by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Peter wouldn’t have recognized what the man was doing if he hadn’t seen it done before. Lips briefly moving, eyes briefly closing, a lingering touch of fingertips to the metal in front of him. A smile warming the man’s face, a little hopeful, a little wistful.
Then he pushed the slot full of quarters forward. It sprang back at him, and the dryer started its cycle.
Sipping his cappuccino, Peter watched through the laundromat’s wide window as the man sat down again on the painted wooden bench wedged between the last dryer and the pop machine. He picked up the battered paperback he’d left face-down on the bench, but put it down again almost immediately. He leaned the back of his head against the bulletin board behind him and closed his eyes.
The overhead fluorescents made harsh angles of his nose and cheekbones. His fingers, resting on his thighs, were big-knuckled and bony. He didn’t look familiar, and the community–the real community, not the pretenders–was a pretty small pond.
Maybe he was new in town.
Maybe, Peter thought, he did consulting.
Peter yawned, and nursed his coffee while the man’s clothes whirled dry, and waited while he took them out of the dryer, one piece at a time, and folded them into a blue Rubbermaid storage tub. When the man carried the tub out of the propped-open door, Peter fell in beside him.
“So,” he said, “the laundromat was haunted?”
The man eyed him sideways. “What?”
“You don’t have to cover up. I saw what you did.”
He pressed his lips together and looked into the distance. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, you do. I saw you, with the touch and the muttering and the–” Peter’s voice hitched, completely unexpectedly. He barrelled through it. “And the look you got at the end. You sent something through the door.”
The man huffed breath, and readjusted the bin in his hands. “No, I don’t want to be in your article, or on your YouTube channel, or blog, or whatever it is.”
“No, see, it’s nothing like that,” said Peter. “It’s about business.”
The man stopped and balanced the bin on the rust-speckled bumper of a blue minivan while he fished in his jeans pocket for his keys. “If you think it’s business, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, okay, I know, it’s a calling, it’s a sacred trust, it’s whatever. That’s the thing. It just so happens that I have a, a situation that I–” It wasn’t smothered envy that made him force his words out this time. “–I could use a second opinion on.”
The man pulled open one of the minivan’s back doors and pushed the bin in. He closed the door and stood looking at nothing for a moment.
“God, you’re actually telling the truth,” he muttered.
“Yes! Right! I so am.”
The man turned towards Peter and leaned against the van. He sighed.
“All right. Duncan Coburn.” He didn’t offer his hand. That was fine; people with his talent, or perhaps condition, often didn’t. “What do you need?”
“Excellent! Peter Wachowski. For starters, can I buy you a coffee?”
“So, how long have you been in the busi– the community?” Peter asked, as they walked out of the hectic cafe with their drinks.
“I’m not part of the community.”
Broody Lone Ranger type, obviously. Not really a surprise. “Well, how long have you been doing the work, then?”
Duncan glowered down at his decaf tea latte with soymilk and no sugar (which, really, thought Peter, what was the point?). Then he exhaled. “Since I was thirteen.”
“Thirteen? Seriously?” Talent tended to manifest around puberty, but he’d never heard of anyone actually being able to use it that young. “My babcia–my grandmother–wouldn’t even let me go on walk-bys until I was twenty. Who trained you?”
Duncan’s face shuttered. “I’m self-taught.”
“Oh.” Duncan’s reticence became clearer. People with untrained talent tended to have a hard go of it until they figured out what all the voices and sourceless emotions coming at them meant. The unlucky ones got medicated, or worse. “Muggle family, huh?”
Duncan frowned at him.
“Muggle. Like in Harry Potter. You know. Wizards? Sorting Hat? Harry Potter.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it. But I don’t see a lot of movies.”
That actually shut Peter up for an awed moment, until they reached the cross-street he’d been aiming for.
“Oh! There’s a park down here. You mind if we walk over and have a seat?”
Duncan shrugged, and they turned onto the residential street.
“I’m self-taught,” Duncan said.
“I know what I’m doing.” He narrowed his eyes at Peter. “You feel nervous. Do I make you nervous?”
“Nervous? I’m not nervous. You don’t make me nervous. I’m…maybe a little over-caffeinated,” Peter allowed, gesturing with his third cappuccino in three hours. The job had been causing him a few hard nights.
Duncan grunted a little in agreement, or amusement.
“It was a mouse,” he said after a moment.
“In the laundromat. Not very old.” The death, he meant. “She would have found her way through eventually, but…she was scared, and she remembered the pain, and I could help her. There’s enough pain in the world as it is.”
Glancing up at Duncan’s softened face, Peter realized that this guy had maybe five years on him, if that. Rougher years than Peter was used to, maybe, but not the ten or more Peter had first thought.
Then Duncan’s face changed. A crease appeared between his eyebrows. He looked sharply at Peter. “Are you–”
The house was still six lots away. Duncan was seriously sensitive. Babcia would have had to have been standing on the threshold.
They cleared an aggressive honeysuckle hedge, and the increasingly weather-battered For Sale sign came into view.
Duncan’s footsteps slowed, and stopped, twenty feet from the end of the concrete walkway that ran up to the listing front porch.
“Okay, so when I said the park–” Peter started.
Duncan turned a grey face on Peter. “You were going to let me walk into that?”
