The Dictionary of Daily Wants

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

another round of Everyone goes through the door, Imagine travelling so far, and Logging in old Algonquin

Duncan swung his legs over the edge of the bed and froze, giving his back time to decide whether he was going to be spending the morning lying flat and staring at the ceiling or not.

“Too much driving?” asked Peter, doctoring a cup of motel coffee with way too many sugars and sachets of powdered white edible oil product.

“Doubt it. I probably just breathed the wrong way.” Duncan exhaled with caution. He’d buggered up his back last fall on that job in Algonquin Park, and at random times it still decided to gripe at him about it. His bank account was glad that he’d persuaded Peter to stay at the strip motel on the highway last night rather than some pricey B&B in town, but he had to admit that he missed the last B&B’s memory foam mattress.

“Do you want a massage before we head out? I could work on some trigger points for you.”

Brooks turned from where he was hovering at the top of the window, peering out through the gap above the curtain rod. “Is it lumbago? I know a marvellous liniment for that.”

“I don’t know if lumbago exists any more.” Duncan carefully stood up and stretched. Things felt a little sore, but the ominous cramp had receded.

“Perhaps you know it by a different name. You need spirits of hartshorn, and—”

“It’s just an oldey-timey word for back pain. Why, is Brooks diagnosing you?” asked Peter.

“—oil of turpentine, or was it camphorated oil?”

“Brooks, I’m pretty sure medical science has changed a little since your time,” Peter said, looking in the wrong direction.

“Bessie swore by it. If only I had my Dictionary of Daily Wants, I could look it up. Do you have it these days? A valuable compendium of good advice and sound practical information. Many’s the evening I spent reading it to the girls while they did the mending. Do you suppose there’s a lending library in this town?”

Duncan rubbed his temples. It had only been a few days since they’d met Brooks, whose spirit had been lingering for over a century near the grave where he and his two departed wives were buried, and not even twenty-four hours since Brooks had asked to hitchhike out of his tiny town with them. Duncan couldn’t imagine what his life would have been without Peter now, and Brooks had a puppy-like interest in all things and not a malicious bone in his spectral body, but they were both talkers. The three-way conversations between Brooks, who could see and hear Peter, and Peter, who couldn’t see or hear Brooks, were making Duncan feel as if his head were stuffed full of bees.

“Or a chemist’s,” Brooks continued, at the same time as Peter said, “Do you want to hit a drugstore?”

“Everybody,” Duncan said, grasping at patience, “be quiet.”

The room’s sudden hush was broken by the rattle of the air conditioner in the next room and the hum of cars passing on the highway.

“Do you feel like we’re both yelling at you all the time?” Peter asked guiltily. “Do we suck?”

“It can be a bit much,” admitted Duncan. “But I don’t think you suck.” Peter tended to be sensitive on that point.

Peter pursed his lips. “Maybe we need some ground rules.”

“Yes, like when trying to guess a charade,” Brooks said.

“What I really need is a cup of tea,” Duncan said, deciding to let that idea lay for now.

“I could wash out the pot for hot water,” Peter said, gesturing to the pint-sized coffee maker, “or we have time to check out the complimentary cold cereal, I mean continental breakfast, in the lobby. Ooh, I bet they have bagels. Brooks, remember yesterday when we were talking about bagels?”

“I still don’t understand how one would boil bread,” Brooks mused.

“I bet I could find a thing on YouTube.”

“Later,” Duncan said firmly, and herded Peter out of the room, Brooks wafting beside them like an enthusiastic balloon.

~*~

After breakfast—which did indeed include bagels—they set out to the abandoned hospital that was their reason for coming here in the first place. Stratford was a ridiculously quaint theatre town, the red brick buildings of the commercial centre having survived the main drag’s metamorphosis into a highway that split it through the middle. On this sunny summer morning, the sidewalks were already thick with tourists window shopping for outrageously expensive cookware and quirky socks. 

Duncan followed the main road over the river and turned down a street lined with the kind of  porched-and-turreted Victorian houses that brought to mind terms like railway magnate and captain of industry.

“There’s the river again,” Peter said, as they rumbled over another bridge. “Handy if we need running water for spirit-escaping reasons.”

“I can cross running water,” Brooks observed.

“Some spirits can’t.” Duncan pulled into a deeply cracked, semi-circular driveway.

“It depends on their mythology,” Peter explained. “What they want and believe. Like how you couldn’t leave town on your own.”

“That wasn’t a belief,” Brooks objected. “I truly could not.”

“Being a belief doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.” Duncan followed the arrow on the hand-lettered lawn sign that read Historical society hospital tour and found a parking spot in the potholed lot. The three of them climbed out of the van. Or drifted through its side, in Brooks’ case.

Peter considered the structure in front of them. “Oh, yeah, that building is definitely, one hundred percent haunted.”

Three storeys of yellow brick loomed above them, white-papered windows giving the impression of eyes rolled up in their sockets. A black metal fire escape bristled down from a high dormered window to the ground, its bottom rungs cluttered with goldenrod and plantain growing up from the broken asphalt below. Balding roof shingles curled like the soles of old shoes.

Duncan closed his eyes and felt gingerly for a presence. There was a lot going on around him, though, the usual rats and mice and squirrels to be expected in a building that hadn’t been in use for decades, the racket of animal life reverberating up from the ravine that bordered the property. The new hospital was right across the road, and the old nurses’ residence to the south had been converted to administration offices; the living static of patients and staff buzzed in his perception.

“No, eh?” Peter asked when Duncan opened his eyes.

“Nothing at the moment.”

The article Peter had found about the hospital had catalogued a real grab bag of manifestations going back to when the facility had been open, practically a textbook list: sensations of being watched, a part of the basement staff didn’t like to go into alone, mystery footsteps, equipment having been moved without anyone admitting to touching it. More recently, a ghost hunter with a YouTube channel had come up with the usual lens flares and dubious shadows. Duncan wouldn’t know what, if anything, any of it meant until he’d had time to find and listen to the spirits themselves.

Some people had gathered by the front steps, two of them wearing beige T-shirts with Preserve our built heritage silkscreened on the front. As Peter and Duncan joined the group, one smiled and handed them a flyer: Adaptive reuse is good for the community and the environment! An artist’s rendition of the proposed redevelopment of the site, a wall of gleaming blue glass, was pictured beside a hand-tinted photograph of the hospital in its prime, its roofs crimson and the semi-circle of lawn in front of the driveway painted bottle green.

“Never thought I’d defend luxury condos,” Peter complained, “but why can’t they just convert the old building? Why does everything have to get torn down for mirrored boxes?”

Looking up at Stratford Hospital carved in the stone inset above the arched fanlight—almost obscured by a clumsy modern sign, backlit but now extinguished—Duncan had to agree.

Brooks shuddered. “Dreadful places, hospitals. I hope to die at home in bed.”

Duncan looked at him. “I thought you did.”

“Oh, yes, that’s right,” Brooks said, as if being reminded of a book title or the name of a passing acquaintance.

“Is it easy to forget?” Some spirits didn’t realize they were dead, but Brooks was as self-aware as any spirit Duncan had ever encountered.

“You know, it is, at times. Being able to talk to you has made me quite invigorated. Though….” He looked down at his shoes, which floated an inch above the driveway. “Not being able to feel things is something of a trial. It’s rather like being packed in cotton wool.”

The woman who’d handed them the flyer raised her voice. “Everyone, I think we’ll get started. Welcome to the historical society’s first tour of Stratford Hospital. I’m Cynthia, and this is Jim. Before we go in, I’m going to go over a little background….”

