Always Beside You
©2010 The Angst Guy (email@example.com)
Daria and associated characters are ©2010 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Synopsis: Two siblings meet late in life to share dreadful secrets, but someone else is with them, too: an old friend who is no longer among the living. This alternate-universe tale spins off from events in the episode, “Fair Enough,” carrying them in a nightmarish direction.
Author's Notes: This was the last story I wrote in 2007 before taking a break from writing. It helps to watch the two minutes of “Fair Enough” to get an idea of what happened before this tale begins—what could have happened, that it.
I got the idea of using an octagon house because one existed in a town in which I once lived (Elkhorn, Wisconsin). I had the chance to visit it once and was much impressed. It is a shame they are so rarely seen these days.
The necklace Daria wore in her appearances in Beavis and Butt-head is the same one that appears herein.
The real inspiration for this story was T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, the most relevant part of which is reproduced below.
This story makes use of a special font for its titles, a free true-type font with a nice (and sophisticated) haunting flavor. The font is called Chaucer (one of several with that name) and is available as a free download from several places online: Fontage.com or Searchfreefonts.com, among other places.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to smk and Dervish for their welcome corrections. Enjoy.
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
—T. S. Eliot, The
He arrived in the early evening after a series of flight delays and a long drive in a rental car across an endless plain, nothing to see but an occasional barn, silo, or windmill. Leaving the interstate, he crossed another long stretch of wheat fields, corn fields, more wheat fields, soybeans... there was the little town, there was the turnoff, and there was...
“Whoa,” he breathed, staring. His younger sister’s house surprised him even though it was what he had expected: a home only an artist would inhabit. From a distance it resembled a white two-layer wedding cake with windows or doors on every one of its many sides. What looked like a small enclosed gazebo graced the very top. An elevated railed porch ran around the first floor, with steps leading up in several places. How many sides does that house have? he wondered, and he shook his head in admiration. Trust his sister to find such a home.
He turned into the driveway, stopped the car, and got out just as she came running out of the house, her arms spread wide like a child’s. After the long and tearful embrace came the inevitable walking tour of the curious eight-sided house and the grounds around it, some time spent sitting on the veranda to watch the red sun slide below the horizon as they caught up on their lives, then a home-cooked dinner with wine. It was the perfect family reunion, except that he had the feeling that his sister had something she planned to tell him. He was patient; she would let him know in time what she had on her mind. As they sat in the parlor off the great room, surrounded by her paintings as crickets chirped outside in the warm night, they caught up on other matters of family.
“Hmmm.” The man stroked his graying close-trimmed beard as he leaned back in his cushioned chair. His jeans were tattered, his shoes in need of replacement, and his red-checked shirt open halfway down the front, revealing bluish tattoo patterns across his chest and arms. “Summer’s kids are kind of married, some of them, with kids. Courtney’s got two with some guy, Adrian and Grant have two, Jason’s got five living with him—two of them aren’t really his kids, but I don’t think it matters—and Kelsey’s got cats, I don’t know how many. Maybe a hundred. Summer didn’t leave a will, but she didn’t have anything when she went anyway. None of their dads left them anything, either.”
“Did you see her before she died?” The bone-thin woman with the salt-and-pepper ponytail cradled an empty wineglass in her lap, relaxing in a wicker chair within arm’s reach of her brother. She wore light black cotton, pants that flared out at the legs and a blouse whose sleeves flared out as well. A plain gold necklace with a small clear crystal pendant was the only ornament she wore, other than three silver hoop earrings in each ear.
The man slowly shook his head. “They called me from the hospital afterward. She had my phone number on her somewhere. They had to describe her to me before I knew who it was. I drove out and kind of cleaned things up, got her buried and all that. They said her body wore out from the booze and the drugs.” He exhaled. “She didn’t look like she used to. She was... so...” He shook his head again and did not finish the sentence.
“What about Penny and Wind? I think I know about Wind, but—”
“Penny might still be alive somewhere, but the people I talked to don’t think it’s likely. The Columbian war was bad toward the end. If anything happened to her, it’s not likely they’ll find anything left of her. That’s what the State Department told me. If she hasn’t shown up or called anyone by now, she’s probably...”
“Completely gone.” His sister looked sad but not terribly upset.
“Yeah. No kids that anyone knows of. I don’t think she was into that.” The man cleared his throat. “Wind, or whatever he’s calling himself—herself, I mean—might still be in Canada, around Victoria. I forgot the state or whatever—”
“British Columbia. It’s a province.”
“Yeah, that was it.” His black eyes twinkled as he gave his sister a smile. “You’re pretty smart.”
His sister returned the smile with a devilish grin. “Why, thank you Trent. That was very sweet of you. You can sleep indoors tonight instead of in your car.”
“Hey, thanks.” Trent took the moment to look around the eclectic parlor, filled with tall green plants, burial urns, wire sculptures, shelves full of books and knickknacks, and walls lined with landscapes done in various shades of gray and colors very close to gray. “I can’t believe your house,” he said. “It’s like... weird.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Yeah. Is this like a real old house, or did you have it built to look old? ‘Cause it looks kind of old.” He coughed and added, “Not in a bad way, I mean.”
“It’s an original octagon house,” said his sister, looking up at a mobile of colorful glass flowers that hung from the ceiling. “The style was popular for a while two hundred years ago, but most of them are gone now. This one was built in eighteen seventy-three. It was in fair shape when I bought it, but it still took about a year and a half to really fix it up. It didn’t have the veranda going all the way around like it does now, or the storm cellar, or the cupola on top, the little lookout room; I had those added. I was lucky the house wasn’t entered in a historical register, or else I might have had to rebuild it the way it was instead of the way I wanted.”
“Love those solar things on the roof. Are you on the grid?”
She shook her head no. “This place is almost autonomous. The water’s recycled from the rain—run through a purifier, of course—and all the power comes from the sun. I don’t need air conditioning, Kansas has enough wind and it’s mostly a dry heat these days, plus I’ve got all those fans around. Still have to go out for food, though.” She rolled her eyes. “Can’t stand gardening. Waste of time, and you can’t grow pizza.”
“You should get somebody to mow the yard, at least.”
“Waste of time,” his sister repeated. “I like the prairie look, even if it gets a little dried out and scruffy from the heat.”
Her brother hesitated before speaking again. “Don’t you get, like, lonely out here? I mean... you’re like a mile outside town—”
“Not much of a town, is it? One blink while you’re driving and it’s gone.”
“No, really, Janey. I mean—” He struggled for words “—there’s nothing out here.”
Jane smiled again. “You worried about me, big brother?”
“Well, um, no, but yeah, you know, kind of. Yeah.” He sat forward in his seat, looking down at his hands, which were clasped before him. “I kind of worry about you a little. You know. We’re supposed to.”
“You and I are the only ones left in the family who do, I think.”
“Well... I guess. Yeah.”
“Are you worried because I don’t seem to get out much?” she teased. “I’m forty-four, not married, don’t have any kids?”
He grimaced and shook his head. “No, it’s not that, it’s just...” He shrugged. “Forget it.”
“We’re fine out here.” Jane crossed her legs. A bare foot rose and fell with a lazy air. “I like the solitude. Helps me concentrate on my work instead of chasing people away from my door every five minutes. No one bothers us.”
Trent frowned and looked around the room. “Um... you said... is there someone else living here?”
Jane shook her head, but she smiled in an odd way, not meeting his gaze. “No, no one else living here, just me and my plants and an occasional cat looking for a handout.”
“Oh.” He continued frowning. Something was still not being said, something important.
“Wanna hear a story?” asked Jane, looking at him. Her eyes were twin blue Earths.
“Um... what kind of story?” He was nervous and couldn’t say why. He had never been able to fathom Jane, though she was the only person in the world he trusted. Part of her had always been a mystery.
“A very strange story, one I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time. I’m not sure where to begin. It’s a true story about a girl and her best friend, long ago and far, far away.”
Trent felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle. Uncomfortable, he pushed himself up in his chair. “Um... is this about... you know... um...”
She looked away and smiled again, her gaze unfocused. “Once upon a time,” she said, “there was a girl who lived with her big brother in a run-down house in a little suburb called Lawndale. She was a sophomore in high school, a sarcastic little outlaw who took nothing seriously because nothing in life was worth taking seriously, it was all crap anyway. Then one day this girl met another girl who had just moved in from Texas, and the new girl became her dearest friend in the world, her only friend. Life was pretty good.”
Jane’s gaze dropped to the empty wineglass held between her long-fingered hands. Her smile faded. “One dreary rainy afternoon a few months later, as the girl was painting something in her room, she doesn’t remember what it was anymore, the phone rang, and when she answered it the person on the other end of the line told her that her only friend in the world was dead.”
“Daria,” said Trent, hoping the topic would end there.
Jane nodded absently. “It was Jodie who called, Jodie Landon. You never knew her. She was more an acquaintance than a friend, too involved in school activities to be anything else.” Her lips curled up in a mirthless smile. “A joiner, not like me or Daria. She was in a meeting after school when the library roof collapsed, but she was in another area. She was one of the first ones to find out what happened. There was nothing she could do.”
Trent looked at Jane with anxiety. “I remember that,” he said, struggling for the right words. He remembered driving Jane to the school—and, later, to the funeral. He finally said the only thing he could think of, trite but true. “That was a terrible day.”
“Yes, it was.” Jane shook herself out of her reverie. She looked uneasy. “Maybe that wasn’t the best place to start my story. Would you like more wine? You’ll probably need it.”
Jane looked down at her empty wineglass, then leaned over and set it on the hardwood floor. “I want to talk about some things that came up recently,” she said. “There’s a lot I haven’t told you about Daria... or me. You need to hear it. It’s why I asked you to visit me, not that just wanting to see you wasn’t reason enough.”
His puzzlement and anxiety grew. “Um—what’s up?”
“Maybe best to get it out now, the worst part, what’s happening right now.” She took a deep breath, then leaned forward in her chair, her gaze fixed upon her brother. “I was at an art show in St. Louis two months ago, in March, when I had a seizure.” She raised a hand when Trent started to interrupt. “I was okay, they got me to the hospital and all that. I didn’t call you about it because—I just didn’t want to do it then. I had to find out what was going wrong first.”
“What?” Trent began to sweat with fear. “What happened?”
Jane hesitated, then reached out and took her brother’s nearest hand. Her touch was cool and dry. “I have cancer. It’s not operable, because it’s in my brain, metastasized all through it. I don’t have that long to go.”
Trent stared at her, stricken.
“That’s why I insisted you come out so quickly,” she said. “I’m sorry, Trent, but there’s nothing that—”
He got up and knelt on the floor before her and pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her. She scooted forward in her chair so he could hold her. They held that position for a long time.
“There’s got to be something they can do,” he mumbled a long while later, when he wasn’t crying as hard. “I know they can do something about that.”
“Let’s go in the kitchen,” she said into his shirt. She pulled back and wiped her eyes with her hand. “I don’t have any tissues in here.”
They made it arm-in-arm into the small but spacious kitchen, and Trent drank a glass of wine straight down before Jane changed her mind and put the bottle away. They sat at the table side by side, Trent’s arm around his sister as he held her hands with his free one. Her skin was like ice. She explained everything in calm detail—her seizures, the lab results, what the doctors said she had, how bad it was, how they proposed to fix it, why she had decided to forego treatment and return home.
“What it came down to was that the chemo, the surgery, and the neuron-replacement therapy would kill a lot of my memories, if not some of my senses and motor functions as well,” she said. “I’d get what amounts to a whole new brain, but I’d be an invalid for months, maybe for years, and have to relearn how to do almost everything. It wouldn’t be me that came out of treatment, it would be somebody else. I can’t even say if I’ll know you. That neuron-replacement thing is not what it’s cracked up to be. A lot of people make it through, I know, but they’re not the same; the doctors went over all of that with me in a lot of detail, as much as they could give me. I couldn’t live like that, Trent. I just can’t, and I won’t. It doesn’t matter if I can afford it, it’s the consequences I can’t stand. Either the cancer gets me or the cure does, and I don’t want either one to get me. Neither of them will get me.”
He knew then what she was planning. He lost all hope.
“I need you to stay with me a little while,” she said, leaning against him. “Stay here for a while. I’m taking medication for the seizures and some of the other things, so that part’s okay, but I need you to stay here and help me. I need you to get me through this and take care of something for me afterward.”
