by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
“Oh my god, what is that smell?” Peter demanded through the hands cupped futilely over his nose and mouth.
“Fresh country air?” The edge of Duncan’s mouth quirked as Peter gave him a look. “Manure spreader.”
Peter’s gaze followed Duncan’s gesture to a field up ahead. “You’re joking.”
“What makes you think I’m joking?”
Peter eyed the tentacled, rust-coloured machine as they drove past it. “I thought spreading manure meant, like, a couple of guys with pitchforks. Not Optimus Prime and a massive garden hose.”
“Not unless you’re an Old Order Mennonite or still living in the 1970s.”
Which made Peter’s assumption perfectly valid, in his opinion, since on this trip he’d seen more of both categories of people than he had before in his entire citified life. They’d successfully unhaunted a converted mill building that Peter had thought of as being up north until Duncan had assured him that it wasn’t even close, and now they were driving through the farm country of southwestern Ontario. It had been a needed summer break, away from the city’s roasted-asphalt-and-steamed-trash atmosphere. At least when they weren’t passing agricultural enterprises in the guise of toxic waste dumps.
“Do you want to stop for lunch soon?” Duncan asked. “There’s a park coming up.”
Speaking of the 1970s, their grateful hosts, an elderly hippie couple as wholesome and crunchy as home-baked granola, had packed them a lunch of unspeakable vegetarian delights. Based on the other meals they’d been served, Peter suspected soybean spinach loaf sandwiches, or worse. “Sure.” He glanced at Duncan in time to see him not quite suppress a smile. “I didn’t say anything! I’m sure all those alfalfa sprouts added decades to my life.” Ever since Duncan had moved in with him, Peter had discovered he was fine with his burgers being plant-based and his cheese being fake, but the Boudreaus’ cooking had been a little heavier on the wheat germ than he was used to.
A few houses close together signalled the approach of a community, and soon they were rolling down a half-block main street. They’d passed through a lot of places like this on the trip, larger than crossroads, too small to be towns, but usually offering a small grocery store, a greasy spoon unchanged for decades, a gas station, and some incongruous business like a carpet warehouse or an RV dealership that probably served all the villages in the entire county.
Duncan pulled the van to the curb and parked beside a stretch of green. A stone cairn war memorial dominated the centre of the park. Scattered around it were benches, a drinking fountain, and a playground beside a cracked cement wading pool. Peter claimed a picnic table in the shade of a mature maple tree, and Duncan distributed sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, carrots that had been in the ground that morning, and raisin and oatmeal cookies with the density of a high-fibre brick.
The sandwiches turned out to indeed be bean-based, though there was another flavour in there that made Peter frown. “Watch out, I think there’s cheese in these.”
Duncan swallowed and shook his head. “Nutritional yeast.”
“Yeast, huh.” Peter examined the paste between the slices of whole wheat bread. “What a time to be alive.” Then he took another bite, because it was actually pretty tasty. Wind ruffled the foliage above him and sent a green leaf tumbling down to the table. Here in the shade the temperature was perfect. The village was so quiet that he could hear each car individually as it drove past. Peter, who acknowledged that he was not the most relaxed guy on the planet, felt his shoulders drop and contentment smooth over him like a shawl.
He caught Duncan looking at him. “This is nice,” Peter explained. “I’m glad I came along. We did a job, I learned about modern agriculture, I ate a yeast sandwich and lived to tell the tale. My worldview has been expanded.”
“There you go.”
Peter gnawed the edge off a cookie. “Do you miss living in a small town?” Duncan had grown up in cottage country.
Duncan looked out over the dappled park. “Mostly, I felt stuck there. I do miss not having to drive for an hour to get to anything green.” He balled up his empty waxed paper. “But it’s also nice to not have to drive for an hour to get to the dentist.”
“I hear that. You know what I miss? Coffee.” The Boudreaus had served a chicory brew that had done nothing to scratch Peter’s caffeine-addict itch, though tea had at least kept him from total withdrawal. “And a washroom. There’s got to be a cafe in town, right?” Hipsters, their journey had revealed to Peter, weren’t just for downtown Toronto anymore. “Or at least a Timmy’s.”
“We can find out.”
Sure enough, after they’d turned around in the driveway of a combination garage and boat storage lot and cruised back through town, Peter spied a telltale black sandwich board on the sidewalk outside a storefront that still had a faded Sixties-vintage clothing boutique sign above the window. The place turned out to have fresh croissants just coming out of the oven. It even had oat milk and a selection of loose teas for Duncan.
“I officially like small towns,” Peter announced, sliding back into the passenger seat with a blissfully strong americano and a paper bag already going translucent with butter. “I could live in a small town like this. I could!” he repeated at Duncan’s skeptically raised eyebrow. “It’s not like I’m out partying every night. They have Netflix here, don’t they? I could take being stuck here.” He buckled up and waited for Duncan to put the van in gear.
Duncan huffed and sat back in his seat. He turned his key in the ignition again. Something made a clicking noise. It wasn’t the engine, which wasn’t making any sound at all.
“Oops?” Peter said.
Duncan’s fingers drummed on the steering wheel. “Hang on a sec.” He opened his door. In a moment, the hood of the van rose, blocking him from Peter’s view.
“I didn’t mean I wanted to move here right now,” Peter said to the dashboard, and bit into pastry so delicate and flaky he involuntarily closed his eyes.
Duncan checked the things that were checkable, then glumly closed the hood.
“We good? Oh, we’re not good,” Peter concluded, popping out of his door.
A pickup truck slowed to a stop beside them, and a middle-aged woman in a Metallica T-shirt with the sleeves torn off leaned out of the window. “You boys need a boost?” Duncan could sense her fond memories of an old van similar to his, though with a skylight and shag carpeting.
