by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Half-frozen rain ticked against the windowpanes, trailing watery smears and blurring the colours of the traffic lights and gas station neon outside. Inside, everything was dark leather and maroon damask. A real wood fire burned in a real fireplace; candle flames drew sparks of gilt from wine glasses and silverware and sequined holiday dresses. Swags of greenery were hung and heaped in every conceivable location, accented with red ribbons, golden glass balls, striped cones of nuts and frosted fruit, and the inevitable white fairy lights.
Peter slumped in the corner of the booth. His own Christmas decorations were still packed away in the basement–or rather, his grandmother’s, his Babcia’s, were. Hers were dime-store Sixties glitz: honeycomb paper bells, tinsel garlands, multi-coloured lights backed with foil reflectors, jovial snowmen with clumps of glitter glued on top of their black plastic hats. Peter had put them all away alone, last January; the thought of opening those boxes again was like a punch in the stomach.
He’d accepted the invitation in spite of the date. Christmas had always been the best time, the season of crowded and noisy family gatherings, threadbare plush stockings filled with joke gifts and ridiculous socks, rambunctious carol sings fuelled by spiked hot cider and drug store chocolate assortments. His year orbited out from and circled back to it. But three hundred and sixty-five days ago, he’d been sitting in Babcia’s hospital room for the last time, hands shaking around an untasted cup of cafeteria coffee, and right now all Christmas carols sounded strained through a cheap speaker at a nurses’ station, and he couldn’t get the smell of institutional disinfectant out of his memory.
“Are you sure? Because I’ve got to tell you, my man, I can see the little black cloud above your head from across the room.”
Peter made a sheepish face. “Yeah, okay, I’m having issues with the festive. It’s nothing, it’s fine. Hey, how did you do on that Forest Hill place?” The expansive chef’s kitchen had been the site of something very unpleasant, once upon a time, and Peter had helped clear out the spirit that was making the room reek of rot whenever strangers stepped into it.
Asad grinned. “That got me a nice bonus.”
A waiter stopped to offer them a tray of phyllo triangles. Peter took one and bit into it, scattering shards of pastry across the tablecloth.
“Not to mention…” Asad’s voice trailed off. Peter looked up to where Felicia Saunders, another agent he’d worked with, had just entered the room. Her red satin dress covered her to elbows and ankles but framed the garland of birds, snowflakes and keys tattooed across her collarbone.
“You should go offer her some eggnog or something,” he suggested, as Asad audibly swallowed. As an intermittent consultant, Peter wasn’t up on all the office drama, but Asad’s long-standing crush on Felicia was visible from space. “I mean, that’s what office Christmas parties are for.”
“Big talker,” Asad grumbled, but he slid out of the booth again. “I do need a drink. Can I get you anything?”
“Nah, I’m fine.” He nodded at his cranberry-and-ginger-ale.
“Right, then, catch you later.”
The room was getting lively. Peter waved to a few people he’d met before, but the growing agency had three or four branches now, and more people than not were strangers to him. Not that that bothered him. That was why you went to parties, after all–to meet people you didn’t usually hang with, to hear new opinions from and have new arguments with and listen to new far-fetched gossip about. His social life had kind of withered this past year, between his regular job and carrying on Babcia’s work, and his group of college friends all scattered in the quest for gainful employment, and the extended family’s collective noses being out of joint about the will that had left Babcia’s creaky wooden two-up two-down to Peter alone. Not to mention that he hadn’t so much as shared hot eye contact with a guy since…was it seriously the summer before last? Well, except for Duncan, and the thing the two of them had together, which was taking an increasing percentage of the dictionary to describe.
So it was high time Peter started leaving the house more, putting himself out there. Which did not include slouching in a shadowy corner when he was lucky enough to be at a Christmas party featuring full catering and an open bar. Babcia would have clucked her tongue at him and shoved him out of the booth to bring her deep-fried appetizers and a double gin-and-tonic.
Peter cleared his throat and took a gulp of his ginger ale. For half a second he was tempted to make his excuses and go watch classic Christmas movies at home with Duncan. Then he drew in a steadying breath, got up, and wandered over to say hi to the agency’s staging expert and a couple of women he’d never met.
Workplace in-jokes, a meme involving some advertising catch phrase gone viral, a movie Peter had watched the trailer for but never seen, a show he’d never even heard of. Fifteen minutes later, Peter dropped out of the orbit of another group without having done much more than smile and nod and fail to have anything topical to contribute.
He snuck a hopeful look at his phone, but no one was having an otherworldly emergency on this drizzly December night. Maybe he should just get a real drink, toast Babcia, mark the end of a turbulent year, and settle in to enjoy several thousand steakhouse calories on someone else’s tab.
The bar, tucked under the staircase in the black-and-white-tiled vestibule, was three people deep. Peter sighed, and headed upstairs to the washrooms.
According to the historical plaque outside, the mansion had been a number of things over its one hundred and fifty years, but it still retained some characteristics of the stately family home it had been built as. The broad, glossy wooden staircase paused at a landing, where poinsettias in more shades Peter had known they even grew in massed over a curving built-in bench, and then doubled back on itself to lead up to the second-floor hallway. Gothic arches led into more more intimate rooms, the upward continuation of the stairs, and doors labelled Menand Women. In the centre of the hallway between the two washrooms was a wide oval cut into the floor, ringed with a railing that was twined with greenery and lights, looking down onto the dining room below.