Something cold began to coalesce in the pit of Peter’s stomach. “I thought you might like to, you know, come to it without any preconceptions or whatever, see what you picked up–”
“What I picked up?” Duncan dropped his cup and put his hands over the crown of his head as if he were holding something in. He backed up along the sidewalk. “Jesus.” He turned and walked back the way they’d come.
Several houses down, Duncan swung around suddenly. Peter, following at a cautious distance, flinched back.
“In that house,” Duncan said, and heaved a breath. “In the small back bedroom, under the floorboards, are three little babies.”
Peter felt his own face go bloodless. “Oh, shit.”
“Yeah, ‘Oh, shit.'”
“Oh, God, I had no idea, I am so sorry–”
“Don’t even try,” Duncan said shortly. He ran a hand through his hair. “Go home. I’ll deal with it.”
“I’m not asking–”
“You dumped this in my lap. I didn’t realize you were an amateur. Just stay out of my way,” Duncan said.
He had marched back to the main road and around the corner before Peter was able to wet his dry lips, let alone come up with a reply.
Peter kicked the front door shut behind him and slammed his keys into the old biscuit tin by the door.
I am so sick of being treated like I don’t know anything!
He pulled off his jacket and threw it down over the back of the afghan-layered couch.
Who does he think he is? Self-taught, my ass. It’s not like having talent is a fucking achievement.
Peter sat down hard in Babcia’s threadbare tweed recliner and glared at the rug.
After a moment, his face began to heat, even though there was no one there to see it.
Oh, cut the bullshit, Wachowski. You screwed up. You screwed up in kind of a dickish way. Full realization of his own stupidity broke over him in a wave. He leaned forward and clutched at his hair. See what you picked up? What had he been thinking? Duncan had been right to call him an amateur. If anyone had tried that on Babcia, she would have nailed their hide up in the back shed.
Trying to impress the new guy, weren’t you? Yeah, way to go.
Peter slumped back in the chair and groaned through his teeth.
Then he sighed, and straightened. Okay. So now even people outside the community thought he was a talentless poseur. Situation normal.
In the meantime, he still had a job to do. He had the calling, no matter what anyone said.
He wondered whether Duncan would, in fact, be able to handle it. There was no doubt he had a strong natural talent, at least.
And even if he couldn’t, Peter still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Training counted for something.
Peter punched the access code into the lockbox, slid the plate aside, and took out the key. Then he closed the empty lockbox. It wasn’t all that likely that anyone was going to view the house on a Tuesday afternoon, but explaining to someone outside of the community why a random stranger was waving a smoking bundle of herbs around or flinging handfuls of rice on the floor was always dicey.
Movement flickered in the corner of his eye.
Duncan, on the weed-cracked driveway, looked up at the porch and slowed his stride. His lips thinned. “I told you I’d take care of it.”
“It’s not like the front seat on the school bus. You don’t get to call dibs.” Peter unlocked the front door, slid the key into his pocket, and picked up his bucket. “I hope you weren’t trying to break in.”
“I was checking the windows in the back.”
“They’ve been painted shut for decades.”
“Yeah.” Duncan climbed the porch stairs. His shoulders were tense and hunched.
“Look, about earlier. I’m sorry,” Peter said. “That was a stupid, crappy thing to do to you. I screwed up majorly. I apologize.”
Duncan shrugged uncomfortably. “Okay. But seriously. This isn’t something to mess around with.”
“Yes, thank you, I got that memo before you did. I’m not messing around. I’m finding out what works.”
Duncan leaned in too close to him and pulled the bottle out of the bucket. “Purification Floor Wash?”
“It’s a valid tradition.” Peter grabbed the bottle back. “Anyway, I can’t know what their mythology is.”
“I don’t know what you mean by mythology. They’re babies. They’re just upset.”
“Yeah, I get that. I don’t blame them. But mythology is, what’s their tradition? What will get them to move on? Incense and crucifixes? Salt? Sage smudge? The rice grains counting thing?”
“Oh.” Duncan’s forehead wrinkled. “Those are all real things you’ve tried?”
“Yeah, of course.”
He looked down at Peter. “You don’t have any power at all, do you?”
“It’s called talent,” Peter said sourly. “…No, okay, I don’t. I mean, I have what everybody has, which means this place gives me the heebie-jeebies. But not enough to do anything with.”
“Then will you please go home and let me deal with this?”
“One, no. Two, how do you do it, then?” Duncan didn’t have any kind of kit that he could see, not even bulging pockets in his broken-in jeans and green windbreaker.
Duncan made a vague gesture, a circling of his hand in front of his chest. “I just talk to them. I show them where the door is, and teach them how to go through it.”
“That’s…” There wasn’t anybody in the community who didn’t use some kind of physical focus. “You’re just going to go in there like that? You don’t even have any backup!”
“You don’t have any backup.”
“I am the backup,” Peter heard himself say. God, he was stupid today. “I mean, I haven’t got any yet,” he continued, biting off the sentence one word too long.
Sudden comprehension crossed Duncan’s face. “Oh. That’s why you feel like you have something to prove.”
“I don’t have a goddamn thing to prove,” Peter snapped, stung. “I have a haunted house that ninety-nine point nine percent of the population doesn’t want to set foot in, and I need to make the haunting go away before one of the remaining point-one percent that gets off on it buys the place and really bad shit happens.”
Duncan stared at him intently, then nodded. “Okay. Let’s get ‘er done.”
