Don't Look Back by dee
Summary: It's amazing how much your life can be shaped by one incident, and a little heavy knowledge. (Non-Winchester fic.)
Warnings: Language, Supernature, Themes
Published: 17 January 2007
Updated: 17 January 2007
Don't Look Back by dee
Chapter 1: Don't Look BackAuthor's Notes:
Take your brother outside as fast as you can. And don't look back.
By the time she got to high school, and definitely by the time she got to eleventh grade, she wasn't actually sure she believed in it any more. Ghosts, demons, things in her closet. It seemed... well, it seemed a bit fucking far-fetched, to tell the truth.
But it could be convenient to have a handy label, a way to present yourself, and hers was "Seri, the one who believes in ghosts and can kick the ass of guys two grades higher". She wore a pentagram and a crucifix on the same silver chain, had a brown belt in jujitsu, took Latin as an advanced elective, was on the track team, didn't have to take shit from anyone. It worked for her.
Sometimes, of course, she cursed it. Like now, sitting in the passenger seat as James Gascombe pulled up in front of a large, empty house. As he killed the engine, he glanced over at her with that mix of apprehension and excitement, dark hair falling in his eyes.
"Ah Jesus," she said in the silence, ducking a little to peer up at the house. "Couldn't we just make out for a while?"
He blinked and coughed. "What? uh. I thought. Don't you?"
The problem with James was that he was actually a nice guy. He probably thought this was a thoughtful and inventive date, taking the ghost girl to a haunted house. He was nice like that, you know? Seri kinda liked him.
She sighed. "Come on, then."
They got out of the car and Seri looked up at the house. It was large and white and probably someone's dream. Suburban hauntings were so charming.
James headed up the path, and Seri grabbed his arm. "What?" he said.
"You going to walk up and ring the bell, or do you want to break in in full sight of the neighbors?" she asked, and knew she'd see a blush on his pretty freckled cheeks if there was enough light. She was a little sorry for that, but this adventure was his stupid idea. "Come on, we'll go around back."
As they worked their way through undergrowth in the yard, she muttered, "So what's the story here anyway?" This wasn't her side of town.
"Well," James said, following her up onto the tiny back porch of the house, "legend has it, right, that some guy offed his wife here, like, decades ago. Except he claimed she'd left him and no one could prove anything, because they never found a body."
"It hasn't been empty ever since," Seri said. The back door had a damn good lock; a credit card might get her in at home after curfew, but it wasn't working at all here. She shoved the card back into her wallet and the wallet into her jeans, and looked at the windows. The hell did she know about housebreaking? But she knew, without turning around, that James would be watching her with blithe confidence that she could do it, and... well, yeah, anyway.
"Nope," he confirmed, "but no one ever stayed longer'n about six months." She glanced at him, and he grinned, glinting in the dark. "Mom's a real estate agent. They call it the Cursed House."
Seri paused in her testing of the latch on the window. "It's empty now, right?"
James laughed softly at her shoulder. "What do think I am, stupid?"
Seri didn't bothering answering that, just threw her weight against the latch, and felt it give with a satisfying wrench, but an alarming creak. She froze. A block over, a dog barked. Not at her. She thought. "Come on," she said, and pulled the window up. She climbed through first, happy that she'd gone with jeans instead of a skirt tonight, and that she'd braided her hair back. She'd been thinking comfort and neatness, but hey, it worked for trespassing as well.
It was dark in the kitchen, very little streetlight making it through the foliage outside the empty windows. As James climbed in, Seri pulled her phone out of her pocket, flicked on the light just as he produced a small flashlight from his jacket pocket.
So he wasn't actually stupid. She grinned at him, and he grinned back, lit from below. "So, now what?"
OK, maybe this was a little bit fun. "Now," Seri said, flourishing her phone, "we go ghost-hunting, right?"
It was a really nice house, spacious and well laid out, with these huge picture windows in the living room that Seri bet even Mom with her all-work-and-no-play attitude would have appreciated. She nudged James away from that room; "Someone might see the light."
If someone called the cops on them, Seri would be grounded until college.
There were two other rooms on the first floor, and Seri was just shining her light into one of them - clean polished floors and sponging on the paintjob, classy - when something creaked upstairs. James went rigid at her elbow. "You hear that?" A hissed whisper.
Seri made herself relax her grip on her phone, and kept her voice more normal. "Of course I heard that. Come on."
The second-top step creaked under their feet. It made Seri wonder if there was someone else in the house. Not burglars, because there was nothing to steal, the place was empty. Maybe squatters? It made her feel uneasy, step more carefully down the corridor. It made her--
"What was that?" James hissed, grabbing her arm again.
A breath of wind, like the faintest voice, and if Seri had been forced to admit it, it would have sounded like faraway words. Don't let him catch you.
James had let her arm go, but he was crowding against her, looking back down the corridor. In his hand, the flashlight flickered and stuttered. All the hair on the back of Seri's neck was trying to stand on end. She flipped open the little lens cap on her phone, and thumbed it into video mode. The display flickered, hung, and then cut into video, with a streak of light that wasn't there smearing across the corridor on screen.
"Shit," Seri muttered, and even as James said, "What?" she was shoving his shoulder. "I think we should--"
Seri turned them around, and there was someone standing at the top of the stairs.