The washroom was empty except for one other guy, vaguely familiar and about Peter’s age, who was staring into the mirror above the sinks with the expression of someone realizing he’d gotten much drunker much faster than he’d intended.
“Um,” said the guy, as Peter pulled a paper towel from the stack after washing his hands.
“Are you all right?” Peter asked. The guy’s face was pallid to the point of being greenish, though Peter suspected he was pretty pale on a regular basis, with hair the colour of unbleached linen and grey eyes, though the ice-grey suit he wore was certainly adding to the effect.
“You’re that consultant, right? For the agency?” His eyes flicked between Peter’s reflection and a point in the mirror beyond his own shoulder.
That consultant, yes, the one who dealt with the nameless complications that everybody liked to pretend they didn’t believe in. “That’s me.”
“So, uh.” He swallowed. “Do you see a guy behind me?”
Peter looked in the mirror, then turned to check in person. “No. You do?”
“He’s, um. He’s kind of transparent.”
“I’m guessing you don’t usually see that kind of thing?” The guy shook his head, keeping his eye on the same featureless spot in the mirror. Peter took a stab in the dark. “You’re pretty buzzed right now, am I right?”
Another nod. “They’ve opened some really good wine.”
Yeah, Toronto real estate prices had gone stratospheric; it had been a profitable year for the agency. “So, you’ve probably got a mild spot of talent, and drinking too much triggers it and lets you see spirits. It works that way for some people. Don’t freak out. It’ll go away when you sober up.” He kept his voice matter-of-fact. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or something?”
“No, but uh, he…” A flinch. “He’s not real happy.”
Peter turned again and contemplated empty space. He didn’t see a thing, but then, he wouldn’t. “Not happy as in sad?” Depressed ghosts were a drain on anyone with talent; endurable for restaurant patrons here for just an evening, but possibly a hazard for already overworked, underpaid waitstaff…
“Not happy as in he looks like he’s trying to set me on fire with his brain.”
That was different. Given enough time, hostile spirits could do real damage. “What’s he unhappy about?”
“It’s…his house?” The guy’s forehead wrinkled. “And he doesn’t like what we’re doing to it?”
Peter looked around the restroom, which was almost as large as and had been redecorated way more recently than the first floor of his house. “It doesn’t look like it’s in too bad a shape.”
“No, it’s that people are drinking? Like, alcohol? And they used to smoke in the bar, and sometimes there’s even dancing, he thinks they might as well be…uh, he really doesn’t like the dancing.”
Grouchy old sex-negative ghost with a grudge against the living and the passage of time, then. Peter couldn’t help feeling inappropriately cheerful at the prospect of work that needed doing. “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Jacob, I’m Peter. Can you tell from his clothing when he’s from? Like, does he look like a movie gangster, or more like Sherlock Holmes, or is he really oldey-timey?”
Oddly, the question seemed to perk Jacob up. “Let’s see. He’s wearing a wide-lapel black wool sack jacket with bound edges and a matching vest. His trousers are a lighter grey with a woven stripe. So that’s early to mid eighties, but he’s an old guy, he could be wearing a conservative style. His shirt’s a later cut, his collar’s got small points, and his tie’s a wide one, striped silk, with a Windsor-like knot. So, mid-nineties, say? Eighteen-nineties. No later than the turn of the century, probably. Uh, does that help?”
Okay, that had been a weirdly specific answer, but Peter could work with it; Victorians often responded to the classics. “Yes, that’s very helpful. Jacob, I’m going to try to lay this spirit to rest. Want to help?”
“…Sure?” Jacob said, wary again.
Peter hadn’t brought his bag with him; he’d thought he was just coming to a damn party, though in retrospect he probably should have given more credence to the restaurant’s standing on the annual Hallowe’en “most haunted places in Toronto” lists. But there were some basics that one could usually put one’s hands on, and heaven knew he, with his complete lack of talent, ended up doing a lot of improvising. “Would you mind going back downstairs and getting a few things from the dining room for me? I need salt, a clean glass–a nice wine glass, preferably–a candle, and, hmm, a knife should do it.”
The bathroom door creaked as another man came in. Once the newcomer’s back was turned, Peter made a shooing gesture at Jacob with his hands. Jacob left, making a wide detour around the spot where the spirit stood. Peter washed and dried his hands again, taking his time, until the man left.
“I know it was your house,” he said to the air. “It’s got to be galling to watch other people take it over and do things you don’t approve of. I get that. But it hasn’t been yours for over a hundred years now. It sounds like you tried to do what was right in your life, but hanging out here is–how should I put this?–it’s corrupting your good intentions. It’ll be better for everybody if you move on to what’s next. I’m going to help you find a way to do that.”
Jacob returned with his hands full and his jacket pulled awry by awkward things in the pockets. He set a steak knife and a tealight in a frosted glass jar on the counter, followed by a wine glass and a salt shaker.
“Good stuff,” Peter said. He pictured where he was, and put the steak knife–athame, the air–to the east, on the floor, and arranged fire, earth–the salt–and a wine glass of water at the appropriate compass points around it, encircling the spirit. He would have liked to have had a Bible, preferably King James, but he would do his best by memory.
