by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
The village’s two blocks formed a figure eight. Duncan drove around it a few times, getting the lay of the land. Main drag, lined by Victorian brick in various stages of neglect and restoration. Left past the feed co-op and the stone foundations of the long-ago mill, left again to a street lined with wide verandahs and deep lawns, back around to the main street. Right past the primary school, right again and down the secondary main street–church, church turned into a gallery, pizza place, church turned into a day care–and he was back to the main street again.
He pulled into a curbside parking space and got out of the van. It was Tuesday-afternoon quiet, the summer’s heat baking the juice out of everybody and everything except the plantain pushing up through the sidewalk cracks. A cicada started up a drone on the next street over, but gave up on the effort and stuttered back into silence.
He scanned the store signs, and walked a few doors up to the place where he was meeting Harry Alban. It turned out to be a country cafe of the pine-and-plaid variety, coffee and grill grease hanging on the air in a way that would have been more comforting if the temperature had been about twenty-five degrees lower. Older men in short-sleeved plaid shirts, women in T-shirts with flowers and cats on the front… At a far corner table, someone raised a hand, a youngish guy whose pushed-up sleeves and need for a haircut said cool teacher even though he was wearing jeans and a grey henley. Duncan nodded at him and made his way between the tables.
“Yeah, how’s it going?” Duncan headed off a handshake with an open-handed wave and sat down.
“Not bad. Thanks for coming. Can I get you a cup of coffee? Or, Marilee does lemon iced tea.”
“Iced tea sounds great.”
“Coming up. Be right back.” He got up and went over to the counter. The woman there chatted with him as she filled two glasses with ice and topped them up from a pitcher of amber tea thick with lemon slices.
Alban’s thoughts were open and curious. There was darkness around the edges of his awareness, like indigo stained glass, but it was still and even, and it didn’t feel cruel. Duncan let himself relax a little.
Alban came back with the iced tea. As he placed the glasses on the table, Duncan caught a faint memory of him waiting tables during university. Then it was replaced with the faces of teenagers, and concern, and uncertainty about what would happen to them.
Duncan took a draught of the iced tea, too sweet for his taste but refreshing anyway. “So tell me what’s going on,” he said, “and why you think you need my help.”
Alban nodded. His thumb traced an unconscious pattern in the condensation on his glass. “I don’t know if this is the sort of thing you look for,” he started, and stopped.
“The dead show up in a lot of different ways,” Duncan said. Alban took an audible breath, but Duncan found that it was usually best just to put his cards right out on the table. Most times, it settled people down to realize that they weren’t the craziest one in the room. “What happened?”
Alban took a sip of iced tea. “The first incident, or the first one I noticed, was in February. One of my students had, basically, a major meltdown in the middle of class. I’d been keeping an eye on her, because I’d had a hunch that something was wrong. She’d been disruptive, laughing or coming out with non sequiturs, ignoring me when I called on her–none of which is unheard-of, I mean, I do teach high school history–but she’d never been one to attract attention like that before. Solid B student, kept to herself, wasn’t involved in many extracurriculars. But one day she just burst out sobbing at her desk. Kept begging us to be quiet and stop looking at her.” He looked out the window. “She didn’t finish the year.
“Then, about a month later…” He grimaced. “Despite what the village BIA would like you to think, we’re not all maple syrup festivals and antique shops out here.”
“Yeah, I grew up outside of Haliburton,” Duncan said.
Alban nodded, relieved. “Then you know. Aside from all the regular crap that people inflict on each other, there’s a lot of hidden poverty and everything that goes with it, and not a lot of resources to deal with it.
“I had this student with a…difficult home life. Not a bad kid, very creative, bright too, though he couldn’t concentrate for two minutes at a time to save his life. One day when he got home from school he attempted suicide, slit his wrists in his bedroom. One of his older brothers found in him time, luckily.” He stirred tea with his straw and dragged it through the resulting whirlpool. “He transferred out of the district. Sent to live with some relatives elsewhere, I think.”
“Both of these kids are still alive?”
“As far as I’ve heard.”
“One damn thing after another. Fights, vandalism, drama, the worst midterms I have seen in seven years of teaching…” Duncan felt Alban consciously try to lighten the mood. “Also, all my plants died.”
“Plants in the classroom?”
“Yeah. I like to force bulbs in the springtime. It brightens up the room and gives us something to look forward to. I start them at home and bring them in when they’re close to blooming. This year, they all just stopped growing and went brown. I’ve been doing it for four years, and I’ve never seen that happen.”
“Okay.” Duncan sipped from his glass. “Tell me the last thing.”
Startled, Alban flicked a gaze to his face, and away.
“I’ll keep it to myself,” Duncan said.
“Right.” Alban drew in a breath. He folded his arms in front of him on the tabletop and leaned towards Duncan, lowering his voice. “Here’s the truth. I have some history with depression. I’ve been good for a few years now, but this spring I found myself really struggling. The weird thing was, I could time the change in my mood almost to the hour. The school week was bad. By late Friday night, I could feel it lifting, like a blanket being pulled off me. Weekends were fine. I slept well, graded papers, did work around the house, went out with friends–no problem. Then by Monday at lunch I wanted to lie down again and never get up.
“When school ended in May, I was healthy again within a few days. I had a good summer. Last week, I dropped by the school so I could make a list of the things I needed to do to get the classroom ready for September. I wasn’t there fifteen minutes before I had to put my head down on my desk.”
“Did anyone look for physical causes? Carbon monoxide, stuff like that?”