She was beautiful, her blonde hair falling in shining curls over her shoulders. But her pale face was tear-stained, and there was blood all down the front of her grey dress. "Don't let him catch you," she said, and the flashlight went out.
Seri grabbed for James's hand and got his wrist, but that was enough to drag him back down the stairs, through where the woman would have been had she still existed. As they pelted back into the kitchen, a faint whispering wind started, cold on the back of Seri's neck. She shoved James through the window first, followed almost before he was through, and slammed it back shut, against the rising breeze.
James half collapsed against the hood of his car. Seri leaned one hand against the car roof, pressed the heel of the other against her pounding heart. "Hey," she said, and again until James looked up at her. "You alright?"
He nodded, puffed. "Yeah."
"Good," she said, and stepped back from the car. "Next time, dinner and a movie, OK?"
When James dropped her off at home, the downstairs study light was still on, and when Seri let herself in the front, locking the door behind her, she called (quietly, because Michael would've already gone to bed, and Richie and little Anna too), "Hey Mom, I'm home."
Mom sat up from her desk, and smiled. "Hey honey. How was your date?"
"Yeah," Seri said, coming forward to lean against the doorframe, shoving her hands in her back pockets. "Y'know."
Mon gave her the eyeball. "How very communicative."
Seri couldn't help the smile. "What, you want to hear we went up the hill and made out?"
"Seri!" More a growl than a snap, cautious for the sleepers upstairs.
"I'm kidding." She grinned, and Mom echoed it, shaking her head. "He was a perfect gentleman." (They'd sat in the car outside in silence until James had cleared his throat, and she'd said, "Yeah, well, I'll see you at school tomorrow," and got out.) Seri knocked her knuckles against the doorframe, and stood up straight. "I'm done in."
Mom was already turning back to her work. "OK honey, see you in the morning. Sleep well."
It was quiet upstairs, Michael's snores muffled when Seri closed the door to her bedroom behind her. She took off the lipstick and mascara, kicked her jeans into the corner.
But she couldn't sleep. Just laid in bed staring at the ceiling, until she got up, opened the closet, and stepped inside, turning to face the bed.
"Fire," she said.
Mom looked surprised when she stepped into the study doorway this time. "What's up, honey?"
Seri fidgeted with the hem of her pajama top. "What... What happened ten years ago?"
Mom turned away from her desk to completely face Seri. "Ah," she said, and leaned forward to pat the chair beside her desk. Seri came into the room and sat, pulling one ankle up beneath her. "What do you remember?" Mom asked.
What did she remember? Stupid kid stuff. But she remembered it, though she had almost convinced herself it was made up. "Fire like a person. Those guys." One of them grabbing her, outside in the dark. Where's Sam? "Sam carried us down, told me to get Richie out." And don't look back. But she had looked back. "Something dragged him away." He was so big in her memory, towering, and just grabbed away like he was nothing. Seri blinked, hard. "And that woman."
"Missouri," Mom said. Mom used to have her around for coffee, or go over hers, and sometimes she took Seri too, so Seri could show Missouri all the information she'd been gathering on ghosts. Demons too, though they were a little scary, but she was going to be big and brave like Sam and Dean.
Seri looked up, and Mom was watching her. "I thought you'd given up on all that stuff," Mom said, in her careful neutral tone that Seri heard all the time when she was on the phone, or to Michael.
Having it used on her almost made her feel like an adult. "I kinda thought I had, too," Seri said.
Mom nodded. "I hoped you had. It looked..." She smiled tightly. "Those boys, they looked like they lived a dangerous life. I was grateful to them, I still am, but I didn't want that for my baby girl." Seri just nodded, Mom watching her closely before she added, "But I'll admit it's been a bit lonely, being the only one who remembered what happened."
A dangerous life. She hadn't even thought of that, eight years old and going into training, clamoring to take martial arts lessons. Seri cleared her throat. "Whatever happened to it all? My stuff, I mean?"
Mom leaned over and switched off her desklamp. "It's in the basement. Come on."
In the basement, on a shelf, in a box marked Seri's notes. A half-dozen books given her by Mom or Missouri or perplexed but obedient Aunt Ella - ghost stories, urban legends, mythology. And three battered exercise books. Seri opened one, turning a little to let light hit the pages and the childish, rounded handwriting. "Haunting" misspelled three different ways on one page. A ridiculous drawing of a werewolf, carefully labeled. She flicked a few pages, stopped at a page devoted to a list with a heading, double-underlined, of Ways to see ghosts. There, fourth on the list: Strobe on video.
She remembered she'd had to look up what the word "strobe" meant, and ask Mom. She remembered begging for a video camera the year she turned ten.
The next page was on the evil eye, page after that on werewolves again; she'd liked them, apparently. All jumbled together. "File cards," she said, flicking another two pages - witches, and a big digression on Harry Potter. "And some sort of cross-referencing."
"But not tonight," Mom said, smiling at her from the stairs. "Don't you have to get up early for track?"
Amelia and Lou cornered Seri at her locker the next morning, her hair still damp from the shower she'd taken after track.
"Well?" Amelia demanded, leaning against the locker next to Seri's.