The abyss yawned before him, deep and black. There was no other choice, really, but to step in.
“Okay,” he said. “Tell me what you need me to do.”
“Just this, right now,” she said. “Just hold me. I need my family, and you’re all I’ve got.”
He nodded and kissed her hair. Then he closed his eyes and wept without making a sound.
Nature being what it is, they eventually had to get up to stretch and go to the bathroom, a psychological relief as well as a physical one. They met again in the kitchen, where families so often meet when they need a break, even if they aren’t hungry.
“I can’t believe it,” said Trent. They sat at the table again, this time with more space between them. He still held her hands in his. Her hands were still cold.
“You need to get used to it,” Jane said, giving his fingers a squeeze. “I need my big brother to get through this. It won’t take long, a few days at most, that’s all.”
“Okay.” It wasn’t like he had anything else important in his life. Going home to be a freelance data-entry drone in his one-room efficiency could wait. “Are you in any pain?”
“No, not physically. Not really mentally, either. I’ve had a lot more time than you to process this. I hate dumping all this on you at once, but there was really no one else to talk to. I never made friends that easily, as you know.”
He cracked a brief smile at that.
“Speaking of which,” she added, looking at their hands, “we need to talk about some other things, if you’re up to it. Some weird stuff. We can do it tomorrow if you like. It’s getting kind of late.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I can stay up. I’m usually up until one or two anyway.”
“You used to stay up most of the night and sleep during the day, when you were younger.”
His smile returned. “That was then. I got old, sleep a lot more.”
“I can hardly believe that. You were barely awake the whole time we were living together in Lawndale.”
That made the smile last a little longer. “So what else is going on?”
She sighed, still not meeting his gaze. “A lot of things. Hard to know where to begin.” She sniffed and relaxed, squeezing his hands. “I need to tell you about Daria and me, what happened back then.”
Trent tried not to wince. He was deeply afraid of what she was going to tell him. Some things were better taken to the grave, he thought, especially if Jane and Daria had been fooling around. He hoped that was not what she was going to say.
“Daria was the best thing that ever happened to me, other than having you,” said Jane in a soft voice. “She and I had seven months together, more or less, and that was the best time of my life. We understood each other in a way no one had ever understood either of us before. I think I can safely speak for her on that topic. We were different in a lot of ways—she was always so serious and angry, but she got out a lot of things I had always wanted to say that I had never felt were worth saying, because I didn’t think anyone would listen. I blew off stuff that bothered me, but she would rant and yell and argue with the TV about why this or that was stupid, just—”
A board creaked somewhere in the house above them. Trent looked up at the ceiling, then back at his sister.
She was smiling oddly again, almost vacantly.
“Go on,” he said.
“I’ll cut to the chase,” said Jane. “This is going to sound very strange, like maybe I’m having hallucinations or something, but this was going on a long time before the cancer thing ever got started. What I’m going to tell you is very real, Trent.”
Another board creaked upstairs. Then a third. Then a fourth. It sounded like someone descending a staircase.
Startled, Trent got up from the table. “Hey—”
Jane grabbed his arm. “Sit down,” she said in a strong voice. “It’s okay, just sit down. Stay here with me.”
“Something’s upstairs,” he said, hearing more boards squeak. The moving sounds were not loud, but they were clear and real. “Maybe a raccoon or—”
“No,” said Jane. She brought him back to his chair and made him sit. “Just stay with me in the kitchen.”
“Why?” He searched her face in confusion. “What is that?”
Jane swallowed. She grasped his hands. “Stay with me and don’t worry about it.”
“Something or someone is up there!” he insisted.
“I know, it’s okay!”
“What’s going on, Janey? Who is that?”
“Look at me, Trent. Look at me. It’s nothing to worry about. Listen to me. It’s Daria.”
His thoughts came to a stop.
“What?” he said.
Jane stared at him, her face very pale. “It’s Daria.”
He stared back at her. Nothing at all came to mind.
“She stays with me,” Jane whispered. “This isn’t a joke. I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, all these years since she died. Daria is here in the house with me. She’s coming downstairs. I think she wants to see you.”
The creaking noises now came from the great room, where the spiral staircase wound down from the second floor. His muscles tensed and he almost got up again. “What?”
“No!” Jane gripped his hands. “Trust me, Trent! Don’t run off, okay? Stay with me when she gets here, all right?”
“When she gets here? Janey, this isn’t funny!”
“It’s not meant to be funny, damn it! Trust me!”
He was breathing hard now, every nerve alive. This had to be a joke, he thought. That’s the only explanation. Or she’s having some kind of cancer-caused delusion and she’s actually living with someone, maybe a nurse. It could also be just the house settling, or just—
In the corner of his vision, he detected movement in the darkness of the great room, something pale in the open entryway. He instantly turned to see what was there.
And saw nothing. Nothing was there at all but the black.
Jane held her brother’s hands, her own hands freezing cold. “Hi, Daria,” she said, turning her head but not looking directly at the great room. “Trent’s here. Come on in.”
Trent jerked his hands free of Jane’s and got to his feet again, backing up until he banged into a cupboard door in a corner.
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” cried Jane. She was on her feet too, hands held toward him palm out. “Give her a chance to see you! She won’t do anything bad! It’s all right!”
“Jesus Christ, Janey, stop it!”
“You stop it!” she shouted. “Calm down!”
“This is crazy!”
Her voice rose to a red-faced scream. “I’ve lived like this for almost thirty years, you can take it for a few lousy minutes! CALM DOWN!”
Trent swallowed and tried to slow his breathing. This was really nuts. There was absolutely nothing in the kitchen with them. It was a trick of the mind like a posthypnotic suggestion, or a—
He jerked his head to the left. Something had again moved along the edge of his field of vision, he was sure of it. It had crossed in front of the black double oven by the entryway, like a wisp of smoke. Nothing was there now.
The warm air against his face grew cooler.
“It’s okay,” Jane whispered, hands still out toward her brother. “It’s okay. Relax. She hasn’t seen you in ages, Trent. Please stay calm.”
temperature fell rapidly. It was air-conditioner cold. Jane turned her head slightly, looking off to
He looked. Nothing there.
“You can’t look at her directly to see her. It’s the way she is, I can’t explain it. You have to look away from her to see her. Try it.”
He didn’t dare. It was so cold that goose bumps broke out on his arms. He thought he could see his breath in the air. “How are you doing this?” he said through the tightness in his chest.
“I’m not doing it!” Jane snapped. “It’s her! I don’t have any control over it, she’s doing it and she does whatever she wants!” After a long moment, she straightened and lowered her hands a few inches, struggling to relax. Her face went blank. “Okay, just stay calm. Move carefully. Keep your movements slow.”
He thought he had seen something at her side, a cloud of mist or smoke about chest height. He had the impression that there had been more to see, maybe even details, but he couldn’t bring himself to look away again and find out.
“You saw her?” asked Jane.
He nodded quickly. “Yeah, I saw her. I saw her.” I’ll say anything right now to get this over with. This is freaking me out and I need to get a grip or I’ll go insane.
“Say hi to her.”
Trent stared at Jane, mouth open. “What?”
Jane nodded to her right side. “Say hi to her. Talk to her.”
He stared at the air next to his sister. This whatever-it-is can hear me? I’m supposed to talk to a hallucination? This is definitely nuts. This is crazier than an asylum on LSD.
“Come on,” said Jane. “Say something.”
Nothing was there, he could see that, but...
He swallowed. The impulse of curiosity overcame him. Instead of speaking, he raised his left hand and reached for the empty space. Arctic cold stung his fingers.
“No, Trent, don’t do that!” Jane cried, startled. “Don’t—” She turned her head to one side, then stepped back from him, scanning the room with a vacant look.
The bitter chill had passed. The room temperature began to rise.
“I think she left,” said Jane, looking around the kitchen.
After a few seconds, one of the spiral stairs in the great room creaked. Then another and another, on upward.
Jane dropped her arms to her sides. “She’s gone.” She rubbed her forehead. “My fault, I’m sorry. I should have warned you.”
Trent realized he was covered in cold sweat. He thought he might faint. With trembling hands he pulled a chair toward him and sat down with a thump. The fingers of his left hand were numb.
“Don’t ever try to touch her,” said Jane, walking back to the table to sit across from her brother. “She doesn’t like that. I think it reminds her that she can’t touch you and no one can touch her. It might even hurt her. I just let her do what she wants. She’s harmless, at least as much as I knew her in life. You have to treat her like a real person, though, talk to her and tell her what’s going on. She listens, I know she does. You know, she hasn’t changed at all since you knew her. She’s still sixteen years old.”
Trent mopped his face with his shirt sleeves. Too much was happening. He opened and closed his left hand until the pins and needles of returning circulation were gone.
“I guess I should tell you the rest of the story I was going to tell earlier, the story about me and Daria,” said his sister, looking at the tabletop. “Mind if I talk? She won’t bother us for the rest of the evening.”
Trent didn’t respond. She took that as a go-ahead. “I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years to get the whole account of what happened. It’s worse than ironic. Daria loved books and reading, but she was killed in the high-school library. I don’t know how much of the sordid affair you caught; I know I didn’t like to talk about it. The principal was stealing money out of school funds for all sorts of crazy personal projects. They said she had some paranoid delusions that people were plotting against her, so she had the school outfitted with things like bulletproof skylights, bomb-sniffing dogs, and everything. She took the money out of maintenance funds and covered it up, so repair work on the library roof was never done. Every time it rained, the water wouldn’t run off the flat roof of the library building because the drains were clogged with birds’ nests and other junk, and it seeped in and rusted out the supports. That day in March of ninety-eight when it was really coming down, the weight of all that rainwater built up and the supports gave way, dumping the roof and everything right into the library on the third floor.”
Jane rubbed her forehead again. “Daria was staying after school, writing out notes for a history paper on robber barons, the super-rich capitalists from the Gilded Age after the Civil War. That was real irony, since the principal was playing the robber baron, too, though she was more or less crazy. There were two other students in the library when the roof gave way, a jock and his girlfriend making out in the stacks. They were banged up a little, but Daria was sitting right underneath it. The jock and his girlfriend tried to get her out, but she was pinned tight under the wreckage. Nobody could do anything for her. She died before the rescue workers got there.”
She reached up and felt the crystal on her necklace. “Her mother gave me this at the funeral. It was Daria’s. She’d had it for years, ever since she was a little kid. She used to wear it to high school under her T-shirts. Her mother didn’t know where she had gotten it. She wanted me to have it because Daria and I were such close friends. We were the only friends each of us had.” Jane held the inch-long crystal up to her face and peered into it. “Clear as quartz, but it’s the wrong shape—a rhomboid, not a faceted rod. Not sure what it is. It’s flawless.” She turned the crystal in the light. “This is the necklace Daria was wearing when she died. It’s been cleaned up, but... I think...”
She stopped talking. Trent already knew what she was going to say. I think there’s a little bit of Daria still left on it. A little blood and flesh. He stared at the crystal. White light flashed as it turned in Jane’s fingers.
“The principal went to prison for embezzlement and a pile of other stuff,” said Jane, looking into the crystal. “Daria’s family moved to Richmond to be closer to family. You remember the lawsuit?” She glanced at Trent and saw he was listening but not responding. “They collected big from the principal’s estate, the county, the original builder of the library, and a few other people, I forget whom. I haven’t kept in touch with them. Life moved on.”
She let the crystal fall against her chest. “Want to hear something really weird?” she asked. “I bet that sounds pretty funny for me to say after all this, doesn’t it?” She did not smile, and neither did he. “When they rebuilt the library, the other kids said it was haunted by Daria’s ghost. The joke is that she was never there. She was with me.”
Trent stared at her. “With you,” he said flatly.
She nodded. “We’ve been together for almost thirty years, she and I. That’s why I was never lonely. That’s why I never got married or had kids. I could never share this with anyone. I’m her caretaker, in a manner of speaking. She will always be sixteen years old, and I’m responsible for her. And she’s still my best friend.”