More interested in the battered facade, Duncan half-listened, though with an ear out for mention of fires or pandemics or anything else that might be relevant to the work. Built in 1891, same architect as the local jail, renovated and expanded throughout its existence—not very sympathetically, Duncan thought. The clumsy flat roof added above the main doors was doing what must once have been a dignified main entrance no favours, and the metal handrail in the centre of the steps, its paint peeling away in jagged flakes, had stained the concrete with a rust like old blood. He would have bet that the central tower and the square brick pillars that flanked the bay windows on either side had originally had peaked roofs, but they’d all been beheaded during some cost-saving modernization. He still couldn’t discern any specific spirits, though the building did lack the echoing dullness of a truly empty building.

Cynthia paused in her recitation. “Are there any questions before we go in?”

“Is it haunted?” asked an elderly man in multi-pocketed beige shorts and a plaid shirt, to general chuckling and a few rolled eyes. Peter, taking rapid notes on his phone, elbowed Duncan.

“I couldn’t tell you,” she answered. Duncan was probably the only one who could sense the annoyance under her professional cheer. “Now, please watch your step on the stairs.”

“I’ll be over with the trees,” said Brooks, and glided away over the lawn towards where a young woman and a toddler were sitting on a blanket in the shade.

Cynthia opened one side of the double doors, and they all climbed another set of stairs leading up to a cross-shaped lobby. Yet more stairs were in front of them, with corridors reaching into gloom on either side. While the tour guide described the original floor plan and later additions, Duncan breathed in over a century of hospital atmosphere: disinfectant and boiled cabbage, relief and despair, overlain with a more recent muddy tang of mould.

Noisy, Duncan thought, momentarily disgruntled. Then he shook his head to clear it, and looked down at the square vinyl floor tiles. Peter had been right. At the very least, there was something or someone in one of the basements.

The group was heading in the other direction, though, up to the second storey. The window that had once lit the landing of the switchback staircase had been bricked up. Under the many layers of fissured paint Duncan could make out the suggestion of lines where a chair rail moulding had been pried off and the gap hastily plastered over. Someone had decided to erase all Victorian ornamentation in the name of hygiene, though it had really been more of an aesthetic urge. They’d even walled in the sleeping porches, Duncan thought, and frowned, not sure how he’d known that. Had he heard it during Cynthia’s introductory monologue?

He looked upwards. When had the group gotten so large? But no, he could sense Jim counting silently by twos, reaching eleven and wondering how they’d lost someone already. Duncan hastily climbed the rest of the stairs. The layout here was identical to the ground floor. Looking down the north corridor, he thought he saw the swish of a long skirt as someone disappeared into a doorway. Suppressed curiosity and a tinge of argumentativeness hovered in the air.

“Anything?” Peter whispered.

“Yeah. But I need some time to just sit and let them show themselves.”

As the group trooped deeper into the building and through the newer wings, pausing to view an inspirational children’s mural and a cane-seated wooden wheelchair original to the facility, Duncan felt as though he were the one on show. Invisible eyes watched him from behind a nurse’s station and a therapeutic soaker tub and a deep windowsill crusted with clumps of peeling paint like dessicated flowers. He heard murmuring just under the level of his hearing. Once, he caught a glimpse of something passing in front of a papered-over window, denser than a shadow but not quite opaque against the muted sunlight, and then a hint of chagrin, as if someone felt that they’d been caught out by being seen.

They looped back to the original building through a different corridor. As Cynthia talked about the opening of the new, larger hospital across the road, Duncan sidled into an empty bedroom. Water damage plumed black on the slanted ceiling. The paper had peeled away from the window glass, and a rectangles of sunlight gilded the scarred floor. 

Duncan’s steps were halted by an uncertainty not his own. Then he felt someone make a decision. Up in the roof gable, something not-quite-transparent swung rapidly, like a grey cat whacking at a toy. A small chunk of plaster detached itself from a crack and tumbled at Duncan’s feet.

“Hello,” he said softly. The shadow in the gable was still. Around him, in the corners, the corridor, the attic above and the storage room next door, the silence was listening. “I don’t know if you’ve heard,” he said, “but this building might be torn down. Even if it isn’t, it’s going to change.”

Restlessness and doubt. Most spirits hated change.

“If any of you would like to move on, I can help you. I won’t force you to leave if you don’t want to, I promise.”

He heard the tour group begin to shuffle back down the stairs to the entrance. Peter appeared in the doorway. “Hey, Duncan? Time to go.”

From behind him, Jim said, with forced joviality, “We’re wrapping up the tour, and we don’t want you to get locked in.”

“Sorry,” Duncan said, and then, to the room, “I’ll come back another time soon.”

“Tours are Wednesday and Friday mornings,” Jim said, thinking, Damn urban explorer types, someone should lock them in and teach them a lesson, and Duncan preceded him and Peter out of the building.

They collected Brooks from where he was sitting at the top of an apple tree and went back to the van.

“So, how many do you think?” asked Peter, buckling up.

“A couple of strong ones, anyway.” A young woman in a long skirt, and a man who had definite opinions and the ability to affect the physical world enough to throw a bit of plaster to Duncan. At least he hoped it was to, and not at, though he hadn’t felt any hostility. Plus some others that he hadn’t been able to get a handle on.

“Ten,” said Brooks.

“Ten?” Duncan repeated, turning to gawk at the back of the van. “You could sense them?”

“Oh, yes. They don’t feel like the rest of you at all.”

After Duncan had relayed that, Peter asked, “But you didn’t want to say hi?”

“I didn’t like to intrude. We haven’t been introduced. It is their home, after all.”

Duncan started the van, feeling a trickle of relief as the engine caught easily. His vehicle repair budget had taken a beating this trip.

“Could you talk to them if you went in?” asked Peter. “All of them? Even the ones Duncan couldn’t make out?”

“I don’t see why not. But I don’t know. There was no one else in the graveyard to try it with. Anyhow, I prefer speaking with you. You have new things to say.”

“I guess we’re more entertaining,” Duncan translated to Peter, dryly. Though he could see how the modern world, and Peter’s eagerness to explain every scandal, news bite, and bit of social media nonsense that blew up his phone, might be more compelling than stale social niceties to someone who’d been alone for over a century and whose available fun when he’d been alive had been to read a dictionary.

It was close to noon now, and the bagel and jam were wearing off. Duncan headed downtown by the back streets. Last time he’d been through town, there’d been a bowl place with some decent marinated tofu on the menu.

Brooks bounced in the back of the van. “May we stop? There is it. Let’s stop. Here! Oh, too late.” He subsided like a kid watching an ice-cream-themed tourist trap on the side of the highway diminish in the rear window.

“What?”

“The lending library! It must have a Dictionary of Daily Wants. All the best such establishments do, I’ve read.”

“I appreciate the thought,” Duncan said, “but honestly, my back is fine.” He hadn’t noticed a twinge all morning.

Brooks hesitated. “I’m glad to hear it, but…but I can’t remember the formula for the liniment. I confess I’m finding it vexatious.”

Some human experiences were timeless, Duncan supposed. “Peter, could you check the library’s online catalogue for this dictionary thing? Daily Wants.

“Sure. But I don’t know, Brooks, I’m not sure a small town library is going to have a book that old.”

Duncan glided the van into a parking spot in front of the hexagonal City Hall. “I figured we’d pick up some lunch and take it down to the river to eat. That okay with you?”

“Yeah.” Peter extricated himself from the van and closed the door behind him while mostly looking at his phone. 

“Take care, there are motor cars,” Brooks warned, standing blithely in the middle of the road. Duncan came around the end of the van and stood there, blocking Peter’s way, until Peter looked up.

“What? What’s happening?”

“We’d both like you to not get run over while your head’s in the internet.”

“Oh. Good thought, thanks.” Peter put his phone back in his jeans pocket. “Sorry, Brooks, no luck, but I have another idea to try.”