“You know what, I don’t think it’s the battery,” Duncan said, “but I appreciate the offer.”
“Can I drive over to Henry’s for you, ask him to send a tow your way? He’s the only garage in town, but he’s a good one.”
“That’d be great.”
“All right. Sit tight, and we’ll let you know if there’s a problem.”
Duncan picked at the paper cup from the cafe and sipped his tea, which tasted a little more like flowers than he would have preferred. Peter sat enjoying his coffee and still-warm croissant, which to be fair did smell amazing. At this moment he was possibly more laid back than Duncan had ever seen him, and his mind was filled with confidence that Duncan would handle the situation and they’d soon be on their way. Peter had been working a lot of hours at his patchwork of RMT jobs since the spring. Duncan had known he’d been feeling stretched a little thin, but given Peter’s normal state of ramped-up excitement combined with his insistent sense of responsibility for anything that happened within a ten-k radius, it had been hard to tell exactly how far he was from baseline. Maybe Duncan wasn’t the only one who had needed to get out of the city for a while.
The woman didn’t reappear, but after half an hour, a tow truck with Henry’s Autoworks and Storage painted on the side rumbled up alongside them and slid into the empty parking space in front. A skinny white teenager with a blond mullet got out of it. “You the ones needed an assist?”
Duncan confirmed that they were. The man cracked open the hood and, to Duncan’s private gratification, went through the same routine he had. Then he shook his head in the way of repair people everywhere disappointed with the performance of the physical universe. “I’d have to take it back to the shop and let Henry take a look at it.”
That being the only choice, Duncan agreed to his quoted price. It seemed reasonable, and the young man felt earnest, even if he was role-playing an older man to compensate for his own inexperience. The van was hooked up, and they all crammed into the cab of the tow truck—Peter took the middle without discussion, relieving Duncan of the stress of being pressed against a stranger—and lumbered down the main street to the garage.
They followed the man into the cool, oil-redolent shade of the main structure. “Henry! I brought in Chantilly’s guys with the van.”
A Black man in overalls, around Duncan’s thirty-six years, emerged from behind a raised Honda. “Hi. I hear you ran into some starting trouble. Andy, did you give it a top ten?” He glanced out the open garage door, then looked again. “That’s seen a lot of miles.”
“I figure maybe starter motor,” Andy said, with more confidence than his words indicated, and Duncan stopped holding his breath. Somewhere in his future was the time when his van couldn’t be coaxed back into functioning one more time, and the idea loomed emptily ahead of him like the gap of a washed-out bridge, but it sounded like that was a crisis for another day.
Henry ran the back of a hand over his damp forehead and cropped hair. “I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can get to it until tomorrow. Are you staying in town?”
“I guess we are now. Is there an affordable motel anywhere around?” Duncan was used to living in his van, but he wasn’t going to camp in a parking lot on a main road; there was a certain kind of cop who would take a vehicle occupied overnight as a personal affront. He’d slept rough before when he’d had to, but he wasn’t eager to do it in a town he didn’t know, and he certainly couldn’t see doing it with Peter.
There was a pause as Henry and Andy contemplated how to most diplomatically say no. “You could Uber it over to Elmira,” Andy offered.
“I’m on it.” Peter had his phone out and was vigorously typing.
“Give me a call tomorrow morning,” Henry suggested, “and we can go from there.”
While they were exchanging contact information, Peter took a few steps away from them and put his phone up to his ear. “Great. See you soon,” Duncan heard as he and Peter ended their conversations at the same time, and Peter turned back to him, satisfaction rippling around him. “I scored us a B&B in town. Baker’s Rest. Looks pretty cool.”
B&B people. Huh. Duncan heard Henry recalibrate his impression of himself and Peter. Mostly of Duncan, who Henry’d initially put in the same socioeconomic bucket as discount motels and his beat-up van. There was no malice in his thoughts, and Duncan was used to people making judgements and assumptions about everything and everyone, but it was like suddenly seeing himself in a mirror and thinking it was a stranger.
Out loud, the only thing that Henry said was, “Andy, why don’t you run them over to Margaret’s? And on the way back, drop by Jen’s and see if she still has a couple croissants left.”
They retrieved their bags from the back of the van and got into an older sedan. It was maybe a three-minute drive to the B&B, which turned out to be what Duncan would have conjured up if asked to describe a small-town B&B: a Victorian red brick house with a deep porch and a perennial garden out front.
A plump white woman in her fifties answered their knock. “Peter? Come on in, let me just get your keys. Car trouble? Isn’t that always the way? I would have given you the Maple and Chestnut rooms, but I have a party of cyclists doing the rail trail coming through. The Bakery’s just around the corner.”
They followed her out again and into the backyard. There was a glass-walled sunroom attached to the house, and then, attached to that in turn, a one-storey brick building with double glass doors opening onto a flagstone patio.
“This was the original bakehouse,” Margaret said, turning the key and then presenting it to Peter. A silver bell dangled from the keyring.
“As in, they baked things?” Peter asked.
“Oh, yes. Ferguson’s Bread got its start right here. You’re probably too young to remember that brand. It was quite a going concern at one time. They expanded to a factory down by the river…”
Recognizing that the conversation might go on a while, Duncan carried his bag past them into the room. It was refreshing after the midday heat outside, partly because it held the cool of thick brick walls and partly because almost everything in it was white: the whitewashed brick walls, the lace curtains, the bookcase and table and upholstered chairs. Twig hearts and potpourri and calligraphy mottos involving love were everywhere. A fieldstone fireplace took up most of one wall. There was only one bed, which was enormous, with a mountain range of pillows on a snowy counterpane. Peter had assured Margaret on the phone that one bed was fine. She was on fire to know whether they were a couple, though she was too proud of her professional discretion to actually ask. Even Duncan admitted that the answer that question was a little convoluted.