That was so unexpected that Peter actually had to let it sink in for a moment. “Really?”
“That’s why I’m here too.” Duncan pushed the door open. “Is the power on?”
Peter reached around the doorframe and pushed the button that turned on the entry hall light.
Duncan drew in a quick breath.
“Are you going to be okay?” Peter asked.
“Yeah. I’m ready for it this time. It’s just–you know that sound an eighteen-wheeler makes when it brakes going downhill on a curve?”
Peter didn’t, but substitute streetcar for eighteen-wheeler and he figured he was in the ballpark. “Yeah?”
“It’s like that’s in my spine.”
“Ugh. Well, I’m not interested in lingering any more than you are, believe me.”
They stepped across the threshold onto a shuffle of flyers and junk mail. The single fixture high above dripped a stingy yellow light down on them. The real estate agency had scrubbed the place down and brought in some furniture to dress it–the original contents, according to one of the chatty junior agents, had had to be carted away in a dump truck “and hopefully killed with fire”–but it in no way felt natural or lived-in. It didn’t feel abandoned, either. It felt hostile.
“Front stairs,” Peter said, gesturing at the staircase that angled up from the entryway. His voice squeaked. He cleared his throat. “Back ones lead up from the kitchen.”
“Front’s good.” Duncan’s right hand lay in a loose fist over his breastbone. “I’m going to come up and talk to you,” he said.
The small hairs on the nape of Peter’s neck rose as he half-waited for a reply.
Duncan exhaled. He walked slowly to the foot of the staircase and looked up into the gloom.
“You want me to go first or last?” Peter asked.
“Can we turn on the upstairs lights from here?”
Peter pressed another of the row of buttons by the door. A haze of yellow seeped into the upstairs hallway.
“Thanks. You okay with getting my back?”
“Whatever you need.”
Gripping the bannister until his knuckles were white, Duncan mounted the stairs, Peter two treads behind him.
The second-floor hallway was a brown tunnel with doorways gaping open on either side. Duncan took a few steps. “I’m going to come closer,” he said. His voice was tight.
Peter kept an eye on the creepily dark landing that led to the the third floor, and closed each bedroom door as they passed it. It was better than having them open. Maybe.
At the end of the hallway, in the doorway that led to the cramped, oddly-shaped, airless back bedroom, Duncan lowered himself to the floor. He rested his back against one side of the doorframe, and bent his knees so that his legs weren’t blocking the doorway.
“You see? I’m not going to hurt you.”
He closed his eyes.
“Shh, shh. I can make it better. Shh, now.” One hand, the one not curled against his windbreaker, reached gently into the room, as if he were offering it to a strange dog to sniff.
Time went by. The extended hand began to tremble. Peter quelled an urge to scratch his arm, then his shoulder, then above his left ear; he wasn’t sure he should even move.
“You’ve been here a long time. You don’t have to stay. There’s another place.” Duncan winced. “Shh. A place not like this.” He caught his breath. “Not like before, oh, I know, it was hard, you came out into the cold, and it hurt–ah!” He jerked his hand back.
Crap. Peter should have asked him beforehand what to do if things went south. Was this something he could shake Duncan out of, like sleep? Or shouldn’t he touch him at all?
Duncan jerked against the doorframe. “You don’t have to–please, that–”
Peter wet his lips. “Duncan?”
“I won’t take them from–you all, you all can–” His hand knotted in his faded t-shirt. “Everyone goes through the door. Everyone.” He shuddered. “Everyone. Even you. Even him.”
He held his hand out again. “It doesn’t have to be like this. You can choose–”
Duncan’s head knocked against the wooden moulding of the doorframe so hard that Peter heard the impact. He grunted in pain.
“But–all right. All right, I’m–don’t, I’m going, see–” He scrabbled his feet against the floor. “I am, I’m–no, please, just–I’m going,” he said through gritted teeth. He leaned out of the doorway, away from the room, heels of his hands sliding across the floor, fingers skittering–
He’s trying to get away, Peter realized.
Best idea Peter had heard in the last ten minutes, anyway. He reached down and put a hand on Duncan’s back. Duncan was trembling, a core-deep quaver.
Duncan flinched, and jerked back against Peter.
“Duncan? Can you stand up?”
Duncan grabbed upwards, his hand seizing Peter’s other wrist, his eyes not leaving the bedroom. “Get me out of here,” he whispered hoarsely.
In a fizz of panic and adrenaline, Peter hooked his hands under Duncan’s arms and dragged him down the hallway to the top of the stairs. He swung Duncan’s feet onto the first step and helped him bump down the staircase, one by one, like a toddler. At the bottom he braced himself and pulled Duncan’s arm over his shoulder, and, listing in a parody of drunken companionship, they managed to totter out of the front door.
“Where to?” he asked.
Duncan waved a vague hand down the street. He was shaking as though his knees were about to buckle.
Fifteen cars down, Peter was breathing heavily himself, and he recognized the rust-spattered van with gratitude. Duncan stumbled off the curb and propped himself up against the back doors as he trawled his keys out of his pocket. He immediately dropped them. Peter picked them off the asphalt, unlocked the doors, and pulled the left door open. Duncan crawled into the back of the van as if crawling into bed. Peter glanced around, mentally shrugged, and ducked in too, pulling the door closed behind him.