“Carbon monoxide, radon, mould, I don’t know what all. That was all done in the spring.” Alban smiled tightly. “After that incident with the accidental chlorine gas over in Campbell River a few years ago, the Board takes health and safety very seriously.”
“And you don’t think it’s all just a reaction to what happened to the first two kids?” Duncan asked, though he knew it wasn’t.
“No.” Alban looked at him steadily. “I think there’s something wrong in that classroom.”
The old high school was a two-storey brick square smaller than Duncan had been expecting. The stone over its double doors read 1902. Stretching out from one side was a long, low 1960s addition lined with windows, ending in a block of brick that bookended the structure: the gym, Duncan thought, the sound of a dodgeball hitting flesh echoing in his memory.
Alban led him around the older building to a foyer of the newer one. “We’re the high school for the district, since they closed the one in Hastingsville last year,” he said, as they entered through sheet metal doors into a corridor of painted concrete block. “We’re just about full now, probably for the first time in thirty-five years. That’s why my classroom’s in use.”
“It wasn’t being used before?”
“The old school was storage space for decades.” They went through another set of double doors at the west end of the corridor, and entered another era.
Honey-coloured wood and white plaster, frosted transoms over the classroom doors. A permeating smell of chalk and wet wool; his chilblained fingers throbbed with cold–
“It’s the corner room?”
“That’s the one.” Alban followed him past the central staircase, but stopped on the rectangle of decorative tiles that marked an open space by the front doors. “Do you need me to come in with you?”
“Either way’s fine,” Duncan said absently, his attention on the boy in the classroom.
“I’ll be out here, then. Let me know if you need anything.” His thoughts blooming with relief, he sat on the second stair and pulled his phone out of his pocket.
The heavy door closed behind Duncan with a hollow thud. The classroom was high-ceilinged and warm in the mid-afternoon sun, except that he could feel the chill in the far corner, a pocket of shadow where there should be none. Tendrils of cold coiled out from it, like icy water poured into a warm bath.
Duncan closed his eyes. He curled his right hand against his breastbone, where the power–what Peter called the talent–lived in him.
“Hello,” he said.
Shock. Interest. Wariness.
“I’ve come to talk to you.”
Suspicion. Curiosity. Doubt. The shadow wavered. Duncan opened his eyes.
The boy hadn’t gotten his growth spurt yet, a skinny adolescent in a hand-me-down suit and farmer’s boots. His misery sat in Duncan’s stomach like broken stone. “Who are you?” he asked.
Names were something to be cautious of. “I think you’ve gotten lost, and I’m here to help you.”
The boy considered. “I’m at school.”
“Yes, but there’s somewhere else you should be going.”
“I came here to…” His eyes went wide, and his pale form flickered out.
Duncan closed his eyes again, found the spark of power, saw the boy, opened his eyes.
“Who are you?” the boy asked.
“I’ve come to help you go through the door.”
“I can’t.” He was looking at the classroom door. “I can’t open it.”
“Not that door,” Duncan said gently. “The real one.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” The boy’s form shivered uncertainly, then fizzed into static and disappeared.
“I can help the pain go away,” Duncan said into the shadow.
Grey glimmered on grey. The boy frowned at him. “Who are you?”
Most of the dead found their way by instinct. Every so often, someone missed or turned their back on the door’s opening and stayed on this side, mired in fear, self-loathing, attachment to the world, unfinished business. This boy was stuck, aware enough to be wretched, lost enough to be unable to help himself.
How long had he been here? From his clothes, a century maybe, give or take a decade on either side. He might have been asleep for much of it. Did his pain leave him unable to see the door, or had he refused to go through it?
“I’ve come to help you go through the door,” Duncan repeated. He closed his eyes again and felt for the spot of warmth and possibility that the door manifested as for him. His senses slid over the boy’s presence, Alban’s absorption in a texted conversation on his phone, the kaleidoscope flock awareness of half a dozen birds in a tree outside the window. The door didn’t appear.
He curled his hand against his chest, took a breath, and tried again. The door had been a bit… temperamental this summer. It was usually there, but occasionally– Yes, there it was, unfolding, coming closer, curling open–
The boy vanished in a flash of darkness. The door clapped shut. Duncan winced and shook out his hand–instinct only; the sting of the boy’s departure hadn’t been physical.
School didn’t start for another two weeks. He had time. Best to let things settle, and try again tomorrow.
“I’m going to come talk to you again soon,” he said. There was no answer, and he let himself out of the classroom without entirely turning his back on the corner.
Alban rose and tucked his phone back into his pocket. “How’d it go?”
“You’re right, you have an unhappy spirit. It looks like he’s avoiding the door, and I think he’s been asleep for a while, which is maybe why no one noticed him before…. What?”
Alban closed his open mouth. “That’s… Hearing you say it like that, it’s…” He shook his head. “You’re saying it’s real.”
“You know it’s real. You can feel it.”
“Yeah…” Alban blew out a breath. “It’s a pretty big thing to believe in. For a while in the spring I wondered whether… Anyway. I’m glad you could come.”
“You trusted yourself enough to call me. That took guts,” Duncan said, and the thin pinch of anxiety that was Alban’s self-doubt eased in his consciousness.
They passed through the doors into the new school. Alban cleared his throat. “So, do you have somewhere to stay in town?”
Duncan usually found a quiet side street and unrolled his sleeping bag in the back of his van. “Are there any campgrounds around?”
Alban pulled a card out of his pocket. “I’ve reserved a room for you at the motel. It’s on me. Also, Marilee knows that anything you order at the cafe goes on my tab. Her club sandwich with locally cured bacon and thick-cut fries is legendary.”
“You don’t have to,” Duncan started, but Alban shook his head.