“Breakfast’s in the main house from seven-thirty to nine,” he heard Margaret say. “Unless you want me to bring it in to you? No? I’ll leave you to it, then.” She retreated down the walk, and Peter came in and dropped his bag beside the door.
“Holy shit, I didn’t know it was the bridal suite,” he said, taking it in. He wandered into the washroom that had been partitioned from the far corner. “That is some bathtub. Aw, little heart-shaped soaps.” He emerged again and flung himself onto the bed, where he bounced. He let out a luxurious groan. “Don’t take this the wrong way, I’m sorry about your van, but I am not sorry to be here. The Boudreaus’ guest bed was not exactly the latest in pillow-top comfort.”
Duncan went to use the washroom and, seeing the controls of the bathtub, immediately decided he deserved a long soak later. When he came out, Peter was perusing the books in the corner cabinet.
“I have struck the motherlode of self-published local histories. The Funks of Waterloo County, 1830-1925. Early Milk Bottles and Caps of Haldimand and Environs. I love how specific that is. Let your nerd flag fly, milk bottle history guy. Oh, hey, check this out.” He opened up a thin volume. “Prominent Citizens in Beanville Pioneer Cemetery. Is it a bunch of old white guys? Yes, it is, surprising no one.”
A much-folded piece of paper dropped from the book and hit the wide-board wooden floor with a thunk. Peter picked it up, and grinned.
It wasn’t a note, Duncan saw, but one of those little black-and-white photocopied zines made from a single piece of paper. On the front was a perfunctory drawing of a round-topped gravestone, its face scrawled with the words Prominent Citizens My Ass.
Peter was thumbing through it and snickering. “This is awesome. I know what we’re doing this afternoon.”
“How far is it?” Duncan could do with a walk to unkink his body from days in the driver’s seat.
“We’ll have to ask Margaret.” Peter tucked the zine back into the book.
While Peter went into the house again to ask for directions, Duncan sat on the bottom porch step and waited in the fringed shadow of a clump of day lilies. He could feel Margaret’s impulse to be helpful, and Peter’s bright enthusiasm, and an adolescent storm cloud somewhere on the second floor of the B&B, exasperated at everything.
“Got it,” Peter said, coming down the steps again. “Follow the main road. It’s just past the LCBO trailer. If we hit the bingo hall we’ve gone too far. I have never felt more like a city boy than I do this second.”
It didn’t take much walking for them to leave the core of the village behind. On its outskirts squatted a small, concrete block supermarket and a fried chicken place that exuded a bouquet of browned grease into the humid air. Duncan felt a visceral deja-vu, not particularly comfortable, coat him like the dust from the soft shoulder of the road that floated onto their shoes. Maybe it was the walk that had triggered it; he’d spent his adolescence carless and alone and high on weed a lot of the time, tramping the few places he wanted to go on foot beside a highway crawling with sixteen-wheelers and SUVs towing boat trailers.
“Liquor store!” crowed Peter, pointing at the trailer, as pleased as if he’d spotted a rare bird, and Duncan let Peter’s satisfaction ease over him like calamine lotion on a mosquito bite.
Beanville Pioneer Cemetery sat on a staid square of land, dead-end road on one edge, trees screening it from a creek and farmers’ fields on the other three. The mowed grass showed that it was well maintained, and there were vases of flowers, both real and fake, in front of some of the headstones.
“I think we have to do this as a shot and chaser kind of thing,” Peter said, juggling book and zine. “Let me know if we suddenly get work.”
“I’ve only seen a haunted graveyard a couple of times.” Cemeteries were, generally speaking, peaceful places of little interest to the unquiet dead. Except for those who had worked or been murdered in them, which in Duncan’s experience was a small, though not non-existent, demographic.
“Okay. Abraham Mabie Langdon, front and centre.” Not far from the entrance, Peter stopped at a tall, pink granite finger pointing at the sky. “Born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, immigrated 1833… Uh, I’m not going to read everything, we’ll be here all day. Hmm. He was a judge. Instrumental in funding the first two public schools in the area.” Peter flicked the first page of the zine open. “Is there a zine entry for him? Bingo! I quote: ‘He funded two different schools because didn’t want Black kids in the same school as his own kids. What a dick.’” He shook his head at the grave marker. “Yeah, seconded, anonymous zine writer.”
Duncan let his fingers trail over the names and dates closely engraved on the obelisk. At least in this cemetery, the stones hadn’t been displaced and heaped together in a group monument. He remembered meeting a spirit who’d been very put out about his marker being so far from his earthly remains.
“This one is Martin Perry. Mill owner. And a landlord, owned a bunch of workers’ cottages on the site of what is now the Beanville sewage pumping station. Zine says, ‘He fired union organizers from the mill and then evicted them and their families because they couldn’t pay their rent. What a dick.’ I’m sensing a theme.”
Under the trees, the small, short lives of rabbits and squirrels unspooled. Workers in a custom kitchen shop down the road bitched about a change order; one watched the clock with creeping dread. Duncan folded his arms and tried to focus on what Peter was saying.
“Oh, this one is cool. Margaret told me not to miss it. Check it out.”
At the top of the light grey stone was a relief carving of two hands clasped in an everlasting meeting or parting. Under them was engraved Brooks. Below it, together in a recessed lozenge, were Elizabeth and Penelope. Underneath that was a square of evenly spaced letters and a few numbers, like a Precambrian find-a-word.
“Dude is Ezekiel Grover Brooks. I’ll take names no one gives their kids anymore for a hundred, Alex. He’s on the other side of the stone. Elizabeth and Penelope here were his two wives. Not at the same time, obviously. He outlived them by, like, forty years. He left this design in his papers to be erected after his death. No one’s ever decoded it.”