Duncan had wedged himself into the far corner, between the back of the passenger seat and the side of the van. His knees were drawn up, one hand flat against his chest, the other arm around his stomach. He sounded as though it hurt him to breathe.
“What do you need?” Peter asked, with a smothered and inappropriate sense of relief. At least this part he knew how to handle. “Heat? Music? Chocolate? Booze?”
He followed Duncan’s gaze to the thermos that stood on top of the stack of Rubbermaid containers against the opposite wall of the van. “I see it.” He unscrewed the cup that formed the lid, and poured steaming liquid into it. Tea. The tannin vapour hit him at the back of his throat. Very strong tea.
He held it out to Duncan. Duncan’s two unsteady hands wrapped around Peter’s.
“Got it?” Peter asked, after a good five seconds.
Duncan pulled the cup away with an effort that slopped tea over his fingers.
“It’s not tea, is it?” asked Peter. “It’s touch.”
A flush coloured Duncan’s cheeks. He ducked his head and sipped hot liquid.
“You should have said. Here, give that back.” He lifted the cup back out of Duncan’s hands and put it beside the thermos. Then he leaned forward and grasped Duncan’s hands in his own.
Duncan shuddered convulsively. His hands tightened on Peter’s.
“Babcia used gin when things got hairy,” Peter said. “Touch is a little less convenient, sure, but you don’t get to choose what works for you.” The memory of Babcia, in her bra and peasant skirt, cradling old Mr. Gallo, in his boxers and sports socks and nothing else, rose in his mind. Duncan made a sound that might have been a laugh or a gulp or a plea. He loosened his hands and slid them towards Peter, opening them, curving them around Peter’s forearms, until their wrists were pressed together.
Then he pushed a little farther under the cuffs of Peter’s jacket, callused fingers drawing warmth up a few more inches of Peter’s skin. He swallowed hard.
“This isn’t enough, is it?” Peter said. “Hang in there for just a sec.” He pulled back and began peeling his jacket off.
Duncan’s hands tightened around air. “I–you d-don’t–” he said, watching Peter like a starving man watching the Thanksgiving turkey come out of the oven.
Peter unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and started on the front. He was grateful that the side windows of the van were curtained. “This is one of the things I was trained in. Let me help.” He shivered a little as the air hit his bare arms; the spring was still a little cool for only a T-shirt. “Do you need a hand?”
Duncan shook his head. He began to struggle out of his windbreaker, hands unsteady.
Peter pulled his T-shirt over his head. He scooted closer to Duncan and turned so that his back was to him. “Put your arms around me. Is it okay if I lean against you? Yeah, like that.” Duncan’s arms encircled Peter’s waist stiffly. Peter pushed them closer with his elbows, and settled his hands over Duncan’s. “Seriously, you can touch me. It’s all right, I swear.”
Duncan gave in all at once. His arms tightened around Peter, skin on bare skin. He buried his face against the side of Peter’s neck. Peter could still feel him trembling.
“You’re sure this is okay?” Duncan asked breathlessly.
The floor of the van was carpeted with those flat foam puzzle pieces people used for playroom floors, and it was surprisingly comfortable. Peter snuggled back a little against Duncan’s warmth. His own stress-fueled craving for about a litre of Tim Horton’s double-double ebbed a fraction. He let his eyes fall closed. Winding down rather than up was probably never going to be his first choice, but it was nice in its own way. Maybe Duncan wasn’t at the top of his list of guys he’d like to cuddle shirtless with, but still….
He remembered abruptly that Duncan could hear and feel his thoughts.
Peter thought immediately, helplessly, of jerking off the night before, and how he’d done it, and what he’d been watching while he did. Then he thought of the temper tantrum he’d had earlier that day. Then he thought of the thing he’d done when he was eight that he’d never told a soul about. Then he thought of Bruce Berringer shoving him out of the boys’ locker room wearing nothing but his Fruit of the Looms into a hallway full of grade-nine girls. Then he thought of himself scratching his armpits, sitting on the toilet, picking his nose.
Then he thought, grimly, of the number one thousand, and began counting backwards from it by sevens, visualizing each number as if writing it on a blackboard in his neatest handwriting, nine hundred and ninety-three, nine hundred and eighty-six, nine hundred and seventy-nine…
He’d gotten to six hundred and eight when Duncan exhaled and loosened his grip.
“That helped a lot. Thanks,” Duncan said, pulling his arms away, drawing his legs in.
“Yeah, no problem.” Peter crawled over to his clothes and focussed on getting dressed.
“All that stuff?” Duncan said. “Everybody thinks of that kind of thing. Everybody I’ve ever told, anyway.”
Peter glanced up. Duncan was meticulously buttoning his shirt. “Yeah?”
“I don’t pay any attention to it.”
“Um. Good. Thanks.”
“Counting backwards was a good idea. It works with aggressive spirits, too, but it’s hard to do that and anything else at the same time.”
That reminded Peter. “I have to go take the key back. Don’t go away, okay?”
He slid out of the back of the van and walked back to the house. The sunny late afternoon did nothing to dispel the prickle between his shoulder blades as he went up the front walk. The door had locked behind them when they’d left, and he had no desire to retrieve his dollar store bucket and mop. He replaced the key in the lockbox. It wasn’t until he reached the sidewalk again that he realized he’d been holding his breath.
When he got back to the van, Duncan was sitting in the driver’s seat. Peter tapped on the passenger side window, and Duncan leaned over to open the door. He held out a piece of paper torn out of a lined notebook.
