by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Peter heard the crush of van wheels on the gravel of the parking spot just as he was dropping the last handful of cubed zucchini into the pot. He reached over to unlock the back door, and in a moment Duncan creaked the aluminium screen door open, bringing with him a waft of October evening chill.
“Hey,” Peter said, and looked closer. “Whoa.” He pointed with the business end of the wooden spoon.
Duncan ran a palm over the velvet of his shorn head. “Yeah. Side effect up a job up near Kirkland Lake.” He pushed the door closed behind him. “That smells good.”
“Garlic and olive oil,” Peter said. “Soon to be ratatouille. ‘Put everything in a pot and cook it,’ that’s my kind of recipe.”
Duncan peeled off his jacket and draped it across the duffel bag he’d dropped on the floor. “Is it okay if I use your shower before dinner?”
“Go ahead. This is going to take maybe another twenty minutes.”
He got the ratatouille and the sourdough toast on the dining room table within half an hour, and while they ate they filled each other in on what they’d been doing since August. Peter had dealt with something noisy but never conclusively identified in the attic of an Annex house under renovation, and Duncan had had that haunted school job and a few things up north. Duncan ate like…well, like a vegan who’d been travelling through truck-stop territory, Peter thought, twitching with the desire to spoon more ratatouille into Duncan’s bowl. The short hair made him look younger than he had before. Probably because the scattering of way-premature grey that he’d earned by spending his life force like a crazy person was less visible now.
“How’s the door been?” Peter asked, dabbing toast into the half-inch of garlicky broth left in his bowl.
“It’s…” Duncan curled his right hand in front of his breastbone, the gesture he made when he was consciously using his talent. “Louder? Closer? I can…feel it more, I guess.”
“All the time?” Peter himself had no useable talent to speak of, but that didn’t sound comfortable.
“No, it comes and goes. Sometimes it feels like it’s right in my face, and others… The Kirkland Lake job almost went bad because I could barely reach it when I needed it. And when it opens, it’s like…like…” Duncan’s hand splayed and closed. “Electricity, or…not fire, but…it’s like it’s under my skin.”
Back in May, Duncan had offered a piece of his life force to a spirit, and she had taken it with her when she’d gone through the door that led to…wherever living things went when their lives were over. Peter had learned a lot from his Babcia, his grandmother, but he’d never even heard of something like that happening before. What were the effects, he wondered, of someone having part of themselves on the other side? Using up your life force was one thing, but how long could someone live–or stay sane–with their soul split like that?
Duncan smiled tightly in a way that reminded Peter that he could hear and feel what Peter was thinking. “Sorry,” Peter said, chagrined.
Duncan shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not like I haven’t wondered about that on my own.” He picked up his empty bowl and Peter’s, and stood. “You said you had a job?”
Peter accepted the change of subject with gratitude. “Yeah, this is a weird one. Come on into the kitchen while I make some tea, and I’ll tell you about it.”
Tom and Peter had met through mutual friends. They’d hung out, they’d hooked up, and Peter had learned some interesting uses for knots that hadn’t been covered in Scout camp. (Peter didn’t say that last part out loud, but Duncan caught a tinge of mingled concentration and arousal and the feel of twisted silk sliding through his fingers.) It had apparently been a casual thing, and after a few months, it had run out of steam, though they still bumped into one another periodically.
“He works at the library,” Peter said, pulling mugs out of the cupboard. “You ever hear of stack whackers?”
Duncan felt his eyebrows rise. “Is that what it sounds like?”
“Pretty much, yeah. Who knew? I guess Rule 34 exists for a reason. Anyway, this new branch he’s at has apparently been lousy with them since it opened in the summer. More than your average battle-scarred librarian has ever seen.”
“Why do you think it’s a job for us?”
“Well, for one thing, it’s not just your average creepy perv whipping it out.” The kettle shrieked, and Peter clicked off the burner and poured hot water into the teapot. “It’s a little old lady hip grinding quietly in the stacks. It’s a mother getting red-faced and squirmy at storytime, probably not because of Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s sudden group boners during high school research workshops–which, granted, teenage boys, but still.”
“It’s not something they’re doing,” Duncan said, with sudden appalled insight. “It’s something that’s being done to them.”
“Squicky, right? I will say, one of the staff also had a, an incident. According to Tom, she says she didn’t feel groped or molested or forced into anything, it just sort of happened naturally. Also, it was, and I am quoting here, ‘A+, would come again’. But I’m pretty sure not everyone’s going to feel that way. We might not be dealing with something actively hostile–maybe it doesn’t realize the effect it’s having, but it needs to be told to keep its hands to itself.”
“So we’re looking at, what, a spirit that can share physical feelings with the living?” Duncan tapped a spoon absently against his palm and ran through his mental list of past jobs. He’d known spirits to interact with the living in a variety of ways–emotions, images, recurring dreams–but this was something new. “Have you ever run across that before?”
Peter, who liked tea he could read a book through, poured barely-amber liquid into his mug. “Babcia dealt with a few poltergeists. That’s not the same thing, but they did affect the physical world.”
“Sure, but those things usually come out of emotions–anger or frustration or what-have-you. How is a spirit even having physical feelings to share in the first place?”
“And sex, of all things,” agreed Peter. “I mean, talk about stuff you think you’d be over once you no longer had a body.”
Duncan swirled the water in the teapot; he preferred his tea thick enough to chew, as his great-aunt used to say. “We should go take a look.”
“Great. I’ll ask Tom when’s a good time.” Peter ducked into the dining room to retrieve his phone, and tapped out a message.
When he looked up, Duncan asked, “So Tom knows about the work?” Duncan had no problem just coming out and saying what he did–he was a vegan psychic who lived in his van; he’d long ago accepted that everybody thought he was crazy–but Peter seemed a bit cagier about it.
“Not in so many words. I mean, I can’t see dead people, but I try to help them out anyway is kind of a mouthful for a relationship that, you know…” Had taken place mostly with everybody’s clothes off, Duncan gathered. “When he was over here once, he saw my bookshelf. He was wondering whether I’d ever read about something like what was going on. I said I’d look into it. And then you said you were heading back into the city, so…”
His phone let out an electronic fanfare. He tilted it up to read the message. “Okay! Tomorrow afternoon, we’re off to see the sex ghost.”