“This shouldn’t take too long.” He’d either be successful, or have to come back another time and try again. “Stand by the door, and if anybody tries to get in, tell them we’re cleaning up a mess. How’s our spirit looking?”
“Well, he’s not staring at me anymore,” Jacob said, with a discomfiting emphasis.
“Great. Okay, here we go.”
Peter stood by the knife, just outside of the imaginary circle formed on the taupe tiles, and began to walk clockwise, passing the other three symbols in their turn. “Air, fire, water, earth. Of these things we are made.” He reached the knife again and continued his path. “Spirit, hear me and let me guide you. Your time has come and gone. To every thing there is a season…” He paused to let the jangly guitars and the Turn, turn, turn fade from his mind. “And a time to every purpose under the heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to pluck up that which is planted…” The words, which he hadn’t said in months, flowed as if they were a daily prayer. “A time to break down, and a time to build up…” He almost felt Babcia across the circle from him, stout and grey-haired in scuffed white running shoes, and when he looked up and didn’t see her, her loss seared him as if it were fresh. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn…” He swallowed and cleared his throat. “A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away…”
He heard the door squeak again, and Jacob speaking, but didn’t look in his direction. “And a time of peace,” he finished, and came around to the east again in a few more steps. He faced the centre of the circle. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” His voice wobbled on the last words, and he swiped the heel of his hand over his cheeks. “Spirit–sir, I’m sorry, I don’t know your name–we all lose things we love. It sucks, but that’s life. Please don’t stay here and let the loss last forever. Move on.”
He heard Jacob’s swift intake of breath. Nothing else happened–the candle didn’t gutter, the salt didn’t trickle across the tiles–and Peter stood waiting until Jacob let out a long sigh.
“There was a…light?” Jacob said uncertainly. “A tunnel, or…something?”
Peter combed a hand slowly through his hair. “Did he go into it?”
“Yeah. He looked happier.”
“Good.” Peter took one last trip around the circle, in the opposite direction this time; he wasn’t sure how much it mattered, but liked his work to be tidy. “Earth, water, fire, air. To these things we return.” He bent and picked up the steak knife, which had the name of the restaurant burnt into its handle. “You know, I bet this makes a great souvenir. How many of these do you think they lose in a year?”
Jacob left his position in front of the door; three men walked in and looked at Peter strangely. Peter grabbed the salt shaker, and poured the water from the wine glass down the drain. Jacob blew out the candle, and stood staring down at it as smoke spiralled up. “Was that…heaven?”
“I’m told it’s all the same place. I don’t know. I think so. Pretty much.” Peter stuck his hand under the faucet and waited for the water to flow, then splashed it over his salt-stinging cheeks.
“Wow, that’s…wow. Wow.”
“Yeah.” Peter grabbed another paper towel, wiped his face dry, blew his nose.
“I so need another glass of wine,” Jacob said.
Peter wasn’t a big fan of the muzzy, loose feeling that alcohol gave him–what if he accidentally got hammered and missed something?–but right at this moment he could see the appeal. “Plus, they’re going to be serving dinner soon,” he agreed, and they left the washroom and headed back downstairs.
“So was that like a spell, or–” Jacob wove away from the staircase bannister and bumped against the wainscotted wall.
Peter put a hand out in alarm. “Whoa, take it easy. No more wine for you.”
“It’s cool, I just didn’t want to trip over the…children?” His eyes widened.
Instantly, Peter bounced over to put his back to the wall; even though he couldn’t see or feel spirits, the idea of going right through someone else always creeped him out a little. “Where?”
Jacob pointed. “Oh, now he’s gone upstairs. She’s still there.” He waved hesitantly at the greenery-swagged bannister.
“Tell me what they’re doing.”
After a few moments of observation, Jacob said, “I don’t think they’re doing anything. Just running around, you know, like kids do. They like the decorations, and watching all the people.”
“No rivers of blood or surprise turning-into-skulls or anything?”
“No. Uh, does that really happen?”
“Just checking. It does, but probably not here. If that kind of thing was going on, we’d have heard about it.” Peter continued down the stairs.
“So are you going to, uh, exorcise them or whatever?”
“Nah. Why?” Peter shrugged. “They’re happy. They’re not bothering anybody. Some spirits hang out for a while and then move on when they’re ready. Let them enjoy themselves as long as they want to.”
Jacob peeled off from him when they got to the line-up for the bar. In the dining room, people still migrated from standing cluster to cluster, or gathered at the tables; the noise level was rising.
“Mr. Wachowski!” Marijke Bast, one of the owners of the agency, clapped a broad hand on his arm. “I’m so happy you could attend! Come talk to me about your work. Your report on that house in the Annex was fascinating.”
He was explaining that he couldn’t always persuade a spirit to move on on the first try because it wasn’t his belief that mattered, it was the spirit’s–besides, people could hold an entire armful of contradictory beliefs at the same time, and Peter had had a devoutly Catholic, spirit-sensitive grandmother to prove it–when waiters came around to take their orders. Then Marijke excused herself to continue the rounds of her staff, and Peter ended up talking about superhero movies with another junior agent he hadn’t met before, on the basis of her Peggy Carter charm bracelet. People shifted around again once the food started arriving. Asad was over in the corner ragging on the Leafs faithful, and he couldn’t spot Jacob, but he and Felicia, who settled across the table from him, had a very informative conversation about what to look for in a high-efficiency furnace.