They collected lunch—explaining tofu, falafel, and the concept of ‘gluten free’ to Brooks—and walked over to the parkland that lined the lake.

“Take a hike, cobra chickens,” Peter said, holding his plastic bowl to his chest nervously as a predatory pack of Canada geese spied them settling around a picnic table.

“Shoo,” Brooks ordered, windmilling his arms at them. The geese paused and then waddled in the direction they’d come.

“That’s a handy talent,” Duncan said.

“They are geese, not chickens. We bred them for some years on the farm,” Brooks said. “They must be managed with a firm hand.”

Peter dug out his phone again as soon as they were seated. “Internet Archive, be good to me. Awesome! Here we are.” He scrolled while picking at his lunch with a plastic fork. “Lightning… linseed… lumbago. I think this is your formula, Brooks. Camphorated oil, oils of amber and turpentine, spirits of hartshorn.”

“Amber, of course!” Brooks hit his forehead with the heel of his hand.

“You’re also going to want to drink thirty drops of turpentine mixed with gin every night,” Peter informed Duncan.

“Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“Bessie found it didn’t sit well on her stomach,” Brooks agreed. 

When they were finished eating, they drove back to the motel. Duncan lay down on his side of the bed, took out his phone to learn more about the redevelopment of the hospital site, and immediately went down a rabbit hole of municipal Planning and Heritage Sub-Committee reports and Ontario Heritage Act minutiae. Peter, meanwhile, had been completely drawn in by Brooks’ dictionary, and was commenting as he scrolled through the book as though he were live-streaming it.

“Bread grater. Seriously, it’s a thing to grate bread for breadcrumbs. There’s a picture. That might be genius, I can’t tell. Brimstone, see sulphur. Wait, brimstone is sulphur, as in fire and brimstone? Did I know that? Calf’s feet jelly, uh, yum, I guess.”

“There’s no point in them going to waste,” Brooks pointed out.

“Christmas tree. Cool, what did you put on your trees in—when was this thing written?—1859?”

“Only what we could make. The tinsmith sold icicles and stamped shapes, but there was always so much else to spend our little bit of money on, and everything was terribly dear. We had popcorn garlands and wire stars, and paper baskets filled with sugared almonds and gingerbread. And Nell tatted little angels from from scraps of string.”

It sounded like all the ‘country living’ magazines had been reading the book too. Duncan hit another PDF link and tried to refocus.

“Crochet-purses, bonbons, preserved fruits, alum-baskets….” Peter went on. “What’s an alum-basket? Oh, like making sugar crystals on a string in a jar, only with alum, whatever that is.”

“I do enjoy your time’s coloured lights and glass baubles,” Brooks said. “You make the night so bright.”

“Moving on, we’ve got cough syrup, made of a bunch more things I’ve never heard of. Crayons for drawing. Eau de cologne. Wow, did you seriously have to make everything yourselves?”

“Much of it. I don’t know if you can understand it.” Brooks went translucent and bobbed up and down gently in the air, as though the concentration of thinking took his attention away from managing his appearance. “Your time has so many things. So many possibilities. All the goods and ideas of the world were not in our pockets the way they are for you now. On the farm we had food and shelter, even if we worked hard for it. But most of what I imagined or even needed, I knew I would likely never see.”

Duncan was suddenly aware, as occasionally happened when he was listening to spirits, of the enormity of time, like a canyon opening under his feet and stretching out into mist and space. He caught his breath, disoriented.

“Duncan,” Peter asked, “is Brooks saying anything? I feel like I’m talking to the air.”

“He should read the entry on household economy,” said Brooks.

Sitting up, Duncan said, “All right, everybody.” Peter and Brooks turned to him with similar dutiful expressions. “I need some quiet right now, please. I’m trying to figure out what this site plan means, and listening to you isn’t making it any easier.”

“Sorry. You got it.” Peter made a zipping motion over his closed lips and tossed the imaginary key away.

Possibly a minute passed.

“Tell him to push the page up,” Brooks whispered, levitating behind Peter, who was slouched in the easy chair continuing to look at his phone.

One hour,” Duncan said. “I’m setting a timer.”

“You know what,” Peter said, removing his feet from the coffee table, “why don’t we get lost for a while and let you work. We could go across the street. Brooks, have you ever been to a mall?”

“Yeah, good idea, take Brooks to the mall.”

“The Mall? Is it like Pall Mall in London?” Brooks asked.

“I mean, if you had to make everything yourself? You will be amazed by the mall,” Peter said. “Duncan, if there’s a decent food court, I’ll bring back dinner.”

“Sounds great,” Duncan said, and they bustled out, leaving Duncan to the contemplation of massing and setbacks and the embodied carbon in heritage structures.

~*~

The next morning, they drove back to the old hospital. Duncan paid an arm and a leg to park at the new hospital, where the van wouldn’t be ticketed or towed away, and they walked over to the original building. Photographs had shown a large portico on the south side, beside the screened porches where tuberculosis patients had lived day and night in the hope that rest and fresh air would save them. The door there had been replaced with a modern metal one, though there was still a horizontal stain on the bricks above it where the roof had been removed. The door was locked, of course.

Duncan closed his eyes and visualized the interior of the building, the noiseless corridors and filtered sunlight. “I’ve come back,” he said, reaching with his thoughts as well as his voice. “I can show you what’s planned for your home. Will you let me come talk to you?”

Peter cupped his hands and looked through the door’s meshed glass panel. “Do you want me to see if I can find a window or something in the back where we could get in?”

“No, I think we’re okay.” Duncan could sense the heaviness of someone’s attention directed their way. “Just give it time.”

It was only a few minutes before something behind the door gave a thunk. Duncan pushed the handle, and the door opened inwards. Brooks disappeared through the wall and was waiting for them inside, impressed. “My goodness. I wonder if I could learn to do that. Make things move, I mean.”

“Are you coming with us this time?”

“I thought I might, since they’ve invited us in.”

“Brooks is coming too,” Duncan told Peter, looking around. They were in an east-west corridor with stairs leading up and down at both ends. The blank silver panels of a modern elevator faced them.

“I am extremely not getting into that,” Peter informed him.

“I don’t think the power’s on, anyway.” Duncan felt a sense of expectation ahead of them, but the first floor hallway didn’t extend this far. He turned right and followed the corridor.

The staircase still had its wooden balusters and handrails, long ago painted a dingy, institutional off-white. After only half a flight, a door opened into a room made of windows. Duncan put up a hand to shade his eyes from the non-existent sunlight slanting between pillars that no longer existed. Such a blessing to lie down, he thought, and shook away the lassitude in someone else’s memory.

“Where are we headed?” Peter asked.

“They’re in a room next to the front doors.”

“Could be the matron’s quarters,” Peter said. 

The door on the far side of the room led through a larger room that Peter called a public ward, and into the central corridor. Duncan passed the stairs that led down to the main entrance, and stopped on the far side. The door to the matron’s quarters was dark, thick wood, miraculously never painted over, though its surface was scarred with screw holes and scabs of old glue. It was open.

“May I come in?” Duncan asked.

A young woman in a long dress patterned with tiny blue and white checks and a white pinafore materialized in the process of standing up from a chair that Duncan couldn’t see. “Please do.” 

The air was a symphony of curiosity, wariness, and excitement. Duncan stepped into the room.

A young man stood leaning against the tiled fireplace with his ankles crossed. He was wearing a tweed suit and cap. An elderly woman, thin and less distinct, sat with her knees up on the deep sill formed by the bay window, swaddled like an infant in a nightgown and a knitted shawl. There was someone else, small and young, in the corner, not paying much attention to the rest of the room, and a few other presences nearby who were faded or hiding, Duncan couldn’t tell yet.

“I’m Duncan. This is Peter, and Brooks.”