Trent absorbed this in stunned silence. After Daria’s death, his sister had retreated into her bedroom in the old Lawndale house and rarely came out except for school. She had even stopped running as she usually did. Trent couldn’t afford to have her seen by a counselor, but he did his best to look out for her at home. He quit playing in the garage band he had started and got a job during the day when Jane was at school, working for a company that cleaned factories and office buildings. It was filthy work but paid well enough to keep food on the table when their parents were traveling to the four corners of the earth and forgot to leave money behind.
He had checked in on Jane as often as he could but had not pried into her personal life, nor had he probed deeply into how she was coping. It made him too uncomfortable. He trusted her to find a way to get over her best friend’s death, and in time that did seem to happen. Jane was a true survivor. Her artwork even improved but took on a dark, moody quality revolving around themes of death and the afterlife. She never spoke of Daria again until this day.
Jane toyed with the crystal necklace, watching the light play over its surface. “I wore this or carried it with me from the day of her funeral onward,” she said. “I hid it from everyone, even you. About a month after I started wearing it, I began to see things. It took a while before I understood what it was. It was her. It has to do with the necklace, or maybe the crystal. I believe she’s linked to one or the other in some way. She only appears within the general area the necklace is in, but she changes shape. She can be like a small ball of light, or she can take on a foggy form about the size she had in life. You can even see her hair and face. She’s even wearing her old glasses and her jacket and skirt. I never understood how that was possible, but I think she makes herself into the shape she remembers best, how she looked in life. Is any of this making sense to you?”
“No,” he murmured after a pause. “None of it does.” He sighed heavily and looked around the room. “Is it safe to stay here?”
Jane snorted, her face tight. “I should be pissed at you for saying that, but I’ll let it pass. Of course it’s safe. I’ve been here for years. She won’t bother you when you’re asleep or anything.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Janey, this—”
“C’mon, Trent, I really do want you to stay.” She forced a smile. “Look, if you’re nervous about it, we can sleep in the same room and I’ll protect you. It’s perfectly safe. I should have had you visit here before, but... I wasn’t ready for it. It was easier to see you for a few hours every so often, then fly off before Daria started to appear. If I travel anywhere, she disappears for a couple of days, then starts to re-form and come out. It takes her time to adapt to new locations, I think. I try not to stay long anywhere I go, even to art showings. I’d rather be here with her.”
He bent over and ran his hands through his thinning hair. It was, he thought, entirely possible Jane was telling the truth. She could well have been entertaining someone else for the two years after Daria’s death until she left for college. Trent realized he had seen very little of his sister over that time, as she had been in her room so often or at school.
“Please stay,” said Jane. She wore her sad-little-girl face. “I need my family, and you’re all I’ve got.”
That was low. She really wanted this to pull that one on him. He could still drive down the road to a motel he noticed on the way in, but he hated coming all this way to see Jane, learning all he had about her, only to leave her because... well, maybe it had been a case of nerves and suggestion, even the cold feeling. If Jane was really sick and delusional, she might need his help if things went badly. And there was that option she hinted at for avoiding both the cancer and its dreadful cure. He wasn’t sure at all now that agreeing to help her terminate her life was a smart or wise thing to do.
It might even be possible she wasn’t as sick as she thought. She looked healthy enough. Did she have any paperwork on her cancer, any proof it was this bad? Maybe she wasn’t really sick at all, physically.
Mentally, now, that was a different thing.
He shoved the thought aside. He didn’t think she was crazy. Stressed out, maybe, but not crazy. And something had definitely happened to his hand when he had tried to touch... whatever it was.
“You’re sure thinking a lot,” said Jane. “I can hear the wheels turning all the way over here.”
“I had a question,” he said after he cleared his throat. “Why is she... why it is so cold around her?”
Jane frowned, looking puzzled. “Cold? Like how?”
“Like cold, like in refrigerators.” He flexed his left hand again; it was back to normal. “When I tried to touch her, it almost froze my fingers off.”
“She’s not cold,” said Jane, looking even more puzzled and perhaps irritated. “What in the world are you talking about?”
He started to respond, sensed that that would be the wrong thing to do, and shrugged instead. “Nothing, forget it.”
“Hmmm.” After a moment Jane shrugged too. “It’s time to start thinking about bed, anyway. I dumped a lot on you and you probably need time to sort it out.” She reached out across the tabletop with one hand. “I’m really glad you’re here, Trent. I wouldn’t have made it through my life without you.”
Trent cracked a smile and reached out to take her hand in his.
Her pale hand was as cold as glacier ice. He tried to warm it between his hands but without effect.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asked, staring at her bloodless fingers.
“I’m fine, more or less,” she replied, looking puzzled again. “You ask the weirdest questions. But that figures, you’re my brother.” She pulled back her hand and got up from the table. “I’m going to get ready for bed. Just bring your bags in and change wherever you want. The bedrooms are upstairs, but if you want we can sleep down here tonight. There’s a really good king-size sofa bed in the great room.”
He gave up, but he knew he would come to regret his decision. “I’ll sleep down here by myself. It’s okay.”
She gave him a kiss on his bearded cheek. Her lips had the chill of frost. He watched as she left the kitchen and went into the great room, heading for the stairs.
Somewhere in the house above him, floorboards creaked and groaned.
If there was a ghost—and he wasn’t ready to admit there was, but if there was—then how could it have any real weight to make a floor creak? Maybe it wasn’t a question of weight. Sheer cold could make a house creak just as easily. The expansion and contraction of nails and screws and metal things, the sudden freezing of moisture, it was possible. He just didn’t know.
Trent slowly got up to get his bags from the car. He would stay in the great room, but as close as possible to the front door, with his car unlocked and ready to leave at an instant’s notice.
He hoped, though he would not say it aloud, that this ghost thing was a hallucination from Jane’s cancer, or that her cancer and the ghost were delusions. He hoped it was all just a mistake. The alternative did not bear thinking about.
Before they went to bed, Trent asked to see any medical paperwork Jane had about the cancer. She brought out a thin manila file and her flex computer, then sat down at the kitchen table with him. She wore a loose black nightshirt and gym shorts, leaving her arms, legs, and feet bare. On impulse, he gave her a hug and discovered her skin was warm again. His relief was immediate; her chill earlier must have been from bad circulation or fright. Something like that. Whatever.
They went through the papers and studied the paper-thin nine-by-twelve-inch flex screen as Jane requested each document. Every page looked entirely authentic and official down to the notes jotted in the margins and on paper scraps. The medical net files included color images of her brain, layer by layer, marked with circles and arrows and unfamiliar medical symbols. It included biopsy lab reports, exam summaries, and doctors’ prognoses. It included recommendations for therapy and blunt warnings if they were ignored.
Without immediate intervention it is our opinion that you will undergo a gradual decline in cognitive function over the next two years, characterized by one or more increasingly severe symptoms including:
· Impairments of short-term and long-term memory
· Deficits of attention
· Difficulties in problem-solving activity, planning, and reasoning
· Language disorders, including the ability to speak and understand words (aphasia)
· Non-epileptic seizures
· Apraxia-like motor disorders
· Permanent sensory deficits of sudden onset, to include...
It went on in that vein. His sister was dying, but she would fall into a state worse than death before her life ended. There was nothing anyone could do to save her as she was. Any serious attempt to fight the cancer meant complete erasure of her entire life, mind, and personality. Trent put down the last of the papers and pushed the folder away from him.
“What is it you want me to do?” he asked. His heart was dead. It wasn’t fair she should die so young, before him. It wasn’t fair she should die in this way at all. If she wanted help with termination, he would give it without question.
“We’d better talk about that tomorrow,” she said. “I’m so sorry to tell you this.”
He shook his head and drew in a long breath. “Well,” he said, but he could think of nothing more to add.
They hugged again, she went upstairs, and he stripped off his shirt. He left his jeans on. It was hot enough to sleep in the nude, but not in his sister’s house, and definitely not if he suddenly felt the need to leave and go find that motel.
The sofa bed was quite large and comfortable. He sat on it briefly, then got up and looked around the great room. Two lights were on. He was reluctant to turn them off. From a table he picked up what looked like an art book, but it contained grotesque and gruesome prints from Francesco Goya’s series, The Disasters of War, and he hastily put it down again and wiped his hands on his pants. Angry with himself for his cowardice, he turned off the lights.
He did not get into bed, though. Spotting a chair in a corner between two windows, he wandered over and sat down, watching the room. The floor creaked upstairs briefly, then stopped. It sounded like Jane’s footsteps, a few quick bursts of walking from place to place with long pauses in between. Then there were creaking sounds he assumed were from a bed, and after a minute there was silence.
Uneasy in the dark, he turned his head from side to side, wondering if he would see anything in the corner of his vision and fearing what he would do about it if he did. Nothing stirred. The only sound was that of the crickets outside.
“I can’t let this bother me,” he said aloud. “I have to think about Janey. She’s all that matters.” The thought comforted and emboldened him. “Nothing else is important but her. She needs me. Whatever’s going on, she’s dealing with it, and I can too, for her sake. I can do it.” After a few minutes more of this monologue, he got up from the chair and got into bed. He didn’t need the light blanket Jane had provided. After rolling from side to side for a few minutes, still nervously peering into the darkness around him, he closed his eyes and drifted off.
Groaning, he came half awake face down on the bed, feeling around for the blanket. He knew he’d been asleep for some time, but it was cold, terribly cold, and—
He opened his eyes wide. He did not move even to breathe.
A floor board popped somewhere in the room.
The cold intensified.
His fingers dug into the mattress as he waited. She’s here, he thought.
Something moved on a table not far from him. He could not tell what it was. A paper rustled. There was no breeze.
His heart hammered in his ears. Don’t touch me, please dear God, don’t touch me.
Another board creaked, this one very close by. His hair rose up on end. It was frigid enough to make his bones ache.
His face was turned toward the back of the sofa, away from the source of the sounds. Slowly, by degrees, he turned his head to look behind him.
Boards popped in quick succession. He froze in terror. Then he realized the sounds were going away. The creaks and pops continued up the staircase to the second floor, then across the second floor to another spot where they became more distant. It sounded like someone ascending another stairway.
Warm air rolled in. A cricket chirped outside, then several more.
He rolled onto his back and looked around. In the faint illumination from a night light in the kitchen, he saw only the dark shapes of furniture around him. Steeling himself, he sat upright and reached for a lamp button. Its brilliance blinded him for a few moments as he got to his feet and surveyed the room.
Alone. Nothing amiss.
He forced himself to walk around and make sure everything was in order. All was as he had left it. Shaken, he sat down in the chair in the corner again and rubbed his face. This was not going to work, sleeping here. At least whatever it was had left.
He got up, intending to go into the kitchen to find the wine bottle Jane had hidden away earlier in the evening. As he headed out of the room, he passed the table where he had left the art book.
On top of Goya’s The Disasters of War was a small sheet of drawing paper with a picture penciled on it. He recognized it at once: it was a freehand sketch Jane had made of him when she was in high school. A younger Trent with a goatee and unkempt hair gave a twisted smile at the viewer.
It had not been there before he turned out the lights. He had left nothing on top of the art book.
He turned on all the lights in the great room and sat in the chair in the corner, able to see any part of the room at once.
Daria. He believed it now. She had let him know she recognized and remembered him.
He in turn remembered the Daria Morgendorffer of long ago: a glasses-wearing brunette who was petite in size, sour in attitude, and unfashionable in dress. She had not been especially attractive; she had in fact been rather plain looking, neither ugly nor “Hollywood ugly,” unattractive only because she had not properly fixed herself up. No amount of makeup would have made her a beauty. What she had, though, was a brilliant and restless intelligence, and a deep-felt sense that life could and should be better than it was if only people would stop screwing themselves up. She had kept her feelings hidden, but Trent had sensed them anyway. She had wanted truth, justice, and compassion to triumph, but she was too discouraged to try very hard to make it happen. It was easier to be an outcast than an iconoclast. In time, she could have overcome her self-imposed pariah status and become someone great. She could have changed the world.
Could have. Now she would always be sixteen, always half grown.
“Daria,” he whispered. He was less afraid of her now. He was sorry he had frightened her off a while ago, if that was what had happened. He had only tried to see her. True, it was probably better that he hadn’t, as he might have screamed and made the whole mess even worse. Instead, she had run off like... like a little girl.
A new memory was intruding on Trent’s consciousness. He tried to push it away, but it came back again and again.
The Daria Morgendorffer of long ago had had a crush on him.