“Let me guess, he was a dick too?”
“I beg your pardon,” said the blond man who flashed into existence beside the tombstone. Duncan stumbled backwards.
“What? What? Spirits? Wasps? What is it?” Peter was trying to look in every direction at once.
The man’s eyes went wide. “Do forgive me. I didn’t mean to startle you. If I’d known you could see me I would have been more circumspect.”
“Brooks?” Duncan asked.
“As I don’t live and no longer breathe,” Brooks said with wry humour.
He appeared to be in his early thirties; it wasn’t unusual for spirits to revert to younger versions of themselves, once they were no longer tied to their physical bodies. Even allowing for the fact that he was slightly transparent, he had the pale complexion of someone whose ancestors had been blooming in the rainy English climate for a thousand years, flaxen-haired and blue-eyed.
“Brooks?” Peter repeated, gaze sweeping around the area where Duncan was looking.
“I’m assuming he can’t see me.” Brooks took a few steps and waved both hands at Peter as if wiping condensation off a window. “I’ve never seen that little book before. What does it say about me?”
“It’s Brooks, yeah. He wants to know what the zine says about him.”
“O…kay.” Peter consulted the zine. “Sorry, but you’re not going to like it.”
“I daresay,” Brooks said, resigned. “But I’d still like to know.”
“Go ahead,” Duncan translated.
“This is verbatim here, don’t at me. ‘Less than a year after his wife died, he married his housekeeper, and then she died too. One had tuberculosis and the other had scarlet fever, so he probably didn’t murder them. He buried them in the same grave. I bet he was just super cheap. What a dick.’”
Duncan felt mingled sorrow and indignation drift from Brooks like a mist. “That’s rather unkind.”
“It’s a family plot, no biggie,” Peter was saying. “What’s with the cryptic tombstone, though?”
“The story could not be told while we were all still on this earth.”
“It’s a secret,” Duncan said to Peter.
“It’s not supposed to be,” protested Brooks. “I imagined the puzzle would be solved long before this. But if this time thinks that I—my goodness, that our secret was murder—perhaps it isn’t yet the proper time to reveal it.”
“He figured it would be solved by now,” clarified Duncan. “And no, he didn’t murder anybody.” Nothing about Brooks felt dishonest about that.
Peter squatted down and traced the first few letters. “This is not my skillset.”
Brooks considered them both anxiously. “No one’s come by who could hear me in…in quite a while,” he said. He laced his fingers together and rested his lips on them in thought. “I’ll give you a small hint. Seven.”
“Seven?” repeated Duncan.
“Seven what?” Peter asked. “There are three sevens on this thing.”
“Seven,” repeated Brooks stubbornly.
Peter muttered, “You could just, like, tell us.”
“How do I know you are trustworthy if you don’t see it? How else can I be sure that the world will greet their story with grace?”
“We’ll do our best,” Duncan promised, as Peter got his phone out and took a few pictures of the gravestone.
“That is all I can ask. Oh, I suppose I could ask one more thing.”
Brooks pointed towards another grey tombstone, tall and gabled like a house everyone knew was haunted. “Vernon Tyler was the worst excuse for a man I have ever known. He would rather have kicked a sick man out of his way than stepped around him, and charged him with vagrancy for good measure. Are there any salacious insults about him in there?”
After a three-way relay of century-old gossip (verdict on dry goods merchant and real estate developer Tyler: dick, to Brooks’ conspicuous delight), Duncan made their farewells and gave his word that they would come back the following day. When they got back to the main road, the small town seemed to have lost a little of its afternoon sleepiness. Early rush hour, Duncan supposed.
“Are you hungry?” Peter asked. “Because my bean-and-yeast sandwich has worn off.”
A survey of the three available restaurants revealed that the vegan dinner options were limited. They ended up with mushrooms and a drizzle of olive oil on a pizza crust. At least that was better than one of the endless peanut butter sandwiches Duncan had survived on after he’d come into his psychic abilities in his early teens and stopped being able to stomach the aura of suffering and death in the meat on his plate. As always, Peter refused to order anything with meat or cheese on it either, though Duncan caught his fleeting hankering for pepperoni as a server carried a fully loaded pizza past their table.
“I’ve tried starting with the sevens,” Peter said, licking oil off his fingers and moving his phone into the shade under their patio table umbrella. “I’ve tried starting with the seventh row, every seventh letter, every seventh letter backwards, trying to spell out the word ‘seven’, and plugging it into an online decoder, which gave me gobbledegook and a couple of short words liked ‘died’, which, hello, obviously. Are you sure Brooks was on the level?”
“He didn’t feel like he was pulling our leg.” Duncan took the phone from Peter and regarded the square of letters. “He wants us to decode the message, but…” He thought back. “He also thinks someone has to have the right attitude to figure it out?”
“Great, a spirit who gives exams.” Peter took a consoling pull from his glass of root beer. “Did you get any feeling from him about what the answer was?”
Constantly being aware of people’s thoughts could be uncomfortable and exhausting. As a matter of both survival and manners, Duncan tried not to actively pry into people’s heads. Even spirits’ heads. “Only that it’s something about his wives, which we also knew already.”
“Is it a pattern in the shape of a seven, maybe?” Peter drew a numeral over the image with his finger several times. “Not in a helpfully easy and understandable way, obviously.” He sighed. “I can’t look at this any more right now. Do you want that last piece of pizza?”
They split it and then strolled back to the B&B, where Peter collapsed onto the bed to check his emails and scroll social media. Duncan took his latest paperback mystery to read in the bathtub, letting jets of hot water pummel some of the ache out of his stiff back.
When he emerged, Peter was snoring gently in the centre of the bed. He stirred when Duncan sat down. “I dreamed I solved the puzzle but now I can’t remember how.” He yawned and levered himself up. “Gonna brush my teeth and then lie down again for, like, the next twelve hours. I think I want to marry this mattress.”