The woman in the pinafore inclined her head. “You may call me Nurse.”

“Henry Sewell,” the young man said, with a wave. Duncan got the impression that he was the one who’d unlocked the door. No one else introduced themselves.

“Thank you for talking to me,” Duncan said, nodding to Nurse and Henry in turn. “Like I told you yesterday, there are plans to tear this building down.”

“Ain’t they been saying that forever?” Henry asked. “They were talking about it when all the people moved away, and that was… oh, it must be years now.”

“But now there’s a real plan. Let me show you some pictures of what they want to build.” Duncan found them on his phone and held it up. The two spirits edged closer to look at it.

“Is that a greenhouse?” Henry asked. “Surely can’t be, at that size.”

“It’s a condo. An apartment building,” Duncan amended. “A place for people to live.”

“It looks cold. And like all the world could watch your blessed business.”

“Yeah, you’re not wrong. There are also people trying to save this building and fix it up, but even if that happens, there are going to be a lot of new people here, construction and noise and” —he felt a distant, buried rumble of disapproval— “and, and things changing,” he said, putting that aside to investigate later. “If any of you would like to move on before that happens, I can help you.”

Nurse and Henry exchanged glances. “Where would we go?” the nurse asked.

“All I can tell you about it is that it’s a good place to be.” Duncan’s voice caught. He felt Peter shift a little closer to him, solid and reliable comfort. “And it will take you in. Any of you,” he said, raising his voice to the spirits he knew were listening. “Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done. Without question.”

Another look passed between the two spirits, like parents agreeing to discuss something after the children had been packed away to bed. “And what must one do to go there?” asked Nurse.

In the past, Duncan might have just called the door to show them, but his ability to do that had been erratic since the job, over a year ago, when he’d sent a fragment of his own life’s energy through it and never gotten it back. Looking incompetent wasn’t a great trust builder. Anyway, he wanted everyone here to understand and make their own choice, not just follow what the strongest spirits—including a nurse who probably represented an authority figure for them—decided was best.

“You’re all here for a reason,” Duncan said. “The door opened for you once before, and you didn’t go through it. If you tell me why, I can help you get what you need to move on.”

“I don’t—” Nurse coughed discreetly into her curled hand. “Pardon me. I don’t know that I need anything.”

“Then you can stay. It’s up to you.”

“I can think of a lot of things I want,” Henry said jovially. “Smoke a pipe out on the verandah, get a pint at the pub, give the foreman a piece of my mind. Surely that ain’t what you mean?”

“If I may,” Brooks said diffidently, drifting into the centre of the room. “What I wanted was for the truth of my wives’ love to be known to the world. Duncan and Peter have assured me that it will be, and I believe them. I could have gone on to the place Duncan tells of, but I decided to linger a while further. Whatever your true wish, these men will do their best to fulfil it.”

The thoughtful silence that followed was broken by a little voice piping up from the corner of the room. “I want a cake.”

“A cake?” Duncan repeated.

Peter perked up at the mention of something he could contribute. “What kind of cake?”

A boy of about eight stamped out of the corner on rubber-soled slippers. He had on striped pyjamas and a plaid dressing gown; the fabric hung off his shoulders like curtains, as though he’d shrunk after they’d been bought. “Mother brought a zebra cake for my birthday but Doctor Wyatt never let me have any because of my stomach,” he said with fathomless resentment.

“All right. We’ll get you a zebra cake.”

“Now?”

“As soon as I can,” Duncan promised. “We have to buy it first, and then we’ll bring it to you.”

The boy gave him a suspicious look and then melted away, his narrow-eyed stare hot on Duncan for the entire time it took him to vanish.

“What do the rest of you want?” asked Peter, like a waiter with the world’s most comprehensive menu.

I want, I want, Duncan felt, then faintly heard. “I want.” It was coming from the window seat. The woman there moved, gossamer shredding around her as she freed her arms and legs.

“What do you want?”

Her attention was like the point of a needle. She was nothing but bones, a skull, crooked teeth snapping on rage. Her voice was the husks of desiccated insects. “I want to know that he’s dead.”

All of the hairs on Duncan’s body stood to attention. “When—when was he alive? When were you born?”

“Dead and buried,” she whispered.

“How long ago?”

“Dead and buried and rotted.”

A shiver ran through Duncan, frost twisting into his core. “What was his name? Can you tell me anything about him?” His knees began to tremble.

“Who was on the throne when you knew him?” asked Peter, his hand spread warm on the small of Duncan’s back.

Her intensity ebbed a fraction; there must still be a personality there, partially honed away but reachable under her hatred. “…Old queen.”

“Queen Victoria?” Duncan guessed.

“Then he’s dead,” Peter said. “That was well over a hundred years ago. He’s long gone.”

“Gone?” Gone… gone…. The agony of her attention dulled.

“Can I help you move on?” Duncan asked, rubbing his goose-pimpled arms. 

And the door welled up in his sight, golden and softly glowing, washing all the chill away with the warmth of a spring day after rain. It beckoned to the figure on the windowsill. She sat rigid for a moment and then all at once dissolved, coming apart like a puff of dandelion seeds, like an ocean wave breaking into spray on a rock, and flowed through the door as if it were breathing her in. Buoyed by the door’s joy, Duncan had time to take one step towards it. It exhaled an ineffable scent towards him like a blown kiss, and then it was gone.

Duncan sat down hard on the linoleum. Happiness and desire fizzed in him. 

“My goodness,” Brooks said. “I don’t remember it being like that.”

Peter crouched beside Duncan. “You good?”

“Good? Oh, yeah.” He grasped at Peter’s arm as if it were an anchor.

Peter addressed the room. “So that’s where you can go, if you want to. If you have business you need to finish before you leave, let Duncan know, and we’ll do our best to help you with it. Or to be honest, you can just say the heck with it, and go through. That happens sometimes, too.”

One of the spirits fled the room. Maybe more; Duncan’s perceptions were a little fuzzy. Nurse gave a little cough. Henry walked over to the windowsill. Something caught the diffuse light there, and then a small object hit the floor and rolled to stop against Duncan’s shoe.

“What’s that?” Peter said, as Duncan picked up the ivory bead. It was carved to suggest a rose, though some of the cut edges were dulled, as if it had been turned between fingers over and over for decades.

“She always worried at it,” Henry said, “but she’s left it behind. I s’pose it’s fitting for you to have it.”

“Thank you,” Duncan said, filled with gratitude at the gift. He fumbled it into the front pocket of his jeans.

“I think we’re going to take a break,” Peter said. “We need to go find a cake. We’ll be back, uh, maybe tonight, and if not, tomorrow afternoon, after the morning tour’s over. Duncan, do you want to try standing up?”

As Duncan got to his feet with Peter’s support, Brooks floated over to Henry. “If I may, how did you move that bead from there to here? Were you always able to touch things?”

“Took me a while to get the knack,” Henry admitted modestly.

“I don’t suppose you would teach me?”

Henry considered the question and Brooks both. “I don’t see why not.”

In the doorway, Duncan leaned a shoulder against the wood and turned. “Brooks, you know how to get back to us, yeah?”

“Yes. There are enough people between here and there.” 

“’Kay. We’ll see you later.”

The sunshine was joy incarnate, the dandelions in the asphalt beauty personified. Duncan grinned as he walked to the car, with Peter—amazing, caring, dedicated Peter—at his side.

“Here, you could probably do with this.” Peter pulled a bottle of lemon iced tea out of his bag and handed it to Duncan.

“You are incredible.” Duncan twisted off the cap and gulped half of the sugary drink down. It was still slightly chilled from the motel’s vending machine.

Peter flushed with the praise. “Are you okay to drive?” he asked as Duncan opened the van’s door and stood back to let the heat dissipate.