“You said on the phone that you don’t charge for your work. The least I can do is make you comfortable while you’re here.”
The thought of air conditioning and a cool shower was tempting. Duncan accepted the card. “Thanks, I appreciate it.”
They emerged into the white summer glare. The asphalt of the parking lot sent heat licking up the ankles of Duncan’s jeans.
“When does the school open tomorrow?”
“The custodial staff are here at seven. I’ll probably be doing lesson planning at home, but you can sign in at the office. Will you need my help?”
“No, I’d rather spend some time with him on my own.”
“All right. Give me a call if you have any questions or need anything.” Alban opened his unlocked car door.
“Thanks. I’ll let you know.”
The motel was past the co-op, over the bridge, a line of brightly painted doors against white stucco. Duncan pulled up to the peaked-roofed office and went inside. He dinged the bell on the uncluttered counter and stood looking at the brochure rack–bicycle tours, alpaca farm, harvest festival, antique market–until a young Korean woman came smiling in from the back of the building.
“Hello! Can I help you?”
“Harry Alban reserved me a room,” Duncan said.
“Right. Just a moment.” She pulled a tablet from a shelf under the counter and poked at it. “Duncan Coburn, right? Would you like one of our vintage rooms, or one of the updated ones? They all have the same amenities, it’s only the decor that’s different.”
“Updated,” Duncan said without hesitation. He’d stayed in enough cheap motel rooms through necessity rather than irony that ugly wallpaper and polyester comforters held no appeal for him.
“I’ll put you in Three.” She handed him a keychain that had a fleur-de-lis charm on it. “Let me know if you need anything.”
He drove the fifty feet to the red door that had a column of white figures painted on it: 3, Three, Trois, Drei, then Korean, Chinese, and a couple of intricate, swooping scripts that Duncan had seen before only on restaurant signs. The scent on the close air that enveloped him as he entered the dim room was not harsh floral disinfectant, but rather beeswax from the thick candle on the shelf by the door. The room had been stripped down, the fake-wood panelling painted white, the carpets replaced with engineered oak flooring. The closed paper blinds on the windows were white as well. On the bed was a striped cotton blanket, and above the pine headboard hung a photograph of fields covered in snow.
The effect was the same as that first cool swallow of iced tea. Duncan exhaled, letting the perpetual thread of tension that came with being near other people ease.
He got his things out of the van and took a shower, then settled onto the bed in fresh boxers and a T-shirt.
His phone buzzed. anything? Peter messaged him.
A stuck spirit. I don’t think I’ll have any problems, Duncan typed back.
A pause, then, k b careful let me know if u need anything
Duncan chose the checkmark from his emoji keyboard, sent it off, and opened the paperback mystery he’d gotten at the thrift store in Port Hope.
When a car pulled up a few doors down and a couple of guys clattered into their room, Duncan blocked out the noise and continued reading about the vicar’s toolshed and what the anthropomorphized cat had found. It wasn’t until he blushed with no reason that he realized what was happening.
The curtain’s closed, c’mon, Kevin said, pulling Tyler by his belt loops, leaning in close enough to smell that hippie soap Tyler’s mom got from the health food store.
Okay, okay. Tyler wasn’t really worried about the curtain, he was just weirdly nervous, like all those times doing this with one eye and ear out for discovery had carved nervousness right into every thought of sex for him.
Duncan focused his concentration on the words in front of him.
Kevin kissed like it wasn’t just one thing to do, Tyler thought, but like it was a bunch of things, hard, wet, gentle, quick, long, deep. Tyler put his arms around Kevin’s back and enjoyed the heat of his skin through his T-shirt.
Duncan shifted uncomfortably and tugged at the fabric of his boxers.
Kevin loved this moment, when Tyler relaxed a little and let himself start to get into it. He shuffled a half-step to the side, so he could nudge his knee between Tyler’s legs. Tyler made a sound and dug his fingers into Kevin’s shoulder blade.
Usually, Duncan couldn’t feel living people from that far away–he couldn’t image how he’d still be sane under the onslaught if he could–but once in a while, out of some quirk of personality or affinity, it happened, like sounds coming a long distance over the water at night. He’d long ago gotten over feeling guilty about any of it. People imposed everything on him all the time–their money worries, their heartbreaks, their pregnancy scares, their shopping lists, their five-year plans. If he shared their pleasure sometimes too, it was just part of the package.
Wanna lie down?
Fuck, yeah, Tyler said fervently, and Kevin laughed even as he was pushing him towards the bed.
Tyler felt the mattress against the backs of his knees, but he waited, let Kevin manhandle him down onto it, because that was super hot in a way he hadn’t yet felt comfortable looking at too closely. Kevin’s hand slid up under his cotton shirt, skated over his ticklish ribs and up to circle over his left nipple. Tyler arched his back. Kevin kissed him hard, kissed his neck, withdrew his hand and opened the snaps of Tyler’s shirt with one long yank that made Tyler’s hips jerk. Alone in his own room, Duncan gasped.
You want anything different? Kevin asked, an inch from Tyler’s mouth. ‘Cause we’ve got this whole bed…
After months of hastily jerking each other off in back sheds and woodlots, Tyler had lots of ideas, but it was too much to ask for all at once, even knowing that they probably wouldn’t have the time left together to do everything he wanted. He tugged at Kevin’s T-shirt. Take this off.
God, Kevin was so warm, and his bare chest against Tyler’s own made Tyler feel like the first time he’d gotten high, that night at Christine’s cousin’s bush party. Tyler pulled at Kevin’s hip, and Kevin took the hint and rolled over onto him. Tyler could take the weight; after years of hauling bales and mucking out stalls, he was solid and broad. Tyler opened his legs and let Kevin’s hips fit against his. Kevin thrust against him once, hardness under denim, and Tyler’s vision swam.