Bedtime routines accomplished, they turned out the light and pulled up the quilted and lace-bedecked coverlet. Despite the effects of the bath, though, Duncan’s brain refused to let go of the day. He kept realizing that his eyes were open and that he was staring up at the grey-shadowed white of the ceiling.
He kept picturing his van in Henry’s parking lot, vulnerable beside the darkened garage, a temptation to bored teens with cans of spray paint or users high on meth willing to smash windows in a search for spare change or whatever they could steal. It was as safe there as it was anywhere, he tried to tell himself, thinking of the warped wooden gate leading into Peter’s backyard parking space. Honestly, he’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop ever since the van had gone into the ditch during that blizzard in the spring. Now that it had, he should be able to relax; neither Henry nor Andy had thought that the repair was going to be anything unusual, and he had the savings to pay for it. But he was still on edge for some reason that he couldn’t unravel.
He was sure the unease was his own, although beside him, Peter was wide awake and restless too. No, not simply restless, Duncan realized. Horny. And pinned to the mattress with self-consciousness about it.
Peter’s desires and erotic imagination were no mysteries to Duncan, but all the actual sex they’d had since meeting almost two years ago had been in the aftermath of their work. After using his abilities to send spirits through the door between this life and the next, Duncan craved physical comfort in the form of bare skin. Peter saw his own role as being the one to provide it. That first time, one thing had led to another. And then to the next time. And then it had become the way things were.
At home, they maintained the fiction that whatever Peter did in the shower or in his room on nights they didn’t share a companionable bed was unknown to Duncan, a metaphorical lead curtain between Duncan’s psychic awareness and Peter’s sex drive. Tonight, though, with only the one bed and the bathroom six feet away, there was nowhere for Peter to go to maintain that plausible deniability.
Duncan had never quite been able to make Peter understand that he enjoyed sex just fine. It was different for him than it was for most people, that was all; the pleasure bypassed his body, which got short-circuited by what anyone else involved was thinking and feeling, and went straight to wherever that spark of power dwelt.
He shifted a little, to let Peter know that he was still awake, and moved his foot to nudge Peter’s ankle. “You feel worked up.”
“Ugh, I’m sorry.” Peter turned his burning face into the pillow.
It wasn’t just run-of-the-mill horniness either, Duncan realized. It was the effect of the B&B. All the white lace and heart-shaped doodads had activated some deep-rooted cultural switch in Peter that said swooning rose-petal romance, and he was embarrassed about feeling that way with Duncan in the room.
They were colleagues, friends, roommates; they regularly slept together in both the euphemistic and literal senses. They were partners in so many ways. But also, right here, right now, what Peter wanted was for someone to embrace him and kiss him hard and press him into lace-edged pillows. And he’d somehow decided it was unfair to want that from Duncan.
Which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Duncan.
Duncan turned on his side and slid his calf over Peter’s. “We could do something about it.”
He could feel the emotional heat coming off Peter like smoke. “Look, just ignore me. It’ll, uh, go away eventually.”
Edging closer, Duncan let his hand brush Peter’s where it curled under the embroidered edge of the sheet. “How is this different from on a job?”
Because on a job, their closeness was for Duncan. Peter getting off on it, with Duncan’s avid participation, was just a naturally occurring consequence. This time, though, whatever they did would be for Peter. And that—Duncan cradled Peter’s thought with a little sadness—wasn’t what Peter thought his own presence was for.
“That’s about your talent,” Peter whispered, eyes closed, every pore aware of how close to him Duncan was lying. “This is just regular human stuff. My regular human stuff. You shouldn’t have to deal with it.”
Duncan cupped Peter’s tense shoulder, slid his hand around to splay on Peter’s T-shirt-clad back. “Peter, you’re not some kind of physical therapy for me. I like touching you. That’s why we work well together.”
Hope/tenderness/need flared in Peter, a tangle of physical and emotional sensation smothering almost all of the shame. Duncan’s hand moved down to Peter’s ass. “I could use a distraction right now, too. Let me get you off, Peter.”
“Oh, god.” Peter tilted forward until his face was pressed against Duncan’s neck. “Please?”
Duncan leaned and kept leaning, rolling Peter’s body over. He lifted himself and settled on top of Peter. Peter’s erection fitted into the hollow where Duncan’s thigh met his abdomen, skin separated from skin by two thin layers of warming cotton.
Duncan slid his hands under the pillow to bracket Peter’s shoulders. Even propped up on his elbows, he could feel Peter’s heart racing. Peter rested his hands loosely on Duncan’s sides. He was still holding back, determined not to ask too much even as he shivered and jerked up against Duncan involuntarily.
On a job, what they did together was usually driven by urgency and convenience, hands and hips and fumbling clothes out of the way, Duncan fuzzy with need and Peter overwhelmed by being able to gratify it. It was enjoyable to have a clear head, and a lavishly large bed, and time.
Duncan kissed Peter, softly but insistently, pushing Peter past his still-roiling doubt like a Lake Superior swimmer diving past tumbling breakers to the deeper waters beyond. He tilted Peter’s head back to nip at his neck, letting his own weight pin Peter a little more firmly. Peter inhaled through clenched teeth.
Duncan used a knee to nudge Peter’s thighs apart with just a little force, like a man sure of what he wanted. Peter’s hands gripped the fabric of Duncan’s T-shirt.
“I’ve got you,” Duncan promised, whispering into Peter’s ear, and felt Peter’s last hesitation give way. He wrapped an arm around Duncan’s shoulders. Their mouths found each other again. Peter reached down and grabbed Duncan’s ass on one side, bent his own knee on the other to pull Duncan as close to him as he could get. They rocked against each other, moving together and holding each other in place. Duncan sunk into the delicious tension, Peter’s need, Peter’s pleasure, the glints of release coming but not yet, not yet, the paradoxical staving off of bliss in pursuit of a few moments more of it.