Liberty Street in mid-afternoon offered at least a chance of parking, and they found a spot not far from the library.
“I thought you said it–” Duncan said as he was getting out of the van, and broke off with a wince.
“Did you do something to your back?” The Kirkland Lake story had been pretty hairy, but Duncan hadn’t mentioned being injured.
“Yeah, but it’s mostly gone. It only hurts when I twist the wrong way.” Duncan kneed the van door shut. “You said it was a new branch?”
“The branch is new. The building is old.” Duncan came to stand next to him, and they both looked up at the blocky building, two storeys of red brick wrapped on three sides with a slim modern glass addition. “All of this” –he made a whirligig gesture with his finger at the canyon wall of condos surrounding them– “was occupied by the Central Prison, back in the late nineteen-hundreds. After the prison closed in 1915, the buildings were used by the military and then sold for industrial uses. This was the Roman Catholic chapel. It’s one of the two prison buildings still standing.”
They walked up to the broad glass doors punched through the original brick wall. The vestibule inside was the usual clutter of bulletin boards and community newspapers. Tom stood beside the small reception desk.
“Peter, thanks for coming,” he said, and they gave each other a quick hug. Tom’s red hair had grown in, and he had only modest silver plugs in his earlobes and a small bar through his right eyebrow. His tattoo sleeves were covered by a black button-down shirt. Peter pushed away a flicker of nostalgic lust.
“This is Duncan Coburn. He might be able to help you out. Duncan, Tom Fanning.”
Peter had warned Tom about the shaking hands thing, so Tom just nodded at Duncan. “We’d appreciate any advice you can give. It’s just that some of us don’t feel comfortable making a formal complaint about this. It’s not like our regular flashers. And, to be clear, this isn’t an official library consultation, it’s more of a front-line staff initiative situation.”
“Got it,” Duncan said.
“The staff area is in the back. I thought we could go there and talk, and then I can either give you a tour, or you can look around on your own, whichever you prefer.”
“Sounds good. I’ve never been here before.” Peter looked past the reception desk to a cluster of blue and green armchairs, a row of computer desks, and the freestanding shelves beyond.
“It’s not a huge branch, but we have a good graphic novel section, and we get a lot of contemporary fiction. It’s a neighbourhood of mostly young adults, though we do have a few children’s programs.”
The staff area was utilitarian white walls, with a glimpse of sunlight through the glass addition at the far end of the corridor. Tom led them into a windowless room with two tables, a mini-fridge and a microwave on a short length of counter. “Please have a seat, and I’ll go see if I can find Shyna.”
They sat down at one of the tables. “Anything?” Peter asked, when Tom had left the room.
“It seems pretty quiet.” Duncan pointed through the north wall of the room, eyes vague. “There’s a little patch of attention that way, but it’s mostly worn away. Probably where the altar was.”
“A patch of what?”
Duncan blinked and focused on him. “Attention. A place that a lot of people spent time looking at or had strong feelings about.”
“Oh, a hot spot. Good one or bad one?”
“Mixed.” Duncan shrugged. “Places of worship are like that.”
Tom came back into the room, followed by a young woman in a blue shirt and tie.
“This is Shyna Mackinaw, one of our library assistants,” he said. “She experienced the, uh, the event. Shyna, Peter Wachowski, Duncan Coburn.”
Shyna shook black hair back from her face–there was a cobalt streak at one broad temple–and gave them a wave. “Hi, pleased to meet you. What do you need to know?”
Duncan angled an empty chair out from the table. “Please sit down and tell us what happened.”
“In as much detail as you’re comfortable with,” Peter added.
Shyna grinned. “I should tell you right off, my other job is workshop coordinator for Come and Play. How much detail are you looking for?”
“Come and Play does not sell toys for kids,” Peter clarified at Duncan’s inquiring look. “Just tell it in your own words. Where were you and what were you doing when the incident started?”
“I was reshelving in the middle oh-ohs–the computer section–on the first floor.”
“How were you feeling just before it?”
She shrugged. “Ordinary. It’s a picky, boring job. Then I started to feel good. Just–light-hearted, you know? Like a sunny day in May when you’re walking down the street and see someone hot who brought the tank tops out a little too early and you’re like, yeah, summer’s coming.”
“And then what happened?”
“Then I started to feel warm all over. I had a cardigan on–they really pump the air conditioning here–and I took it off. Then I started to get horny. Then I started to really get horny, as in, my knees went weak, my skin started to prickle, I got wet–is that too much information? Anyway, long story short: orgasm. I am talking fireworks.”
“How long did the incident last?” Peter asked, trying to sound neutral and professional and not like he was a little weirded out because a woman he’d just met was matter-of-factly describing what happened when she got turned on.
“Five minutes, maybe? This thing was on point, whatever it was.”
Duncan said, “Did you feel like someone was touching you? Or talking to you?”
She pursed her lips. “Nothing like that. It was more like…the weather changing. Cloudy with a chance of sex. Then things went back to normal.”
“What did you do afterwards?” asked Peter.
“I went and got cleaned up, and finished the reshelving. When Tom came in for his afternoon shift, I told him I thought I knew what was up with the increase in whackers.”
Tom, who was leaning against the counter, added, “When we started to look for it, we realized it was happening more often than we’d thought. Most people were being as discreet as they could about it.”
“We asked the rest of the staff if it had happened to them,” Shyna said, “and no one said anything, but not everyone’s as comfortable talking about sex as I am, so we don’t really know.”
Peter looked at Duncan, who shrugged. “I’d like to take a look at the rest of the building. Is it okay if I walk around?”
“Sure thing,” Tom said. “Just don’t say ‘haunted library’ too loud, or everyone will want to do a Halloween feature on us, and I don’t want to explain this thing to the media or my supervisor.”
Peter trailed after Duncan as he poked around the staff area, then the first floor, running his fingers over the exposed brick walls, occasionally stopping and curling his hand to his chest and closing his eyes. By the time they were climbing the stairs to the second storey, Peter had kept quiet for about as long as was physically possible.
“So what are we thinking?” he asked. “If not a spirit, what? A tulpa, maybe–decades of sexually frustrated prisoners letting their minds drift during Mass? A time loop of someone, or more than one someones, looking for a bit of privacy for a quickie?”