With Duncan staying with him, Peter had gotten out of the habit of bringing meat home with the groceries, and since his budget didn’t run much to eating out, he’d been practically vegetarian for a couple of months now. The medium-rare top sirloin, which was delicious, went to his head as much as the quarter-glass of Cabernet Sauvignon he allowed himself. He was slouching back in his chair, contemplating a waddle over to the dessert buffet, when Jacob slid into the seat beside him.
“Peter.” Jacob looked strained.
“Wrong how?” Peter straightened and looked futilely around the room. “Is it a spirit?”
“I don’t know. I had this feeling while I was eating, like…like I’d forgotten something important and was going to get into real trouble. Then it went away. Now it’s back? I think? It’s…not a lot of fun.”
“Can you see anything? Is it something happening nearby?” Jacob shook his head, frowning in frustration. “How drunk are you right now?”
“Sort of? I guess?”
“Okay, there’s your problem. Wait here.” Peter got up and went over to the coffee station for a clean cup, then diverted to snag a half-full bottle from the other end of his table. He put the cup on the table and filled it. “Bottoms up.”
“That’s, like, a sixty-dollar bottle of wine,” Jacob protested.
“Less talk, more drunk,” Peter said. “Come on, before it goes away again.”
Jacob didn’t exactly chug it, but he made short work of the cup, and then scanned the room in disappointment. “I think it’s stopped.”
“You sure you’re drunk enough?” Peter refilled the cup.
“The room’s a little spinny, so yeah.”
“Okay. Then we wait and see if it happens again. You’ve felt it twice, right? It might be a three-times thing, that’s a significant number for a lot of people. Sit tight, I’m going to get a cup of coffee.”
“Me, too.” Jacob stood up and quickly sat down again. “No, I’m not.”
“You can’t have coffee. You need to maintain your level of blitzedness.”
“Coffee doesn’t sober people up, that’s a myth.”
“You can have some dessert,” Peter relented, and came back to the table with coffee for himself and a napkinful of fancy cookies.
“So, what do you do at the agency?” he asked, biting the boot off an iced Santa.
“Are you working towards being an agent?”
“God, no,” Jacob said, then glanced around guiltily. “I mean, I work hard and everything, but it’s just my job.”
“What’s your real work?”
Jacob snapped an arm off a blue-frosted snowflake and nibbled at it. “I make authentic reproductions of historical clothing, mostly suits. Basically it’s very specialized tailoring.”
“Wow. That is a thing that I didn’t know existed. You mean like for museums?”
“Yeah, mostly for living history museums and historical reenactors, a little steampunk cosplay stuff on the side. It’s hard to make a living at it, though, so, receptionist.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I’m an RMT on the side. Massage therapist. The medical kind,” he clarified.
“Not a lot of money in ghost hunting? Is that what you call it?”
“My Babcia called it laying spirits, but I’m not a grandmother who can turn people to stone with a look, and the snickering gets old. And we don’t charge. Strictly speaking, we don’t work for the homeowners or whatever, we work for the spirits, and they don’t tend to be rolling in dough. I mean, if one offered to donate the mason jar of gold bullion they’d buried in the back yard under the rhubarb or something, I wouldn’t say no, but I’ve never heard of that actually happening. Not in the age of online banking, anyway.”
Jacob sipped at his wine. “So you work with your grandmother?”
The pang of loss was blunter than it had been. “I did, but she died last year.”
“Thanks. No, I work with my–with a…friend,” he ended, fumbling.
Jacob’s look became piercing. “Boyfriend?”
“No.” Peter’s answer was instinctive–he didn’t think of Duncan as his boyfriend–but there wasn’t a word in the English language that encompassed we hang out all the time, sometimes he lives with me, we work together and every so often we hook up for reasons. Business partner? Or was it heading more towards just partner?
Wine sloshed onto the tablecloth as Jacob put his cup down heavily. “It’s back.”
“Okay. Good. Look around. See anything out of place? Say, weird lights or a spot out of focus or somebody you can see through?”
Jacob swivelled in his seat. “It’s over there…I think it’s her. See that waitress? Or maybe she’s a maid. In the grey dress with the white apron.”
“No, I don’t. Point at her.”
Jacob’s finger moved from the window booths to the fireplace to the built-in bookshelves stacked with vintage hardcovers, bow-wrapped candles and miniature Christmas trees in pots. “She’s looking for something.”
“Can you tell what?”
Jacob shook his head, eyes following the invisible spirit towards the arch of the door. “She’s leaving again. I guess that’s why I stopped feeling her before?”
“Okay, so we go with her. Come on.”
A little unsteadily, Jacob left his seat and wove between the tables to the doorway. Peter followed as Jacob led him through the front vestibule, where icy air gusted in from outside, and into the dining room on the other side of the house.
“Looking for someone,” Peter explained to the hostess, and pulled Jacob to stand beside an unoccupied two-top in the unpopular spot near the door. “What’s she doing now?”
“It’s like she’s searching the room. She’s, like, picking up things that aren’t there. And sometimes things that are there, but she picks them up and they stay in the same place at the same time? Man, that is weird.” Jacob’s forehead wrinkled. “She’s heading back this way!” he said in alarm, and flattened himself against the wall.