He felt it when Peter hit a plateau, too much of the same, straining against Duncan’s body for just a little more stimulation to cascade him over the edge. “Hold on, I’m going to take care of you with my hand,” Duncan panted, shifting his weight. He heard the words in Peter’s mind before they spilled out of him, Oh god yes please yes do it come on, and then his ecstasy flared and they both went sightless with the surge of it.
When Peter came back to himself, Duncan followed, his body still half on Peter’s and his face mashed against Peter’s shoulder. Peter wriggled and sighed in contentment. Duncan rolled off him into the cooler embrace of the sheets.
Peter sat up and shucked his sticky pyjama pants. “Here.” He offered Duncan the clean end of one pant leg to wipe off his hand, then dropped the pants over the side of the bed. He nestled against Duncan’s side and settled the covers around both of them, widening the pocket of warmth they shared. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
The answer was no, and Peter knew that, but he always asked and always would, because it was important to him that Duncan have what he needed. “I’m good.”
Yeah, you are, Peter thought muzzily, already letting sleep claim him. Duncan lay there for a few more minutes, basking in the ease and heat of Peter’s body, and drifted off to sleep.
They breakfasted in the house along with five cyclists sporting tight fluorescent jerseys and an assortment of aches and pains they were keeping from each other; Duncan gathered that yesterday had been their longest day on the road. Peter passed around his phone with the photo of Brooks’ gravestone on it, but none of them had any new ideas about what ‘seven’ might signify.
A teenage girl with a large amount of black eyeliner and a thatch of black hair with mousy brown roots came in to place plates of vegan blueberry pancakes in front of each of them. “Where’d you get the seven thing from?”
“I heard it somewhere,” Peter hedged.
“People have been trying to figure that out for, like, ever. Just because some old di—dude needed to be the centre of attention even after he bought the farm.”
Peter’s foot nudged Duncan’s under the table. At least now they had a pretty good guess about the identify of the zine writer.
After breakfast, they packed up their bags, and Duncan phoned the garage. Andy had been right, and there was a replacement starter motor coming from a supplier a couple of towns over; chances were good that they could be on their way by the end of the day. Peter went to check with Margaret that the room was available for another night if they needed it. Lying down on the—admittedly amazingly comfortable—bed, Duncan opened Prominent Citizens in Beanville Pioneer Cemetery and gazed at the slightly out-of-focus reproduction of the Brooks tombstone. Elizabeth and Penelope, gone through the door so close together. He hadn’t been able to sense either of them in the cemetery. Only Brooks, still alone more than a century after his death, standing guard over a secret he was tired of keeping.
“She doesn’t have a reservation for tonight,” Peter confirmed, clattering into the room, “so we can leave our stuff here for a while longer.” He flopped onto the bed and rested his head on Duncan’s shoulder so he could see the book as well. “See anything new?”
“There’s a couple of mixed-up dates.” Duncan pointed to two clumps of numerals.
“Yeah, I figured that’s what those are too. Did the women really die within two years of each other? That must have sucked for everyone involved.”
“It was the worst grief of my life,” Brooks said, sifting into visibility in front of the fireplace.
Duncan managed not to yelp. Peter levered himself up to a sitting position. “Duncan? Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“Here? In this room? How is he in this room?”
“I did try not to frighten you,” Brooks said, disappointed.
“I’m not frightened,” Duncan said, trying to relax and let the startlement fade. “I just…wasn’t expecting you.” Spirits weren’t always anchored to a place or an object. Just most of them, most of the time. “Do you leave the cemetery a lot?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve visited the whole town—not that it’s a large one. Very few people know I’m there at all, and the ones who do tend to be upset about it.” Duncan caught a waft of loneliness. “I came to ask, have you solved the puzzle yet?”
“We’re working on it.”
Peter wrapped a hand around Duncan’s bare forearm: assurance that Peter was there to bolster him up if Duncan needed to call the door. He followed Duncan’s gaze to look more or less in Brooks’ direction. “If you want to give us another clue, we’re listening, but it’s been over a hundred years. Don’t you think maybe it’s time to let it go and just tell someone?”
“A hundred…” Again, a drift of emotion: frustration and longing. “Has it been that long? One loses track.”
“Aren’t you tired?” Peter asked. “Aren’t you ready to finally tell the world what you always wanted it to know?”
Brooks faded, radiating indecision, and solidified again. “Yes. Yes, I am. But how can I be sure—” He was looking at them, and then Duncan saw his gaze fall on where Peter was touching Duncan, hand on bare skin on a shared bed. A glimmer of understanding and hope kindled in Brooks like sunlight on polished stone. “Maybe it’s true that I can trust you. Maybe it really is time. Come to me, will you?” He vanished.
“What’s happening?” asked Peter, as Duncan sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
“I’m pretty sure we outed ourselves to a ghost.”
“Oh.” Peter considered. “In a good way or in a ‘burn in Hell for eternity, you sinner’ way? Because I left my kit with the salt and everything in the van.”
“The good kind. I think he’s ready to tell us his secret.”
“Excellent. That ‘seven’ thing is driving me around the bend.”
Brooks appeared by their side as soon as they stepped off the road and onto the grass of the cemetery, and bounced along beside them like a golden retriever with a new best friend all the way to his gravestone.
“Seven across, seven down,” he said. Duncan repeated it.
“Fine, I guess we’re doing this the hard way,” Peter said under his breath. He squatted in front of the stone and ran his finger right and then down. “I’ve got an I.”
“Down one,” said Brooks. “Left. Right. Up. In a circle.”