“Yeah. I just feel really good.” The trembling want that the door often induced in him was there, but overlain with an exuberance that felt like strong hands steadying him. Was it something to do with Duncan’s mood, the spirit who had gone through, the part of him already there? He had no idea. He laughed at the absurdity of being at the whim of something he barely understood.

“Do you want to just sit for a while?”

“Sure.” Duncan put the bottle on the van’s roof and wrapped an arm around Peter’s waist, pulling him in so there was no space between them. 

“Or maybe you want to go back to the motel.”

Duncan bent and nudged along Peter’s neck with his cheek. “I’m up for that.” The motel, where he could get as close to Peter as was humanly possible. He ran his hands down Peter’s arms, delighting in the balm of bare skin. “The tea helped, but what I really want is to touch you.”

Peter took a shaky breath and stepped away. “Damn. Let’s get going before we over-PDA in the parking lot.”

When they stopped at red lights, Duncan held Peter’s hand. By the time they closed the door of their motel room behind them and pulled the curtains closed, the need had started to erode the joy. Duncan reached for Peter and pushed his hands up under Peter’s T-shirt, spreading his fingers to maximize contact with his skin. Peter responded by pulling the shirt over his head and tossing it behind him. Duncan knew that taking off his own shirt as well would get him more of what he wanted, but he was having a hard time letting Peter go. Fortunately, Peter wasn’t new to this situation, and he pushed Duncan’s shirt up and manouevered him out of it without much help.

Duncan dug his fingertips under the waistband of Peter’s jeans. “Keep going. I want you bare.”

Peter drew in a sharp breath as a stab of lust made his knees go weak. His scrabbled at his own fly until he managed to unzip it, and Duncan helped him push his pants and underwear down. Peter jumped as Duncan grabbed his butt, plastering Peter against him, and his nakedness met the rough fabric of Duncan’s jeans.

“Ow. Get these off,” Peter ordered, and peeled Duncan out of them. “Bed, before we fall over.”

Duncan had made the bed before they left, and now Peter ripped the coverlet off like a magician yanking a tablecloth out from under a china setting for twelve. He pulled Duncan onto the mattress. “Come here, you’re okay, I’ve got you,” Peter breathed, and rolled Duncan on top of him so their bodies were in contact at every point, their legs tangled, their socks ridiculously still on.

Duncan buried his face in the space between Peter’s neck and the pillow, pressing down on him, trying to get closer still. The touch of Peter’s skin was everything he’d ever needed, food and water and sleep and oxygen and warmth and love. Peter was hard, revved up by Duncan’s need and his own ability to satisfy it, but he stroked the back of Duncan’s neck as if they were only cuddling on the couch. “It’s okay, you’re good. Relax. We’re safe.”

Time stalled; gradually the manic urgency ebbed. Duncan felt himself calm down with mild wonder, as if he’d walked out the door after hours at a loud, crowded party to find that it was still afternoon outside. He lifted himself on one elbow. “That was intense.”

“I could tell.” Peter brushed Duncan’s shaggy hair back. “Was it because there were so many of them there, do you think? Is it going to be like that when we go back again?”

“No idea.”

“Was it more or less intense than the time before? Has it been getting progressively stronger over the past year? You know what, I should have been taking notes from the beginning.”

Duncan didn’t have the traditional training Peter had gotten from his babcia, and even when he’d been working alone and all his life’s energy had been intact, he’d had very little influence over the door beyond calling it to where he thought it was needed. He was here to be a conduit, that was all. “No point in worrying about it.”

“Don’t you want to know, though? We could probably map it going backwards if we wanted.…”

An academic discussion was not how these post-job situations usually ended, particularly on the rare occasions when they’d been able to get fully naked instead of Duncan clutching at as much of Peter as he could reach with their clothes shoved out of the way. The work they did could be frazzling, for any number of reasons, and Duncan always relished the opportunity to make Peter calm down a bit in his turn. 

By way of distraction, he shifted his weight back onto Peter. Peter stopped in mid-thought. “You’re not door drunk any more, right?”

“Nope.” Duncan bent down and kissed him. 

They made out for a while, and Duncan felt Peter trying to relax and enjoy it, though Peter’s arousal got to a high pitch pretty quickly and was hard to ignore. The feeling of being desired that kissing and groping gave Peter was important to Peter’s pleasure, but being naked and in bed with someone was a little different from being fully clothed and teasing yourself with the idea of being naked and in bed with them.

Duncan nudged one of Peter’s thighs with his knee. Like the last time they’d done this, Peter spent a few seconds struggling for the concentration to explain how his own needs were irrelevant, but then a surge of want ran though his body, and he let his knees fall to the sides so Duncan could settle between them. Peter’s erection nestled alongside Duncan’s own dick, which wasn’t hard and wasn’t going to be. It didn’t matter, it never mattered; sex didn’t work that way for Duncan, but that didn’t mean it didn’t work.

Peter arched his back slightly and wriggled, not remotely emphatic enough to dislodge him. It was a little bit surrender, a little bit request. Peter liked the weight on him; he knew that Duncan could feel what he wanted, and what he wanted right this minute, with a hint of buried shame, was for Duncan to take charge so he didn’t have to think about it. 

Which Duncan had no objection to. They could do better than dry humping, though. On the bedside table was Duncan’s toiletries bag. He reached over to retrieve the little tub of hand cream, which among other things was unscented and hypoallergenic and unlikely to irritate sensitive body parts. “Hang on,” he muttered, needing two hands for the lid. Peter, who had closed his eyes, cracked one eye open, trying to decide if he needed to get involved. Duncan ignored the look and slicked two finger scoops of moisturizer over Peter’s cock. Peter inhaled audibly. Duncan sunk down on top of him again and thrust gently with his hips, skin gliding over Peter’s erection.

“Holy,” Peter said, and gulped. “Yeah.”

From the fragments of porn that Duncan had seen in Peter’s memories and dreams, he knew that Peter probably would have enjoyed a little dirty talk right about now. That kind of thing wasn’t Duncan’s forte and he wasn’t going to embarrass them both by getting too elaborate, but it wasn’t an all-or-nothing thing either.

“You feel good,” he murmured in Peter’s ear, because Peter did. 

“God. You too.” Peter’s compulsion to stage-manage everyone else’s needs, which couldn’t be sat on for long, flailed to the surface despite his preoccupation. “Are you—is this—”

“Shush.” Duncan thrust again.

Peter clutched at him. “You get something out of this too, right?”

“Of course I do.” Steadying his weight on both arms, Duncan slid into a slow rhythm. “Peter, I can tell how it feels to you. Just because I don’t come doesn’t mean I don’t get something out of it.”

An image flashed through Peter’s mind, a memory of them in the library last year, Duncan aroused and desperate under the influence of the door, grinding against Peter with his hands on Peter’s ass. Duncan sped up his movement to match what he saw.

“Oh, god. Sorry,” Peter panted, hot all over.

“Think about whatever you want. I’m glad you were the one there with me.”

Peter shuddered. “Wait, wait. Slow down? I don’t want to finish yet.” Duncan stopped moving, and Peter gasped like a surfacing swimmer. “Can I—can I touch you like that?”

“Sure.”

Peter’s hands ran down Duncan’s hips and cupped his butt. His thoughts were a kaleidoscope of touch and tension and need. They lay like that for a minute, Peter breathing hard, until he lost all willpower and began to thrust up against Duncan. Duncan began to move again, chasing Peter’s pleasure as if it was his own, which it was, and when Peter tipped over the edge, Duncan held him down and let gratification tumble them both like a Lake Superior wave.