Kevin grinned down. Do you want… He hesitated–he’d never said these things out loud to anyone else before–but if he was going to back off from this challenge, his name wasn’t Kevin Simcoe. Do you want me to suck your dick?
Oh God, Tyler managed.
Only if you want to. Kevin sobered. I just wanted to try saying that. We don’t have to.
It wasn’t that Tyler hadn’t thought about it–obsessively, even–but there were other things he wanted to do that weren’t so…intimidating. I want…I want you on top of me, and just…
Kevin slid sideways so that he could pop the button on Tyler’s jeans. I’m going to get you off so hard, he promised, and lighting shot up Duncan’s–Tyler’s–spine.
It was all he could do not to moan as Kevin worked his jeans down over his hips and off. Kevin cupped his hand and slid it under the waistband of Tyler’s briefs. Tyler gritted his teeth and reached for Kevin’s fly, which disrupted Kevin’s fine motor control at least. Let’s just do it.
Kevin pushed himself up and stripped off his pants in a tangle. Tyler’s underwear hit the floor at the same time.
Wait a sec, Kevin said, and went to root through his bag. When he came back, he was carrying a square green tin. He pulled the lid off, and a familiar medicinal scent drifted into the room.
Holy shit, Bag Balm, seriously? Tyler said, thrown out of the moment. He propped himself up on his elbows.
I wasn’t going to go buy lube at the Rexall’s. Kevin coated two fingers with pale amber goo. He reached over and wrapped slippery fingers around Tyler’s dick. Tyler sucked in breath, and all thoughts of the farm vanished.
When they were both slicked up, Kevin wiped his hand off on his thigh and settled down over Tyler again. Tyler moved experimentally; their dicks slid together, and he made a high sound that was completely out of his control.
Spread your legs more, Kevin said. Yeah, like that. His weight pressed Tyler into the mattress. This okay?
This is so fucking okay, Tyler breathed.
Kevin rocked his hips, jolting them both. Yeah, that feels so good, God, Ty–
He kept talking, but Tyler lost all words, lost the ability to do anything but shove up against Kevin and clutch his shoulders and let need and pleasure crash through him. When he crested the last wave he couldn’t even let Kevin know, couldn’t do anything but let it take him over the edge, blind and gasping, his entire body shaking with release and gratification.
Propped up on stiff arms, Kevin watched Tyler come, listened to the wild cry that he was pretty sure Tyler didn’t even know he was making, and came himself, thrusting into the hot, wet mess between their bodies, and collapsing onto Tyler even as the last flares of pleasure sparked through him.
They all must have fallen asleep. Duncan came back to himself with languor, his boxers sticky–he’d come sometime in there too, he wasn’t even sure when–and every muscle in his body lax. He floated until the clamminess became too uncomfortable to ignore. Then he took another quick shower, threw on his clothes, and strolled the half-kilometre to the diner. Even the predictable conversation with the waitress about what vegan meant didn’t bother him, and after a satisfying toasted tomato sandwich and potato salad, he went back to the motel, read until he couldn’t keep his eyes open, and slept like the peaceful dead.
The next morning, he left the van in the motel parking lot. It was fifteen-minute walk along the county road from the diner to the high school, gravel grating under his shoes. The humidity was less thick than the day before, and a breeze stirred treetops and grass stems, predicting a change in the weather later in the day. He stopped by the school office, signed his name on a clipboard marked Visitors that he found on the deserted desk, and made his way to the classroom.
“Good morning,” he said, stopping just inside the door. “I’m back to talk to you again.”
The boy seemed more solid this morning, his gaze tentative but curious. “You were here before.”
“That’s right. Can you tell me your name?”
“Hello, Theo. Do you know where you are?”
“I’m…at school.” The darkness around him flared.
“Yes. Do you know how long you’ve been here?”
Theo rubbed the heel of his hand into one eye as if waking himself up. “I was waiting…”
Duncan took a few steps forward. “What are you waiting for?”
Pain speared up under Duncan’s ribs. He grabbed the edge of the nearest desk to steady himself. “For James,” Theo said thinly.
“Why are you waiting here?”
The gloom in the corner roiled. “So Mother and Father wouldn’t find me.” There was a silent, thunderous clap, and Theo disappeared in a flash of horror: swinging feet, purpled face, distended tongue.
Duncan flinched a glance up to the ceiling, to where, in a memory that wasn’t his, a gas light fixture hung, more than strong enough to tie a rope around.
“Theo,” he said softly. “Tell me about James.”
Long moments passed. A passing cloud briefly dimmed the room.
“Who was he? Was he your friend?”
Theo coalesced into Duncan’s vision again. “He was the cleverest and handsomest boy in school. Everyone loved him, but we were bosom friends, like Damon and Pythias. He was going to marry my sister, and I was going to marry his sister, and we would have our farms side by side and be best friends always.” Theo’s voice caught.
“What happened to him, Theo?”
“He said he’d wait for me, until I was old enough and we could go together, but he didn’t. He joined up and went to war, and then–” Theo’s form shivered like hot air over a desert.
“I’m so sorry.” Theo’s grief and bewilderment clenched behind Duncan’s ribs. He breathed around them. “It’s a terrible thing, to lose a friend.” He reached out with his power and touched Theo’s hand. “You’ve been waiting for a long time, Theo. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”
Theo looked at him with shadowed eyes. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. It doesn’t matter what you lost. It doesn’t matter that you felt despair, or sadness, or anger. Everyone goes through the door, Theo.”