“This is my number. Can I have yours?”
Peter took the paper. “I was going to say, do you need a place to park overnight? You’ll get a ticket if you stay here without a permit. I don’t live far away, and I’ve got a space I don’t use.”
“I was just going to park by the laundromat.” He didn’t say where he was staying, and Peter didn’t need to ask. He’d noticed the bedroll in the back, and the battery-powered lantern hanging from one of the grab bars.
“Like I said, I’m not using it. And this isn’t exactly the club district, but it would still be quieter in my back alley than on Roncie with the streetcars going by.”
“Nah, I’m fine.”
Enough with the subtle approach. “Speaking for myself, that house made me feel like scrubbing myself down with sandpaper. You can’t tell me you’re feeling any better. My bathroom was new and shiny about sixty years ago, but I have enough hot water for a couple of good long showers. And I really think we should talk about what happened in there.”
Duncan gave him the look that he was used to seeing on the faces of people who just didn’t appreciate the wisdom and efficiency of his ideas. “What part of it do you want to talk about?”
A woman with a stroller the size of a delivery van was trundling down the sidewalk towards them, and the open van door was going to block her. Peter stepped up into the passenger seat and pulled the door shut.
“It wasn’t just the babies, was it?”
Duncan looked straight out through the grimy front window. “No, it wasn’t.”
Duncan may not have seen many movies, but Peter had. “It was their mother.”
His mouth tightened. “Yeah.”
“You didn’t feel her before we got up there? Not judging,” he added hastily, “just trying to get a sense of what was going on.”
“She was…hiding? Lying in wait?” Duncan’s hand crept up to curl protectively against his chest. Peter guessed it was an instinctual gesture that he didn’t even notice he was making. “She was so angry, it felt like she was burning. She didn’t want them, and she didn’t want to let them go. She wanted to keep them close so she could hate them.” He shuddered. “I have to get them away from her.”
“From what I could hear, it wasn’t until you told her she could choose that she really got pissed off.”
“Was that it?” Duncan frowned. “It’s all mixed up for me.”
“And you mentioned a him.”
“She hated him worst of all.”
A passing car filled the van with muffled white noise as they both flinched away from the implications of that.
“So what do you suggest we do next?” Peter asked. “Because I’m having to face the fact that Purification Floor Wash is probably a non-starter.”
“I have to think about it. I should find out more about what happened there.”
“Not a problem. I’ve already done the research.” Babcia could walk into a place and know what she needed to know; Peter had had to find other ways. “Nothing stood out to me, but you might see something I didn’t. Why don’t you give me a lift home, and we can go over it.”
Duncan scrubbed a hand over his forehead. “Not right now.”
“Or, it’s almost dinner time. We could order a pizza. I have coffee.” He was aware that he was pushing, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. Things had been so weird for the last six months, with the community drifting away from him since Babcia had died and all the cousins bent out of shape because he’d inherited the house, and it was such a relief to actually be able to talk about the work he did that he was a little light-headed with it.
Duncan turned the key in the ignition. “Vegan pizza’s kind of difficult.”
“Do you realize you’re in Toronto?” Peter asked, and fastened his seatbelt.
The next morning before he left for work, he went out his back door to his parking spot–which was three-quarters of the tiny backyard–to tap on Duncan’s window. He found the van’s back doors open and Duncan sitting cross-legged in the morning chill, reading his beat-up paperback.
“Hey,” Peter said. “You sleep okay?” Duncan had firmly refused his offer of the spare room.
“I’m heading out. Here.” Peter held up the metal ring, letting the two keys dangle.
Duncan didn’t take it. “You don’t have to give me that.”
“You’re going to want to brush your teeth or whatever. Feel free to use the kettle or the coffee maker. There’s cereal if you want it, and bread for toast. I don’t have any milk on hand that didn’t come from a cow, but the convenience stores down on Queen Street do.” He shook the keys so they jingled. “I trust you not to steal my microscopic TV or Babcia’s scenic souvenir plates. Just lock up when you leave for the day.”
Duncan still wasn’t holding out his hand, so Peter dropped the keys onto the foam mat beside him. “Or, you know, feel free to hang out here if you need to use the wifi. I should be back around five-thirty.”
“Okay. Thanks,” Duncan said. “Do you work in a hospital?”
Peter hitched the strap of his shoulder bag up over his purple scrubs. “I’m an RMT. I do massage therapy three days a week at a couple of the assisted living facilities.” He didn’t know why people were always so surprised to hear that, apparently even Duncan. “The schedule’s flexible, so I can fit it in around my other work. And I kind of like taking care of people.”
Duncan smiled faintly, and scooped up the keys. “Thanks,” he said again. “You should let me get dinner tonight.”
“Awesome. See you later,” Peter said, and let himself out into the alleyway at the back of the yard.
He came back to a house with lights on and the smell of peppers and onions sauteing in a pan. His heart turned over before his conscious mind kicked in to remind him that Babcia and her fried-breakfast-for-dinner habit weren’t around anymore.
“I’m back,” he called, clattering his keys into their customary biscuit tin. He toed his shoes off and went down the hallway into the tiny kitchen, where Duncan had two frying pans going on the stovetop, and a tidy line of bowls and jars on the patch of counter.
“That smells amazing.”