A smirking teenage Jane had once told Trent all about it. She knew Daria was underage and Trent would never have taken advantage of the situation, but Jane liked teasing her best friend, who stammered and lost her voice and blushed furiously whenever Trent was in view.
And sometimes hurried away when she became too self-conscious and tongue-tied in the presence of her secret love.
Even if he was now almost fifty years old.
“Oh, my God.” Trent clapped both hands to his face and leaned back in the chair. “Oh, dear sweet God, no.”
* * *
lifted his head when he heard footsteps coming down the stairs in the great
room. He could tell it wasn’t Daria even before his sister called. “Yo,
“In the kitchen,” he called back.
Wearing a long red terrycloth bathrobe over her night clothes, Jane walked in and saw her brother sitting at the kitchen table. He had on the same pants and shoes as yesterday, with a fresh if wrinkled shirt. He had showered, too. The air smelled of strong coffee. “What in the world are you doing up at this hour?” she said. “It’s not even nine o’clock!”
“I could ask you the same question. When did you start getting up early?”
“I asked you first.” Jane picked up the coffee brewer and sniffed it, then made a face. “Whew! I think you put too much in with not enough water. This isn’t decaf, you know. This is hard stuff.”
“Hmmm. Did you sleep okay?”
Trent shrugged and lifted his coffee mug, taking a sip. “Not too well. Had a lot on my mind.”
“I guess so,” she said in a subdued voice. She reset the brewer and got a mug from a cabinet.
“I had a visitor, too,” Trent added, putting down his mug.
His sister whirled to face him, blue eyes wide. “Oh!” she said. “What happened?”
“Not much.” Trent studied his sister with narrow eyes. “You remember back in Lawndale when I used to complain that the house was too drafty, or the heater wasn’t working, or the air conditioner must have turned itself on by accident, stuff like that?”
“Yeah,” she said slowly, not getting the point. “What about it?”
Last night wasn’t the first time Daria had spied on him, then. He might even have heard Daria walking about in the hallways in the old house, but he had thought at the time it was Jane. It made sense. “Does it ever get cold here in your house? I mean like, it just suddenly gets cold, really cold, for no reason?”
“No. I know it’s gotten a lot hotter and drier in this area over the last few years with the warming, but it’s always comfortable to me.” Jane looked puzzled. “I don’t get why you’re asking me this.”
He glanced at the gold necklace against her throat, the crystal hidden under her nightshirt. He then sighed and took another drink from his mug. “Nothing. Just curious.”
“You certainly are curious. And you didn’t answer my question. What happened last night with your—” She made quote marks with her fingers “—visitor?”
“Nothing. Daria came down, left a drawing of me that you did a long time ago, and ran off.”
Jane blinked. “Oh.” She walked over to him and took a nearby seat at the table. “Is everything okay?”
“I think I scared her off. I think she was looking at me, but when I got up to see her she ran away. I haven’t seen her since.”
Jane was taken aback. “She hasn’t done that with me, that I recall.”
Trent nodded to himself as he picked up his mug. Of course not.
“You’re being very enigmatic this morning. Is something going on?”
He drained his mug and put it down. “Can you get Daria to come downstairs a little later?” he asked.
“I want to see her. If she’ll come out in the daytime, I mean.”
Jane’s face began to glow with sudden excitement. “Uh, sure, she can! I don’t know if she’ll do it, but I’ll try. That’s great! You really want to see her again?”
“Um, yeah, but... uh, I’d kind of like to see her alone, if that’s okay.”
“Alone? Sure, I guess that’s all right. Are you sure you’re up to it?”
He nodded somberly. “Yeah. Kind of wanted to talk to her.”
“Talk to her? You mean like get answers to questions?”
“If that’s possible.”
Jane got up and walked out into the great room. A drawer opened and shut, then she reappeared with a battered cardboard box under one arm. Trent tilted his head to read the faded print along one side: OUIJA BOARD.
“Best thing they ever made for this kind of stuff,” Jane said, dropping the box on the table and taking the lid off. “I haven't used this in a few weeks. Usually I just let her do what she wants without bugging her. You don’t have to put your hands on the planchette. She can move it well enough by herself. Don’t ask me how.”
“I won’t.” Trent eyed the playing board that Jane unfolded, and the plastic heart-shaped indicator that pointed to responses when the board was used. “I always wondered where this went,” he said. “This was Penny’s.”
“She left it in her closet under a bunch of clothes. I took it with me to college.”
Of course, he thought. “Have you tried letting her use your computer?”
“Won’t work. It really screws up the computer if she tries it. Some kind of electromagnetic thing, I guess.”
Or the computer freezes solid. “Typewriter?”
“Trent, when was the last time you saw a manual typewriter, aside from in a museum? Actually, I had one a few years ago, got it online, but the keys kept sticking. Daria’s fine motor control isn’t that good; she’ll hit two keys at once every other word, then she gets frustrated and leaves. Wasn’t worth hunting through the online antique shops to find another one.”
“What? Oh, the little letter blocks? Hey, I never thought about that one. Damn. I bet that would work, too. Well, thirty years too late for that. The Ouija board, a pencil, and a pad of paper worked fine for us. You can try Scrabble with her later. You want me to get her down here?”
“Uh, maybe it would be good to have breakfast first.”
Jane chuckled. “It’s always food first with you.” She started to go to the cupboard, then stopped and faced Trent, biting her lower lip before speaking. “Is there anything else you want to talk about first?” she asked quietly.
He looked down at the tabletop and brushed away a bit of dust. “Just that I love you,” he said.
That got him another long hug. She was still warm to the touch.
As she was when Daria was not moving around. He began to wonder.
“Can I ask you something?” he murmured as she clutched him.
“Can I see your necklace?”
She kissed his ear, then pulled away and sat down in a chair, scooting it over to be close to him. “I never take it off,” she said, lifting her chain. “You can pick it up and see it, but don’t take it off me, please.”
“Promise.” He reached over and carefully pulled the rhombus-shaped pendant stone from its hiding place, then held it in his hand. It was cool to the touch, odd because it had been inside Jane’s clothing for some time. He had no idea what sort of gem it was. It could be glass for all he knew. He remembered that diamonds were supposed to give off rainbow colors, but this gem gave off only white reflected light. It was too large to be a really expensive gem, if Daria had been allowed to wear it when she was a kid.
He wondered if the gem did have traces of Daria’s blood on it. He wondered if it was magical or cursed. Where had Daria gotten it? What was it, really?
Did it matter?
He released the stone and sat back in his chair. “Thanks,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, tucking it into her nightshirt again.
He knew she was going to ask him to wear the necklace after her death. His intuition was never wrong about big things like this. He wondered if Daria would then follow him around just as she had followed Jane all these years.
He wondered if Jane would one day follow him around, too.
“You’re still being enigmatic,” said his sister with a mock glare. “C’mon, talk. What are you thinking?”
He shook his head and looked away. If Daria was connected to that stone because she had worn it so often as a child, how strongly connected would Jane be to it, having worn it for twenty-eight years?
Could he live like that, his dead sister and her dead childhood friend always in tow, wandering around his one-room apartment at night freezing him to death, maybe going for walks into other people’s apartments as well?
He shook his head, then noticed that Jane had given up trying to hold a conversation with him and had left the table to get breakfast started. He got up to help, but she shooed him out of the kitchen. “Go take a walk outside, young man, and get some fresh air. Come back in ten minutes.”
Five minutes later, he was out in blinding sunlight studying what Jane had described the previous evening as her zero-effort flower garden, a riotous outgrowth of wildflowers and desert plants growing along the southern side of the railed porch. A few dusty pickup trucks drove by on the two-lane highway, their occupants observing him with mild interest.
Trent stepped back from the house to get a better view of it. The eight-sided nature of the first and second stories was now clear; the smaller second floor and the icing-like gingerbread trim gave the house its wedding-cake look. The red roofs appeared to have been recently modified to make way for the addition of cheap solar panels. He could tell the gutters were set up to channel rainwater to a reservoir on the southern side of the house, just under the roof. He knew nothing about plumbing but could tell it was a first-rate building job. Jane had always had a good eye for quality.
Moving back a few more steps, he studied the white cupola on the top, the house’s minuscule third floor. The cupola was about ten feet across, shaped almost like a short bell tower but with windowpanes. It was the only place Jane hadn’t shown him on their walking tour the evening before.
A thought came to him as he stood there. He rubbed his chin and turned his head to one side, as if looking off in the distance at a cloud, and waited to see if he noticed anything in the cupola window facing him, at the edge of his visual field.
It worked. Someone in white was standing at the window, visible against a dark background as she looked down at him. He kept himself from looking at the watcher directly, letting details of the figure seep into consciousness over time. In moments he could tell that the watcher was small, had long hair, and wore eyeglasses with big round lenses.
He rubbed his eyes, noted that he was not dreaming, and tried again. The same figure was still at the window.
Daria. No doubt about it.
A terrible feeling came over him. He had no fear of the spirit now, only a dreadful sorrow. She was just a kid who had had something painful and terrible happen to her, something that would forever keep her away from the world she had known, the friends and family she had cared about.
And the man she had secretly loved.
Trent felt a lump form in his throat. How long did a ghost live, forever? In her current state, Daria might bear her infatuation with him to the end of time itself. He could scarcely bear to think of it. Did she know her crush was hopeless? Or did longing still burn within her even in this new existence, this life after life?
You know, she hasn’t changed at all since you knew her, Jane had told him. She’s still sixteen years old.
He kept looking off into the distance, but after a moment he raised his right hand and waved to her.
After a moment, he saw in the corner of his vision her own right hand come up and tentatively wave back.
On impulse, he looked right up into the empty cupola, put his fingers to his lips, and blew a kiss. In the instant after he did it he wished he hadn’t. It was the wrong signal to send. He had done it out of pity, not love. When he looked away at the horizon to find out what she was doing, he discovered the cupola was empty. She had run off again. He lowered his head and cursed under his breath.
“Hey, Trent!” called Jane from the veranda. “Breakfast! Come and get it!”
He rubbed his eyes and walked back to the house with slumped shoulders and a weary gait.
“Why are you so morose?” Jane asked as he came up the steps to the porch. “Cheer up! I made a pizza!”
He put a hand on her arm as he went by. Her skin was cold as midwinter snow.
During breakfast Trent said nothing to his sister about seeing Daria. Jane chatted about some of the improvements she had made to the house over the last few years, then looked up from a slice of pepperoni-and-bacon pizza to tell him, “You know I’m leaving you the house and everything else, right?”
He didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing and downed a glass of pineapple juice instead, trying to push the thought out of his mind.
“You want to talk about what’s going to happen?” she asked.
He looked down at the half-eaten piece of pizza on his plate, but his appetite was gone. “All right,” he said. It was what he least wanted to think about, but if Jane insisted...
“I want to do it here, in my home,” she said, leaning forward in her chair, resting her elbows on the table. “I hope that’s not too weird for you. I got the medication I needed from a doctor in Seattle, all legal and aboveboard. I’ve already given my attorney—he knows about my medical issues—a statement of intent and explained that neither you nor anyone would help me in any way, I’d do it by myself. That way you won’t—or I hope you won’t—run into any legal trouble. If you do, my attorney will get you out of it in no time. I’m going to call him before anything happens so he can fly out if he’s needed. He’s already been paid for this, so don’t worry about getting a bill.”
“I wasn’t worrying about money,” Trent grumbled.
“I’m also going to film everything, just so you know. There won’t be any doubt that I did everything by myself, so you’re totally off the hook.”
Trent pushed his plate aside. Off the hook for letting his sister kill herself? Even in agreeing to help, even if it was the only possible humane option and he would never legally suffer for it, he would never be off the hook from himself.
“If you’re doing everything on your own,” he asked dully, “what do you want me to do?”
“Just be here for me. It’s scary enough thinking about what’s happening to me, much less what I have to do about it. I need your strength to get me through.”
A short laugh escaped him as he looked up. “My strength?”
“Yes. I know what I’m talking about. I also want you to be there for me afterward, in case... well, to be honest, in case I come back, like Daria did. I don’t know if it will happen, but if it does, I want you to be here for me. I don’t want to come back without family around, even with Daria present.” She pulled her necklace out and held it up so the stone was visible. “You can trash everything else I have, but the only thing I don’t want you to throw out or give away is this. Keep this always, for me, and wear it. Never take it off. Be there for Daria, if not for me. Please promise me you’ll do this.”
