out of sight of Eli and Verity. Her dread at the thought of unpreparedly running into Eli had obvious roots, crossing his path had never done her any good before. Her avoidance of Verity was something subtler, more than the simple fear that Verity might bring Eli. Verity suffered in the shadows, isolated and decaying. Meanwhile, Olivia's life since leaving the village had blossomed into idyllic normalcy, even if it was only skin deep. Nobody would ever guess at her secret, outside the sympathetic inner circle of Grace, Mr Green, and Polly. Even without news of her modest success, Olivia's healthy appearance would be salt in Verity's wounds. Time might heal the living, but all it brought for the dead was obscurity.

A slippery, leathery coat of dead leaves lined the lane overhung with bare black branches. A robin hopped up to the perch of a high stone wall to sing his piercingly loud sweet song at Olivia, cocking his head to give her a come-fight-me stare.

"You're a stroppy little windbag, aren't you?" said Olivia under her breath, and the small bird puffed himself up as round as a tennis ball, watching her ferociously until she'd passed him by.

Olivia found Reverend Milton tending to his neat front garden, raking up the dead leaves.

"Hello, Olivia," he said with a smile. "I haven't seen you for such a long time. I heard you'd moved away."

Olivia nodded. She'd forgotten how big and black and glossy the angel's wings were - shocking to her after the past few months. "Just a quick visit."

Reverend Milton ushered her into the cosy vicarage, and despite her protests she was glad to be out of the cold. Reverend Milton's parlour was as she remembered it, a small warm room hemmed in by over-soft armchairs too big for the hearth with its crackling fire, smelling of woodsmoke and polish. Nothing expensive or ostentatious, but everything lovingly looked-after and carefully placed. The dainty tea cups, their gilded edges worn with time.

Olivia barely touched her overly-sweet tea or the sugar-dusted slice of sponge cake that Reverend Milton insisted she take as she glossed over the details of her new job, her new flat. Some secretive inner voice warned her not to give away the details, and see what Milton knew without her telling him. A slightly more rational part of her gave the reason that she hadn't come all this way on the slow train (more stations away than she'd realised) for this, pleasant as it might be.

Milton sensed her impatience. "But this isn't a mere social call, is it?" he said gently.

"No. I need your help." She dived headlong into the storm of her thoughts. The times she'd seen Eli lurking round her new home, the library in the house with the information she knew she must need, what she knew she must do but hadn't a clue how. By the time she'd dumped out all her disorganised thinking on the coffee table between them, it seemed to Olivia that Milton was suppressing a smile of amusement.

"Oh, dear me," he said, shaking his head.

She'd said too much, lured by the sympathetic look on the endlessly kind and innocent face. She never had figured out the apparent relationship between Eli and the angel. "You're not going to help me, are you?" she said.

"I'm not entirely sure how I can."

"You said, if ever I needed help or guidance or whatever, I should come and talk to you."

"I'm always happy to talk to you, Olivia, but such things..." he lowered his gaze, long fair lashes casting shadows on cherubic cheeks, and sipped his tea,  "are beyond my remit."

"How? You're an angel!"

"Yes. I work to guide the lost. That's all. My involvement in such a thing as this would be…" he tailed off, his eyes distant. "I can't."

Olivia scowled. "Nothing to do with the fact that Eli is a friend of yours, I suppose?" she said bluntly. Milton's eyebrows shot up in surprise. Whether real or feigned wasn't immediately obvious, but before he could answer Olivia thundered on. "And don't try to deny it. I'm not blind and I'm not stupid, either. That's why you won't help me. Not because of some stupid policy of divine non-intervention, but because you care about him a damn sight more than you care about me."

The angel's perpetual smile had vanished entirely, and in its absence his face was coldly beautiful and terrible. Olivia's guess appeared to have struck close to the heart of the issue and immediately she wished it hadn't. Long black feathers bristled, rustling in soft menace, and the clock in the hall chimed, the sound of tiny delicate bells. Milton stood abruptly, stacking up the pretty cups and saucers all in a clatter. "If you'll excuse me, I have a sermon to write. I wish you all the best in your new life."

*

Even leaving behind the unhappy hidden world at Peter's Cross, Olivia still dreamed of it. It was always the same, the recurring nightmare of being lost in the woods alone at night. A dark dreamscape where the moon was always bloated full, and no matter how far or fast she ran, she could never break out into the open or even see an end to the black columns of tree trunks standing like the bars of a cage. The urgency, the constant itching need to check over her shoulder. The spiteful whispers of unquiet ghosts and great black birds.