"What?" Seri demanded right back, shoving her track gear after her history textbook into her locker. The corridors were full, and she had about thirty seconds to grab her books and dash for it before she'd be late.
Lou rolled her eyes. "The date, you dork. With James."
Lou had only started hanging out with Seri when they all got to high school, and she'd said, the first time they had lunch together, "You're not going to start going on about all that ghost shit, are you? I mean--" and then she'd made a noise of outraged fashionable distaste that Seri was pretty sure she'd never be able to duplicate.
Seri shoved her math textbook into her bag. "It was fine."
"Fine, she says," Amelia said, exchanging a look with Lou. "She scores a date with the hottest piece of senior property with an IQ higher than his shoe size, and she says it was fine."
Amelia had been Seri's best friend since she moved from Wichita, but she'd also been the first person to pull Seri aside and say, with the best of intentions, "Look, I know you really do believe in it, but I think it freaks people out, and maybe if you just didn't talk about it..."
Seri slammed her locker shut. "Well, it was. It was a nice date, he's a nice guy, he didn't try to kiss me, nothing special happened, that's it." She turned and walked off down the corridor. "See you in English."
"What about the break?" Lou called. "We want details!"
Seri shook her head, called over her shoulder, "I've got a thing. See you!"
At the break, Seri went to the library and looked up the newspaper archives on the internet. She wasn't entirely sure the online archives would go back far enough, but it turned out that the timeline of James's story had been a little bit exaggerated and it was actually only fourteen years ago that Gregory Fairmore's wife Rowena went missing. Her family, who had apparently never liked him anyway, kicked up a big stink, but Fairmore maintained she'd left him. He was really quite convincing, and Seri might have almost believed it, if there hadn't been a picture of Rowena attached to the story. Seri recognized her. She'd seen her standing in an empty house, covered in blood, not really there.
When she'd printed the story and the picture, there was still ten minutes left before her next class. She headed out into the quad, where James and his gang of mates (they were alright, really, just a little overwhelming in large numbers) hung out under the tree. They saw her coming, of course. There was elbowing, and a couple of bellows of "Jimmy" and James stepped out from under the shade a couple of steps to meet her, hands in his pockets and a small, sheepish smile on his face as his mates hooted behind him.
"Hey," he said, flicking his head back to get his hair out of his eyes.
"Hi," Seri replied. "Listen. What are you telling people about last night?"
He blinked, getting a trace of colour in his cheeks. "I don't, uh. I don't usually, you know, gossip about dates--"
"That's very gentlemanly of you," Seri interrupted. "My mother'll be happy to know my reputation isn't ruined."
He was actually blushing now; his pale complexion was somewhat unfortunate, and downright distracting. He looked down, kicked at the ground with one foot, squinted back up at her. "What did happen?" he asked. Far too seriously. When he asked her like that, Seri actually wanted to tell him. She wanted to share it with him. She wanted him to understand.
Which was a stupid thing to think. "Nothing," she said. "It was dark, there was some strange light, a draft from an open window or something. We got scared. It was nothing."
He watched her for long enough for her to curse the fact that one of the reasons she liked him was because he was smart. "Right," he said, kinda flat.
"I just think," Seri soldiered on, "that we shouldn't talk much about it. Because, you know, people will get the wrong idea and start breaking into the house all the time and there'll be cops and trouble and, hey, it'd be bad for your mom too, what with damage to real estate." Shut up, Seri; you're talking too much.
He shifted his weight. He'd done that just before he'd asked her out in the first place, but this was different. Sort of in reverse. That had been an opening up; this was a closing off. "Yeah," he said. "Alright."
Didn't matter, she told herself. It didn't matter. The important thing was that half a hundred other stupid high school kids weren't now going to be rampaging all over the house looking for ghosts. This was a good thing. Now she just had to figure out how to lay Rowena's ghost to rest. That was much more important than the fact that James would probably never ask her out again and hadn't even kissed her. "Alright," Seri repeated, taking a step back. "Well, I'll just. Yeah. OK. See you around."
She turned and walked away, and when she got to the door and looked back, he'd already walked back to his friends, was in their midst.
She was almost late to English, so there was no time for Lou and Amelia to ask her more questions. Lou had her phone sitting in her lap beneath the desk. She sent Seri a text message every time Mr. Morgan's back was turned - He seriously didn't try to kiss you?; Where did you go? What did you do?; More or less hot now than he was before? - and Seri ignored every single one of them.
At the end of the class, Lou practically launched herself from her chair. "You're going out with him again, right?"
"No," Seri said, throwing everything into her bag.
"But--" Lou started.
"Shut up," Amelia ordered, and Seri took a breath, threw her a grateful glance.
Michael picked her and Richie up after school, Anna already in the back, waving a paint-daubed sheet of paper.
He pulled out into the traffic. "Kung fu, right?" he said, which was how he always referred to her jujitsu.
"Yep," Seri said, and then, "I might be a little late after, there's a thing."
"Sure," Michael said, attention on the road. "Home for dinner? It's fish."
"Of course," Seri said.
She always felt bad lying to Michael. It was so easy.
She didn't even bother showering after class, just threw on her street clothes, raced down to reception (where Kimberly was too busy flirting with the junior instructor to pay any attention) and flicked through the phone book, muttering pleas until she found it, and heaved a sigh of relief. It was even close enough to jog to, not too far from the way home.