Duncan reached out and felt for the door. He smoothed his power over it, tasting music, feeling the scent of lilacs, and tugged gently to open it–
A plane of light and sensation smashed him sideways. The floor slammed up and grabbed him.
He lay on the grey linoleum tiles, pain seeping up from the side he’d landed on to encompass his entire body. His thoughts were foggy. He tried to curl around the rawness in his chest, but couldn’t make his body obey him. His hands twitched, seeking touch. Peter would help him, Peter would quiet the need. Where was he?
Peter wasn’t here, he remembered gradually. Peter was back in the city, and Duncan was here on his own, as he had been for years, and he had work to do.
He flexed his hands, and pushed himself up to sit propped up against the metal leg of a desk.
“I can’t go through the door,” Theo said from the other side of the room.
“It doesn’t usually do that.”
“I can’t,” Theo repeated. “What if James comes back?”
Duncan peered up at him. The sun had come out again; it shone through Theo so that Duncan couldn’t see his face. “From behind the door? No one ever comes back from there, Theo.”
“He might come back to me,” Theo said stubbornly, and winked out.
Duncan closed his eyes briefly, feeling out of his depth. He was missing something important, and he was sore clean through. Time to take a break and think things through a little more.
He managed to stand up and straighten, though he wanted to hunch and hobble out the door as if he were a hundred years old.
“I’ll come back again,” he said to the corner. Theo refused to answer.
Outside, a rising wind stirred the heat around. Duncan sat on one of the concrete blocks that lined the edges of the parking lot, and called Alban.
“Were you studying World War I when things started to happen?” he asked once they’d gotten past the greetings.
“Yes, it’s part of the grade ten curriculum. Is that relevant?”
“I think so,” Duncan said. “Is there a war memorial in town?”
“Beside the town hall. It’s in the triangle where Main and Centre meet, south of the stores.”
“Got it. Thanks.”
He hung up and, after some thought, sent a message to Peter. Has the door been acting strange for you lately? He sat for five minutes, idly watching cars and pickup trucks go by, but Peter didn’t send an answer. It must be one of the days he was at work.
The walk back into town seemed a lot longer than it had first thing in the morning. By the time Duncan dropped into a chair at the cafe, he felt as limp as the bug-gnawed petunias in the decorative planters outside. A waitress showed up with a pitcher within a minute, and he downed the first glass of iced tea almost without breathing, and sank back with his eyes closed until the drink hit his system and he revived enough to order a early lunch. Sugar and caffeine didn’t steady the power the same way touch did, but they were what he had on hand.
After eating, feeling a little more solid, he strolled down the main street to the town hall. It was like dozens of others he’d seen in small towns across the province, stone foundation and windowsills, red brick architecture grander than its actual size. This one had a little cupola two storeys over its broad double doors.
The war memorial stood in a grassy area in the point where the roads met, a ten-foot-high pyramid of river stones, pink and grey, each stone the size of Duncan’s doubled fists. A bronze plaque was set into the face. A Lamb, a Forrest, a Weatherston, two Hindmarshes, three Campbells–Duncan winced, hoping for their families’ sake they hadn’t been related, though in a farming community this size they very well might have been. One of the Campbells was a J., as was a Topping and a Trobe.
He walked around the memorial. On the adjacent side was another plaque, this one in memory of the dead of the second war to end all wars. Then he sat for a while on the low concrete fence that surrounded the memorial. Mature maple trees lining the road provided a fringe of shade, though the concrete still radiated heat from the morning’s sun. Duncan let his breath slow, and closed his eyes.
A motorcycle roared by on the road, shaking him into alertness again. He stood and stretched, grimacing at a twinge in his ribs, and was reminded of how much iced tea he’d drunk at lunch. He climbed the wide stone steps of the town hall and studied the cluster of signs on and beside the thick doors. There were, he was relieved to see, public washrooms inside. There was also a municipal archives, open ten to four, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
He used the washroom, and followed the archives signs to, predictably, the basement. The door was propped open with a wedge of two-by-four. The room was about the size of his hotel room, lined with shelves of books and binders, a thick wooden table in the centre.
“Hi, how can I help you?” a voice said. He looked in the direction of the voice. A short, plump young woman popped up from behind a cubic foot box on a desk.
“Yeah, I was wondering about the war memorial outside. How can I find out people’s first names?”
“That’s easy, we have a list.” She sidled around another stack of boxes and contemplated a shelf, then took down a thin binder and extended it to him.
“Great. Do you want me to sign in or something?”
“Only if you’re using original materials. Do you have a bag with you? No? Okay then, just feel free to have a seat, use pencils only, and let me know if you have any other questions.”
Duncan slid into a seat the same vintage as the wooden table, and paged through the binder, which had a section for each man: military forms, obituaries, even a few photocopied letters. Campbell was a John, occupation farmhand, twenty-four when he was killed in action. Topping was a John as well, a labourer. He’d given his father as next of kin; he’d joined up at eighteen. He’d died in a camp in England, of pneumonia following measles. Trobe was a Jonas, a baker, five foot seven, thirty-four years old, brown hair, blue eyes; missing, presumed dead, September 21, 1917.
Duncan paged through the entire binder, in case for some reason not every name had made it onto the memorial. Thirty-seven men gone and not coming back, but none of them a James.
He returned the binder to the archivist and went back outside. He could feel a new coolness on the moving air. The walk back to the school worked the kinks out of his stiffening muscles, though he’d be sore tomorrow.