“Relax. Is she paying any attention to us?”
“No. Should I say something to her?” Despite the offer, Jacob looked appalled at the idea.
“Maybe when there aren’t so many people around.”
They trailed her up the main staircase, then in a figure eight around the second floor. “Ugh, she went through the wall,” Jacob reported. “She’s really getting upset. She can’t find it, whatever it is, she’s looked everywhere….”
She circled through a small lounge area and then the large bar that took up most of the second storey, all mood lighting and dark wood and holiday party din. Jacob watched her, gnawing on his thumbnail.
“How are you doing?” Peter asked. He almost reached out to circle Jacob’s wrist with his hand, before he remembered that everyone with talent had their own way of soothing themselves when things got rough, and skin-to-skin contact might not be appreciated by someone who wasn’t Duncan.
“I think I’m having a panic attack or something.” Jacob wrapped his arms around his middle. “Or probably she is. I can’t find it, I don’t know why. I can’t see her very well, it’s so noisy in here. Oh, god, she just went up a staircase in the corner but there’s no staircase there…”
“Okay, let’s get some distance from this,” Peter said. He grabbed Jacob’s upper arm and pulled him out into the hallway, where there were cool white walls and fewer people.
“It was valuable, they’ll make her pay, they’ll turn me out, where will I go?” Jacob whispered.
He needed to bring Jacob back to himself. “Hey, Jacob. That’s a pretty cool suit. Did you make it yourself?”
Jacob blinked at him. “What?”
“I like your suit. Tell me about it. Where do you buy the fabric?”
“Oh. Thanks. I, uh, there’s this place on Queen West that’s been there forever, they sell good suiting and all kinds of stuff…” Jacob quickly lost Peter in a maze of canvassed lining and pick stitching and working cuffs, but by the time he wound down, his face was back to its normal colour, and he was no longer standing like someone flinching from a blow.
“Well, it looks good on you,” Peter said. “Any idea where our spirit has gone?”
“Yeah, she’s just standing up there.” Jacob nodded towards the main staircase, which continued up to a narrow landing on the third floor. “You know, if you wore a green shirt with that suit instead of the blue one, it would really update your look.”
Peter, who was wearing his one suit and one of his three ties and had long ago made peace with the fact that he had clothes rather than looks, shook his head. “Seriously, if I make it to the end of the day without spilling coffee on myself, I’ve pretty much achieved my fashion goals.”
He could practically feel Jacob’s effort not to roll his eyes. “It doesn’t have to be–oh. Oh, no.” Jacob’s eyes went wide. “She’s going to…Peter? She’s got a rope. She’s going to…” He swallowed.
“Where is she?”
“She’s coming down the stairs. She’s going to that cutout thing in the floor.”
Peter took a few steps forward and addressed the empty staircase. “Good evening, miss.”
“She’s walking right past you.”
What would be the trigger to make a servant listen to him? “Miss, I wonder if you could help me with something?”
“She stopped for a second, but…now she’s…” Jacob had gone green again. “She’s putting the rope around her neck.”
Peter stepped closer to the open oval. Laughter and the sound of glasses clinking drifted up from below. “It can be a difficult time of year, I know.”
Jacob put his hands over his eyes. Peter changed tactics. “Merry Christmas, miss. Let me tell you how much we appreciate your hard work this year. You’re a valuable part of this household.” There was no stopping her death, which was a foregone conclusion; the thing now was to convince her to stop dying over and over again. “I don’t know how to express…” But of course he did, he realized. “Let me give you this as a token of our gratitude.” How much money was a lot, maybe enough to replace something lost and valuable, to a servant in a wealthy home in nineteen-oh-whatever? He pulled his wallet out of his suit coat. There were two bank-machine-crisp twenties in it; he’d have to hope that would do. With a purely internal wince–there went the Christmas Eve takeout–he extended them towards the place Jacob was squinting at through his spread fingers. “Uh, I can see you’re hard at work now. Why don’t I put them…” He glanced around the hallway. The near wall had more of those built-in shelves, cedar swags and red bows Christmasifying an assortment of antiques. One was a vase painted with a clashing variety of peacocks and flowers–not Christmas themed, therefore unlikely to be packed away after the holidays–and he stepped over to it and tucked the bills over its rim. “I’ll leave them here, and you can take them when you need them. Blessings of the season to you, miss.”
A sigh came from Jacob’s direction. “She’s so relieved. She’s–oh, she just disappeared.” He let his hands fall. “Shouldn’t there be that tunnel thing again?”
“Not necessarily. She’s been through a lot. She might not be ready to move on immediately. Maybe she just wants to sit down and put her feet up right now, metaphysically speaking.” He hoped she’d go through the door before the vase got moved or the money was found and looted by some underpaid present-day cleaning staff, but there was only so much he could accomplish at one time. Though, he had to admit, it had certainly been easier with the help of someone with talent than it would have been on his own.
“But she still…I mean, she still killed herself, right?”
Peter shrugged. “That happened, what, a hundred years ago? I can’t change the past. But I interrupted the cycle she was trapped in. Change her present, change her future.”
Jacob sighed and wilted. Peter’s focus sharpened. “You did good work. What do you feel like doing right now? Are you cold, do you want to go stand beside the fireplace downstairs? Get something hot to drink? Grab some dessert?”