She woke with her heart racing, and stared rigidly at the darkened ceiling. She was safe in her bed, in the cupboard of a room that she paid for with her unremarkable job in an unremarkable town. In every direction she was surrounded by flats and houses and bedrooms where normal townsfolk all dreamed their own dreams, self-contained and unknowable.

She didn't know exactly what in her own dream had made her so afraid, only that the fear bled into her wakefulness, persistent. The details were constantly just out of reach, and the harder she tried, the less tangible the dream became. The black and silver puzzle of the shadowed woods, the presence of someone unseen.

She remembered, months ago but still easy to call to mind and vivid, a peculiar green-eyed nightmare sitting on her chest, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

She didn't get back to sleep that night, but kept confined to her room for fear of disturbing Polly sleeping soundly in the next room. With one eye on the clock she read a book, waiting for dawn to drag itself in and bring the predictable working day with all its welcome distractions.

It was beginning to look as if Grace's sole aim in befriending Olivia had been to get her safely away from Eli, as she'd failed to do with Giles. Having achieved that goal, Grace had lost interest in spending any more time with Olivia. It was for the best. Like it or not, Olivia had something she needed to do.

Friday evening directly after work, she packed the very least she needed for an overnight stay, no more than a toothbrush, toothpaste and spare set of clothes for the morning, and ran down to the train station. It was getting dark by the time she arrived in the village, so that it took mental effort to stay human, darting from shadow to shadow, shrinking from the light of the moon that sat low and heavy in the deep blue of the early evening sky.

She'd asked Grace once about the possibility of resisting the change altogether, but Grace hadn't liked that topic much. She'd admitted it was certainly possible to hold off the change for an hour or two, maybe more if circumstances demanded. She'd also compared it to really badly needing a wee, you could only hold it for so long before having an embarrassing accident. Then she'd told Olivia, in that stern and unexpectedly matronly tone she could sometimes conjure up, that anyone who did that sort of thing too much would likely do herself an injury. There was no need to avoid her 'monthlies' altogether, just the need to take precautions and not be around people at the time. Ignoring these warnings, Olivia had experimented and found she could resist the change until well into the early hours of the morning, but then she'd almost exploded out of her skin. The noises she'd made had woken the neighbours.

Yes, she could hold her shape well past moonrise; well past midnight if need be. Nevertheless she didn't like to risk taking the long way round, just in case. Cutting through the dark churchyard, stumbling amongst the graves on her way to the garden gate, she nearly lost her nerve when a grey shape flitted across her field of vision. She fumbled her torch out of her coat pocket, but by the time she'd switched in on there was nobody there and she was only drawing unwanted attention upon herself. She proceeded with a malevolent gaze upon her. Her own breathing, raw in the cold air, sounded a loud intrusion on the crystal quiet of the deserted graveyard, but the watcher was silent as the grave. Up the hill, the woods waited, closed ranks. There was something there, something she needed to remember. Grace had known it but wouldn't speak of it. Olivia needed to know.

The house stood cold and sombre and dark as a mausoleum, Olivia had had the electricity cut off to spite Verity (in case changing the locks hadn't been spite enough) and now regretted it for her own selfish reasons. Quietly, she fitted her shiny new key into the new lock and let herself in at the back door, grimacing at the mouldy smell of the place, the damp and freezing cold of a house that was no longer a home. She noted the kitchen window left open to give the cats free reign of the place - or at least those who remained now that there nobody was regularly providing them with an all-you-can-eat feast of chicken and fish and lamb kidneys. "Oh, Imogen," Olivia whispered, exasperated. "I hope you can fend off burglars."

Something wound close to her shins, almost tripping her, and she skimmed her torchlight across the floor. In the hallway, yellow eyes flashed, and a faint drift of song floated down from a room overhead.

"Verity?" Olivia half-called, half-whispered, before she remembered. Of course, the other Verity. Change the locks all she liked, Olivia had never expected to find the house entirely empty. Following the pool of torchlight, she looked down into the dark well of the stairs to the basement…

A patter like heavy rain jerked Olivia's attention up to the top of the stairs and the hallway beyond - she expected to see a cat on the stairs, but again there was nothing. She shrugged to herself, trying to feel braver. Just more ghosts. Treading softly in the darkened but not quite empty house, she went through to the living room to drop off her overnight bag on the sofa before giving some thought to exactly what she must do next. First of all, she ought to...

A glass smashed against the wall beside her, bright shards flying, and Olivia spun round to see who had thrown it. A ghostly figure advanced from the shadows, another tumbler raised in an insubstantial grip of sheer willpower, poised to become a second missile. Then Imogen peered closer, and the tumbler dropped from her grasp, smashing on the rug.