~*~

When Duncan came out of the shower, Peter, hair still damp, was lying in the easy chair with his legs over the arm. “So believe it or not, Brooks’ dictionary ends at Yorkshire pudding, but it looks like there’s some pages missing, which I’m a little bummed about. I was hoping to read about 1860s zebras. Anyway, I googled ‘zebra cake’, and there’s a couple of bakeries in town, but you know what, I don’t think we’re looking for a cake shaped like a zebra. Depending on when that kid’s from, I think it’s this retro refrigerator thing. We could totally make one ourselves. How’s your back?”

“Right now it’s fine.” Like every other problem, back pain was probably going to come and go on a timetable that Duncan had no control over. He pulled on a fresh T-shirt and looked at the phone that Peter was waving at him. “Oh, with the chocolate cookies and whipped cream? Yeah, we used to make that when we were kids, but we called it an icebox cake.”

“We called it a whipped cream cake. Babcia taught me how to make it. She was a big fan of food that came out of boxes.”

A quick trip to the grocery store across the road supplied what they needed. Back at the motel, Duncan watched as Peter built a log of chocolate wafers and spray-can whipped cream.

“It’s supposed to sit overnight,” Peter said as he put the lidded plastic container in the mini fridge, “but it would probably be fine if we took it over after dinner. I mean, when I made it I don’t think I ever once managed to leave it alone for more than an afternoon.”

“Sounds good. Maybe some more of them have thought about what they want.”

“And it gives us some time for you to catch me up. How many are we talking?”

Duncan described the spirits he’d met or been able to sense. “And there’s something in the basement,” he concluded. 

“The basement? Oh, that’s always a great sign.”

“It doesn’t feel threatening. Just cranky. The old woman was the scariest as far as I could tell, but she’s gone through already.”

They had an early dinner at a Chinese place downtown and drove back to the hospital. The day was still warm, but the wind had risen. In the west, the sun was azure under a blanket of charcoal-grey clouds that bulged down like stalactites.

Henry let them in again at the side door. Brooks greeted them with enthusiasm.

“Hey, Brooks. How’s the moving things coming?” Duncan asked as they made their way to the matron’s quarters.

“I don’t quite have the feel for it yet. It’s rather like trying to wiggle one’s ears. But it’s been a most interesting study.”

“Tell me you got a cake,” Henry said, emerging from the wall of the corridor. “Benny’s been on about it all afternoon.” He had the slightly indulgent but mostly exhausted tone of a parent two days before Christmas.

“Got it right here.” Duncan pointed at the box Peter held.

As soon as they went through the matron’s room door, Benny zoomed into existence. “Do you have my cake? Is that my cake? Can I see my cake?”

There was no furniture in the room. Duncan took the box from Peter and walked over to the windowsill, where he popped the top off the box and set it down. Peter took a white plastic fork, wrapped in a paper napkin, out of his bag and put it beside the cake.

“It’s even got crumbs on the top like how Mother did it,” Benny said rapturously. He didn’t appear to even touch it, but his eyes scrunched up in pleasure. “And it tastes swell! Thanks a big bunch, mister!”

His delight was so radiant that it took only a thought from Duncan to call the door. Benny walked into the luminous fog, and the door gently gathered behind him and vanished. Duncan felt barely a quiver.

“We good?” Peter asked quietly.

“Yeah. He’s gone through.” Duncan leaned against the windowsill. He could sense other spirits loitering in the room, though none of them were as well defined as Benny and Henry and the nurse. “Can I help anyone else?”

It took some concentration and he had to shush Brooks a few times, but after he sat quietly for a while, they began to come forward. 

One was consumed with worry that the war would never end and the boys he’d enlisted with would never return home. Everything about him was khaki-coloured, worn to the bone, dry as a yellowed telegram. Duncan gave his word that that war had ended long ago and the fallen were at peace. The spirit wavered on the edge of the door as if searching for something past it. There was faint music, and Duncan felt a dazzle of relief and recognition before the spirit sped through and the door pulled closed.

One only repeated flowers, flowers, flowers, giving him an image of heaps of blooms blanketing a polished wooden box—a casket, he realized. He never figured out what she wanted or why, but when he called the door, it came for her, and in the instant before it closed after her, Duncan glimpsed in his mind’s eye a garden seen through a lace veil.

One kept giving him irritation and an image of a park bench. A wooden one, first new and glossy with varnish, now grey and splintering and half-swallowed by unpruned shrubbery. There was a little metal plaque on its back. SAM. There was more written on the plaque, but Duncan could only see it through the spirit’s eyes, and that was the thing it needed him to know. SAM. He could tell that it wasn’t far away. In the cemetery, maybe? No, the spirit insisted, its aggravation growing. Here. SAM.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Can you show me more details about where it is?”

Peter, who had been sitting with his back to the wall fighting the urge to look at his phone, looked up. “Where what is? Can I help?”

“It’s a park bench with a memorial plaque, I think, but it’s here—it’s like it’s almost in the building, but that doesn’t make sense.”

“Is it one of the ones under the trees out front?”

Here, the spirit repeated, frustration like fingernails being dragged down a blackboard. Duncan flinched. 

“There’s one right by the front doors, too, it’s practically falling apart.”

SAM, the spirit shouted in affirmation and grief. Duncan clapped his hands uselessly over his ears.

“They let it just rot, is that it?” Peter asked. “After you paid for a memorial and everything? That is not cool. I totally get why you’re upset. Do you want us to contact the hospital people and make sure they put the plaque on a new bench? Maybe closer to the modern hospital, where people can see it?”

“That’s a yes,” Duncan said, as the door arrived. The spirit hesitated. “You’ve seen what we do. We promise we’ll take care of it.” He felt it decide to trust them, and then spirit and door withdrew together.

Duncan let out a long breath. “I think I need to lie down.” He slumped sideways and tipped over, bending his arm as a pillow to avoid putting his face on the filthy linoleum.

“Here.” Peter held a steaming plastic cup in front of his face. Duncan levered himself up again and sipped the hot tea. Peter put an opened package of chocolate-covered cookies on his knee, then sat behind Duncan and draped his arms around him, wrapping his hands around his wrists and resting his face against Duncan’s neck. Duncan leaned gratefully into the touch.

“Is it always different, when it comes?” Brooks asked.

“These days, yeah.” Even if it had never exactly been easy, Duncan’s work with the door had once been reliable, even routine. It was only this past year, with a piece of him on the other side of it, that he never knew how things were going to go.

Something rumbled far overhead. Duncan’s mind went to elevator shafts and unseen things tumbling down stairs before he realized that it was thunder.

“I think we should go back to the motel and come back tomorrow,” Peter said.

“Soon. There’s two more.” He could feel them like handfuls of mist, one flaring with panic at the thought of being left behind again. Maybe it had stayed for a long-ago reason it could no longer remember. That happened sometimes.

There was a click, and a warm yellow circle appeared on the floor: Peter’s wind-up lantern. Duncan hadn’t realized how dark the room had gotten. 

He washed down two cookies with the tea, and straightened. He took hold of one of Peter’s hands so Peter wouldn’t move, and stretched his tired awareness towards the door.

He had to coax it, but it came. The spirit trickled into it as though it were equally tired, and Duncan barely felt it go.

There was no desire or urgency from the other vague spirit, and it didn’t so much go away as disperse. Sometimes spirits stayed until they lost whatever individuality they had once had and soaked into the place they’d been haunting as if they were spilled wood stain permeating the floorboards. He wasn’t sure what that meant for them, metaphysically speaking. Not his department.

There was no one left here now but for Nurse, Henry, and whoever or whatever was downstairs. Thunder rolled again, louder this time. Peter was right, they should take a break and come back tomorrow. Duncan felt like a cracked rain barrel leaking water. The thought of walking out to the van was exhausting, let alone driving to the motel. “I should teach you to drive,” he mumbled.