“A tulpa’s a thing you make by thinking about it?”
“Yeah. Kind of like a hot spot, but with more directed intent.”
“I don’t know yet.”
They emerged into a bright, high-roofed space. The arched window apertures of the original brick structure were open and bare, looking onto the comfortable reading chairs, shared tables and private study cubicles of the addition that surrounded it. Rows of bookshelves took up the centre of the room.
“The entire second floor is new,” Peter said. “The building had pretty much been gutted to the walls by the time the city took ownership.”
Duncan walked over to the nearest window opening and went down onto one knee. He extended his hand into the sunlight that poured over the pitted old brick. “Hello, there.”
Peter couldn’t sense a thing, of course, but it was pretty evident. “Cat?”
“Cat.” Duncan smiled and stood up.
“You going to send her through?”
“Nah, she likes it here and she’s not bothering anyone.”
They walked a circuit of the second floor, past a couple of teenagers in hijabs whispering furiously over close-ups of plant cells, a younger girl sitting on the floor with a stack of manga beside her, a white-haired, dark-skinned man dozing in an armchair with his cane propped up beside him. When they got to the end, Duncan leaned against the wall with his right hand on his sternum and the other flat against the brick, and closed his eyes.
After about a minute, he sighed and opened his eyes. “I’m not feeling anything,” he said.
“Too many living people around?”
“Maybe…” Duncan looked towards the bookshelves. “Usually I don’t have any problem with that, but if we’re dealing with something different…”
“I could ask Tom if we can come back after closing,” Peter offered.
“Yeah, let’s do that.” Duncan massaged the palm of his right hand with his left. “Maybe not tonight.”
“Are you okay to drive?” Using a lot of talent at a time was draining.
“I’m fine. It just feels like talking to an empty room.” Duncan looked westward, through the empty window arches and past the tinted glass. “I could use a cup of tea. Is there a Timmy’s or anything near here?”
“This is condoland,” Peter said. “I can get you single-plantation artisanal organic tea leaves.”
“Timmy’s,” Duncan said firmly.
Peter tried to hide a grin, and failed. “There’s one just down the road. We can stop on the way home.”
Back in Peter’s backyard parking space, Duncan was leaning across the seat to retrieve his travel mug when he stretched in a way he shouldn’t have. A hot line of pain tightened between his shoulder blades. He set his jaw. His left arm tingled down to his fingertips.
Peter held the back door open for him. “You should let me do something about that.”
“It’s fine. A hot water bottle will help.”
“Yes, it will, but hello, RMT here.” Peter wiggled his fingers as Duncan climbed the back steps.
Duncan set his mug down on the kitchen counter and let his jacket slide off his arms. Touch amplified his talent, flinging strangers’ preoccupations and anxieties and silent rants at him like hail against a windowpane, and he avoided it when he could.
He picked up his mug and put it down again hastily, pain rocketing down his arm and drops of tea splashing over the back of his hand.
Frustratingly, touch was also the thing Duncan craved after he’d overspent his power. When he was younger, that had led him to make some pretty stupid decisions, and for a long time he’d worked alone, and endured not having it. But the first job he and Peter had worked together had been a rough one, and Peter had both known enough to recognize that Duncan needed skin-to-skin contact, and been generous enough to offer it to him. Need had overruled prudence, which had been…interesting; Peter’s thoughts were a play-by-play and colour commentary, plus someone yelling at the TV besides. Duncan’s lips twitched. He’d probably spent more time with Peter than he had with any one person for a long time. He must be getting used to him. Besides, his back was damn sore.
“Okay,” he said.
“Great! I’ll get my setup,” Peter said. “Go change into pyjama pants or something comfortable.”
Duncan was forced to move with care, and when he came back downstairs in the sagging grey sweatpants he slept in, the living room lights had been dimmed. Peter had pushed the coffee table against the couch, and spread out on the floor a blue foam sleeping pad topped with an assortment of bizarrely shaped pillows.
“Take off your shirt,” Peter said, “and lie on your front with your face in the centre of the doughnut.”
Duncan got to the point where his T-shirt was around his armpits. He ducked his head to pull the shirt up and off; his back pinched, and the pain took his breath away.
“Whoops, let me give you a hand,” Peter said. He eased Duncan’s arms out of the sleeves one at a time. He stretched the neckline to lift it over Duncan’s head, and the heat from his palms radiated over Duncan’s skin.
“That bit didn’t even hurt when it happened in the first place.” Duncan lowered himself gingerly onto the pillows.
“Muscles can be weird like that. You tense them up to protect something that’s injured, and before you know it everything’s out of whack.” He adjusted the wedge of foam under Duncan’s calves. “Do you want the trippy trance music, the new agey whales, or silence?”
“Got any Pink Floyd?”
He’d been mostly joking, but in a few moments, the subdued opening beat of “Breathe” drifted out of the ipod speakers on the TV stand.
“Okay, I’m going to start out with barely any pressure. Let me know if anything hurts or gets too intense.”
Peter’s hands were warm and slick and strong. Under his touch, knots unravelled and tensions ironed smooth. Duncan felt his body change shape, become lax and liquid; he submerged into melody and sensation.
Some time later, Peter pressed his hand into the small of Duncan’s back. “Duncan, can you take an easy breath and let it out for me?”
Duncan did, feeling his entire body sink deeper into the pillows.
Peter’s palm curved around the back of Duncan’s neck. “And again?”
He let everything go, let his body itself fade, drifting in darkness and warmth. He felt a light weight settling over him, the softness of brushed fleece on his skin.
“Get up when you’re ready. Take your time,” Peter said. “If you’re still here in half an hour, I’ll come wake you up, so you don’t have trouble sleeping tonight.”
Duncan mumbled, “Did you know your mind quiets right down when you do this?”
“Well, yeah,” Peter said, his voice receding as he stood up. His thoughts were tinged with amusement. “Why do you think I like it?”
Two evenings later, they arrived at the library just after it closed. Lit-up condos made constellations around the building; a few dog walkers shuffled under the lights of the park to the west, folding their arms against the bite of the October night.
“I’ve told central security there are two people working late,” Tom said, locking the front doors behind them. “Their number’s by the reception desk phone. Call them before you leave. I’ll show you where the side door is; it’ll lock behind you automatically. There are washrooms on each floor. Feel free to use the staff room if you want to make coffee or something.”