The school felt abandoned, only two cars in the parking lot. From somewhere down the corridor came the drone of a floor polisher. As he passed into the older section, there was a rumble almost too low to be heard, thunder far in the distance. I hope King’s not caught outside, he heard Theo think, and got a dim glimpse of a shaggy black and brown terrier trembling under a shelf in a barn.
He could feel Theo watch him enter. Duncan sat down at one of the desks.
“It must have been hard to see James go,” he said. “Did you get a chance to say goodbye to him?”
Theo said nothing. An ache gnawed at Duncan’s chest.
“Did you get mad when he told you he was going?” Duncan tried.
There had been no quarrel, no farewell. James had come to church in his uniform, so handsome, so brave. I’m old enough now to do my part, he’d said, and then he’d gone.
“Theo,” Duncan said gently, “do you know if he was killed? Did they only tell you he was missing? Is that why you think he might come back for you?”
Theo rubbed a hand over damp eyes.
The door faded into being at Duncan’s shoulder, ripe and beckoning. Air as warm and moist as breath puffed on the back of his neck, and all his hair stood on end. Duncan wet his lips. “I’m trying,” he said cautiously to it.
The door cracked open for half a heartbeat. Invisible light tingled up Duncan’s left arm and down his right. Carbonated warmth saturated his body, buzzing like electricity but not so harsh. He lifted his hands. The door evaporated.
Duncan inhaled and rubbed his arms. He pressed too hard on his elbow, bruised from the morning, and flinched. What in the name of the blessed dead was going on with the door this summer?
Theo had crouched down and buried his head in the crooks of his elbows, as if protecting himself from a blow or a blast. Thunder rolled at the edge of hearing.
Duncan stood up. “I’m going to go now. I’ll be back to talk to you again.” He waited in case Theo had something to say, but Theo’s attention had turned away from him. Duncan limped out of the classroom.
The storm caught him three-quarters of the way back to the motel, a curtain of rain that plastered his hair to his head and his clothes to his body within seconds. When he got to his room he kicked off his squelching shoes and walked straight into the bathtub, where he peeled off everything down to his skin. He spread the scant contents of his wallet out on the dresser to dry and gave his phone a once-over with a towel. There was a reply from Peter waiting for him.
door seems normal far as i can tell why whats up?
It seems– He paused to think. –stronger?
wow stronger for u must be something, Peter texted. like bad or?
Not bad, I don’t think. Remember when we played that video game and I kept swinging too far past the platform and falling? It’s like that. Like the controls are out of whack. Not that he’d ever presume to control the door, but he’d learned to read it and work with it, occasionally coax it into being where he needed it, and now everything he’d spent twenty years learning was off-kilter.
He got into a t-shirt and pyjama pants and sat on the bed. I haven’t felt like this since–
He stopped, remembering himself at thirteen, overstimulated by sourceless voices and emotions, people no one else around him could see, and a thing he came to think of as a door appearing and knocking him flat with demands and sensations he didn’t have words for.
–since I first started the work, he finished.
a part of yr life energy did go through the door that one time. who knows what effect thats having
That…might explain it. He hadn’t meant it to happen; it had been an accident, just a side effect of the last thing he’d been able to think of that had worked in a pretty nasty case in Toronto back in the spring. He’d just met Peter then, and neither of them had talked about the possible consequences afterwards.
Could be. A twinge of apprehension went through him. Do you think it’s going to get worse?
dont know. never seen that before. want me 2 look into it?
k you ok?
Yes. There didn’t seem much he could do about it, aside from what he usually did, which was to go slowly, and grit his teeth through whatever crap came his way as a result.
k hows yr ghost?
ha k BE CAREFUL
Duncan sent three checkmarks back to Peter, and put his phone on the bedside table. He slouched against the pillows. Lunch was wearing off, and his power had taken a heavy wallop that morning. The rain drummed soothingly on the roof. Duncan closed his eyes and drifted off.
He trailed through disjointed sensations: fast-moving stars, intimate touch, explosions like fireworks, sweetness and salt, music.
This is not bad, Tyler said, pressing back into Kevin’s bare arm where it stretched behind him along the headboard. They hadn’t really been watching the first half-hour of the movie, but he’d seen it enough times that he knew what was coming.
Kevin reached over to snag a handful of popcorn out of the bag Tyler held upright between his knees. If you came with me we could do this all the time, y’know.
A spark of irritation pierced Tyler’s content. Will you knock it off?
I’m just saying–
Tyler shrugged out of his embrace and pushed himself to the edge of the bed. Popcorn scattered across the bedspread and showered onto the floor. He glared at the wall. I said I didn’t want to talk about it on this trip. Jesus, Kev, can you just let it go?
Kevin opened his mouth, then clenched his teeth so hard he felt his jaw pop. Tyler was so goddamn stubborn. It drove him nuts sometimes.
Fine, he said when the silence became heavier than he could stand. Okay. I’ll shut up. Let’s just watch the movie.
There was a battle on the screen, people yelling and music swelling as control panels and entire spaceships scintillated into oblivion. Peter would know what they were watching, Duncan thought.
After a while, Tyler sat back against the headboard, knees drawn up. After another while, Kevin dared to scoot a little closer to him. He extended his arm and cupped Tyler’s far shoulder. Tyler let himself be drawn in. It kind of gave him a crick in his neck, but he knew he wouldn’t have this for much longer, and he watched the rest of the movie at a tilt, ear resting on Kevin’s bony shoulder.
“So he doesn’t want to leave?” Alban asked, pouring a small mountain of sugar from the glass decanter onto his spoon.