“Ugh, no, I don’t want to go down there right now.” Jacob looked up towards the little third-floor landing. “Can we just sit down and be quiet for a while?”
“Sure. Do you want me to leave you alone for a bit, or come with you?”
“Come with me.” Jacob flushed. “I mean, if it’s okay with you.”
“For sure. Let’s go.”
The narrow landing ended in a closed door with curtains behind its glass insets. A table and two club chairs were arranged under a high, arched window. Jacob sat down, supported his chin with his hands, and closed his eyes.
Peter snuck a glance at his phone, but then stuck it back into his pocket and leaned back against the padded leather of the chair. Muffled music rose from the bar below, and wind made the window hum in its frame. Although only a railing and open space separated the landing from the hallway below, it felt like a private little aerie, cosy and peaceful.
Jacob straightened and opened his eyes. “So, like, does this mean there’s a God?”
“Beats me.” Peter lifted a shoulder at Jacob’s disappointed look. “I don’t think the existence of an afterlife is proof of God, any more than, I don’t know, radio waves or the sun. Babcia believed, but she didn’t know. Nobody knows.”
“Figures.” Jacob wriggled his shoulders as if his jacket felt ill-fitting.
“It’s a special talent, being able to see spirits,” Peter said, managing to keep most of the envy out of his voice. “You could get training, if you wanted. I know some people.”
Jacob shuddered. “I think I’ll stick to not getting blitzed in haunted houses, thanks.”
“Okay. The offer stands if you ever change your mind.”
Jacob propped his chin back on his hand, watching Peter this time. “Was your grandmother the one who trained you?”
“Yeah. Well, sort of. I don’t have your kind of talent. Or, I mean, any at all.” It still stung. “But when I got interested in the work, she started to take me on jobs, taught me what I could do to help her. I used to go to her house after school, and she’d give me Peek Freans cookies and hot milk with a little coffee in it, and we’d talk about what we did that day. When my dad got sick, that was pretty much what kept me functioning. And when I came out in high school, some of the more conservative aunts and uncles got their knickers in a twist, but she settled them down. She was tough, but never mean, you know? She had this endless compassion for everyone, without being willing to put up with their bullshit either.” Peter sighed. So much of the time, his best felt like a pale imitation of what Babcia had seemed to do without effort.
“She sounds great.”
“Yeah, she was. I guess I know she’s in a good place, but I’m always going to miss her. Anyway. How do you feel? Do you want to go downstairs?” Peter was going to need another cup of coffee before facing the chilly trudge to the streetcar stop.
“Yeah, okay. I feel a lot better.” Jacob stood up. “Hey, look, the rain’s turned to snow.”
Peter rose too, so he could see through the window. Fat flakes materialized out of the grey-yellow city night and mounded up on the stone of the window ledge. It was mesmerizing, and they stood shoulder to shoulder for a long stretch of time, watching. Peter could feel the heat of Jacob’s arm through his jacket; he noticed that Jacob was leaning a little against him and that he was leaning back.
“I love white Christmases,” Jacob said. He turned to look at Peter, and there was a spark in his expression that hadn’t been there when he’d been drunkenly freaking out over things he hadn’t previously known existed. “What do you usually do for the holidays?”
“There’s always a ton of family stuff, but I’m going to my mom’s for Christmas dinner. You?”
“Chinese takeout and Netflix, probably, but some of my friends and I get together for a thing on Boxing Day.”
It didn’t escape Peter that they were both saying I, not we, so it wasn’t a big surprise when Jacob gave him a speculative smile. “Look up.”
Peter regarded the high, shadowed ceiling. “What am I looking for?”
“Do you see any mistletoe?” It was such a cheesy line that Peter laughed out loud. “Aw, come on, it’s not an office Christmas party without a little tipsy flirting.”
That was a splash of cold water. “Are you still tipsy? Because–”
“No! No, I’m totally sober. Fast metabolism. Really. I could drive. Well, I don’t actually drive. I could ride my bike.”
“Not in this weather,” Peter said, horrified.
“Not in this suit.” Jacob leaned down just the smallest amount it took for him to brush his lips against Peter’s.
“…Okay,” Peter said, and took a step closer to return the kiss. When he withdrew, Jacob kissed him again, and then they were really kissing, arms around one another like it was going to go somewhere serious.
“Or tipsy making out,” Jacob said, coming up for air. “Not tipsy! Completely sober!”
A few overheated youthful indiscretions aside, Peter wasn’t into casually hooking up–he was more comfortable with an extended timeline of flirting, then dinner and a movie, then coffee and then hooking up–but apparently his type this year was guys he worked with, because he felt as disinhibited as if he’d just swigged a glassful of champagne. “Okay,” he said again, and pulled Jacob back to him by his hand-stitched lapels.
It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy his times with Duncan, he did, but Duncan’s physical response was generally muted; as a psychic who got distracted by other people’s thoughts, Duncan pretty much embodied the idea that the primary sex organ was the brain. There was something to be said for someone who would slide their hands under your jacket, grab your ass, walk you backwards and push you against the nearest vertical surface. Peter’s gasp drowned out the rattle of the door in its frame. He was game for just about anything that didn’t involve getting hit or having to hit someone else–he’d tried it a few times upon request and could never get his rational understanding to stop him from being upset afterwards–but if he was honest, this was his absolute favourite thing: hot and heavy making out, the press of someone else’s growing arousal, the beguiling constraint of clothing and the promise of at least some of it coming off in the near future…
Jacob pulled away a little, breathing heavily against Peter’s lips. “That’s some mistletoe.” He swallowed. “We should stop.”