“Can we get more lights on?” Duncan asked, peering into the half-lit stacks.
“Sorry. It’s all on a computerized timer system that we don’t have access to. We’ve been complaining about it since it started getting dark before we closed, but your tax dollars at work move at the speed of a drugged snail.”
Peter shrugged off his backpack, and looked up at the dark half-sphere above the door. “I guess there’s no chance of getting the security cameras turned off?” Despite the hopes and claims of a lot of bad TV, ghostly activity wasn’t recordable. He and Duncan were, though, and he wasn’t keen on giving someone in security an eyeful, though if the spirit or whatever it was showed up, it might not be under his control.
“Oh, they’re off. The system’s never been operational. Procurement’s in a fight with the supplier, apparently. Private sector efficiency, my ass.” Tom led Peter around the corner to the side door. “Caroline,” he called in the direction of the darkened staff area. “Are you still here?”
“Just going.” A woman with grey hair in a bun and glasses with bright purple frames emerged from the dimness. “Alia’s already gone. Saturday is date night, apparently.”
Tom held the door open for her, and grinned at Peter. “Have fun. Text me if anything really freaky happens.”
The door thunked closed behind him. Peter turned to face the library. Emergency lights made a dotted line around the perimeter and a few subdued glowing spots in the gloom. He heard the purr of the HVAC, and the rhythm of his own pulse.
“Duncan?” he called, his voice dulled by the stacks of books around him.
Peter retrieved his backpack and climbed the stairs. The silence felt less close up here; he could feel, if not fully see, the high roof above. Between the landing and the end of the shelves was a short length of carpet holding two armchairs and a low table; Duncan had slung his jacket over one of the chairs and was standing over by the western addition, one hand on the brick wall.
“Do you want to set up here?” Peter asked, peeling off his own jacket. “Or are we going to be moving around?”
“I want to be close to the old wall.”
Peter walked over and put his hand against it. It was room temperature, gritty against his fingertips. In places, the dried mortar smeared out over the brick; this was an inside wall, meant to be concealed behind lathe and plaster, never intended to be seen. “Are you getting anything?”
“Not a thing.” Duncan tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “If it’s targeting us, it’ll find us, and if it’s random or appearing for its own reasons, we might as well be here as anywhere.”
“Cool.” Peter dug in his backpack. “Move your feet.” Duncan stepped back, and Peter shook out the blanket he’d brought and let it settle down on the carpet. It was mohair, and when rolled up compressed down to almost nothing, but it covered enough space for two people to lie down with their feet over the edge.
He brought out the thermoses next, one with tea for Duncan, one with coffee for himself. “Is the cat still sitting there?”
“No,” Duncan said, and Peter set them on the open window well. He followed them with the almond butter and marmalade sandwiches, a bag of Oreos, clementines, flavoured square tofu things he’d seen in the grocery store and thought he might as well try once, and little packages of hummus and crackers.
“Hey, I’ve been on iffy night jobs before,” he said. “They’re really short and exciting, and/or really long and boring. Either way, you want to have caffeine and food around. Babcia used to bring cold cabbage rolls in tupperware. This is better.”
“You’re good at this,” Duncan said.
Peter felt his face go warm. He busied himself with rummaging in a side pocket of his pack. “Here.” He extended a maglite to Duncan, a small one with a carabiner on the cord to attach it to a belt loop. The backpack also contained a phone charger, small first aid kit, multitool, rosary, cedar and sage smudge stick, salt, and a variety of other odds and ends that, at some point or another, he’d vowed never to be without again. He left those where they were. If they ended up being only for his own reassurance, well, that was a scenario he could totally live with. “There’s more sugar in that little jar if you want it. Don’t eat the tofu things if they turn out to be gross. Do you think if we think about sex it’ll show up, or should we just hang and see what happens?”
Three uneventful hours later, they were sitting side by side with their backs against the brick, Peter playing Tetris on his phone with the volume off and Duncan reading a paperback mystery with a stack of pies and a winking jack o’lantern on the cover. Outside on the road, a car horn blared. Peter, shaken out of concentration, paused the game and stretched.
“It’s caffeine time,” he announced, standing and shaking out his numb legs.
Duncan put his book down. “Hello, there,” he said.
Peter stepped over him. “Cat again?”
“Yeah.” Duncan held out curled fingers, and then shook his head. “She’s got things to do.”
Peter gratefully inhaled coffee-scented steam, and poured some into the plastic thermos cup. He grabbed three Oreos and sat back down beside Duncan. “Is it as easy for you to see animals as humans? Babcia said they were always kind of pale and out of focus.” Babcia had been strong, but the first time Peter had seen Duncan, Duncan had sent a mouse through the door, and Peter hadn’t been sure that something that small even had a soul that survived the body.
“They look the same to me. The first spirit I ever saw was a dog.”
“Yeah. My neighbour’s. My brother said it got hit by a car, but it kept running around their yard the same as always. For the first few days it didn’t even fade. When I said it couldn’t be dead, it was right there, my dad smacked me for being a smart-ass, so I shut up about it, but I just kept being pulled back to it. It was unhappy. It didn’t understand why its people weren’t paying attention to it.”
“It couldn’t find the door?”
“Could be. It sure wasn’t the brightest mutt I’ve ever seen.” Duncan peeled back the foil lid on a package of hummus. “After a while it did start to fade, and by the time I could see through it I figured out it was a ghost. I…kind of just knew which direction I should lead it in. When the door opened up and the dog disappeared, I knew I had done something right.” He scooped at the hummus with the corner of a cracker.
“I remember you saying you were really young when you started.”
“Yikes.” Peter twisted an Oreo apart and nibbled the edge of the chocolate round.
“After that I started hearing–this sounds like a joke, but it isn’t–voices in my head. Not random voices, that would have been bad enough, but other people who I actually knew. Not all the time at first, just coming in and out like a radio in bad weather, though it got stronger over time. Mostly stupid everyday stuff, like needing a new dishwasher or hating their boss, but sometimes things I didn’t understand yet, like sex or–occasionally something really, really creepy.”
“A lot of people find their talent appears during puberty,” Peter said. “Which, talk about a terrible time for it.”