Duncan set aside the breakfast menu and resigned himself to peanut butter toast. “His friend died in the war, and Theo thinks he’s going to come back for him.”
“Does that happen often? People not…moving on, I mean.”
“No, most people find their way on their own. The door’s got a, a pull. Sometimes spirits who stay behind are lost, like if they died suddenly and don’t understand what happened, or else they need to stay and do something before they go. Or they don’t want to go for some other reason.”
Alban added a glug of cream to his mug of coffee. “Like what?”
“They think they’re not worthy, because of things they’ve done in life, or things that have been done to them. And I met one who told me she’d lived in that house for ninety-four years, it suited her just fine, and she didn’t see why she had to change.”
Alban laughed. “How do you do it? Do you have, I don’t know, spells or…”
“Some people do. They think they’re spells, anyway. I’m not so sure. I just talk to the spirits, show them where the door is. Sometimes I help them do what they need to do, and then they can leave.”
“What if they just won’t?”
“I can’t force them. Sometimes I can get them to stop doing the thing that’s bothering the living, and that’s enough. Sometimes it works to come back some other time.” He took a sip of tea. “I burned down a house once.”
Alban blinked at him. “Seriously?”
“It had to go,” Duncan said grimly. “Don’t worry, this isn’t like that, nothing close to it. Theo’s grieving and lonely, not cruel. I just need to convince him that things will be better for him if he moves on.”
“Do you know…” Alban leaned forward. “Do you know what happens? After?”
“After we go through?” Every time he sent someone through, peace brushed against him, anticipation, understanding, light. He’d seen more, once–or felt or tasted or touched it–but when he tried to remember it, the specifics blurred away from him like the tide going out. “It’s…good. Really good. It’s…big.” He shrugged. “I don’t think it’s a thing we can understand before it happens to us. But I’m completely sure we don’t have to be afraid of it.”
After breakfast, Duncan went back to the motel to pick up his phone, which he’d left charging. He pulled up the blinds, and sunlight made the room glow white. He’d slept better here than he had since leaving the city–he wasn’t used to all the country-specific night-time racket yet–but he couldn’t expect Alban to pay for it for much longer. Maybe he should take off for a few weeks, come back after school started. If he could convince the school to leave that classroom empty for a while…
We have to talk about this, Kevin said.
Tyler rolled up a sweatshirt and stuffed it into his duffle bag, his back to Kevin.
Dude, will you just listen?
Tyler zipped the duffle bag shut with a yank. There’s nothing to talk about.
No, listen, I’ve got it figured out. I’m coming home for Thanksgiving, that’s only about six weeks after I go. I can probably swing a couple other weekends, then it’s Christmas break. Then Reading Week, then a few months and it’s end of term. I can probably get a job back home for the summer. It’s not even a whole year.
Folding his arms over the twist in his chest didn’t make it go away. Tyler sat down on the edge of the bed, then stood up again. You know that’s not how it’s going to go.
It’ll go the way we make it go. God, he was so tired of this same stupid argument. Why wouldn’t Tyler believe him?
You’re getting out of your shitty little town like you always wanted. Tyler shuffled from side to side, unable to keep still for this. I’m happy for you, I’m really am. I am. But you’re going on to bigger things, and I’m not. He overrode Kevin’s protest. You’re going to do new stuff, and meet new guys, and everything’s going to change, and you’re not going to want a loser boyfriend who can’t even come out to his family, like, ever–
Ty, it’s not like it’s forever. We can Skype and message, and I’m going to come back. Kevin took a few steps towards Tyler.
Nobody comes back! Tyler’s eyes prickled. Who do you know who ever came back who didn’t flunk out of university? And you’re not going to flunk out, you’re going to do awesome. Kevin came closer. Tyler swallowed; he knew if he let Kevin touch him, he was a goner. I wasn’t going to do it like this, he said, and wiped his face on the cuff of his plaid shirt. I was going to wait until you were gone and it just happened. But you keep talking about stuff that’s never going to happen, and I just…
So you’re just going to, what, dump me without even trying?
It came out hoarse because his voice was gone in tears. I’m sorry.
Kevin bit the inside of his cheek hard, because that kind of pain was distracting and useful. Fine. I guess we really don’t have anything to talk about. He made his voice even; never let anybody see that they hurt you, that was the main thing. Whatever you want, Ty. We better go, check-out’s at eleven.
He banged the door open harder than he needed to when he carried his bag out. Kev? Tyler whispered in a panic of regret, but the sound went nowhere in the airless and empty room.
Duncan stumbled into the dim bathroom and sat down on the edge of the tub and bent his head to his knees. Wrapped around the stone of loneliness and hurt in his stomach, he let himself sob for a good solid minute. Then he uncurled and, breath by breath, let other people’s pain empty from him. He could feel them both and he honestly didn’t know who had it worse, Kevin who was going or Tyler who was being left behind, Tyler who was letting their shared bond drop or Kevin who was trying to hold onto it. First love almost always led to first heartbreak, one way or another…
He blew his nose and splashed cold water on his face, and thought about the things that tore people apart.
It was mid-afternoon before Duncan entered the school again. A clicking of computer keys came from the office. One of the doors down the hallway was open, conversation drifting through it. He walked past, into the old school, into the classroom.
“Theo,” he said. Theo half-appeared, a smoky shape against the wainscotting. “Let me tell you about James.”