“It’s almost done.” Duncan poked at one of the pans with the business end of a spatula.
“Fantastic. I’m going to take a quick shower and I’ll be right down.”
He threw his clothes into the laundry hamper and scrubbed off the faint suggestion of institutional disinfectant that always clung to him by the end of a working day. When Peter got back to the kitchen, Duncan wrapped up peppers and onions, refried beans, sliced avocado and salsa into a pair of enormous burritos, and they took them to the dining room table to eat.
“This is the best thing ever,” Peter said after two mouthfuls. His own cooking, such as it was, was also largely frying-pan-based, but he’d never turned out something that tasted like this.
“It’s pretty simple. It’s a good meal for camping out,” Duncan said. “You can do it all in one pan if you have to.”
Peter guessed that he and Duncan might have different definitions of camping out. “So do you ever stop in one place for a while, or do you like to travel around?”
“I usually get a room in the winter. And sometimes I have to stop and make some money. It’s easier to find jobs in cities, and it’s not expensive if you don’t have to pay rent. And there’s more people, so there’s more work. I mean, the real work.”
“Yeah, how do you find trouble spots? Babcia was basically Who Ya Gonna Call, but she’d been doing it since, like, the Fifties.”
“People call me too.” Duncan pushed an escaping chunk of avocado back into his burrito. “Small towns, you know, nobody admits anything but word gets around. I helped this one guy once, and I still get requests from all over the place. And in cities it’s easy. I just walk around and feel things.”
Yeah, Peter could see how that would work for him. Not comfortable, maybe, but effective.
When they were done eating, Peter made coffee and tea, and they decamped to the living room. Peter got his file out of the bottom drawer of the sideboard, where he kept his papers alongside Babcia’s Christmas tablecloths, and spread them out on the coffee table.
“Do you know who she is?” Duncan asked.
“I’m assuming it’s–”
“Don’t say her name.” Duncan looked pained. “In fact, you should forget you know it.”
“Why? Names are powerful.”
“That’s why. If you think her name, she’ll notice you, and I’m not sure I can protect you.”
Peter thought about arguing that he didn’t need to be protected, then remembered what Duncan had looked like while they were trying to get of the house, and reconsidered.
“Basically it’s been owned by the same family since the Twenties. A couple with two kids, a son and a daughter. In the Sixties, the parents died and the son inherited the house.”
“Was there anything strange about the parents’ deaths?”
Peter flipped through the grey microfilm print-outs. “I don’t think so. Death certificates say stroke for the mother, cancer for the father, two years apart. They were both in their seventies. I couldn’t find any obituaries.”
“Did either of the children get married?”
“Property records show two people there up until the Eighties. The woman’s last name is the same as the man’s, but I couldn’t find any marriage certificate, so I figured it must have been the daughter. But I didn’t know about the babies then, so maybe–” The penny dropped as he was talking. “…Oh. Oh.”
“And she hated him. So.”
“When did she die?”
“Nineteen eighty-five. He held on until this January. Alone, as far as I can tell. Is he still in the house, do you think?”
“No. Just her and the babies.”
Peter took a deep breath and forced himself to think with some distance. “Pretty classic haunting set-up, actually. Abuse, anger, something tying someone to a place.”
“Yeah, the asshole probably convinced her it was her fault.”
“I, uh, I think…” Duncan sighed. “I think she was the one who put the babies there.”
Peter ran his hands through his hair. “Well, this just keeps getting shittier and shittier.”
“She hurt so much. I think it made sense to her,” Duncan said.
“Doesn’t matter. Judgement is not our role in this.” That braced him, the reminder that he had a job to do. “So do you have any idea what we should try next?”
Duncan looked down into his mug of tea. “Maybe. When’s your next day off?”
“Okay. Friday afternoon, then.”
Peter swirled an inch of cold coffee in the bottom of his mug. “Can I get you some more tea?”
“No, I’m good, thanks. I should probably get going.”
To his cold, battery-lamp-lit van. “Sure. If you want. But counteroffer: I have Netflix.”
“That’s some kind of cable TV, right?”
“Something like that.” Peter forced a grin. He so needed some mindless, shiny, the-good-guys-win entertainment right now. “You say you’ve never seen a Harry Potter movie?”
Friday morning came in cool, and by early afternoon, the sky was a uniform pewter grey, dulling all the spring colours under the leafing-out trees.
“Okay, what if you go into convulsions?”
Duncan popped open the van door. “If I go into convulsions, just wait it out. Unless I stop breathing, I guess.”
Peter jumped on that. “So if you stop breathing, then I can come into the room?”
“If I die, fine, then you can come into the room.”
“What if you just pass out?”
“I’m not going to pass out.” He shut the door behind him. “Probably,” Peter heard him mutter.
Peter climbed out of the van. “You got everything you need?” It still kind of weirded him out that Duncan didn’t carry candles, medicine bundles, rune stones, something.
“Yep.” Duncan stepped onto the sidewalk and headed towards the house.
The puddle of junk mail and the strained yellow light from the dusty fixture were the same as the last time. The atmosphere felt tenser, though, darker somehow, and Peter was sure it wasn’t because of the overcast day.
“I’ve come back,” Duncan said to the ceiling.
The air seemed to thicken as they climbed the stairs.
Duncan entered the small bedroom and backed away from the door until he hit the wall. He slid down it and sat on the floor. Peter, as Duncan had told him to do at least half a dozen times, stayed in the hallway. His heart thudded in his ears.