“What, me? I’m sorry, no thank you, driving is terrifying.” 

“’Kay. Gonna take a nap,” Duncan managed, and this time he passed out the moment he was horizontal.

The rain woke him, a sudden, powerful thudding against the roof as if it were being flung downwards. Peter was sitting cross-legged beside him, one hand wrapped around the back of Duncan’s neck while he scrolled on his phone with the other. Duncan sat up and rubbed his arms, chilled.

“Cold? Hang on.” Peter dug in his bag and came out with one of Duncan’s thermal shirts. Duncan couldn’t even remember packing it. “How are you feeling?”

“Thanks. Much better. I needed the rest.” Duncan pulled on the shirt and then glanced at his phone. It was only eight o’clock, but it could just as well have been midnight for all the daylight that was left. He felt for the spirits. Nurse was doing something organizational in one of the old wards. Henry and Brooks were at the back of the most recent addition, where they could watch the lightning lash over the treetops of the ravine. Whatever was in the basement was enjoying the quiet.

Which was split by a crack of thunder so loud that it was more sensation than sound. Duncan and Peter both jumped.

“Do you want to take off now and get drenched on the way to the van, or wait for the rain to let up?” asked Duncan.

“You know what, at the risk of professional embarrassment—” Peter folded his arms tightly. “Being in a haunted, abandoned hospital at night during a thunderstorm is not on my top ten list of fun getaways. Plus, there’s water coming in above that window, and this floor is already disgusting enough to sit on.”

“Got it.” Duncan stood up. Peter did the same, and retrieved his lantern. “Brooks? We’re going to head out, if you want to come along.”

Brooks and Henry joined them as they were walking down the last flight of stairs to the ground floor. “Thank you for the instruction,” Brooks said. “I will practise diligently.”

“You’ll get it in time. Me and Nurse did.”

The lightning strike that flared through the windows momentarily bleached both men into transparency. Duncan pushed at the crash bar on the side door. It didn’t open.

He pushed it again, the sound of the crash bar lost in another thunderclap. “Hey, Henry, would you mind unlocking the door?”

Henry made a gesture at it. Duncan tried it again. Nothing.

“That ain’t right.” Henry waved at the door again. “Nurse,” he called. “Did you lock the door?”

She appeared beside the elevator. “Of course not, Mr. Sewell. Fresh air is important to a healthy convalescence.”

“What’s happening?” Peter edged closer to Duncan.

“It won’t open.”

“Fantastic.” Peter turned until his back was to the external wall, and looked in both directions down the short hallway.

“I don’t think we’re in danger,” Duncan said.

“Gotta say, not all that reassuring.”

Duncan cast his awareness upwards and out across the building’s vacant corridors and rooms. Everything was as peaceful as the grave. “I swear, Peter, I don’t know what’s wrong with the door, but nothing in here is out to get us.”

“Nothing in here is? Interesting phrasing.” Peter was trying to be humorous, but he was honestly on edge, some atavistic unease subsuming experience and knowledge and all the training he’d gotten from his babcia. His fingers were tense around his own arms.

“Take a deep breath. Have you eaten anything since dinner? You should have some chocolate.” Peter always carried a bar of the good stuff in his miraculous bag of supplies.

“I brought that for you.”

“So I’ll have some too.”

Peter dug the bar out of his bag and broke off a row of squares for Duncan, then for himself. As Duncan let the chocolate melt in his mouth, he thought about their next move. He tried the door again, with no different results. It was far from the only door in the place, but he was pretty sure that testing them all wasn’t going to be the solution to the problem.

“Now what?” asked Peter, who had de-stressed a minor amount.

“I have an idea. But don’t freak out.”

“Oh god, what?”

“It’s time to go talk to whatever’s in the basement.”

According to Henry, the basement was one of those ‘can’t get there from here’ situations. They all retraced their steps back to the original entranceway, which was beginning to smell like damp, and from there down the main staircase, Peter’s lantern lighting a murky circle around them.

Down here, the thunder was muffled. In a building of this vintage, Duncan had expected walls of rough stone, at the very most peeling whitewash, but it seemed that the basement had been a working part of the original hospital rather than just a foundation and storage cellar. They passed the bones of a kitchen with open shelving still suspended from the walls, what might have been a common room with deep window wells and remnants of filthy wallpaper, and several modern utility rooms with warnings on their closed doors. Silent pipes festooned the low ceiling.

He followed the indifferent presence to a wooden door, scarred like the one to the matron’s room. A few faded curves and edges on the wall beside it suggested an age-invisible stencilled sign.

“The library. Some of the staff read here during lunch hours, but of course the patients weren’t expected to come downstairs,” Nurse said. “There was a book cart that circulated to the wards and private rooms.” She brought her hand to her mouth and coughed softly.

“A book cart? I don’t remember being offered books,” Henry said in mock offence.

“You needed your rest,” Nurse said gently, avoiding his gaze. 

The small room behind the door had long since been converted to storage, and was cluttered with furniture so outdated and broken that no one had even bothered to move it out when the building had closed. In his mind’s eye, Duncan could see the shadow of how the room had once been: unadorned bookshelves on three walls, a little table and a few straight-backed chairs wedged into the centre. There was just enough room for the wheeled box with shelves on both sides and a turned-wood handle to fit between the chairs and the bookcases.

Someone was sitting in one of the chairs. 

“Hello?” Duncan said, with the half-whisper he would have used in a real library. “May we come in for a second?”

He could feel the person’s attention reluctantly turn from the book they were reading to the little party in the open door. He couldn’t quite distinguish their gender, which wasn’t of much importance to them, or their height, or anything about their appearance, except for an impression of glasses and a sense of resigned annoyance at being disturbed.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you,” Duncan said. 

Noisy, thought the spirit.

“Yes. I’m sorry. We’d like to go now and leave you in peace, but the doors upstairs are stuck shut. Is that something you can help us with?”

The figure thought about doors, and its hazy silhouette rippled in a shrug. It didn’t care who was in the building as long as they left it alone.

“I understand. I can help you leave, if that’s something you want?”

The spirit turned back to its book. There were plenty of them in the past where it was, and that was all that it needed.

“Back upstairs,” Duncan said to Peter, and filled Peter in on the situation as they retraced their steps to the lobby. Once there, Duncan sat on the stairs leading upwards, which were at least dry if not clean, and rested his forearms on his knees. He closed his eyes and extended his awareness once again. If there was an unknown spirit hiding from him, it was doing an unusually good job. And if it didn’t want anything to do with him, why would it be preventing him from leaving?

He heard Peter pull at the handles of the front doors, one then the other. Through their glass panes, the streetlights across the lawn seemed to flicker behind the wind-tossed branches of the trees. “I’m all for there not being an eldritch horror in the basement,” Peter said, “but if that wasn’t the problem, what is? Who’s left?”

“No one but us all that I can tell,” Brooks said. “My goodness, it’s quite a storm, isn’t it? It’s like another world out there. I’m glad we didn’t have to make a dash for it. Much better to stay in here, where we know we’ll be warm and dry.”

Duncan opened his eyes and looked at the remaining spirits thoughtfully. “What about you, Nurse? Henry? What are you waiting for?”

“Us?” repeated Henry.

“What do you need to move on?”

Henry shifted in second-hand embarrassment. “What’s that got to do with me and her?”

“You’re saying it doesn’t have anything to do with you?”

He looked at Duncan with impatience and something that felt like shame, buried deep. “We ain’t exactly like the others, are we?”

“Why aren’t you?” Duncan kept his voice mild. 

“Because we ain’t… we ain’t…. Tell him, Nurse.” Nurse didn’t say anything. Henry turned to face her. “Tell him.”

She looked at Duncan, her hands clutched together. 

“Here, now,” Henry said sharply. “What are you hiding?”