"Olivia? Is that you? Oh!" The ghost rushed to her, and Olivia quickly fortified herself for the icy engulfment of the embrace. "I knew you'd come back!"

"I'm not staying long," Olivia informed her, more brusquely than she'd intended. She followed Imogen's line of sight to the small overnight bag, disappointing proof of a short stay.

Imogen's gaze dropped, and she seemed to notice for the first time the shards of glass all over the living room floor. She stared at them in dismay, murmuring (not entirely to herself) "It's going to take me forever to pick up all of that."

Dutifully Olivia fetched a dustpan and brush. "What did you do that for, anyway?"

Imogen at least had the decency to look embarrassed. "I thought it might be one of your cousins. A couple of them came snooping recently, talking about how it didn't look like anything had been done with the house since it fell into your hands. They didn't actually get in - good thinking with those new locks of yours, my clever girl! - but they did talk about whether they could force their way in, especially since you obviously weren't taking proper responsibility for the place."

"They can't do that!"

"No, they can't," Imogen agreed vehemently. "It doesn't do to let people like that just take what they want. Don't you worry, my love - I'm getting quite good at this haunting business, so they'll be in for a nasty surprise if they do weasel their way in."

Olivia sighed. A violent poltergeist? Yes, that ought to keep the house uninhabited for a time, if nothing else would. "You've left a window open," she said.

"Have I?"

"In the kitchen. That won't help."

"Oh. I suppose not." Imogen picked up a teapot which hadn't been there a moment before, and resumed diligently watering the dead plants.

Olivia wondered what would happen if she took the plants away, but didn't much want to find out. "If they do get in, do you think you could you try something a bit less dangerous than flying glass? Scary noises, bad smells, that sort of thing?" That seemed in line with common manifestations of ghosts.

Imogen wrinkled her nose. "Bad smells sound rather vulgar, and noises are no more than an inconvenience to anyone who's got half a mind to do something. I have to defend my territory, you know. Like a cat." She nodded, pleased with the comparison. "Exactly like a cat."

Olivia couldn't help herself - "What? Weeing up against the chairs and everything?"

"Don't be disgusting, Olivia. Ladies don't spray, only boy cats do that."

"Yes, well. If you don't mind, I need to go and change." Fending off the inevitable for more than a few minutes was uncomfortable - a binding feeling as if her skin were some kind of stiff formal clothing that no longer fit right - and she still had much to do. "We can talk in the morning, I promise."

She went upstairs, leaving Imogen puzzled but unwilling to follow after the euphemistic mention of 'change'. It took an agonisingly long time for Olivia to find the right room; the right bed.

"Nick?" She crouched, lifting the valance to peer into the shadows, "Are you under there?" There was no answer at first, but she could see the wet gleam of a pair of eyes staring back at her from the darkness. "You can see dreams, can't you?" she persisted, silently praying she'd understood correctly.

"Mm."

"Would you like to see some of my dreams?"

Warily, the shadowy figure scrambled a little closer, tempted.

"Do you think you could tell me about them afterwards?" said Olivia, keeping her voice soft and gentle. "That would be a good game, don't you think?" Her arms and hands itched to make a grab for him and haul him out into the moonlight that sang along every inch of exposed skin. She couldn't do that. There was nothing but cobwebs and dust, and even if she could, it wouldn't help. She took off her coat and her shoes. "I'm going to sleep now," she told him, dropping the valance. "I've been having so many interesting dreams lately." She lay down on the bed and closed her eyes. "I can't wait." Out of the moonlight, the cool velvety shadows soothed her, and her feigned yawn turned into a real one. She kept her eyes closed when a weight descended on the foot of the bed, close to her but not touching.

Nothing could keep her from sleep - not her fear, not the ache of the encroaching change. A voice began to whisper, words drumming on her ears like raindrops as her consciousness slipped to a dark familiar place where -

- Verity said you're a wolf, so, you can be a wolf, I suppose. Yes. You're the big bad wolf, running through the spooky woods and -

- even though the recurring dream had come first, the words kept pace with it: interweaving, strengthening, bringing to life -

- a million billion creepy crawlies crunching in the leaves. All spider legs, all spider webs in your hair. There's the witch's house with the twisty tree growing out of it. You're so scared, your heart might explode. Eli's going to get you. He's going to take you to the place between the two tallest trees and -

- it all slotted into place. Olivia woke as a wolf, leaping up out of the bedcovers. Nick laughed in delight as she bolted from the room, her claws skittering on floorboards.

"He's coming to find you!" Nick shouted gleefully, clapping his hands. "He's coming to get you!"

 

 

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