“I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to think you’re losing your mind.” Duncan drew his legs up and wrapped his hands around the warm cup. “I started being able to feel spirits from a ways away. Most of them were just passing, but the stuck ones really started to bother me.”
“Just passing?” Peter turned and stared. “You can feel people between the time they die and when they go through the door?”
“People, animals…” Duncan arced one hand through the air, making silent little starbursts with it. “Most of the time, it lasts seconds. It’s like white noise. Except not noise. It actually bothers me less than hearing everybody’s thoughts all the time.”
“And that, holy shit, I don’t know how you lived through high school.”
Duncan snorted. “I didn’t. I quit as soon as I turned sixteen. I was flunking out anyway. I’d found out that I could quiet things down by smoking up and watching TV in the basement with the volume really loud, so that’s what I did. A lot. And then my dad threw me out. And then weed stopped working.” He took a long breath. “And then I started to really figure out how to do the work, and I couch-surfed and worked nights at a gas station, and when I was eighteen I bought a rustbucket station wagon for nine hundred bucks and took off.”
It sure put Peter’s resentment at having no talent at all in perspective. Peter licked the Oreo icing thoughtfully.
Duncan put the empty cup back on the brick ledge. “I didn’t mean to tell you my life story, there.” He stood up. A brief cramp tensed beside his spine, but he rolled his shoulders, and it dissipated. “I’m going to take a walk around.”
“You want company, or no?”
“Nah, I’d like to do it myself, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure thing.” Peter slouched against the wall again, and picked up his phone. “Yell if you need me.”
The lower floor was cool and still. Duncan wound through the darkened stacks and into the addition. Constellations of lights from the condos marred his night vision. Somewhere near, a rat sparked out of existence.
Duncan put his forehead against the cold glass. It always disconcerted him to think of the years he’d spent doing everything wrong. Best to let it go, he told himself, as he always did. He’d come a long way from that overwhelmed kid.
He savoured the stillness, let it melt away the edge of his chagrin. After a while, he pushed away from the glass and walked the U of the addition, touching his hand to the old brick from time to time as he threaded his way between the soft high-backed chairs and book displays dedicated to Halloween customs, local haunted houses, countries in the news. When he reached the front doors, he spiralled up the stairs and through the second floor of the addition. At the front corner of the building, he paused to look east, down the road, to where highrises framed a long view of the CN Tower, lit up a seasonal pumpkin orange.
Movement caught his eye, and he turned just in time to see the cat bounding up the stairs and between the shelves. He followed for a few steps, but lost her in the gloom. All he could sense was–
Electricity skittered over his awareness. A chord swelled into bloom.
The door eased open.
Duncan smelled warmth, felt honey and apple blossoms. The cat sat and stared at the door with her tail wrapped around her paws, unimpressed.
Something tugged at Duncan, plucking a string deep in his hips, vibrating him with it. Light twined around his limbs.
The door opened wider, moist loam in cool shade, sun on vines, shoots of green parting the damp spring earth, roots thrusting through willing soil–
The door wasn’t closing.
The realization and the physical reaction hit Duncan simultaneously. Normally the door was an ephemeral thing, a flash, a few heartbeats. But now it was holding itself open, a leaf uncurling a bud unfurling a ripe fruit filling the hand–
He staggered sideways and pressed his back against the brick wall for support. Heat pooled in his groin. He flattened his palms against the brick. “Peter?”
Peter had noticed it when Duncan rounded the corner, but the guy clearly needed some space, so he’d kept on mashing at his phone screen in a doomed attempt to conquer level twenty-one. But then Duncan called his name, and there was a tension in his voice that pulled Peter up and across the room before he fully realized he was moving.
Duncan was leaning against the brick wall, head tilted back. “Is it–” Peter started, and then he got close enough to see that, yeah, it sure as hell was.
“It’s not–” Duncan said, and his breath hitched.
Peter reached up and cupped Duncan’s face, hoping the contact would help him focus. “It’s not what?”
“It’s not a spirit.” Duncan’s hips rocked. “It’s, um–” He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed.
There was clearly not going to be any pertinent information coming out of Duncan until this thing had run its course. “Duncan? Do you want me to give you some alone time? Do you want me to, uh, give you a hand? Are you okay?”
Duncan nodded unsteadily.
Keep it simple, Peter. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”
An emphatic shake of the head.
Peter couldn’t honestly say he was unhappy about that; the sight of Duncan speechless with pleasure was having an effect on his own, completely unpsychic self. “Do you want me to get involved, here?”
“Hell, no, I don’t mind.” They’d had sex a few times, in that while Peter was giving Duncan the skin-to-skin contact he hungered for, Duncan had gotten Peter off, because Peter wasn’t unmoved by having a needy, mostly-naked man in his arms. Duncan had assured Peter that there was no advantage being taken, that he had enjoyed it, but he hadn’t responded physically at all; sex was a signal-to-noise problem for him, Peter gathered, though it certainly wasn’t a problem he was having now.
He slipped one hand under Duncan’s shirt, smoothing it over the small of his back, and Duncan groaned. He cupped a hand around Peter’s ass and yanked him against his hips. Peter buried his face in the front of Duncan’s T-shirt and inched his fingers under the back waistband of his jeans. Duncan’s breathing was harsh. Peter parted his legs around Duncan’s thigh and let Duncan set the pace, a rhythm that almost instantly frayed; Duncan dug fingers into Peter’s shoulder and said, “Yeah–aah–” and held him in place while he froze and shuddered and exhaled a long trembling breath.
After a few moments, Peter pulled away enough that he could see Duncan’s face. “Okay?”
Duncan sucked in air. His hips jerked, and he was–
“Wow,” Peter said. “Don’t worry, I’m right here with you.”
Duncan curved a hand around Peter’s neck, bent down, and kissed him.
They’d never done this. Duncan was a little clumsy, a little fervent, but Peter could forgive him under the circumstances. Duncan wrapped his spare arm around Peter and dragged him closer, his erection hard still–or again–against Peter’s stomach. Peter wriggled his hand between them; it was an awkward angle, but so worth it, to feel Duncan buck into his touch. He popped the button on Duncan’s jeans and worked the zipper down. He could feel the heat of Duncan’s cock even before he touched it through the cloth plastered to his skin. Duncan made a fragile sound into Peter’s mouth. Peter peeled the wet boxers back and encircled Duncan, a hot, satisfying handful; Duncan broke away from the kiss to whisper under his breath.