Nurse’s crisp facade cracked for just a second. “Mr. Sewell.…” She trembled, greying in and out of Duncan’s vision like a poorly wired lamp. “I was never sure you’d want to hear it.”

He took a step away from her. “Hear what?”

Nurse glanced at Duncan again. He nodded at her, giving her the permission she needed to release whatever she’d kept to herself for so long. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.

“We—we did our best. But you—oh, Henry, you were injured so badly.”

His laughter was as rough as the next roll of thunder. “What are you on about? It was just a little knock on the shoulder. I been working on buildings since I was sixteen, and I’m a tough one.”

Her eyes were serious on his. “No, Henry. A heavy beam fell on you. Your back was broken. Your legs were crushed. It’s only because you were so strong that you lived as long as you did.”

“Horsesh— Hogwash. I don’t believe it.” He vanished with an abruptness that felt like another thunderclap. Nurse’s shoulders sagged. 

Peter lowered himself to the stair beside Duncan and gave him an inquisitive look. Duncan shook his head briefly.

“What would you like, Nurse?” he asked.

She coughed. “Me? Nothing, Mr. Duncan. There’s nothing I need.”

“You can stay here if you want to,” Duncan said, “but are you sure?”

“I’m—” She fumbled a handkerchief out of her pocket and covered her mouth with it. “Excuse me. I don’t need anything.” She coughed, more strongly this time.

Her stubbornness was a smooth and rigid surface in Duncan’s mind, as stiffly starched as her white apron. “Are you sick?”

“No, of course n—” She caught her breath with a rasp. “I’m fine. I don’t need a thing.”

He watched her. She was only in her mid-twenties, soft under that severe hairstyle and plain grey dress. “Would you tell me your name?”

“It’s Nurse.”

“What was it before you started working at the hospital?”

She gasped as if she were breathing through cloth. “My name’s Nurse.”

Duncan stood up and walked over to her. “Who were you before you became a nurse?” he asked her gently.

“I was… I was… Janey Kirkwood?” Her voice crackled like cellophane and rose at the end, as though she weren’t sure. Her hand went unconsciously to the pin on her apron, where golden hands cupped a red enameled cross. “I wanted to be a good nurse. I wanted to help people.”

“You were, Janey. You were a very dedicated nurse.”

“The consumption ward wasn’t an easy position. But I did my best.”

“You took good care of all your patients. I know you did.”

Her image pebbled, as if she was on the other side of a pane of glass streaked by rainwater. “I got so tired. Do you know, they let me nap in a hospital bed, how funny….”

“Your work’s finished now,” Duncan said. “All the people you took such good care of have gone on ahead. You can go too. You can rest now, if you want to.”

She ducked her head and brought her handkerchief up to cover her lips. “It wasn’t fair,” she whispered.

“No, it wasn’t,” he agreed.

Janey let out a long, free breath. The idea of Heaven hovered in her mind, sunshine and clean white linen. She was ready to go, now. She wanted to go so badly that Duncan could feel the door waiting to blossom open and welcome her. But—

“Is there something else you need to do first?”

She tilted her face up, towards the rain washing down on the roof three storeys above. “Mr. Sewell? Henry?”

He appeared on the landing. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Janey said. “I knew you’d take it hard. But I should have been truthful with you, even so. I’m sorry.”

He sighed. “I got to apologize for my bit of temper, too. I can’t blame you for all of it. I guess I knew it myself, deep down.” He looked past her. “You’re leaving, then?”

“Yes. Won’t you come with me, now that you know?”

He searched her face. “Well, then,” he said, “I reckon I’d miss you, left alone here. I don’t mind coming along.”

He walked down the stairs to her and offered her his arm. Duncan barely had time to turn to the door before it furled open and embraced them both, then wove shut with the sense of a job well done.

Brooks dabbed at his eyes with a knuckle. “Aww, were they secretly sweet on each other all this time? It’s just like the stories Nell used to read us from the weekly papers.”

Duncan slumped sideways against the bannister. Peter’s hands snaked under his shirt. “We done? You okay?”

Duncan nodded, pulling Peter close. He felt himself starting to shake. The door had been gentle with him that last time, but it had been a long day.

“I’ve got you.” Peter’s hands were warm on him. “Brooks, could you maybe take ten?”

“Of course. Ten what?”

“It’s ’cause of the door,” Duncan said. “Be okay soon.” He groped at Peter’s sweatshirt, starving for skin. 

Peter knew the drill. He pulled up sleeves and pushed under hems, his body finding every accessible inch of skin. He slung a leg over Duncan’s, and even his warmth through the double thickness of their jeans was soothing.

When the balance tipped from door-induced exhaustion to plain sleepiness, Duncan detached himself from Peter. “Gonna sleep well tonight.”

“So all the spirits have moved on?”

“Everybody who wants to.” Duncan stood up. He looked at Brooks, who was examining the old noticeboard on the wall with an air of deliberate absorption. “Brooks, after all that, are you sure you don’t want to follow them?”

“Oh, no. There’s still so much to see in the world. I’d like to stay longer.”

“You got it.”

“How are we going to get out, though?” Peter asked. 

“I’m pretty sure we dealt with that.” Sure enough, a push on the front door proved it unlocked. Duncan suspected that if they looked, they’d find that every deadbolt and painted-shut window in the place had been loosened. 

The rain was still coming down softly, a mist more than a fall. They made their way to the van in the sodium-yellow glow of the streetlights.

“It’s too bad they’re going to tear it down,” Peter said, giving the hospital a last look as Duncan drove the van through the parking lot. “It would make a cool, I don’t know, library or artists’ co-op or something.”

“Things only last so long.” It was a cliche, possibly because it was such a hard lesson that some people didn’t learn it until after they’d died.

“It know. It still sucks.”

“But new marvels are created every day,” Brooks said.

Duncan turned onto the road. The windows of the new hospital glowed like halos through the damp night. Inside, someone dearly loved was entering the world. Someone deeply mourned was leaving it. Duncan distantly felt the door open and shut, a tranquil, melodic strain over the rhythm of the windshield wipers.

Peter yawned. “I’ll find somebody to email about the bench tomorrow, but other than that, I guess that’s our Stratford job done. This has been some vacation. What’s on our jam-packed daily planner for tomorrow?”

“No idea,” Duncan said. “I guess we’ll find out.”

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5 thoughts on “The Dictionary of Daily Wants

  1. I loved this – especially as someone with fond memories of Stratford – and I’m now looking forward to reading the other existing stories in this universe.

  2. It’s always a pleasure to read new adventures of Peter and Duncan’s, and Brooks makes a wonderful addition to the gang! This one, too, had the gentleness, kindness, and sense of duty — topped up with a mystery — that I loved from all the other instalments.

  3. I like how not only is it a sequel, but of the many stories with Peter and/or Duncan, this one particularly directly connects onto the previous ones since Brooks is still around. I also really liked getting Duncan’s viewpoint through quite a few different mental states, including the beautiful dandelions and much more soberly getting Peter off.

  4. These are some of the chattiest ghosts Peter and Duncan have encountered, and I really enjoyed how that made for an almost ensemble piece: Brooks is fun, as is to be expected, but the way each of the other restless spirits have unique circumstances (and personalities!) helps this feel especially lively. I also continue to appreciate the way you show Duncan as a person capable of eroticism, no matter his physical limitations! I do wonder what those slowly-rising stakes with the door mean for everyone in the long term, too…

  5. Ah, I love these two. Always a poignant read. The ghosts of the hospital are all so very human, full of the sort of fairly mundane wants that I suspect a lot of people would have at the end of their life. Also very fond of the person in the basement, who has arguably the best afterlife I could imagine. Reading forever and no gender! Paradise. :)

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