“In memoriam,” Peter spelled out to Duncan’s instructions, tracing a spiral with the tip of his finger. “You mean this is all we needed to do? No, wait. Bememco is not a word.”
“No, go up. Right. Up and right. Not like that!”
“Hang on! Is this Bessie?” Peter followed the name in a sawtoothed pattern.
“Elizabeth,” Duncan realized.
“Keep going!” Brooks jabbed at the stone impatiently, his fingers disappearing into the granite.
“Who died or—orwsi? Nope, the pattern just changed again. No offence, but this is not doing your extremely important message any favours.”
“Yes, whatever you say, go left,” Brooks said. “Above that. No, not that far!”
“Duncan, is he saying anything? Am I hot or cold or right off the map here? Maybe you should drive.”
Duncan rubbed at the spot between his eyebrows. “Yeah, okay. Do you want to write this down as we go?”
“Good idea.” Peter whipped out his phone and started to type.
It went faster without Duncan having to translate, Peter behind him sometimes speeding up the process by guessing words halfway through. When they reached the end, Brooks let out a long breath and covered his mouth with his hands.
“Did you get it all?” Duncan asked Peter quietly.
Peter read it out loud. “In memoriam, Bessie who died 13 October 1887 aged 47 years and Nell who died 17 May 1889 aged 49 years, wives not to their husband but to each other in God and nature. More love and care two partners never shared. All should know of their devotion. This stone erected by their beloved brother in spirit EGB. May we all meet again in a better world.”
In the pause that followed, cicadas buzzed in the windbreak of trees around the cemetery. The breeze shook the long grasses and milkweeds that lined the drainage ditch.
“I can see why people weren’t ready for that in 1889,” Peter said.
“Our families said they always knew that Bessie and I should be married, since we were such fast friends. How the three of us laughed at that.” Brooks put a hand on the stone as if stroking someone’s hair.
“He never married again?” asked Peter. “Like, for his own sake?”
Brooks shook his head. “I missed them both every day of my life, but that sort of thing never appealed to me. I only married Bessie so we could all live together without gossip, and then I married Nell because we’d put it about that she kept house for us, and I wanted her to have a right to our home if I was called before her.”
Duncan could feel the door’s presence, a light he could usher Brooks into if he opened himself to it. “What do you want to do now?” he asked. “Would you like to move on?”
He expected eagerness, now that he’d solved the spirit’s riddle, but Brooks chewed on a spectral thumbnail. “Will Bessie and Nell be there?”
“I’m sure they went through the door,” Duncan said. “Whether they’re still there, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know anything about that.”
Brooks looked at his wives’ carved names. “How are other people to know the stone’s meaning?”
“Engrave the solution on the other side of it?” Duncan hazarded. It wasn’t a small stone, and there was probably room there in the blank space under Brooks’ name and dates, but he wasn’t even sure who he’d ask to get permission for that.
“He wants it added to the stone?” Peter asked. “Or does he just want it known some way?”
“I want it known,” Brooks said emphatically. “Far and wide. Perhaps we could put it in the papers.”
“Is there some website we could contact?” Duncan asked. There were a lot of fans of genealogy on the internet.
“Probably the best bet, but—ooh.” Peter grinned. “Got an idea.”
“Good. Good. Perhaps I shouldn’t go until I’ve seen that done,” Brooks said.
“You don’t have to go at all,” Duncan told him. “It’s your choice.”
Brooks pursed his lips. “I was born on a farm not a league from here. Do you know, there are people in this town from the other side of the world? Imagine travelling so far. Imagine seeing so much.”
The tingling of the door in Duncan’s consciousness receded. “You…want to travel?” That was a new one.
“Lots of people want to travel after they retire,” Peter said. He returned Duncan’s look with a shrug. “I mean, he’s been on the job for over a century. If he can move around, why not?”
“Exactly! Nell and I used to pore over the Canadian Illustrated News and dream about sailing the seven seas. But there was never time or money enough, and after the girls were gone I didn’t have the heart for it.”
“All right,” Duncan said, feeling a little superfluous. “I, uh, hope you have a good time.”
“You’re going?” Brooks’ form wavered in consternation, the gravestones behind him momentarily more visible through his white shirt and tweed waistcoat. “How will I see the newspaper with Bessie and Nell’s story?”
Duncan passed that on to Peter, who then spent ten minutes trying to explain the internet to a man who had barely seen the invention of radio. Brooks had watched people using smartphones, but was hazy on how, exactly, they worked. It turned out that Peter was pretty hazy on the details himself, and in the end he gave up and simply swore on Brooks’ grave that the story would be told. When they headed back to the B&B, Brooks followed them as far as the chicken takeout place, and then drifted inside to put his newfound if a little garbled knowledge about modern technology to use.
“You good?” Peter asked, as the short main street came into view.
“Me? Sure.” Peter gave him a long look. “I’m fine.” To tell the truth, he had a distinct sense of anticlimax, and he wasn’t proud of it.
“You were hoping for the door?”
Ever since the day over a year ago that Duncan had sent a tiny scrap of his own energy through the door to persuade an aggressive and damaged spirit to go too, his ability to call the door had been fickle and sporadic. Maybe it wasn’t a lie to say that, in the unsettled mood he was in, he’d been looking forward to feeling the door open today, or more precisely to feeling what was on the other side of it, a rare and exhilarating pleasure like nothing else on this plane of existence.
“We did what Brooks needed,” he said, sidestepping the question.
“Mm-hm.” Peter deliberately let it drop. “Want to grab a coffee before we go back to the B&B?”
They got the call from Henry mid-afternoon, and Margaret offered to drop them off at the garage during her grocery run. “You might need to get that muffler looked at sooner rather than later,” Henry advised as he rang up the repairs. Duncan winced for more reasons than one, and handed over his credit card.