A few minutes later, Peter, with an extraordinary effort of will, put his hands on Jacob’s shoulders to steady himself. “We really need to stop.”
“Okay. Come back to my place?”
“Hells yes.” Although the thought of walking down all those stairs, saying his goodbyes, and finding wherever the hell he’d left his coat made Peter’s head spin.
“Or…” Jacob tugged him away from the door, then reached forward and grasped the knob, which turned.
“What? What are you doing?” Peter glanced downwards at the hallway, but no indignant waitstaff came barrelling up the stairs at them.
“Finding somewhere private.” Jacob grinned.
“We can’t go in there. That’s probably for staff only–offices, or–”
“No, there’s no lights on.” Jacob grabbed Peter’s hand. “Quick, before someone sees us.”
Giddily, Peter let himself be drawn into the darkened space. The door closed behind them.
Frosty light silvered the far end of a broad space ahead of them. The air smelled musty and close. A light flared; Jacob held up his phone and swept its flashlight beam around stacked chairs, exposed ductwork, dusty cardboard boxes in tilting towers. On one side, gaping doorways led into shadows. In the centre of the room was an incongruous rectangle of turned wooden balusters and railings, rising from solid floor; at one time it must have been open to the floor below, and, looking up, Peter could see patches in the ceiling where there had once been skylights. A well of light, bringing the sun down through the grand house in the days before electricity.
“I am really glad I’m not drunk right now,” Jacob said.
“Actually, most spirits that have any kind of self-awareness don’t hang out in deserted spaces. You do get your imprints and residuals, they can happen anywhere, but even most introverts don’t like being alone all the time, and that doesn’t change when people are dead.”
“Okay, so no voyeur ghosts, that’s good.” Jacob walked forward to where streetlights and the ambient city glow, reflected off new snow, sifted through two narrow windows. He blinked off his phone light. Peter followed him. Unlike the renovated restaurant below them, this floor had been abandoned at the nadir of the house’s history: linoleum worn through to the subfloor in spots, cold radiators and woodwork indistinct under multiple chipped coats of ugly paint. It needed attention and care, Peter thought, to be stripped down and polished up, the house’s future mirroring the best of its past.
Jacob could have been a spirit himself, pale skin and hair and suit in the dimness. He curved out an arm and pulled Peter in.
This time, when Jacob backed Peter against something, it was the windowsill that stopped them. Peter’s knees bent at the pressure of the sill against the back of his thighs, and he slid down to perch against it. Jacob bent over him, one hand against the window moulding to hold him up, the other sliding down to cup the front of Peter’s pants. Peter took a breath and craned his neck up to keep the kiss going.
“I want to suck you off,” Jacob murmured. “Okay?”
“No objection,” Peter said brightly. Jacob huffed out a laugh and stepped into the gap between Peter’s knees. He deftly undid Peter’s belt and and unzipped his fly. Peter’s breath hitched as Jacob curled a cool hand around his warm erection, only cotton knit between skin and skin.
Jacob lowered himself into a squat, and pulled down the elastic waist of Peter’s boxer briefs. He didn’t tease; one moment he was running the curl of his finger and thumb down Peter’s cock, and the next he was taking Peter in, slow and steady. Peter gripped the windowsill so hard he could have sworn he heard layers of paint crackle.
“God, that feels good,” he said. He looked down to watch Jacob’s mouth move over him, lips and cock glossy with moisture in the dim light. “Um, are you comfortable squatting like that?”
Jacob pulled off him, tongue tracing a lingering circle in a way that made Peter shiver and regret his question. “Don’t want to get my pants dirty.”
“I have kleenex,” Peter offered. “If you want to put some under your knees.”
Peter took the little packet of tissues out of his jacket pocket and, after fumbling with the sticky flap for what felt like a decade, handed it to Jacob. Jacob pulled out two tissues for each knee, and settled down onto them. “Much better,” he said, and enveloped Peter in slick heat.
Peter couldn’t help rocking his hips just a little, and when he did Jacob grabbed Peter’s thigh with his free hand and made a noise deep in his throat, and Peter helplessly did it again. They soon hit a rhythm that guaranteed there was no way Peter was going to last long, despite the half-forgotten fear of discovery, despite the cold air leaking onto his butt from the ancient window, despite the mustiness and the gloom.
“Soon,” he gasped, feeling sparks along his nerves. “Yeah, that, that, yeah, yes–oh–“ Pleasure lit his sight and blotted out everything but gratification and release.
As he rode the last pulse and came down, Peter slumped against the window moulding. Jacob stood, and Peter pushed himself up from the windowsill and kissed him, tasting traces of his own bitterness on Jacob’s mouth.