“Because you can’t stay here,” Duncan said. He made that familiar gesture, right hand curled against his clavicle. “Everybody goes,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you did, or what he did to you. He went already, he’s gone. You can go too.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be that way.” His hand unfolded, extended towards the far corner of the room.
He hissed, and flinched. “You don’t have to do that,” he said. “You don’t. See?” The hand gesture again, at his chest, then extended.
Peter frowned. He didn’t like the look of that.
Duncan yanked his hand back with a catch of his breath. “But not every time,” he said. His hand curled and opened.
This time he bit back a cry. He blinked. Tears spilled down his right cheek.
“As many times as you need,” he said.
He didn’t manage to suppress his cry the next time. His whole body jerked and coiled around his hand as if it had been burned.
Peter’s gut churned. He rocked back and forth from one foot to the other, needing to pace, unable to stop watching. Duncan had told him to stay out of the room. What could he do if he went in, anyway?
Duncan’s shaking hand extended again. “Please,” he whispered. His face was wet. “You don’t have to keep hurting me. You don’t have to keep hurting.” He took a long, noisy breath. “I know. I know. It’s not fair. It’s not your fault. But it can be different now, if you want it to be. Please, take it.”
His hand trembled in the air for a long, taut moment, palm up.
Peter thought, with the clarity of dread, He’s not trying to get her to give him something. He’s–
“Yes,” Duncan said. His voice cracked. “Yes, like that, gently–you see, there’s still goodness in you, he couldn’t ruin it all– Yes. That’s the door. Them too, yes, all of them, all of you–see, it’s waiting for you, it’s–”
The air pressure abruptly changed, and Peter’s ears popped–except it wasn’t air pressure, and it wasn’t his ears. He heard, as if a television had been turned on, a bird whistling outside the window, the skitter of a squirrel running across the roof.
Duncan sagged against the wall, and started to laugh. Not the relief of tension, not hysteria; delighted, satisfied, joyful laugher, as if something so perfect had happened that there was no other possible response.
By the time Peter reached him, he had canted over onto his side on the floor. He looked up at Peter with rapturous eyes.
“So that’s what’s behind the door,” he said.
Then his expression changed. For a moment he looked introspective. Then apprehension filled his face, and he shivered. Then his entire body began to shudder. His knuckles knocked against the floorboards. Peter could hear his teeth clack together.
Peter whipped off his own spring jacket, his shirt, the T-shirt underneath. He threw himself onto the floor and pulled Duncan into his arms, pushing his hands under Duncan’s clothes, seeking skin.
Duncan’s arms tried to tighten around him. Peter dragged Duncan’s shirt up so they were chest to chest. Duncan made a small, desperate sound. His back arched as he convulsed. His head thumped against the wood of the floor.
Peter pulled back. He raised Duncan’s arms, trying to keep skin on skin as much as possible, and shoved his henley and T-shirt over his head and off him in a tangle.
It’s not enough, he realized, as Duncan convulsed again.
“Duncan,” he said, rubbing his hands over Duncan’s straining back, “I don’t know if you can even hear me, but you need more than this, and we should have talked about this beforehand, and I really hope you don’t have any trauma or gay panic or anything, and look, please don’t belt me one, because I am going to take your pants off for totally professional reasons, all right?”
Duncan went limp, and panted, and pressed his face into the crook of Peter’s neck.
Good enough. Peter angled away just enough to unbutton his own jeans and edge them down to his knees, where he could kick them off. He used two delicate and precise fingers to pop Duncan’s button and lower his zipper without touching anything but metal and denim, and then worked them over Duncan’s hips until he could push them off as well.
Duncan was wearing red plaid boxers.
Okay, hidden depths, Peter thought, and wrapped himself around Duncan. Duncan made a sound and nudged his torso and hips closer to Peter.
The next convulsion was weaker. Afterwards, Duncan’s arm crept around Peter’s waist. One knee pressed between Peter’s thighs.
One thousand, Peter thought firmly. Nine hundred and ninety-three, nine hundred and eighty-six…
He felt Duncan’s hand flatten against the small of his back. Duncan’s other hand, trapped between them, curved around the ball of Peter’s shoulder.
There were no more convulsions. Duncan’s trembling grew finer, steadier. He sighed, and his arms tightened around Peter.
Peter brought his hand up to cradle the base of Duncan’s skull. “OK?” he asked softly.
“I guess everybody went through the door? I mean, even I felt that.”
He thought he could feel Duncan’s lips curve against his neck. “Mm-hm.” The sound vibrated along Peter’s skin.
Peter swallowed. “Also, let me reiterate at this juncture that this is all totally professional and, uh, you can ignore certain physical responses that are completely out of my conscious control, all right?”
Duncan huffed out what might have been a laugh. The hairs at the back of Peter’s neck tingled. Square root of…circumference, uh, ratio something?
Duncan’s hand slid downwards until it rested on Peter’s hip. “Mmm?”
Argh, not fair. Duncan was in need and impaired, even if the source was metaphysical, and Peter was a grown-ass adult with self-control and was not going to take advantage of a vulnerable straight guy who–
This time it was definitely a laugh. “Not ‘xactly,” Duncan murmured.
“…Really?” Peter said stupidly.
Duncan’s hand moved forward to the jut of Peter’s hipbone. “Want to. Feels good.”