The house was nice, a little plaque by the door reading, "Missouri Mosely - Medium" and beneath that, "By appointment only, Monday and Thursday".
Seri rang the bell, and then stood on the stoop in the gathering dusk. There were lights on in the house, but no movement. She could hear television from the house next door. She leaned on the bell again, and thought what rotten luck it would be if Missouri wasn't home.
The door jerked open on a sharp voice saying, "Can't you read?"
Missouri looked much older than Seri remembered, which was fair enough; it had been years. Her hair was shot through with grey, her face lined, and she was wearing glasses that she tugged off as she said, "Seri," like she was only a little surprised, had perhaps been expecting her in half an hour's time instead. She smiled, warm and sweet, and that hadn't changed. "Well, haven't you grown, honey. Come on in."
"I'm sorry," Seri said, as she stepped in and Missouri shut the door behind her. "It's been so long, and I can't stay very long; Michael's making dinner."
"I'm glad that's worked out for your Mama," Missouri said easily. "She was so nervous, but I told her he was a good one." Seri opened her mouth, but Missouri laid a hand on her shoulder. "Now, don't you trouble yourself, pet. Water under the bridge. Everything has its time." She looked at Seri closely, brow furrowed, then slid her glasses back on. "Come have some tea and tell me all about it. You'll feel better."
Down the dark corridor, the light was on in the kitchen. There was a girl already in there when Seri stepped in and faltered, uncertain. She was putting the kettle on, and tossed braided and beaded hair over her shoulder to look Seri up and down. She was a couple of years younger, Seri guessed, and bore a definite similarity to Missouri, in her face and that direct stare.
"My niece," Missouri confirmed, following her in. "She has an attitude and the gift, so of course her family sent her to me. Camille, this is Seri."
"I know you," Camille said, leaning against the sink. "You're a junior at school, the weird one everyone tells me about."
"Yeah," Seri said, "that'd be me."
"Make the tea," Missouri ordered, and nudged Seri towards the table. "And Seri, you talk."
So she did. There was one interruption - Camille, pouring the tea, saying, "Omigod, you got a date with James Gascombe?" and at a sharp glance from Missouri, adding, "He's hot, Aunt Missy." - but apart from that, she got it all out; everything that had happened in the house, and all that she'd found out since. She even pulled out the printouts from the news archives and passed them across. Camille came over to look at them over Missouri's shoulder.
"Looks like a haunting, alright," Missouri said, passing the printouts back to Seri. "But she's hardly a dangerous spirit. Fourteen years, no deaths, no serious injuries."
Seri nodded, folding up the printouts again. "But she's been here that long. Can't we... I don't know, lay her to rest?"
"I don't know," Missouri said pointedly. "Can we?"
Seri looked at Missouri, and Missouri looked back. OK, so she got it, Seri wasn't allowed to hand this over, to pass it off. It had to be her thing, and that was probably fair enough, after so many years of slipping away from all of this. "Salt and fire," she said.
Missouri nodded. "The boys used to swear by it as well."
The boys. Sam and Dean. "How are they?" Seri asked.
"I don't know. Haven't heard from them in years."
A dangerous life. They could be fine. They could be. And one little spirit didn't make Seri like them, didn't nearly compare. She watched Missouri watching her, and knew Missouri knew what she was thinking, but wasn't offering any reassurances.
"Anyway," Seri said, "I'll have to find the body. They never did."
"That's right," Missouri said.
Camille rolled her eyes. "For fuck's sake!"
"Language!" Missouri snapped.
Seri laughed, and said, "Will you help me, please?"
"Of course," Missouri said, still glaring at Camille. "We'll start at the house; should be able to glean something from there. I'll pick you up after school tomorrow." She pointed at Camille. "You too."
"Me?" Camille yelped.
Missouri nodded, tight-lipped and satisfied. "It's time you learned what you can do, not just how to abuse it."
Lou wasn't talking to Seri or Amelia. Apparently she'd been flirting with James in the corridor between second and third period, asking him where he took a girl on dates, 'cause Seri wasn't talking. Amelia had called her an opportunistic slut in front of the entire cheerleading squad, including reserves, so now it was all over the school.
"Honestly," Amelia said loudly in English, glaring at the back of Lou's head. "It's none of our fucking business if you don't want to talk about it."
Seri doodled pentagrams in the margin of her notebook. "It's more that you don't want to hear it."
"Ser." Amelia's hand came down on the paper, and Seri looked up. "When has there been anything you had to say that I didn't want to hear?" And then she frowned. "Is this the ghost thing again?"
And because this was Amelia, and because what she said was true, Seri said, "Maybe." The bell rang, and she flipped her notebook closed. "Listen, I'll tell you all about it tomorrow. Kinda a lot depends on this thing I'm doing tonight. It might all be nothing, I dunno."
"Sure," Amelia said, easy as that. "Call me if you need, 'k babe?"
Seri nodded, and headed out. She was only two steps down the hall, though, when she heard Amelia call her name, and she stopped, turned back.
Amelia jogged up, grabbed her elbow with a grin. "He didn't look interested."