“Still good?” Peter asked.
“God,” Duncan managed, and clutched Peter’s shirt.
This time Duncan just stood on quivering legs and let Peter take him where he wanted to go. Peter shoved Duncan’s shirt up and splayed his spare hand over Duncan’s heart, and Duncan clutched it with his own and pleaded and came again, stuttering wordlessly into the silence.
When Duncan fumbled at the fly of Peter’s chinos, Peter’s blood-starved brain shorted out for a few seconds, long enough that when he was able to notice anything else he found Duncan hardening again in his loosened grip. He had a wild vision of them doing this all night, and a hundred bad power ballads chorused at the back of his mind. Duncan laughed breathlessly, giddily, and slid a callused hand up the length of Peter’s cock.
“Please tell me this is some kind of personal best,” Peter gasped, and Duncan laughed again. His hand moved on Peter, perfectly firm, perfectly paced, of course it was, Duncan could read his mind. They ground into each other’s touch, and then it was Peter’s turn to go over the edge. “That, that, yeah, just–Duncan, god, please, yes, yes–”
Even in the blurred afterglow, Peter noticed the moment when Duncan’s movement flagged. Some intensity went out of him, some pressure eased. He took a breath. “Almost done,” he muttered. Peter tightened his hand and twisted, and Duncan shoved against him and came for a third time, almost dry. Peter sagged into his chest, knees like water, and they slid together in slow motion down the wall into a sticky heap on the carpet.
“Holy fuck,” Peter said conversationally, when he could form words again.
“Literally.” Duncan rested his clean hand on Peter’s neck, seeking skin. “Thank you.”
“Believe me when I tell you it was my pleasure. What do you mean, literally–wait, first things first. I have wet wipes and kleenex in my pack. Which is on the other side of the room. Which I will get to as soon as I can walk.”
Duncan made an indistinct sound and closed his eyes. Peter remained slouched against him until the cooling mess between them became too disgusting to put up with any longer. He tapped Duncan’s back.
“You going to be okay if I disengage for a bit?”
Duncan nodded. Peter pulled away, thinking about how nice a bed would feel right about now, and went to get the supplies he’d packed for just this eventuality, including a change of underwear and T-shirts for both of them, because sex ghost. Duncan hissed as he zipped up his jeans, and Peter winced in sympathy.
They slumped on the blanket, refuelling with caffeine and sugar. Peter said, “So that was a little more intense that we’d been led to believe.”
Duncan huffed out a laugh. “Yeah. It’s not a spirit. It’s the door.”
“It’s the door?”
“It wanted the cat.” Duncan gulped lukewarm tea. “I’m not sure why, but it stayed open for her. Five, ten minutes, was it? I’ve never seen it do that before.”
“And a piece of you is already over there, and you’re hella talented anyway, so you got a double whammy. Well, triple, to be precise. But why sex?”
“Because what’s behind the door is life.”
“Or energy, or…something like that.” Duncan shook his head. “It’s like trying to remember a dream.”
“And feeling it gets the human body all charged up.”
“Yeah. That was, uh, definitely unusual.” Duncan went a little pink.
“So did the cat go through?”
“No, she’s…” He cast his attention around the dimness. “She’s over in one of the chairs by the windows. She didn’t want to go through.”
“Do you know why?”
“I’ll have to ask her,” Duncan said.
“Maybe not tonight?”
Duncan yawned. “Yeah, I’d really rather not go through that again right now.”
“Got it,” Peter said with relief. “Let’s get out of here.”
The next day Peter was up and out the door before Duncan, normally an early riser, had opened his eyes. He clattered back in at five as Duncan was thickening the chickpea gravy for the root vegetables that were roasting in the oven.
“Awesome, it smells like Thanksgiving in here. And you are standing like Quasimodo. Back still bothering you?”
Duncan had woken up feeling as though someone had dug their fingers underneath his shoulder blade. “A little.”
“Your friendly neighbourhood RMT can take a look at it after dinner.”
“If you don’t mind. It helped, before.”
He felt the glow of Peter’s pleasure. “You bet.”
This time Peter didn’t stop at Duncan’s back; he kneaded down to his toes, and Duncan felt cables of tension he hadn’t known he was carrying soften and dissolve.
“Can you turn over?” Peter asked.
Reluctantly, Duncan roused himself and rolled onto his back. A draft skittered along the floor, raising goosebumps his newly sensitive skin. Peter knelt behind him and cradled Duncan’s skull in his hands, gently stretching his neck. It felt nice enough, but Duncan wanted Peter’s hands on him again; he felt suddenly abandoned, chilled.
“Hey,” Peter said. He rested Duncan’s head on the mat and crawled to his side. “You’re tensing up. What’s up?”
“Sorry.” Duncan wriggled his shoulders. “It does feel better.” He exhaled, chasing that lassitude, but the sense of rawness pricked at him.
Peter made a thoughtful noise. He lowered two fingertips, warm and slightly fragrant with almond oil, to the hollow between Duncan’s eyebrows. He flattened his other hand over Duncan’s solar plexus, a gentle weight.
A circuit completed; a puzzle piece slotted into place. Peace melted through Duncan’s body.
“All right?” Peter withdrew his hands, but the restfulness stayed.
Duncan let his eyes drift closed. “How did you know to do that?”
A pause. “Sometimes things come to me.”
Duncan looked up at him. Peter’s face was in shadow. “I’m pretty sure,” Duncan said, “that everybody has a little bit of power.”
“Maybe. I guess. Not enough to do much with.”
“Enough to do your part really well,” Duncan said, and warmed with Peter’s flush of pride.
Peter had expounded in some detail on what treats might be appreciated by a spirit cat. Duncan had let him run with it, and accepted without comment the catnip mouse Peter tucked into his jacket pocket. The dead wanted what they wanted, but the physical things they’d enjoyed in life didn’t usually come into it, though he’d never met a spirit who’d asked for the scented smoke or fake paper money or other odds and ends that Peter had told him about either.
Peter’s friend Tom met them at the front door of the library at closing time again, keenly interested in hearing what had gone on, but Peter, to Duncan’s relief, ignored the raised eyebrow and deflected the leading comment. Duncan left them sparring and made his way upstairs to where the cat was impersonating a sphinx on the arm of a chair.