I knew it. He exhaled and rubbed his eyes. I knew it.
Jane tapped the tabletop with a fingernail to get his attention. “Trent, I know this is the hardest thing I’ve ever asked of you, but think of the alternative for me, please. If this is too much for you, you can get out at any time. Say the word, and you can take a trip into Topeka overnight, then come back the next day, or even call the police to check on me if you want. You can even fly home and forget the whole thing, and I’ll do it—”
“I’ll do it,” he said, looking her in the face. “I’ll be here for you. And her.”
She smiled in relief. “Thanks. I have a few last things to take care of, but I was thinking in a day or two, I’d be ready, if you’re ready, too. I can’t wait too long. I want to go out in my prime, not otherwise.”
He nodded and looked down at her necklace.
“That’s it in a nutshell,” she said softly. “I’m leaving you with everything. Do what you want with it—sell it, burn it, give it away, whatever. It won’t matter. Nothing lasts forever.”
He saw the faint outline of the necklace pendant pressing against Jane’s nightshirt. He did not imagine the locals would approve of him staying in the house of his dead sister, especially knowing he had let her take her own life without raising a finger to stop her. Selling the house would be almost impossible at its market value. It was the best piece of real estate in a remote and run-down area, and someone would shortly die in the house by suicide, reducing its sale value even further. Did anyone know about the ghost here? There might be rumors about it, which would make it worse. It was unlikely that anyone would want the place for what it was really worth. He knew about stigmatized property, how difficult it was to unload.
Then he shook his head. His sister was going to kill herself to keep from dying of brain cancer, and he was mulling over what to do with her house. Did it matter?
“Sorry,” he said, aware that some time had gone by.
“It’s a lot to think about, I know,” she said in sympathy. “You were the only person I trusted to be with me.”
He nodded once, looking down at the tabletop.
A shake of the head no.
“Did you want to contact Daria in a little while?”
“In a while,” he said. “Not right now. Kind of need time to think.”
“Okay. I need to get showered and ready for the day anyway.” She stood and drank down the last of her coffee, then waved as she left the kitchen. “See you in an hour. Look around the house if you want. It’s yours.”
After she was gone, Trent sat back in his chair. Jane wasn’t acting like someone who was about to die. She was acting more like someone who was moving off to another country and needed only to sort out a few property issues before leaving. It wasn’t right to say she was buoyant about it. Focused was a better word, focused and not particularly afraid. She had had almost three decades to think about death and see that her best friend, who had crossed over before her, had made it to the other shore—and was still around.
Another country... Trent remembered reading something in high school about that phrase. No, that wasn’t it—it was a line in a book about an undiscovered country from which no traveler returned. He couldn’t remember the source, but he knew what the phrase meant. Jane was heading for that other country, she had even bought her ticket, but she was planning to return, in a way. She would always be forty-four, just as Daria was always sixteen.
And she was planning on being with her best friend and her big brother, forever after.
What happens, though, when I die? Where will the necklace go then? What if it gets locked up in a safe, or buried, or lost in the sea, or broken? Do I have anyone I can give it to? He drew a blank there; he had no close friends anymore, and no family but Jane. Am I the end of the line? What am I going to do when my time comes? Will this mean all three of us will be around together? He had a mental image of Jane, Daria, and himself, all ghosts at different ages, sitting around a gravestone in a cemetery remembering what it had been like to be alive, assuming they were able to communicate in spirit form. If they couldn’t, their un-life would be its own sort of Hell. The longer he thought about it, the less appealing the situation became. Do I want to be chained to that necklace forever, too? He had a ready answer for that. It wasn’t an answer he thought Jane would want to hear.
What did Daria think of all this? What did she think about anything? Could she even think? He felt somehow that she did, but it was only a guess. Her behavior seemed lifelike and human. It would be terrible if she was more like a simple computer program than an intelligent being. Jane’s whole plan would be useless, then, but was there any better alternative? He doubted it.
There was only one person who knew even a few of the answers he needed.
“I have to talk to her,” he said aloud. He looked at the Ouija board and pulled it toward him in resignation. He wouldn’t mention the kiss he had blown to her. He wouldn’t mention her crush on him or anything else that might embarrass her. He would be himself and hope that that was good enough. She certainly didn’t need any more pain than she had, if she had any.
If she did, she might already be in Hell.
What would he do then?
It was difficult for Trent to decide where the best place was to meet Daria and talk (communicate, he corrected himself with a grimace, communicate). The kitchen table was too wide to try reading the Ouija board from one side while she was using it on the other, and he suspected she wasn’t able to pass through solid objects. He certainly did not want to peer over her invisible shoulder and risk bumping into her, getting frostbite or worse. That she didn’t like to be touched, according to Jane, was also a consideration. An appropriate distance was required.
In a small study next to the great room he spotted a three-legged pedestal table with a round top. He moved the massive dictionary it held to an end table by the sofa bed, then relocated the table to the middle of the great room, near the spiral staircase. He didn’t know whether to leave the window curtains open or closed, finally settling on shutting them halfway. He set up the Ouija board, then stood looking down at it, pushing the indicator around with a finger. (What did Jane call it, a planchette?) It moved smoothly enough. Daria could stand on one side, and he on the other, within arm’s reach. The cold would be bad but bearable for a while. Now there was nothing to do but wait and think. Jane said Daria did what she wanted. Could Daria read his mind and tell if he was waiting for her? He suspected not. She would have run away much earlier if she had comprehended his terror of her.
Water ran through pipes in the ceiling to the shower on the second floor. Jane was getting cleaned up. Trent studied the carefully framed paintings in the great room, most of which was Jane’s own work. She had an obvious fascination with twilight skies and desolate landscapes. Her visions had a disturbing quality he could not identify. There was emptiness but the sense of an unseen presence as well. A few gave the viewer the illusion of movement toward a distant horizon, or the anticipation of something about to happen. Not one of her works had a human figure in it, or any sort of living creature. He was not even sure the lands depicted were those of this world.
In time he began reading the titles of her books instead. Many were art books, as he had expected, but she also had a taste for quasi-scientific volumes on the supernatural. He started to reach for an old hardbound tome entitled The Book of the Damned, but changed his mind and left it alone. He was edgy enough. None of the books he saw could be considered light reading. He had always known Jane was unusually intelligent, but he was taken aback by the depth of her personal research into the paranormal. Given the circumstances such an interest was understandable, but had she learned anything she hadn’t yet shared with him?
It was when he saw a book of sketches someone had made of human corpses that he realized he had no idea what was to become of his sister’s remains after her death. She had said nothing about funeral home arrangements, burial or cremation, memorial services or a lack of the same. Was she planning to be buried here by her house? Having her ashes scattered over the zero-effort flower garden?
What was he going to do with her body?
He closed his eyes and tilted his head forward until the top of his forehead gently bumped into a bookshelf. Jesus God, what am I going to do?
It hit him hard then that he was about to lose his little sister. Jane was the only stable person there had ever been in the family. It had been hard to cope when his parents died, even if they had rarely been there for him in his youth, but he’d still had Jane around. They had kept in close touch even after she left for college and moved away. It wasn’t right that she would be taken before him. It wasn’t right she would suffer like this and die. And in the end he would be alone.
He swallowed against a lump in his throat. If he made it through this he knew nothing would ever hurt him again, no matter how terrible, because nothing was ever going to hurt like losing Jane. He put a hand over his face, but it was a bad time to cry. There would be lots of time for that later. Best to keep it together for now.
The water in the pipes above stopped flowing. Jane was done with her shower. Footsteps made the boards squeak from her bedroom on the second floor.
After a minute of relative silence, somewhere above in a different place inside the house, a board popped.
And then another. And another.
He took a ragged breath and stepped back from the bookshelves. Time to get ready, Daria was coming. He wondered if Daria had timed her visit until after Jane’s shower. The intense cold around her could probably freeze pipes; he hadn’t considered some of the problems that might cause inside a house with running water. Maybe Daria was aware of the effect she had on the environment as she moved about. If so, she was more sensitive to it than Jane, who was completely unaware of temperature changes of any kind. Was it the doing of the necklace, and if so, why?
Without thinking, Trent turned to face the spiral staircase and stepped back, but one step only. He felt he could handle the meeting now. Floorboards creaked above him. He made himself look away at a random spot among the books in the shelves nearby, fixing the stairway at the edge of his vision, and waited.
Someone in white descended the spiral stairs.
He kept perfectly still, though the hair on his neck rose. The air temperature dropped. He kept the white figure in view as it reached the bottom of the steps and turned in his direction.
Daria. It was unmistakable. He could make out her knee-length skirt and boots, even her glasses against her face and her long, thick hair. The image was foglike, translucent, and real.
He straightened and licked his lips. “Hey,” he said. His voice cracked.
The white figure seemed to shift from one foot to another, facing him.
“It’s good to see you,” he said, then winced at his clumsiness. What else was there to say? “Janey told me about how the two of you came to be together,” he continued. “That was... pretty weird.” He glanced at her. She disappeared. He looked away, and she was there again. Oh, boy.
He turned in her direction, looking at the floor so that she was at the top of his field of vision, and gestured at the Ouija board. “I, um, set that up so we could talk a little, sort of. I haven’t seen you in a long time, a really long time.”
The white figure took a tentative step toward the table. Trent noticed and did the same, walking slowly over until he was close enough to read whatever was spelled out on the board. Daria came up a few moments later. The drop in temperature was sudden and severe. The skin on his face reddened and ached from the arctic chill.
Daria’s image was much clearer close up. She was just as small as in life, barely coming up to his chin. She did not look up at him, instead appearing to stare at his chest. There was no color in her, only a dim whiteness of varying intensity that revealed the outlines of her round glasses, her hair, and her clothing. He suspected Jane was right, that Daria could reshape herself at will and chose to create the look she bore at the time of her death. Ghost glasses, that didn’t make any sense otherwise.
silence between them drew out. “Um,” said
Daria looked down at the board. Her white hands reached for the marker—and it moved, gently scooting along the board until it rested over the word YES.
A moment of unreality washed over Trent, but he fought it down and took a breath. He couldn’t remember any of the questions he had meant to bring up. “How are you doing?” he finally said. Clumsiness was better than nothing.
After a brief hesitation, the marker moved to the alphabet lines, then moved again: O-K. She did not look up.
“I’ve missed seeing you,” he said. He realized it was true. He had liked her in life and had appreciated how much her friendship had meant to Jane. Something opened within him and the words came out. “I always thought you were the coolest teenager around,” he said.
The marker trembled slightly, then moved toward the alphabet lines on the board. B-A-D-P-U-N
“Huh? Oh. Uh, sorry. Yeah. Bad pun.” So she was aware of the temperature difference. He gave her a nervous grin. “This is pretty crazy, isn’t it?”
A pause, then: YES. The marker kept moving. V-E-R-Y.
He was grateful she kept her responses brief. He had forgotten to get a paper and pencil to write down longer answers. “Janey wanted me to talk to you,” he said. The pale clouds of his breath curled in the air between them. “I wanted to talk to you, too. I was kind of jumpy at first, but after I thought about it, I really did.”
Daria stood still, hands still on the planchette. He caught her raising her head to sneak a peek at his face. The shy gesture made him smile, which made his face hurt because of the intense cold. She quickly looked down again. He wished he had thought to bring a jacket to Kansas, even if it was pretty warm here these days. Maybe Jane had a coat somewhere he could use later, that and a muffler.
He then remembered what he had meant to ask. His smile faded. “Um... you know about Janey, right?”
“That she’s sick?” he prompted.
The marker moved: YES. It then went sideways to a blank spot on the board.
“She’s really sick,” said Trent, then he stopped. It hit him again, that she was about to die. He stared at the board for a minute. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I don’t know what else to say.”
He stepped back from the table and looked around the great room, rubbing his arms to warm them. “She’s going to die, and she wants me to help her,” he said. “I don’t know if she told you that.” He looked back at the Ouija board.
The marker moved a few inches. YES.
“She told you what she was planning?”
The marker made a small circle on the board and came back to YES.
“I don’t know,” he said, still looking at the board. “I don’t know what to do. I guess there’s nothing else I can do. She needs me, and I...” He hesitated. “She wants me to take the necklace after she... afterwards.”