Her grin just got wider, and she leaned in. "James. Didn't look interested in Lou. He looked trapped and uncomfortable. Like he wanted to keep it his secret." She walked backwards away from Seri, giving a cheery wave. "See you tomorrow."
Camille was already waiting out front, sitting on the low brick wall that supported the school sign. "Hey," she said, as Seri walked up.
"Hey," Seri returned, dumping her bag next to Camille's. She hoisted herself up to sit next to the other girl.
"Heard about your friends' public catfight," Camille said. "Did the pretty one really get her nose broken?"
"No one hit anyone," Seri said. Cheerleaders had a lot to answer for.
"Whatever," Camille said, shrugging. She glanced over her shoulder. "Here comes your boyfriend."
"What?" Seri turned, and saw it. James Gascombe, coming straight towards them. More sort of slouching along than walking, like he did, with his head down and his hair swinging and did he have to be that attractive?
"So hot," Camille said.
"Shut up," Seri hissed, and looked up as James came up. "Hey."
"Hey," James said. He didn't smile. Didn't look comfortable. He'd smiled when he asked her out. Shifted his weight and given this odd little smile, then said, 'Hey, I was thinking...'
"Hi," Camille said brightly, sticking out a hand. "I'm Camille. Seri's family and mine go, like, way back."
"Oh. Uh, hi." James had to lean forward, holding his bag on his shoulder, to shake her hand.
Seri shot Camille a glance and smothered the urge to push her off the wall. "I'm sorry about Lou," she said to James. "She's, um, a little hard to control at the best of times."
James shrugged, and a car full of his mates pulled up at the curb, the horn blaring over the thumping bass of whatever was playing on the stereo. He glanced over, then back at Seri. "I'm not stupid, you know."
"What?" She had to make a conscious effort not to gape. "Of course you're not, that's why-- I mean. I know. That you're not."
He set his jaw, looking... looking angry. "Then don't treat me like I am."
He strode to the car. As he climbed into the back, the guy in front blew a kiss at Seri and Camille. Camille flipped him the bird.
"You're an idiot," she said, kicking her heels against the wall.
"What?" Seri said, as the car pulled out with a screech of tires.
"Idiot," Camille repeated. "That guy--"
"Is really hot," Seri interrupted. "Yeah, I heard."
"And he has a thing for you, like, a mile wide," Camille continued, totally unfazed.
Seri snorted. "He does not."
Camille rolled her eyes. "You did not just say that to me. I know what I know-" She tapped her forehead. "-and I know that he has a thing for you."
Lacking a better response, Seri glared at her. "Is this what Missouri meant about abusing what you do?"
"Hey." Camille shrugged. "If teachers don't want their secret affairs becoming school hall gossip, they shouldn't be assholes to psychics. I'm just saying."
Despite her grumpiness, Seri couldn't help laughing.
Missouri had made an appointment with the real estate agent (who Seri hoped desperately wasn't going to turn out to be Mrs. Gascombe, but the way today was going...) to see the house.
"There's almost always a perfectly legal and honest way to gain access to a site," she said, pulling up outside the house (which looked even more normal in daylight).
The comment had a pointed tone, and Seri answered defensively, "Yeah, OK."
The estate agent was a smiling, friendly, middle-aged woman, but her nametag just said "Marlene". While she and Missouri sauntered about on the ground floor, discussing natural light and the difficulty of arranging workspace around living areas, Seri and Camille headed up the stairs. It looked incredibly different by day, light flooding into the hall from every room, and a huge picture window at the end of the hall.
Seri looked around, and bounced her heels on the top step. "Here," she said quietly, very aware of the murmur of voices from below. "She was here, the woman. We were about there," she pointed, maybe six feet down the hall, "and she showed up here."
Camille looked around as well, and shrugged. "Well, I'm not getting anyth--" She broke off suddenly, shuddering so hard some of the beads on her hair clicked together quietly. Seri grabbed her arm, and Camille huffed a breath, hands out, fingers spread, like she was bracing herself. "Yeah, OK. That was a presence." She closed her eyes, and Seri kept hold of her, wondering if there was something else she could do. Something that might be helpful. She didn't feel a thing. "She's," Camille said, vaguely, her forehead creasing. "She's not malevolent. She's... concerned. Protective." She opened her eyes, blinked hard, and jerked her arm out of Seri's grip. Seri took a step back, and ran into the balustrade.
Fuck this shit. "So she's here. There's a haunting."
"Yeah," Camille said, looking around again, not idle this time, but searching. "But this right here isn't the centre of it. Not quite. She's sorta... huh." And she wandered into one of the rooms, looking around.
Seri stayed where she was, propped against the balustrade. Not like she could help at all. From downstairs, she could hear Missouri saying, "Well, I just don't know," and the agent said, "Come and see the kitchen, it's an excellent..."
Camille came out of the room, marched across the corridor, muttering, "This is like playing hide and seek with the fucking invisible man."
When she came storming out of that room, Seri said, "What are you looking for?"
Camille stopped, and gestured vehemently. "I don't even know. It's like..." She looked over her shoulder, scowling. "It's like she's trying to push us out of the house, like she's afraid for us when we're in here, and that push is coming from somewhere."
"If we find that somewhere," Seri said, thinking out loud, "do we find her body?"
Camille stopped craning her neck around, and looked at Seri. "Not in the house, surely. Wouldn't they have looked, if they were accusing him of murder?"