Communicating with animals was always a challenge. They didn’t understand any more human speech than they had when they’d been alive, and trying to convey complex information to them without scents was like trying to describe something without using adjectives. Duncan sat on the floor and held out his hand to the cat, projecting a feeling of friendliness and security. The cat sniffed his fingers and then rubbed her cheek on–through–his knuckle, a feathery touch like the lightest puff of breath on his skin.
“It’s a nice place, isn’t it?” he asked in a soothing voice, thinking about the shadowy corners, the warm air vents, the soft places to sit and the high tops of bookshelves. The cat slitted her eyes at him in approval.
“How long have you been here, I wonder? Lots of cat lives? Since all the humans have been here, or before that?” He imagined the chapel building as an abandoned shell, cold, littered with trash, and got back an overlay of a lofty, shadowy space busy with the tangled tracks of small, succulent prey, with enticing fluttering noises above.
“Is she answering?” Peter asked quietly from behind him.
“She was definitely here before the renovations.”
“Do we need to know how she died?”
“No.” That was rarely a pleasant memory for anyone, and anyway it was what came after that that mattered. Duncan formed in his mind the feeling of the door–sunlight, warmth, anticipation. The cat shook herself and sat up, and began to vigorously groom one rear leg.
“You don’t like it? Why?” He thought of it again, a comfort, a rest, an inevitability. The cat lashed her tail and glared at him.
“Or does she just like it here better?” Peter asked.
Duncan pictured the spot where they were now, but in the late afternoon, sunlight pouring between the highrises to pool on the chair cushions. The cat sent him back images of a serious, dark-skinned child stroking her from ears to tail, the rustling of paper left on desks downstairs, leaves battering distractingly against the outside of a ground floor window in the swirling winds before a thunderstorm.
“I think that’s what it is.” He thought of the library walls, then of featureless space beyond them. “Where did you come from?”
The cat shrank back and hissed at him, eyes wide and glittering. Loss, incomprehension, fear noise danger hunger cold–
Duncan shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself. Then he felt a jolt of warmth: Peter kneeling at his side.
“She lost her people. She walked a long way. She didn’t know how to find her way home, but then she came here. It was out of the wind, and she was so cold and weak and her paws were frozen, and–” Duncan trembled with the cat’s weariness and pain. “She curled up on an old sleeping bag in the corner, and when she woke up, all the pain had gone away.”
Peter’s hands smoothed over Duncan’s arms. “That wasn’t really waking up, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t.” He sent an apology and mental cuddle to the cat: softness, darkness, warmth. “I know why you don’t want to leave. I understand.”
“So she’s been here for a while. But we’ve both seen spirits that have been haunting places for decades, and the door hasn’t stayed open for them. Why does the door want her so much?”
The cat tensed again. Her ears swivelled towards the landing at the top of the stairs. Then she leaped off the chair and bounded into the dark stacks.
The hairs rose on the back of Duncan’s neck. “Looks like we can ask it ourselves.”
The sense of the door swelled in his awareness, ripe and glowing. He turned towards it, and blinked against the sunrise light. It kept opening and opening, impossibly and eternally unfolding.
“Could you…” he started, and swallowed hard as pleasure trailed through him.
“Anything you need,” Peter said, and slid his arms under Duncan’s T-shirt.
Duncan clutched Peter’s arms through the cloth. He thought of the light narrowing to his senses, veiling its fire without lessening it, and sent the image towards the door. “Could you please close a little? So we can talk?”
The energy wavered. Waves of heat washed over him. Then, miraculously, the door receded to a thin, luminescent thread.
“Thank you.” He sent gratitude and relief to it. The door pulsed once, just slightly, and he caught his breath.
He pictured the cat sitting on the chair. “I know you want her, but she’s not ready to come to you.” He thought of her happy, lazing in the sun, batting at the moving shadows of insects beyond the glass. “She likes it here. She feels safe.”
A surge of satisfaction broke over him, and his hips jerked. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “But not now.”
Sensation fizzed at the edge of his perception, like a whispered conversation.
“How are you doing?” Peter asked quietly, his chest pressed to Duncan’s back.
“It’s not as intense as last time.” He was able to think and form words, at least.
What came at him next was a tsunami of sensation and emotion. He went blind; his back arched. Fireworks erupted through his pores.
He came back to himself slumped heavily against Peter, who was shirtless and warm and trying to keep a lid on his panic.
“‘M okay,” Duncan said, and flattened his hands over his temples; the inside of his head felt scraped. “Please,” he breathed, and had just enough time to brace himself before the door took him again.
This time it was a slower, sustained note, expanding towards but not quite reaching a crescendo: joy and love and comfort and completion. Then fur as if it were a scent, the melody of yellow-green eyes, beauty and longing over it all. When the last tinge of feeling lapped over him and receded, tears of yearning pricked his eyes. So that was why the door wanted her.
“I’ll let her know,” he promised through a tight throat. “I’ll tell her.”
He couldn’t talk to her from here; she was downstairs, crouched under a low shelf where there was a forgotten piece of scrap paper to sit on and a corner at her back. Duncan shifted in Peter’s arms. “Got to stand up,” he said reluctantly.
“Okay, no problem. Let me go first.” Peter kept his hands on Duncan as he stood. Duncan struggled up after him and gripped Peter’s shoulders.
“Where are we going?” Peter asked.
“Wait.” One-handed, Duncan started to wrestle himself out of his long-sleeved shirt.
“I’ve got it. Just hold on.” Duncan did, literally and figuratively, as Peter stripped him out of his shirt and then his T-shirt. “Better?”
Duncan pulled Peter against him and buried his face in the crook of Peter’s neck. Peter’s hands spread over Duncan’s back. Duncan buried that perfect joy, and its loss, in Peter’s skin, the smell of Pears soap and strong coffee, Peter’s openness and willingness to give him what he needed. He didn’t feel, at the moment, as though he’d ever get enough, but when he felt a little steadier, he braced himself and pulled away, though he kept a hand cupped around Peter’s shoulder.
“Can you talk about what’s going on?” Peter asked.
Duncan wiped his eyes on the back of his spare hand. “Someone on the other side of the door has been waiting a long time for her to come through,” he said. “I don’t think she knows. I need to go tell her.”