He didn’t have an argument for that. “The point is, you don’t have to.”
“Want to,” Duncan repeated. “Want t’ keep touchin’ you.”
Peter’s breath hitched. “You can do that without going that far,” he said, his voice coming out a bit strangled. “It’s fine. You don’t owe me–”
“I want. You want. ‘S all right. ‘S good.” Duncan shifted his hips and slid his hand between their bodies.
“I’m going to stop saying no now,” Peter said in a rush, as his hips jerked forward against Duncan’s palm.
Duncan’s hand worked its way under the waistband of Peter’s boxer briefs. Warm, only slightly trembling fingers closed around him.
“Yes. Yes. This is a definite yes. I am saying yes now,” Peter gasped, as Duncan stroked up him, calluses dragging on sensitive skin in a way that made him see sparks.
“Mmm.” Duncan’s thumb circled, lingered, slowed, and then his hand moved down again, paused.
“Don’t stop.” Peter hands clenched Duncan’s shoulders.
Duncan’s hand began its slow slide again. Peter, impatient now in the face of inevitability, shoved into the curl of his hand. Duncan hummed in encouragement, and sped up. They rocked together on the hard floor. Weeks of worry, frustration, loneliness, inadequacy dropped away. Peter felt the end coming as if from a long way off, a wind, a wave, a long corridor of doors flung open one by one–
“Yes, oh please yes, yes, now, yes–”
When he’d caught his breath, when the pound of his heartbeat had receded, Duncan was still holding him close, leg hooked around Peter’s, face pressed to his collarbone.
Peter ran his hand down Duncan’s back. “What do you want me to do for you?”
“You’re doing it.”
“No, I mean…”
“Nothing. It’s fine. It doesn’t usually happen for me, with other people. There’s too much…” Peter felt the hand on his shoulder flutter. “…Too much going on in the other person’s head, I guess. Don’t worry about. It still felt good.” There was contentment in his voice.
“Because I could–”
“…Okay. Sorry. Okay.”
After a few more minutes, Duncan’s grip loosened. He rolled away from Peter, onto his back, and let out a sigh that was almost a groan.
With his warmth gone, Peter noticed how cold the floor was. He retrieved his clothing and pulled it on.
“Here,” he said, waving a kleenex from his pocket towards Duncan.
Duncan opened his eyes. “Thanks.”
Peter untangled the ball of Duncan’s clothes, and turned them right side out. Duncan struggled into them, yawning. “I guess we’d better–” He rose, took a staggering step and sat back down on the floor. “Whoa. I think I need a nap.”
“Yeah, exactly what did that cost you?” Peter said.
“About six months off my life.”
“What? Are you nuts?”
Duncan shrugged. “I was figuring on about three. But it worked.”
“Please tell me you don’t do that every time.”
“Nah, not usually. But she didn’t think she deserved to go, and she wasn’t going to let the babies go without her. She wouldn’t believe me when I said that everyone goes through the door.”
“So you let her rip your life force to shreds?”
“Only small bits of it. Until she did it enough times that she worked out that she wanted to make a different choice.” Duncan stood up and swayed in place. “And the last piece? The piece she didn’t kill, the piece she took with her through the door? That was worth all of it.” A beatific smile suffused his face. “It was like–it was–it felt–it tasted–”
Peter pulled Duncan’s right arm over his shoulder and started shuffling him towards the stairs. “You are so not driving like this.”
“You want my keys?”
“Are you kidding me? I don’t drive. This is why we have these things called taxis.”
At about eleven the next morning, Peter heard steps on the second floor, and then the shower running. He got up from the couch, where he had been catching up on the week’s blogs on his phone, and put the kettle on. Ten minutes later, Duncan appeared in the kitchen, wearing yesterday’s jeans and an oversized T-shirt that Peter had dug out of the bottom of his dresser for him. He needed a shave, but looked otherwise awake and sober.
“Tea’s in the pot. You sleep well?”
“Like the blessed dead,” Duncan said without irony. When they’d gotten home the day before he had let Peter shepherd him upstairs to the spare room without protest. He had shucked his clothes, crawled under the covers and, as far as Peter could tell, slept for a solid eighteen hours.
Peter helped himself to the last of the coffee, and they settled back into the living room.
“We should do something about giving the babies a decent burial,” Duncan said after a while.
“Already on it.” The real estate agent had been thrilled to hear that the house had been cleared. He’d been less happy when Peter had told him about the anonymous tip he’d phoned in to the police.
Duncan put his mug on the coffee table. “I guess I’ll go pick up my van.”
“Hope you didn’t get a ticket,” Peter said.
“Or worse, towed. Because you would not believe how fast word gets around.” He brandished his phone. “I got a call from an agent who says she keeps seeing a small black shape out of the corner of her eye when she’s showing this house, but the owners swear they don’t have any pets. It’s out in Etobicoke. You interested in taking a drive to the suburbs, checking it out?”
He thought he saw the corner of Duncan’s mouth quirk. “You mind if I have a bowl of cereal first?”
“We could stop for breakfast,” Peter said. “I know this place that does, like, twenty-five different kinds of waffles. Including vegan ones. With real maple syrup.”
“All right. It’s not like I had anything else planned.”
“Vegan waffles and spooky black shadows it is. Best Saturday ever,” Peter said, and drained his mug. “Let’s go.”