"So he had her hidden somewhere. Basement?" Seri suggested.
"Ugh." Camille pulled a face. "What a cliché. But no, I don't think so. You saw her up here, and if Aunt Missy was feeling anything strong down there, you bet she'd have been hollering by now."
Camille looked around. Seri had a thought, and looked up.
There was a square access panel set in the ceiling, right above the top step.
"Attic," she said, and both she and Camille were looking up when, from downstairs, Missouri called, "Girls!"
They went clattering down the stairs, into the kitchen where Missouri was standing with Marlene. "Well?" Missouri said. "What do you think?"
"It's great," Camille blurted. "Just like Seri said."
Seri added, "It's got real atmosphere."
Marlene the estate agent beamed like she hadn't just been told her house was haunted.
"Perfectly legal and honest ways, huh?" Seri said in the car on the way home.
Missouri had signed out the keys overnight on the pretext of showing the property to "my brother" before she made a decision.
"You're going to have trouble showing it to Dad while he's in Atlanta," Camille said from the back seat.
"Hush up, both of you," Missouri said.
Seri was dropped off for dinner; they'd come by later and get her again, and they'd complete the business. Seri wondered, walking up to her house, if there was some rule about these things happening at night. She remembered Dean sprinting across the lawn in the dark. This, of course, was nothing like that. No desperation, no danger. Just a quiet, concerned spirit who, after tonight, would be at peace.
She could call Amelia, ask if she could use her as an excuse, say she was going over there. Her phone was in her hand as she let herself into the house.
Mom called from the kitchen, "Seri, honey, that you?" And Seri knew she couldn't lie to Mom.
She dumped her bag in the corridor, and headed into the kitchen. Mom and Michael were both there, laughing as Michael seemed to be trying to keep Mom away from the stove. "Seri," he gasped, "for the love of dinner, keep her away from the potatoes."
Mom looked over, and stopped struggling. "What's up, honey?"
Seri shook her head. "Just a little tired. Michael, I have this project thing, and I'm going to need some stuff from the shed."
"Sure," he said. "I'll just go get the keys for you. You." He pointed at Mom. "Don't stir anything!"
Seri stepped aside to let him out. She could hear Richie in the living room, playing something raucous with Anna. Mom eyed her, crossed her arms, leant against the counter. When the sound of Michael taking the stairs two at a time diminished, she said, "Well, you got rid of him. You want to tell me about it?"
She had about five minutes, maximum, if she was going to do this without Michael knowing, and Seri knew, if Mom had never told him about ten years ago, he wasn't going to understand this at all. She took a breath. "There's a house that's haunted, across town. I'm going out there tonight to lay the spirit to rest."
Mom tilted her head back, sucked in a breath like she'd been slapped. "That was fast," she said.
"I saw the ghost the other night. The night... my date. I saw it then. It got me thinking," Seri explained.
"With that boy, what was his name? James?" She waited on Seri's nod before continuing. "And how did he feel about that?"
Seri opened her mouth. Closed it again. "I, uh, I don't know. We didn't really... People are always happier not knowing."
"Are they?" Mom said, in that arch, disbelieving, look-at-the-evidence tone Seri had heard her use on the phone to people she was opposing.
Shifting her weight, Seri said, "It won't be dangerous. It's not a dangerous spirit. She's just... she's troubled. I won't be in any danger."
"You're not going alone, I hope," Mom said.
"No. With Missouri and her niece." Seri paused, remembering that Mom had been friends with Missouri, and then... and then what? And then years and years without seeing her. "I went over to see her yesterday. I thought she could help. I'm sorry."
Mom's eyebrows went up, and she unfolded her arms finally. "What for?" She seemed actually surprised. "I've missed Missouri." She smiled, tight and deprecating. "I stopped going over there when you started losing interest in the whole ghost thing. I thought... well, I thought it might help get you untangled. Since you're obviously determined to be as tangled as possible, I might as well not have bothered."
"Mom." Seri came across, took her mother's hand. "I'm sorry. But... I can do this. I know that she's there, and how to lay her to rest. Someone should do it, and I can. And it won't be dangerous - it won't!"
Her smile this time was softer, almost sad, and she curled her fingers around Seri's. "But what about the next one?" Seri opened her mouth to say There won't be a next one, and Mom put her other hand over Seri's mouth. "Don't," she said, "lie to me."
Michael thumped back down the stairs, and came jangling into the kitchen. "Here you go," he said, tossing the keys. Seri caught them easily as he eyed Mom with exaggerated suspicion, and she made a show of edging away from the stove. Michael laughed, and slung an arm around her waist, smacking a kiss on her cheek before he turned to Seri. "You need help getting whatever out of there?"
"No," Seri said, closing her fingers around the keys. "I'll be OK by myself."
They had steak and kidney pie with amazing mashed potatoes for dinner. After, Seri took her big sports bag out to the shed, and loaded it up with stuff, anything she thought they might need; a tarpaulin, a canister of accelerant, flashlight, a small pry bar.
She slung the bag into the trunk of Missouri's car, and climbed into the back. "Mom says hi," she said, and caught Missouri's smile in the rearview.
She'd also said good luck, and hugged Seri hard on her way out.