Still, he felt his tension ease the moment he turned the key in the ignition. The motor didn’t exactly purr to life, but at least it started. He checked that Peter had buckled up, glanced at his rear-view mirror, and nearly choked on an indrawn breath.
“I’m not trying to frighten you,” protested Brooks from behind them.
“What just happened?” Peter demanded, twisting around to assure himself that they hadn’t almost backed into something.
“Here?” Peter surveyed the plastic boxes and foam flooring in the back of the van.
“You’re driving out of town, aren’t you?” asked Brooks. “Might I beg a ride?”
“He wants to come along,” Duncan said.
“Huh.” Peter continued looking into what, for him, was empty space. “So he can’t just, you know, go?”
“I tried to follow the road out of town, but it appears I need to accompany someone,” Brooks said, not sounding terribly distressed about it. “I do prefer to be with people I can talk to.”
“That’s fair. Me, too,” Peter said when Duncan repeated it. “Where do you want to go, Brooks?”
“I’m assuming there are still no bridges built to Paris or Venice?”
“No,” Duncan said, “but we could drop you off at the airport.”
“Tons of people go through Pearson,” Peter said. “You might even find someone who can see you.”
“I would like that.”
Duncan looked at Peter. “You’re okay with this?”
Peter took a sip of his fourth coffee of the day. “I trust you. If you’re fine with Brooks coming along, so am I. Anyway, it’s a road trip. The more the merrier.”
It wasn’t even the first time he’d had a ghost in the van. Duncan did a three-point turn and paused in the driveway of the garage, waiting for the traffic to clear. Across the road was a boarded-up restaurant with goldenrod and plantain slowly turning its parking lot to rubble. Beyond it were mature trees, hedgerows, fields of corn and soybeans green and thronging with life.
Duncan flexed his fingers around the steering wheel, and turned onto the road out of town.
Peter put his coffee cup back into the cup holder with a sense of a to-do list well and truly checked off. Margaret’s goth teenage daughter, Sarah, had turned out to have not just a robust zine-based body of work but also accounts on social media platforms Peter hadn’t even heard of, because apparently he was old now. She’d jumped up and down at hearing that someone had finally solved the Brooks tombstone puzzle, and promised to rewrite her zine entry on Brooks as well. Brooks himself was on his way to whatever was next for him, which was the best outcome for any stuck spirit, whatever form it took. Peter himself was having a damn vacation for the first time in forever. And Duncan—
“Brooks,” Peter said, “is there a way you can give us some privacy for a few minutes? Like, I don’t know, hang out on the roof for a bit?”
Peter didn’t, of course, feel anything change, but after a few moments Duncan said, “He’s outside. What’s up?”
“Is there anything I can do about whatever’s going on with you? You know you just have to ask.” He knew that it was hard for Duncan to say what he wanted, and that it wasn’t some toxic masculinity bullshit; Peter figured that Duncan just didn’t have a history of getting what he needed from other people, so he’d stopped expecting anything a long time ago.
Duncan was shaking his head, so Peter headed him off with, “Look, I know you’re fine, you’re always going to be fine. But you seem kind of…off. Is it something about the job? Is it Brooks? Because from everything you’ve said he seems like a good guy, but if he’s trying to pull a fast one, we can stop on the next side road and I’ll sage-and-salt his ass away from our general vicinity. Is that it? Tap the steering wheel twice if that’s it.”
He’d made Duncan smile with that, at least. “I’m fi— It’s not a big deal.” Peter continued looking at him. “I was just worried about the van.”
“Yeah, I get that. It’s not getting any younger.” In apology, Peter patted the dashboard.
Duncan started to say something, then stopped. “And I guess I’m having feelings. Small-town feelings,” he added, with more uncertainty than he usually let himself show.
“Yeah? As in ‘I want to stay here’ or as in ‘Get me out of here’?”
“Both?” Duncan looked nonplussed. “You know what’s weird? Small towns feel different to me lately. Like living in the city’s fiddled with my brain, or something.”
“Is it bad,” Peter asked, “or is it just new?”
“It’s…unexpected.” Duncan shrugged his shoulders a few times, as if making himself more comfortable in the fraying driver’s seat.
When it didn’t seem that he was going to add anything more, Peter said, “A lot’s changed for you recently. Maybe you need more time to digest it.” Peter thought back over his own last few years: His babcia’s death. Peter inheriting both her little house and her work laying spirits, even though he didn’t have a smidgen of her talent. Meeting Duncan. Working with Duncan. Sleeping with Duncan. There was no step in that chain of events where he’d anticipated what was going to happen next.
“Eh. Could be. I guess I got a little comfortable with the way things were. I’ll get used to it.”
Given that the way things were had been Duncan working in solitude and living in his van, Peter had no regrets about having messed them up. “Hey, if the work has taught me anything, it’s that change never stops,” he said. “I mean, look at me. I’m out in the country. I ate a yeast sandwich.”
Duncan shot him a tolerant glance. “You’re getting a lot of mileage out of the Boudreaus’ cooking.”
“I’m just saying, it was a new experience for me. They put alfalfa sprouts in everything. It was like living in a time capsule.”
Duncan’s eyes flickered to the rear-view mirror. “Brooks is back.”
“Hi again, Brooks. Thanks for giving us a minute.”
“He says we’re coming up to a sign that says we’re leaving Greater Beanville.”
Peter watched the painted sign approach. “We could be back home by tonight.”
“We can, if you want. I’m not in any hurry. Do we have any jobs lined up?”
“There was that creepy hospital in Stratford slated for demolition,” Peter said hopefully. “Nobody’s called us about it, but we could do a civic duty thing, right?”
“Worth a look,” Duncan said, as they left the town limits behind.