“You want it that way too?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Jacob took his spot on the windowsill, and Peter sank to his knees. He looked up at Jacob, a silhouette against the city night, and gently squeezed the hard front of Jacob’s trousers; Jacob made that muted noise again. Peter rubbed his thumb up and down the fabric, then took pity on him and unfastened his belt, detached the hook and bar, slid the zipper down. Jacob’s breathing was already uneven. Peter eased his briefs down and paused, as much to enjoy himself as to tease Jacob. He’d missed this–the proof of someone else’s need, the warm glow of knowing he could fulfill it. He tongued the tip of Jacob’s cock and relished the shudder that went through him.
Jacob slid his fingers through Peter’s hair and tugged, not ungently. “Oh my god, Peter, if something doesn’t happen soon, there’s going to be another ghost in here, and I’m not even sure which one of us I’m talking about.”
Peter grinned and proceeded to apply his mouth and his hands to make Jacob shudder again, make his breathing stutter and catch, bring him to the edge of incoherence and then over it. Jacob let out a cry and threw his head backwards when he came, bumping the windowpane with a low thud, though his hand remained gentle in Peter’s hair.
Peter eased him through it, and then rose, sweeping up the kleenex as he did and discreetly spitting into it. Jacob staggered up off the windowsill as though he were drunk again, and fastened his clothes.
“I am never going to top this Christmas party, like, ever,” he said. Peter laughed and moved in for a soft kiss. Jacob put his hand on the small of Peter’s back and returned it.
Warmth bloomed in Peter. “Hey, would you like to get some coffee?” he asked.
“Yeah, I could use some caffeine. And I should probably drink a bunch of water, if I don’t want to be hung over tomorrow.”
“Seconded on the caffeine, but I mean, sometime that is not tonight and someplace that is not here. Would you like to, you know, go for coffee sometime?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’d like that.”
“Awesome.” Peter allowed himself a last kiss and then stepped away from Jacob, and they made their way back through the shadowed room to the door.
By the time they snuck downstairs again, the party was thinning out. At the coffee station, as Peter was mixing himself a cup heavy on the cream and sugar, a heavy-set man Peter didn’t know materialized. “Jacob, sorry, but I need to talk to you about the meeting with the Molinas tomorrow. Slava was going to set up, but she’s got the flu.”
“Yeah, no problem. Uh–” Jacob turned to Peter.
“I know where to find you,” Peter assured him, in lieu of saying that he’d call, and Jacob gave him a quick smile and followed the man over to a table.
Peter found a seat by the fire and looked around the room as he medicated his post-orgasmic lassitude with coffee. The earlier working-the-room atmosphere had condensed into intense conversational groups; from the expressions, he’d have been willing to bet that shop talk had overtaken holiday cheer. A waiter was scooping sticky wine glasses and discarded napkins onto a tray. Out in the vestibule, a group from an entirely different party called their goodbyes, and the scent of snow eddied into the room.
Time to go, Peter thought. He drained his cup and went to thank Marijke for inviting him.
She pressed a taxi chit on him; there was a small clump of taxis waiting in the restaurant’s parking lot, and although the streets were sloppy with slush, he was home within half an hour. He came in quietly, assuming that Duncan would be in bed already, but the living room was lit by the flickering grey of a black-and-white movie.
“Hey,” Duncan said, sitting up on the couch, and yawned.
“I fell asleep watching TV,” Duncan said, as if he didn’t believe it himself.
“That’s one of the fine perks of living in civilization.” As opposed to in Duncan’s van.
“How was the party? Did you have a good time?”
Peter felt his face go hot. “Yes, I did.”
“Good.” Peter couldn’t literally read Duncan’s thoughts the way Duncan could his, but it was clear from the smile in Duncan’s voice that he could tell exactly how good a time Peter had had.
Duncan drew up his knees to make room, and Peter fell bonelessly onto the sagging couch. On the screen, Alastair Sim polkaed around his nephew’s drawing room.
Maybe it was that, or the evening in general, but Peter found himself saying something he’d been debating internally all December. “You should come to my mom’s for Christmas dinner.”
Duncan was silent for a moment. “I don’t want to intrude on your family time.”
“You won’t. My brother wants to invite a couple of his university buddies that couldn’t make it home for the holidays, and my sister’ll probably bring whoever she’s going out with. Mom’ll be thrilled that I brought someone.” That landed with a little more import than he’d intended. “Not someone. A friend. Not a friend, friend. I mean a friend. I mean–”
“I get what you mean.” The smile was back in Duncan’s voice.
“She knows I have someone staying with me. I’m sure she’d like to meet you.”
“So she knows her son isn’t living with a mad axe murderer?”
“Are you kidding? You put up with me on a daily basis; she’ll probably kiss you on both cheeks and give you a medal.”
Duncan’s toe poked his thigh. “Hush. Yeah, then, I’d like to come.”
They watched Tiny Tim run in the snow with his uncle, and a chorus of voices rose in the old carol. Sleep in heavenly peace…
Peter curled his feet up onto the couch and drooped down against the cushions. When he opened his eyes again, an illustration of a horse-drawn cart travelling across a snowy rural landscape appeared on the screen, and sleigh bells started to chime.
I should get up and go to bed, Peter thought. He was working the next day. Not until ten, though.
The camera panned along the streets of small town, lighted but quiet, the air thick with snow.
On the other hand, why bother? It was cozy here on the couch, Duncan’s legs warm against his own. Peter closed his eyes, and fell asleep to the sound of voices praying for peace and comfort for someone they loved.