When Seri hauled the bag out of the trunk, slung it over her shoulder, there came a hard metallic clunk. Probably the pry bar and the canister. "Where'd you get this stuff?" Camille demanded as they followed Missouri up the path to the house. She was carrying another flashlight and a paper supermarket bag. Salt, and matches, and some other stuff that hadn't meant anything to Seri but Missouri had seemed to think was important.
"My stepfather," Seri answered. "He does all that handyman stuff."
Missouri closed and locked the front door again behind them, and they went upstairs, standing in a cluster on the top step as Camille pointed the flashlight at the access hatch in the ceiling. At least it hadn't been painted over; hopefully it'd only need a good push to get it open.
"Shit," Seri said. "A stepladder would've been really useful."
Missouri didn't even scold her language, frowning up at the hatch. "Well, I don't think any force short of the good Lord is getting me up there anyway."
"Was there a chair somewhere?" Seri asked. "A box?"
"Nope," Camille said.
Seri dropped the bag with another clank. "Well then, give me a boost."
Camille had no idea; Seri had to show her how to hold her hands, lace her fingers - "What the hell have you been doing with your childhood?" Seri demanded, to which Camille shot back, "Petty crime is not my gig!" - but eventually with her boosting, and Missouri holding Seri steady, and one foot bracing herself on the balustrade, Seri hammered her fist against the hatch, and it gave. She pushed it up, shoving it to one side, and gripped the frame with both hands. "Lift!" she gasped, and pulled as they pushed, and though the frame creaked a little, and she scraped up the inside of her arm in scrabbling her way up, she managed it, hauling herself up to lie on the bare ribs of the other side of the ceiling.
After a moment to get her breath back, Seri wriggled around, and reached back down through the hatch. "Pass up the bag." She caught it, pulled it through, set it aside, and then reached down for the other bag and the flashlight, the beam of it skittering crazy across the attic. And then Missouri gave Camille a leg up, and Seri grabbed her hand and pulled and somehow - somehow - they managed it.
As they sat, still puffing, Missouri called up, "Good luck, girls," sounding almost smug.
Seri opened her bag, and pulled out her own flashlight. The two beams crisscrossed the space, gradually tracing out the bounds. Bare and empty, only half of it roughly floored, the other half bare beams. "Keep on the beams," Seri advised. "You go through the ceiling and Missouri'll be in all sorts of shit with the agents."
The only feature seemed to be in the middle of the space, an area encased in paneling from nominal floor to roof. "What's that?" Camille asked, waving the beam of her flashlight over it.
Seri knocked at a panel; it sounded hollow. "Chimney space, I guess."
"Oh yeah." Camille turned away, shining the light into the lowest corners of the eaves. "There's nothing here, chica. Nowhere to hide shit." She paused, thoughtful. "Also, wouldn't it smell, if he hid a body up here?"
Seri wrinkled up her nose. "Dude, that's gross."
"Fuck." Seri scanned the attic again, crouching down to try and shine her light under the floorboards. "Maybe it isn't up here. Maybe--" and she stopped, as the flashlight flickered, stuttered and blinked. There was a thud behind her, and when she looked back, Camille was on her knees (fortunately on the part of the floor that was boarded).
Seri crawled across, and Camille squinted up at her. "She's here somewhere."
"No shit, really?" Seri got her shoulder under Camille's arm and stood them both up. "You gotta talk to your aunt about, I dunno, psychic shielding or whatever."
"Shut up and find her," Camille growled, bending down to pick up her flashlight and almost tipping over again before Seri levered her back upright.
"Yeah, but there's nowhere," Seri reminded her. And then stopped. "Except--"
They both swung their flashlights towards the chimney space.
They went around it, knocking. Three walls sounded dull - brick behind them, Seri diagnosed. But the fourth echoed hollowly; there was space behind it. The wall was just a panel, nailed in at the edges. Camille fetched the pry bar from Seri's bag, and Seri went to work. She had to get Camille to lend her weight as well, but eventually the joins gave with a screech of old nails, and they levered the panel off completely, letting it fall flat.
As the dust resettled, they swung the flashlights inside.
"Fuck!" Camille gasped.
And even though Seri had flinched as well, she snapped, "Keep the light steady."
There was a person in the alcove. As Camille held up the flashlight again, Seri recognized it.
"Is that her?" Camille asked, sounding a little shaky.
"Yeah," Seri said, stepping forward. It was Rowena Fairmore, but different. She was naked, and bound, her wrists together in front of her, and bands of rope around her shoulders, her waist, her thighs. Her skin looked stretched and tough, and her blonde curls seemed dead and brittle. There was no smell but stale air. Seri reached out with a trembling hand, but at the barest touch of her finger, a whole lock of hair just disintegrated, slithering down like dust.
"Jesus," Camille breathed at her shoulder.
Seri felt a little like she was going to be sick, but she swallowed hard against it. When she spoke, her voice was thick. "He... he embalmed her, or something. That fucking bastard. He preserved her and shoved her away in the cupboard like she was a jar of pickles."
Camille laid a hand on her shoulder, but Seri shrugged it off. "Come on," she said.
They spread out the tarp on the floorboards, and when it came time to help Rowena out of her alcove, Seri didn't even have to ask Camille to help. She just moved to the other side and said, "On three?"