“What do you think of this?” he asked suddenly. “What she’s planning, what do you think of it?”
The marker moved slightly toward the alphabet lines on the board, then wiggled back and forth for a moment.
“Wait,” he said in understanding. He looked around. “Let me get something. Stay right there.” He remembered seeing writing materials on a desk in Jane’s study, then hurried off to get them and come back as quickly as he could. She was still at the table, watching him, hands on the planchette. Once back at the table, he shook off the effects of the cold and got ready to write. The planchette moved from letter to letter on the board. He copied:
I know that. You probably want that, too. “Yeah,” he said aloud, feeling the irony. “I guess we’ll be together like old times.”
the planchette spelled out after a few seconds of hesitation.
He regretted making the joke. Her grip on reality was painfully solid. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he said on impulse. “Maybe that’s a stupid thing to ask, but... I dunno, I—” He stopped when the marker moved.
He laughed in spite of himself. “That’s good, Daria. That’s pretty good.” His laughter faded as he rubbed his mouth. Her message might have been a warning. His whole face hurt from the stabbing cold. “Same old Daria,” he said.
The corners of his mouth pulled up. “You really were the coolest kid I ever knew.”
She gave a shy glance up at his face. Was she smiling back?
“We’ll get through this somehow. I don’t know how, but we will. Trust me.”
She nodded her head and wrote:
He tried to think of something else he meant to ask her. The planchette moved.
This was odd. He prepared to write—then flinched. Was she going to mention the kiss he’d blown to her? Would she confess her crush on him? What would he do if—
The marker moved back and forth over the slick board, pushed by white fingers.
“Okay,” he whispered. “I promise.”
“Okay.” He kept writing.
“The sickness,” he said after a moment. “She has cancer in her—”
The planchette moved over the word NO, then:
The cold crept into Trent’s bones and blood. He flipped to a fresh a page in the tablet and wrote without stopping.
“Yes,” he whispered.
He jumped, dropping the pencil from his cramped fingers.
“Trent?” Jane repeated from the second floor, calling as she started down the staircase. “Is Daria down there with you?”
“Wait! Don’t come down yet!” Trent ripped out the sheets of tablet paper he had written on, wadded them up, and jammed them into a pants pocket. He then noticed the clean sheets below bore the impressions his pencil had made as he was writing, and in a panic he tore those out and stuffed them into his pockets, too.
“What are you doing?” Jane called. She had stopped on the staircase, only her open sandals and worn-out white jeans visible. Her toenails were painted blood red.
“Daria and I were talking!” he shouted back. He looked for Daria, remembered he couldn’t see her directly, then tried to find her without looking where she had been. He caught a glimpse of a thing like a ball of white mist sailing through the air toward the kitchen entrance. The bitter chill in the room faded.
“Can I come down now?” Jane said. She crouched down on the steps and peeked through the railing at Trent. Her dark ponytail dangled over the lower half her face. “Or am I breaking up a private party?”
“Come on, she’s gone.” Trent rubbed his mouth. His hands trembled, but not from the cold in them.
Jane circled down the steps to the main floor. She had on a bright blue blouse with short sleeves. The glasslike gem on the necklace gleamed at her throat. She gave her brother a concerned look. “Everything okay?”
“Uh, yeah, yeah, fine.” Trent tossed the tablet onto the folded-up sofa and reached down to retrieve the lost pencil. “We were just talking.”
“About what, dare I ask?”
Trent tossed the pencil after the pad, then rubbed the back of his neck and avoided Jane’s gaze. “Uh, I’d rather not say.” He had a desperate idea, and he gestured in an offhand way toward the kitchen. “Some old stuff between us. Kind of personal.”
Jane’s concern turned into a knowing grin. “Oh, I get it,” she said. “One never forgets a first love, eh?”
The ruse had worked, but her words still shocked him. “Janey, don’t embarrass her.”
She laughed. “I won’t. I’d love to pry into your love notes, but I’ll cut you some slack this time. Were you two done?”
He tried to tell if Daria was watching from the kitchen, but he saw nothing. “I guess we can pick it up later.”
“Unfinished business, I understand. Hey, listen, I need to make some phone calls. I’ll be in the study. Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m fine.” He remembered the issue of what was to be done with Jane’s body, but he couldn’t bring himself to mention it. It was too upsetting to mention, and there was too much else to think about after his peculiar conversation with Daria.
Jane continued to look him over, concern in her eyes. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and toed the wooden floor. “Got a lot to think about.”
Jane studied him. “Yeah, I guess you do,” she said, then added, “I love you, you know.”
He raised his head and gave her a quick smile, too quick. “I love you, too.”
“We never said that a lot, did we?” she said, so softly he could barely hear her.
He shrugged. “I kind of assumed it, that we felt that way, but... it’s good to say it.” He wanted to hug her, but he feared if he did she would be ice-cold to the touch. He didn’t want to remember her like that, later.
Her expression changed. The liveliness leaked out of it and left a drawn, tired face behind. Trent saw how deeply the knowledge of her cancer had eaten into her.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a monotone. “I’m sorry about all of this.”
“It’s not your fault. You didn’t ask to get sick.”
“I asked you to come out here and help me, though. I wanted you with me even though I knew it would be hard on you, but now I think I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve taken care of it myself. It might have been better that way.”
“No.” He shook his head with emphasis. “I want to be here, I do, but... I have to work it through. I can’t get used to it this fast.” He made a random gesture and looked away. “I just need a little time, Janey. I can do it, but I need some time to think.”
“Okay. Do whatever you need to do. Thank you for being here.” With a lingering look of worry, Jane headed for the study. “I’ll be about twenty minutes,” she called before she pulled the sliding door shut behind her.
He stood alone in the great room, looking at a bookshelf but seeing nothing. Jane is halfway here already. She is not like you. What did Daria mean? He didn’t like the implications. Did she mean Jane was halfway into death while still alive? Daria had been clear she wasn’t talking about the cancer, either. And there was the other issue, Daria wanting to be free of the gem to move on to the “next world,” heaven or nirvana or wherever the dead went. Did that mean he would have to destroy the necklace after Jane died? Jane wouldn’t allow the necklace to be harmed while she was alive; she wouldn’t even take it off. The necklace has changed her. How was Jane different, other than being cold to the touch when Daria was active? Was the necklace draining energy from inside and around Jane to keep Daria “alive”? Had the necklace caused Jane’s cancer? What would happen to them if he did destroy the necklace?
Maybe Daria knew. She had changed some herself. The Daria he had known was skeptical on the issue of God and angels and life after death. With a sigh, he walked to the kitchen and stood in the entryway. No sign of her about. The room was warm.
“Daria?” he said in a low voice. He turned his head from side to side, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, and called again. No response. She was gone, and it was impossible to say where... unless she was in the cupola. He looked up at the ceiling. He was not ready to find his way up there, not yet. Maybe she needed some time to herself.
He went back into the great room. He needed to get out for a while and do some thinking of his own. “Janey?” he called.
After a pause, the door to the study slid open a crack. “Hold on a second,” she said, then called, “What?”
“I’m going to take the car into town for some gas. I’ll be right back. You want anything?”
“No. There’s not much there, so don’t get your hopes up.”
“Thanks for the warning. Be back soon.”
“Okay. Bye.” The study door closed with a soft thump.
He went outside to his rental car, got in, and started it. Before he pulled out he glanced up at the empty cupola, then looked to one side. No one there. He pulled out of the driveway and headed away.
Jane was right: there was very little to see or do in the collection of buildings that passed itself off as a town on the maps. A restaurant with no customers, a bar, a real estate office, a hardware chain store—nothing unexpected or interesting. Few people were out. He stopped at a convenience station, refueled the car on credit, and went inside just to see what was there. It was an automated shop with cameras and a self-checkout counter. Not a soul was around. He used the men’s room, and while he was there he took the wadded sheets of notebook paper out of his pocket, read them carefully in the dim fluorescent light over the dirty sink, then tore them up and threw them on top of the overflowing wastebasket. He pushed the trash down with the toe of his shoe, threw two used paper towels on top of them, then left the restroom.
Back in the store aisles, he picked out a bag of barbecue chips and a beer out of habit, swiped his credit card, and carried his goods outside into the hot air. A man refueling his rusted pickup truck at the pumps was watching him. Trent gave him a halfhearted wave. The man did not wave back.
Once in his car, Trent put the bag and beer on the passenger seat and thought about what he would do next. He turned the key in the ignition without starting the car, then poked at the nav console to call up a map of the area. Maybe a drive would help, something to settle his nerves. He stared at the nav screen, looking for anything of interest. When he became aware that he had been staring for too long, he shut the system off.
I need to go back and face this, he thought. Jane’s been very weird about this whole thing. I don’t feel good about it, any of it. I haven’t had any time to adjust to what’s happening or get used to it or anything, and it’s pissing me off. Maybe I don’t have the right to be mad at her about this, but she expects me to go through with this thing about her dying and me helping out, and I haven’t even been here half a day yet. Glad you could come, Trent, and by the way, I’m dying of cancer, so I’m going to kill myself and I need your help and oh yes my dead best friend is living with me, and she still has a crush on you. This is totally messed up. And Daria says something’s wrong with Jane, like she’s halfway dead already. What the hell is that all about? That doesn’t make any sense. Well, hell, of course it doesn’t make any sense, I’m getting advice from a dead kid. I don’t know what the hell to think. I should drive back to the airport and go home and forget this ever happened. Bad dream, bad drug trip, something like that. Whatever. I should get out of here. I should go.
I should go back and talk to her. I wish I knew what to talk about, where to start. I can’t believe this.
He started the car and drove back to Jane’s white wedding-cake house. Once there, he sat in the car for a minute outside, staring at the dark windows of the house. He did not try to look to one side and see if anyone was watching him. Finally he sighed and got out with his chips and beer and went in. The great room was deserted. The doors to the study were open. He heard Jane rustling papers in there.
“Welcome back,” Jane called. She sounded tired or depressed. “See anything interesting?”
He remembered throwing out the papers with Daria’s messages to him. “Nah. Not much there. What’s up?”
“You won’t believe this.” Jane walked out of the study holding an oversized manila envelope. “I forgot to mail in my taxes.”
“Yeah.” Jane checked the seal on the envelope with exaggerated care. “Death and taxes will always be with us. I guess it’s true.”
Trent frowned. “April was last month, though.”
“Yeah, I know, I’m a little late. Screw ‘em. I included a penalty, so they can’t complain and I won’t be listening to them anyway if they do.” She started to hand the envelope to her brother, then stopped when she noticed the beer and chips in his hands. “Midmorning snack?”
“Um, yeah, something like that.” He took the envelope in the hand holding the chips. “You want me to mail this?”
“If you could. I hate to make you go out again, but this will turn into a pain in the butt later if it doesn’t get out. The post office is in East Liberty, about ten miles back the way you came. You remember that town?”
“Here, I’ll take your beer and stuff, you go throw that in your car so you don’t forget it.”
He sighed and nodded and did as she asked. When he walked back into the house, his sister was standing at one of the great room’s bookshelves with her back to him, looking at a book in her hands. He started toward the kitchen but became curious. “What are you reading?” he asked.
“Book,” she mumbled, still reading.
He waited for more of a reply, saw that none was forthcoming, and almost headed into the kitchen—but made himself stop. Whatever she was looking at was being studied with great intensity. “Read something to me,” he said, unable to believe he had said that.
Jane looked up at him in surprise, then down at her book again. She swallowed. “‘Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgment,’ by William Butler Yeats,” she began.
“‘Love is all
“‘That cannot take the whole
“‘Body and soul’;
“And that is what Jane said.
“‘Take the sour
“‘If you take me
“‘I can scoff and lour
“‘And scold for an hour.’
“‘That's certainly the case,’ said he.
“‘Naked I lay,
“‘The grass my bed;
“‘Naked and hidden away,
“‘That black day’;
“And that is what Jane said.
“‘What can be shown?
“‘What true love be?
“‘All could be known or shown
“‘If Time were but gone.’
“‘That's certainly the case,’ said he.”
She closed the book after a beat and tucked it back in its place on the shelf. “I’ve read that over and over again for years, trying to understand it. I know what it’s supposed to be about, the analyses of it, but sometimes I still don’t get it. Maybe I won’t really understand it until after.” She did not have to say after what.