They shuffled down the stairs, arms around one another. Duncan’s legs shook. It wasn’t just the half-arousal, a maddening sustained tension that was almost worse than the driven need of the other night, or even the intensity of the yearning. Even with the door open just that crack, his power felt stretched and strummed and plucked to the point that he was vibrating with it.
When they got to the cat, he went down on hands and knees and then let himself fall full length onto the carpet, past caring. The cat flattened her ears and hissed at him.
“Just listen,” he pleaded into the shadows, and reeled it out to her as gently as he could.
The cat trilled in startled recognition, and squeezed herself out from under the low shelf. He let the sequence flow through his mind again, the love, the wanting, the particular flavour the energy had had. She cautiously sniffed at his face, an almost-tickle of phantom whiskers. He let the door appear in his mind–she jumped back–and then thought of the emotion on the other side, the door like the arch between the old brick shell they were in and the sunlight-filled glass of the library addition.
The door ballooned fully open again, just past Duncan’s feet. Pleasure shivered up from his soles to his breastbone. The cat lifted her head and her tail. A swirl of warmth and anticipation eddied out of the door. Duncan wafted it towards the cat. She burbled again, and trotted over to the door, ears up. She paused to rub her cheek against the nothingness that was the doorframe, and then meowed into the light and vanished to both Duncan’s power and his sight. The door pulled itself closed, and followed.
The stillness was beatific. Duncan might have dozed off for a few seconds. He woke to Peter sliding down beside him and pulling him in.
“You still with me?” Peter asked, breath heating Duncan’s temple. Duncan didn’t have anything left in him to reply, just made an indistinct sound and pushed closer, seeking all the skin he could get.
After a few minutes, Peter wrapped his leg around Duncan’s. “You need to get off?”
Duncan tilted his hips experimentally against the front of Peter’s jeans. He was still a little hard, but mostly he was exhausted. Peter was getting chilly, lying uncomfortably on the keys in his pocket, wondering at the back of his mind whether tonight would be the night he finally had to turn the furnace on, and where he’d put the card that repair guy had given him last fall….
“Nah, I’m fine. You?” he asked, though he knew the answer.
“Let’s just go home,” Duncan said.
“Home,” Peter echoed, and gave Duncan a squeeze before he pulled away.
A few evenings later, Peter was on the couch, flipping through the list of new science fiction movies on Netflix, when he heard the back door open.
“Hey,” he called, and Duncan appeared in the kitchen doorway, shrugging off his jacket. “There’s some pasta puttanesca left in the pot if you want it. I left out the anchovies. And I put the cheese on the side. And I didn’t know whether you’re into black olives, so I put those on the side too. So actually I guess it’s pasta with tomato sauce and a metric tonne of garlic, but anyway, you can heat it up if you’re hungry.”
“Thanks.” Duncan ducked back into the kitchen, and Peter heard the click of the gas stove. He selected something with spaceships and possibly zombies that he’d never heard of. After the first five minutes, Duncan came out of the kitchen with a bowl and settled on the couch beside him.
The movie turned out to be remarkably unengaging, given the amount of emoting that was happening onscreen. Peter pulled up the news app on his phone, read the first few headlines, grimaced, and closed it again. “You do anything interesting today?” he asked.
Duncan put the empty bowl on the coffee table. “I had a few job interviews.”
“Oh, yeah? Anything good?”
“Coffee shops, the usual.”
They watched some running and screaming.
“I figured I might stay in the city for the winter,” Duncan said. “I need to build up some savings, and there’s plenty of work to do.”
The real work, he meant, the work that he and Peter did together. Warmth spread through Peter’s chest.
Duncan cleared his throat. “I was wondering whether I should find a room,” he said. “A different room. You’ve been incredibly generous, Peter, and I appreciate it, but you’re not responsible for me, and I don’t want you to feel like I’m taking advantage of it. Of you.”
The warmth extinguished abruptly. Peter flinched. He’d thought they’d been working well together, on the job and off. A lot of his family still carried a grudge about him inheriting the house, and all his friends were pairing off or moving away or working all the time. It had made him feel good, this summer, to have someone to cook for and check up on. God knew it wasn’t a big house, and Peter knew he could be…a little much, for some people. And Duncan was the only one he could talk to about the work without people thinking he was flaky or outright nuts. But he could see how Duncan might not want to spend all his time hanging out with him just because they worked together–
Duncan was looking at him with concern. Peter grabbed his runaway thoughts with both hands. There was no point in prolonging drama with someone who knew what he was thinking.
“You’re welcome to stay here as long as you want,” he said. “I like having you here. If you want your own space, I get that too. But if it’s about taking advantage of me, don’t worry, you’re not. If you feel like you should pay rent, you can pay rent, I mean, you already buy groceries and it’s not like you use a lot of electricity or whatever, but you can pay me what you think is right. And if you want to go do a job on your own or take off for a while, you can just say so, it’s not a big deal, so–”
“Peter.” Duncan reached out and cupped his hand around the side of Peter’s neck. The touch was grounding. Peter swallowed and took a breath.
“I do like hanging out with you,” Duncan said. “I think we work well together too. If you’re fine with my staying, I’d like to stay.”
“Okay. Good,” Peter said. “I, um.”
“I kind of do feel a little responsible for you. If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have sent part of your soul behind the door, and the door wouldn’t be freaking out on you. Plus, I kind of like taking care of people.”
Duncan stroked Peter’s neck as he withdrew his hand. “I’m not exactly used to it. I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time.”
“But you can tell that it’s okay with me, right? You can feel it?”
Duncan shrugged. “Just because I can feel things doesn’t mean I always know what to do about them. My family wasn’t big on talking and sharing.”
“Yeah? My family shares everything all the time. Preferably in front of everybody, at the top of their lungs.”
Shouting burst from the television. They both jumped.
“What I’m thinking and feeling right now,” Peter said, deliberately shifting the mood, “is that this movie sucks. Also that we need popcorn.”
“Do you want me to pause it?” Duncan asked, as Peter stood up.
“Nah. Just give me a shout if the zombies finally show up.”
“I hope you’re talking about the movie,” Duncan said.
Peter laughed, a feeling of rightness settling into him, and went to dig the popper out of the kitchen cupboard.