He shuffled the papers in his hand, notes in his messy handwriting on scrap paper repurposed from the archives’ blue box that morning. “He was discharged after the war and came home in February 1919. He attended one year of university in Kingston, but his father was injured in an accident, and he came back to help with the farm. He married Amelia Lamb in 1923. They had three children. He sang in the church choir. He was a volunteer firefighter. He inherited the farm, but it wasn’t always profitable, and at different times he worked as a carpenter, and in the co-op and the drugstore in town. The old farmhouse had a bad fire in the Forties, and he rebuilt it himself. He liked birdwatching, and he helped rescue injured wild animals. Everyone remembers him as trustworthy and kind.”
Duncan looked up. Theo’s eyes were wide and dark.
“James is gone now. He died of a heart attack in 1974,” Duncan said. “That was years ago, Theo. He’s not going to come back. He’s gone ahead.”
“He didn’t want to be my friend any more,” Theo said. His image greyed to fog. “He was always nice to me, but it wasn’t the same. He was different.”
“The war changed a lot of people. Growing up changes people, too.”
“I couldn’t bear it. No one loved him like I did.” Theo looked up, to where the shadow of a rope hung from the shadow of a light fixture.
“So you gave up all the chances you would have had at loving someone else, and having someone love you back.” Duncan shook his head. “It was all long ago, Theo. He’s been gone for a long time, and so have you. It’s time to go through the door.”
The door unfurled beside Duncan, soft and ready.
“Will I see him there?” asked Theo, stepping away from the corner.
“I don’t know.”
Theo held a hand out to the door as if testing the weather. “Is it Heaven?”
“I don’t think so,” Duncan said honestly. “I think it’s something we don’t have words for.”
“Is it–” Theo’s transparent hand touched the door. The door opened. “Oh, it’s–”
Music shivered down Duncan’s skin. Light bloomed in a colour human eyes couldn’t see, glowing around Theo until Duncan couldn’t make him out any more, and the door closed.
Duncan slumped to his knees, shivering with a reaction that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. The sun streamed through the windows, reaching corners of the room it hadn’t before. Duncan crawled into a patch of sunlight and let its warmth soak into him. It was fifteen minutes before he was able to stand and make his way back to the newer part of the school.
Clumps of teachers stood about in the hallway, arms full of multicoloured pages. Duncan weaved through them, brushing away thoughts of schedules and curriculum and nostalgia for a summer that was ending.
“Duncan,” Harry Alban said.
Duncan blinked and focused. “Theo’s gone. Your classroom’s clear.”
“Oh, thank God. I have things I need to get on with. Do you mind if, uh, can I ask you to come with me to check it out?”
Duncan put a hand out to steady himself against the wall. “Sure, no problem.”
Alban frowned at him. “Are you all right?”
“The door took it out of me,” Duncan admitted.
“Wait here.” Alban vanished into the staff room, and came back with a paper cup of thick, milky brew. “I used nondairy creamer. I’m not sure it’s actually food, but it is vegan.”
Duncan accepted the cup, managing not to seize Alban’s hands instead–though for a moment it was a close call–and sipped the sweet coffee. He’d always used strong tea to steady himself, before. It sure hadn’t taken him long to get used to having Peter there to give him the skin-to-skin contact he really wanted.
When they entered the classroom again, Alban glanced upwards. “Did they replace a burnt-out bulb? It seems brighter in here.”
“Moving a spirit on can do that,” Duncan said, and told Alban the story.
Alban breathed out a long breath. “This is a huge relief. Thank you. For believing me, and for helping me.”
“Thanks for giving me a call. I don’t think he hurt your students on purpose, but spirits aren’t always in control of how they affect people.”
Someone tapped on the door, and a woman with a long white braid and one of those embroidered Indian shirts poked her head into the room. “Harry? Sorry to interrupt, but can I have a word before I go?”
“Go ahead, I can wait,” Duncan said, and Alban nodded his thanks and went to talk to her. Duncan took his phone out of his pocket.
The spirit’s gone through, he texted to Peter.
k good good, he got back quickly. door still weird?
Yes. Did you find anything out about my life energy being on the other side?
not really either its not possible or ur dead. Then another text bubble: joke UR NOT DEAD
It wasn’t unexpected, actually. He’d been an outsider to the talented community and making the work up as he went along his entire life; why would this be any different?
what you doing next?
The thought of going back to the humid clatter of the city filled him with reluctance. I might just stay out here for a while. I haven’t been up north for a couple of years.
k drive safe yr welcome here whenever
Duncan smiled at his phone. Thanks.
np c u later
Alban and the other teacher were still talking. Duncan looked around the room, then went to the built-in supply cupboard at the back. Among the detritus on the shelves was a cube of sticky notes and a Lilac Festival mug holding an assortment of dull pencils. He scribbled his contact information on a lime green sticky note.
“Sorry about that,” Alban said, weaving towards him through the grid of desks. “Beginning of the school year is always total chaos.”
Duncan held out the note to him. “That first student, the one who was reacting to things that weren’t there–do you ever see her?”
“No, but I might. If she comes back this year.”
“I think she might have the same power I do. If you see her, can you give this to her, and tell her she can call me any time? If she has questions about stuff she’s seeing or feeling, I might be able to help.”
“I’ll do that.”
“That’s about it. Thanks for the hotel room, I appreciate it. Let me know if you have any more problems.”
“I will.” Alban started to extend his hand, then remembered how Duncan had avoided shaking when they’d met, and checked it. “Thanks again.”
At the door of the classroom, Duncan paused and looked up. Between the fluorescent lights, the ceiling was dingy white plaster, no gas fixture, no shadows.
A clanging split the quiet. Duncan and Alban both jumped.
“Sounds like they’re testing the bell,” said Alban.
“I guess that means school’s out,” Duncan said. He left the the classroom door open behind him, and walked through the old vestibule, down the newer hallway, and out into the bright blue present.