“Did someone write it about you?” asked Trent, puzzled.
Jane laughed. “Oh, no, Yeats wrote it a hundred years ago, an Irish guy who won the Nobel Prize. He wrote some poems about a fictional woman named Crazy Jane who had all these interesting observations about life. I always liked them, not just because of the name.” She tapped the spine of the book she had been reading. “In this poem, she’s talking to God on Judgment Day, telling him what she thinks about love, and God is sort of amused. He’s being a little ironic, as if he knows more than she does, but he’s letting her speak freely because what she’s saying is wise, too. At the end, when they’re talking about Time being gone, they’re talking about the end of time, Judgment Day. Time really is gone, then. I know a lot about that poem, but I still don’t know if I know it, if you get my drift.”
Judging it best to remain silent and let her speak, Trent waited.
“My black day was when Daria died,” she said at last, looking past the volumes before her. “I’ve thought about her every day since I met her. I’ve talked to her many times since the accident, telling her how much she meant to me in life and how much she still means to me. She’s not very forthcoming with her feelings, but that’s Daria. I think she feels the same way about me. I hope so, anyway. She really kept me going, but there were times in her life when I think I kept her going, too. I never felt as close to anyone as I did to her. She could say all the things I never could, everything I was thinking would come right out of her mouth. She was a wiseass but she was brilliant, right up there with Dorothy Parker. She still is.” Jane paused to touch the bookshelf. “I always thought she was the only person who really understood me.”
Trent nodded in agreement. Daria had understood Jane far better than he had.
Jane took a deep breath and turned away from the books. The gem at her throat sparkled. “I hope I’ll be able to come back,” she said, looking at her brother without apology. “I really do. I want to hang around for a while longer, Daria and me and you. That’s what I really want. The three of us. You can take us wherever you want, but let’s be together.”
She wants me to say something. “Okay,” he said, leaving his mind blank.
A corner of her mouth twisted upward. “I kind of expected something more than that, but knowing you, that’s good enough.” Without a word, she walked over to Trent and wrapped her arms around him. She was warm all over. “I love you,” she said into his shirt as he held her close. “Thank you for always being there when I needed you. That meant everything to me.”
“I love you, too,” he whispered into her hair, and he kissed her. He closed his eyes as she pressed against him. He knew he had not always been there for her, but he had succeeded more often than not, and he had been there when it really counted. They were saying goodbye and would probably say it again and again over the next few days. It was goodbye to the past, to everything. It was time for Jane to move on.
He thought he was being torn in half, the pain was so terrible. He held her with a lump in his throat but did not cry. The gem was pressed between them, cold even through the fabric of his shirt. He realized then that he hated that stone, no matter what it was or how valuable. He hated it with a fury.
After a pause that wasn’t long enough, she kissed his chest and pulled back, wiping her eyes. “Why don’t you go mail my taxes out so the IRS doesn’t get a stick up its collective butt,” she said. “One less issue to worry about.”
“Okay.” He made himself let go of her, turn away, and head for the door. Too much was happening in his head. He did not think he could stand to stay there a minute longer. He went down the steps, walked out to the car, and went around to the driver’s door. As he opened it, he looked up at the cupola atop the house, then glanced to one side. No one was there. He got in his car and left.
He had the chance to cry as he drove, but he did not feel like it. He drove through the tiny town down the road, then sped up to cruise the two-lane past the fields and farms that reached out to the horizon.
The IRS. Death and taxes. It’s always something. He drove a long while, deliberately not thinking about anything deep. The word taxes rolled around in his mind. April fifteenth, funny that she had missed that. Jane hated doing her own taxes. She hated any kind of math. She had an accountant do all her taxes for her, she had once told him, and she had been proud of that. She didn’t mind paying them, she only wanted to avoid handling the paperwork, which she despised.
He frowned and glanced over at the large envelope in the passenger seat beside him.
Jane had never done her own taxes.
He tried to focus on the highway. A sign went by: EAST LIBERTY 2 MILES.
She did have an accountant, someone in Kansas City, she had told him a couple years ago. Had she fired her accountant, then? He couldn’t believe she would actually do her own taxes, even now. More importantly, if she did still have her accountant, why had that person let her go so long without paying taxes on time? Didn’t accountants call you if you were late? Wasn’t that why you paid them?
Trent saw a gravel driveway coming up. He quickly slowed, feeling a bit foolish but feeling even more worried, and turned into the driveway by a dilapidated mailbox. After putting the car in park with the engine running, he reached over and picked up the large envelope Jane had given him. It was addressed to her accountant in Kansas City. He examined the seal on the envelope, wrestled with his conscience, then carefully began to peel the flap open. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he promised himself he would reseal it at the post office, and no one would ever know what he had done.
The flap tore in places but he didn’t care, he could fix it. It came open. Inside the envelope was a thick sheaf of white papers.
The top and bottom pages were blank.
He ran his thumb over the edge of the stack, flipping through it.
Every page was blank.
Every single page.
Had she made a mistake? He flipped through it twice more in disbelief, then stared at the empty pages for long seconds without seeing them.
Thank you for always being there when I needed you. That meant everything to me.
She had referred to herself in the past tense.
I wanted you with me even though I knew it would be hard on you, but now I think I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve taken care of it myself. It might have been better that way.
He tossed the envelope back on the seat and threw the car in reverse. He checked behind him, then pulled back out on the two-lane highway, gravel flying from his tires. The envelope fell off the seat; unmarked papers spilled across the passenger-side floor. Tires smoked and the engine roared, shifted gears automatically, and the rental car was in a minute doing over ninety miles an hour down the infinite straight blacktop back to Jane’s house, and to Jane.
His car shot through the only intersection in the little town by his sister’s home, no other vehicles in view. Less than a minute later dust and gravel flew as he pulled into the driveway at the wedding-cake house, coming to a stop at the front steps. In moments he hurtled himself out of the car, up the steps, and through the front door.
“Janey!” he shouted in the empty great room: “Janey!” He ran to the study, saw no one there, then ran past the stairs and into the kitchen. Icy sweat streaked his face. “Janey!” he shouted to the kitchen. No one there.
Back to the great room he ran next, then up the spiral stairs into the large irregular space on the second floor that served as his sister’s art studio. The curtains to the wide windows had been drawn; the studio was in shadow. Mad with fear, he looked for signs of life among the silent landscape: the canvases, stools, drawing boards, tables, paint-filled shelves, brushes, steel rulers, pencils, swivel lamps, sketches, and candy wrappers. It was cooler here than downstairs. He went next to his sister’s bedroom. A faint mist was drifting out from the space below the closed door. He grabbed the handle (cold to the touch) and turned it and was through the door. As he did, a frigid gust of wind blew past him; he thought he saw a glowing ball leave the room as he entered, but he paid no attention to it.
The curtains were pulled in the bedroom, too; the spacious room was dark and the air extremely cold. Jane lay on her queen-size bed face up, her head resting on a pillow. Her breathing was shallow and labored. She wore a sleeveless black gown, simple and elegant, without shoes or stockings. The gem glittered on her chest. Her arms lay at her sides. A trickle of blood ran from a spot on the inner elbow of her inner left arm; a loose elastic cord dangled from that upper arm. Trent snapped on the bedside light. On the nightstand to Jane’s left was a world clock made like an ancient navigator’s globe, with mythical countries and monsters in the sea, next to a half-finished glass of water, an empty pillbox, a used one-shot syringe, a small paper carton with medical warnings on it that had held the syringe, and a penciled note: I love you, Trent.
His hands went to her frost-cold face, touching and turning her head. Her eyelids fluttered open, she caught her breath. After a long moment she focused on him, then slowly smiled. She licked her blue-tinged lips and started to say something, then her gaze drifted. Her chest rose in a ragged breath, fell, rose again with a gasp, then the air left her lungs in a tired sigh. The color bled from her tanned skin. Her lips parted. Her eyes grew dull as they stared at a point on the ceiling, motionless, their sparkle gone.
After an unknown period he bent down and kissed her cold forehead as if she were a child being put to bed for the night. He closed her eyelids with gentle fingertips, took her cold and unresisting hands and kissed them too, then crossed them on her breast, not knowing exactly why she should look that way except that it looked proper, queenly. Empty inside, he knelt on the carpet by the low bed and covered his head with his arms to weep.
He lost all track of time. At some point he knew Daria was nearby, as the room became so bitterly cold he could see his breath when he sobbed. He accepted her presence but did not try to see her. He did not know how long she stayed, but in time the room grew warmer.
There comes a point even in the depths of one’s grief when one has to move, even if movement does not seem possible. He got to his feet to look down at his sister, then ran a hand over the silver-streaked softness of her black hair and left the room with a heavy tread. He left the bedroom door open behind him. He did not like leaving Jane alone like that, but he had taken a shock like no other and needed to recover in order to be able to take any further action, or even have a coherent thought. Catching the railing with one hand, he went down the stairs like a robot.
He came out in the great room but found it unfamiliar, as if he was seeing it for the first time. He wasn’t completely sure where he was. He collapsed in a chair and stared at another chair opposite him. It did not seem possible that he was alone. He was in his sister’s house, and his sister should be there with him. That’s the way he felt it should be, and he waited to see if in fact that happened, that Jane appeared, but she did not.
Janey was dead. He could taste the thought like lead in his mouth. Janey was dead.
There didn’t seem to be any point to doing anything. He had nowhere he had to be, nothing he had to do, no one he had to call. Eventually he would call the police, but he wasn’t ready for that yet. His sister was dead: that was the universe, all there was, and nothing else mattered.
She had pulled it off, he reflected. She did what she had told him she would do, what she had to do to cheat a far worse death. She had tried to do it without him, but he had caught on and come back at the last possible moment to be with her, to give her comfort, and she had smiled. He had done that much, though the knowledge did not help him in any way. Nothing but her death made any difference.
Certainly not the necklace.
He frowned. There was plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do with that accursed item. It was trivial now. He imagined casting it in the sea, like that necklace on that movie, Titanic. What’s-her-name had liked that movie, Monique from high school. He had thought it was okay. He wondered where Monique was, then decided he didn’t care. It was too long ago to matter.
He was still sitting there, staring at the chair opposite him, when the room grew colder. A board popped.
Turning his head slightly, he saw in the corner of his vision a white figure walking into the room from the kitchen. It was Daria. He thought that odd, as Jane was the logical one to appear at this point, but it was definitely Daria. She approached, stopped about ten feet short of him near the spiral staircase, then gestured to him with one arm making a large arc. She was motioning for him to go to the stairs.
He watched, doing nothing. She gestured again. He could see no expression on her face. Her right hand came up to her throat, made a sudden gesture as if pulling something away, then pantomimed throwing something on the floor. She repeated the series of gestures once more.
The necklace. Get rid of the necklace.
He did not get up. “Why,” he said. The word was a statement, not a question. There was no point in bothering. Janey was dead.
Daria pantomimed again for him to seize the necklace. Her movements were faster now, more desperate.
The gem in the necklace keeps me bound to this world. I want to wait for Jane and then cross over with her, but the gem will keep us both here forever.
Do you understand?
He slowly got to his feet, feeling nothing in his limbs. Daria motioned once more to go to the stairs, then she faded into a small ball of light and floated up the staircase by herself. After a long moment, Trent followed.
It was cold as he went up the steps. He thought that was Daria’s doing, but as he neared the top he glanced at Jane’s bedroom door and noticed wisps of fog or smoke rolling over the carpet out of her room, thicker than before. He forced himself to move faster in case there was an electrical fire inside, possibly from the bedside lamp, which he had left on. When he reached her doorway, though, he saw no fire.
A low mist had formed over Jane’s bed, half-shrouding her pale body from view. He blinked, staring. The mist rolled off her bed to the floor. It must be cold, he thought, like the fog from dry ice he had seen used long ago as a special effect for rock concerts. The glittering gem lay between Jane’s gown-clad breasts.
He had to get rid of the gem, as Daria had asked. He would throw it outside in the dirt and gravel of the driveway, then back the car tires over it, crushing it. That would solve the problem. No doubt Jane had hammers and other tools as well. Artists always had lots of tools. One of those would do.
He walked over the carpet, his feet stirring the low fog. A bitter chill crept into his shoes and went up his pants legs; the mist was cold enough to sting.
The gem will keep us both here forever.
No, he thought at Jane’s side. He bent down and took the glassy gem in his right hand.
An instant later he jerked his hand away with a wild cry of pain, then grabbed the wrist of his seared right hand with his left one. Cursing, he backed hard into the wall of Jane’s bedroom, knocking a landscape from the wall to crash to the floor behind him.
He stared down at his right hand. His fingers had turned dead white in the places where they had touched the gem. Stabbing pain radiated from the injury as if needles were being driven every moment into his skin. He tried to flex his fingers but ceased immediately, as any movement multiplied his agony many times over. The white patches of skin cracked and flaked away as he watched. The areas around the injuries had turned bright red. The pain continued to intensify until he shuddered and hissed through gritted teeth.
He sensed movement and raised his head to look at the gem. The gem had not moved.
Jane’s eyes were open. She was staring at the ceiling. Then her head turned and her black pupils moved and she was staring at him.
Horror-bound, Trent forgot to breathe as his dead sister raised pale blue hands and held them before her unblinking eyes. The sides of her arms that had been closest to the bed were blotchy purple, but the bruise-like hue faded as her arms remained in the air. Trent knew what that color was from watching crime shows on the ‘net: it was blood that had pooled in Jane’s arteries and veins when her heart had stopped, draining to the lowest parts of her body. The sight of it and the sharp throbbing in his hand pulled him to the edge of madness.
Jane turned her hands to view fronts and backs without expression, then lowered her arms and pushed herself up on the bed to the accompaniment of an odd crackling noise. White mist fell from her body over the bed; the room became intensely cold, the air as chilled as he had ever felt in his life. Jane then silently swung her feet to the floor and sat upright, looking down at the carpet, then lifted her chin to stare at her brother. Her lips were parted as if in great surprise. The gem swung and glittered on its thin gold chain.
Had it been possible to flee, Trent would have done so without further delay. The ghastly scene pinned him in place as his head swam. Jane’s bare feet turned purple below her black dress as she again examined her white hands. The amount of fog drifting from her increased, half shrouding her from view. The deepening cold stung Trent’s face and hands. Boards popped around the room. There was a snap from the bedside table as the half-empty glass of water froze solid and broke. Pipes groaned under the floorboards. Frost formed over what little of the windows was visible where the curtains had parted.
Jane scooted forward on the bed, then stood up on unsteady feet before straightening, stock still. Her whiter-than-white face turned in Trent’s direction. The pupils of her eyes had swallowed her irises, drinking light into a blackness that gave no light back. Her blue-tinged lips moved without a sound. He could read her lips plainly. She was speaking his name, over and over. Trent.
She took a step toward him and raised a hand.
Trent broke. He flew from the room, ran down the stairs into the great room and had almost reached the front door when it grew bitterly cold and he hit something invisible, a chill with agonizing teeth of ice that bit into his chest and ribs and lungs. He screamed and staggered back and kept screaming as he clutched his aching chest, his skin numb and eyes streaming tears. In a corner of his blurry vision he could see who had stopped him. It was Daria. He cursed her and shouted for her to let him outside. She stayed in front of the door, blocking his way.
The sound of breaking glass sounded from the second floor near the top of the stairs. Boards snapped as loud as rifle shots. White fog began to roll down the spiral staircase like a river.
Jane was coming.
Trent ran for the kitchen. He remembered there was another door there to the outside, but as he reached the entryway he felt something cold fly over his head. He came to a stop. Daria had beaten him to the kitchen door as well. Why wasn’t the little twit letting him escape? Why was she keeping him there? Did she mean for Jane to destroy him? Or did she mean for Trent to finish what he and Daria both knew he had to do?
The gem will keep us both here forever.
He panted in the kitchen, thinking furiously. He looked down at his frostbitten right hand. It was barely usable, the pain flowing from it like great waves on the sea. Gloves, mittens, oven mitts—he remembered seeing a pair hanging from a hook near the counter—there! He managed to pull one over his left hand when he heard snapping and popping from the wall separating the kitchen from the great room. White frost formed over the center of the plaster wall, where the stairway was, then crept toward the open entryway. Trent remembered a science show about liquid nitrogen and wondered if Jane’s body temperature was that cold or colder. The gem had to be doing it, draining all the surrounding heat to sustain Jane and Daria’s un-life. No wonder Jane hadn’t noticed it: the monstrous gem had changed her, preparing her for this life after death.
Because of the gem Jane is halfway here already. She is not like you.
made sense in a crazy way. What if Daria had let
It was too late to be ashamed of it. A silent wave of low fog rolled into the entryway of the kitchen. The temperature plummeted, the atmosphere itself close to turning into liquid. A pipe burst in the walls, then the sound of rushing water came to an abrupt stop with more creaks and bangs.
Walking slowly, Jane appeared and came through the entryway. Her feet could not be seen in the fountain of white mist that fell from around her. She looked at Trent and stopped in place. Her arms rose to him, palms up. Her blue lips moved against her dead white face.
Help me, she mouthed, expressionless. Trent, help me.
“Take off the necklace!” he shouted. “Take it off! Take it off!”
Her arms remained out to him. Trent.
What was wrong with her? Didn’t she understand what he was saying? He roared at her again to take off the necklace.
She spread her arms and spoke without sound. Be with me.
“What?” he shouted, not believing this.
Be with me, she repeated.
She wants to be with you, Daria had said. Of course. Of course.
Be with me.
“Janey,” he began, but couldn’t think of anything more to say. He wasn’t ready to be with her. He wanted to be alive a while longer, be a part of the world and not surrender to the darkness. He wasn’t ready to go.
The gem will keep us both here forever. Do you understand?
He understood. He did not want to, but he did. Jane was already dead. Nothing else mattered, not even his readiness to die.
She took a step toward him. Pipes groaned and thumped in the walls and floor as the fog rolled over them.
Trent backed up a step, holding up his injured right hand to stop her. She kept coming. Trent looked around. He was next to the refrigerator/freezer.
Oh, said a tiny voice inside his head.
He looked at Jane, calculating. He did not see the point in going back to his old life. Data entry was a very boring job, and it never paid enough. He had already made the final choice when Jane had told him about her cancer. All that was left was to do was—
He bolted at his sister’s corpse, swinging his right arm around to knock her outstretched arms aside. In the last moment before he struck her, he felt the skin on his face crack. His eyes were narrowed to slits but the cold stabbed deep into them; his lips split open. He fought not to inhale, as the cold would freeze his lungs and kill him at once. He swiped at her arms and screamed in agony as arctic knives stabbed him. The blow half-turned her around, allowing him to regain his sanity, reach in with his mitt-covered left hand, and grab the necklace chain at her throat. He pulled. The chain broke.
He fell back with a howl, lungs burning. He felt nothing from his left hand after a brief spasm of pain. The necklace was still clenched in the half-closed mitt. His right arm—he felt nothing from it, nothing at all. The arm had turned as white as his sister’s dead skin and could not be moved. Frozen solid, he thought. No time left, got to move fast.
He turned to the refrigerator and used his left hand to pull the door handle open, then he thrust his arm into the freezer half of the unit and shook his hand back and forth. The necklace fell off into the ice tray. He pulled back and kicked the door shut. The gem was now insulated, trapped where little heat could get to it. Less power would be consumed, less power to Jane and Daria. If it worked—
Staggering, he turned to see Jane lying on the floor, her face to one side staring at nothing. Wisps of fog evaporated around her. She did not move.
He leaned against a wall. The dead feeling in his right arm was spreading up toward his shoulder. There was a word for that, he thought, necro-something, tissue death. His left hand did not move, either, but there was slight feeling in it, the start of pins and needles. He would need to get help if he wanted to live.
Calling for help would have to wait, though. The gem came first. He had promised to help. Once Daria and Jane were free, he could do as he wished.
His gaze went up to the refrigerator. The gem was still intact. Perhaps Jane had an iron skillet around, though he suspected she did not. She was not much of a cook, preferring quick-fix meals from stores. There might be a crowbar or hammer in the small gardening compartment she had shown him, under the porch near the zero-effort flower garden. He should go look there, he thought; good artists always had lots of tools. If he could manage it, he could give the gem one good blow before it took in too much heat and power again. One shot was all he had. He knew he could do it. What else was family for?
He stepped around Jane’s body and left the kitchen by way of the door there. No one stopped him this time. When he walked outside he did not notice the warmth of the brilliant sun. It was cold inside him, colder than cold could be, and that was all he knew.
* * *
In the heat of a Kansas afternoon in late May, Trent Lane watched in silence as his two nieces and two nephews took turns pouring the ashen remains of his sister over her zero-effort flower garden. Once again, he had called it precisely: Jane’s will had provided for her cremation at a local funeral home, and her body was destined to nourish the colorful riot of life by her beloved octagonal house. It was such a Jane kind of thing to do. He smiled and wondered if anyone else present thought so, too.
Thus distracted, he lifted his gaze from the ceremony and looked off to the horizon, thinking of his sister’s paintings. She had thought a long time about that undiscovered country from which no one returned, and she had tried in her own way to find it, to see that place where her best friend had gone before her. She hadn’t known how Daria’s gem would confound the way there, entangling everyone who touched it or died in its presence. It was tempting to imagine the gem had been in some way alive, but Trent did not believe that likely. It had been a trap, but not sentient; an obstacle, but not malign. Where it had come from and what its purpose had been were still mysteries; Daria knew only that it had been given to her when she was small, the giver unknown. The gem simply was what it was, and had to be dealt with and overcome.
Adrian, Kelsey, and Jason finished emptying the contents of a second urn on the
zero-effort flower garden. They dusted their hands, then
turned to speak with Jane’s attorney, who had flown in from
Trent knew that he and Daria would not be alone for long. Jane was giving them some time together, but she would come up in a while to tell what she had overheard from the porch of the house, whether any of the nieces or nephews planned to live at the octagon house or put it and its contents up for sale. Trent hoped one or more of the siblings would stay on. Perhaps it would be possible to communicate with them in time and see if they would help. Otherwise, it might be a long wait until someone poked through the zero-effort flower bed and found the gem there, now half-buried under ashes and the mud from a recent rainfall.
If Trent could have sighed, he would have then. He, Jane, and Daria each had regrets in this twilight existence. His was that he had not made it back in time to destroy the gem before succumbing to his cold-induced injuries. Watching the police carry his body from the kitchen had been disappointing, to say the least; he had been so close, so very close to using that hammer. He supposed it would have been amusing to listen to the police try to guess what had happened, making sense of the confusing evidence, but he had turned away instead. It did not matter. Only his failure mattered. In the process of cleaning out the house, someone had dumped the ice from the freezer into the flower garden, and the necklace had gone with it, unharmed. What small telekinetic powers Trent could summon now were not enough to destroy their jeweled jailer, which absorbed enough warmth from the day’s heat to keep all three of its prisoners animate and aware.
Even as saddened as he was by his inability to carry out his last duty, he gave what consolation he could to Jane, who now knew how much she had not known about the gem that bound them to this limbo. And he gave solace also to Daria, who had waited so long for her friend and her loved one, hoping to pass on with them to the undiscovered realm beyond the next horizon, whatever that place was like. That would have to wait until someone new found the gem and, with luck, destroyed it. That, however, would take a lot of luck indeed.
Daria leaned her head against Trent as he pulled her close to him. Limbo was a sad place, a lonely place, but even here was a chance to be held, to be loved, and to hold back the darkness. That was enough for the three of them while they waited, for however long. It was enough.
Far below, while taking a last look around the grounds before returning to her hotel room, golden-haired Courtney blinked and stared up at the cupola in puzzlement. For a moment, she had thought she had seen two figures standing up there, out of the corner of her eye, but quite plainly there was no one present. She thought it must have been a trick of the light, or even a trick played by her own mind, as Aunt Jane’s house looked so much like a wedding cake it was easy to imagine a couple standing atop it.
Her children tugging at her clothes, she finally turned away and walked to her car, and wondered all the while what stories this house would tell if it could. She glanced once more at the empty cupola, shook her head, and with the rest of her siblings drove away and left the house with the odd cool drafts in its silence.
Original: 11/02/07, modified 11/04/07, 02/03/08, 03/18/08, 07/13/08, 10/31/08, 05/06/10