Rowena's skin felt almost like leather under Seri's hands. She turned out to be bound to a plank, but her limbs were nearly as stiff by themselves. By the time they had her laid out on the tarp, she had no hair left; it was dust, it was coating them, but if Seri let herself think about that she was definitely going to be sick. She stepped back off the tarp, lifted her arm to wipe her face, then thought better of it.
"You got the salt?" she said.
"Yeah," Camille said, turning out the plastic bag on the floor; a packet of salt, and the matches. She started shaking salt over the body, as Seri pulled the canister of accelerant out of her sports bag.
And the flashlights flickered, flared, and died.
"Shit," Camille said in the dark, grit out between her teeth like she was in pain, and Seri paused, the lid of the canister loose against its thread under her palm.
There was a breeze in the attic, despite the fact that there was nowhere for it to come from, nowhere for it to go. On the breeze, if Seri listened hard, she could hear words. Don't let him catch you.
"He's not going to catch us," she said, out loud. "He's not going to catch anyone. He's gone, Rowena."
Was there a hitch in the eddying air, or was it her imagination?
She rattled the lid off the canister, and edged forward carefully, feeling the edge of the tarp under her foot, remembering how far the body had been from the edge, how she had been laid out. "You deserve to rest. Let us help you."
Seri crouched, fumbled around until her hand found mummified skin. Her eyes were getting used to the dark, picking out the edges of shadows, and she poured by memory as the wind picked up. It wouldn't take much, she thought. Preserved skin, remember from lessons on ancient Egypt, on mummies; it goes up like paper.
"Camille?" A grunt from nearby. "Camille, matches!"
Scrabbling sounds, and Seri felt a little desperate, but then there was the scratch and flare of a match, and Seri threw herself backwards, off the tarp, as Camille, lying on her side in the sulphur after-image, flicked the match.
The remains of Rowena Fairmore went up like paper, like dry grass at the end of summer. The wind, tugging at Seri's hair, whipped up the flames, but they stayed on the tarp, burning merrily, burning hellishly. In the light of it, Seri could see Camille, curled up on the other side. She thought maybe the other girl was crying.
She felt a little like it herself.
Then as the flames died down, just before the wind disappeared, it brought them a sweet breath of roses, that lingered in the air when everything went still.
Seri flailed out a hand, found her flashlight. When she hit the switch, it burst into life, momentarily blinding her. She let it fall again, the beam slewing across the ceiling.
"Ugh," Camille said.
They lay there. Seri had never been so tired in her whole damn life.
"So," Camille said, into the still air. "You, like," and she waved her arms around, Seri could barely make it out, but recognized it from long experience as a bad Jet Li impersonation, "know karate and shit?"
"Jujitsu," Seri corrected.
Camille's arms fell back to her sides with a dusty thump. "Think I could learn?"
Seri started laughing. Couldn't really have said why; it wasn't like it was that funny. But after a second, Camille joined in, and they were laughing hard, Seri curling up on her side and managing to wheeze, "Sure, why not?"
They were still laughing when Missouri yelled up from below, "What the hell you doing up there?" and that was the funniest thing of all.
It was after midnight when Seri got home. She was smeared with ash and bruised and scraped, but when she turned her head fast, she caught a whiff of roses.
The back door was unlocked, and Mom was sitting at the kitchen table. Except that the moment Seri opened the door she was up from the table, catching Seri just inside the door in a hug that crushed all the breath out of her, and made her realize that she'd scraped her ribs climbing up into the attic as well.
"Mom," she said, but Mom was too busy hugging her and saying, "I couldn't sleep, how could I sleep, thank goodness you're alright, thank God."
"I'm alright," Seri agreed, hugging her back. "I'm alright."
It took Amelia five minutes to close her mouth, and she hadn't eaten more than a quarter of her lunch while Seri was telling the story.
"And that's why you look like shit," she said.
"Yeah," Seri agreed. "Because Mom and I were up until two, talking about it."
Amelia looked surprised to find her sandwich in her hand, and set it down. "And what did you decide?"
Seri shrugged. "I don't know. That it's complicated. That it's something I'll have to think about." That she could do this, that she had the knowledge and the skills and maybe... well, maybe she had the duty to use them. But surely it didn't mean she had a duty to leave her home, travel with a trunk full of weapons and an uncertain doom hanging over her head.
She was only sixteen, for fuck's sake.
"I don't know," she repeated, and started tidying up her own lunch. "Look, there's something I want to do. I'll catch you up at English."
Amelia smirked. "Something, huh? Yuh-huh."
Seri flicked a screwed-up ball of paper across the table. "Shut up. Everyone just shut up about it, alright?"
But she was grinning as she said it.
James didn't leave his bunch of friends to meet her this time, and Seri supposed she didn't blame him, though she had to admit, it would have been nice. It was a little like facing a firing squad, fronting up to all those eyes watching her as she crossed the courtyard and stopped in front of them.
"Hi," she said.
At least it was only James who replied. "Hi."
She cleared her throat. "Um. I wanted to apologize." Seven pairs of eyes watched her. "For treating you like an idiot. I didn't mean to. I just... Most people are happier not knowing. They never wanted to know. I got used to it. I'm sorry."
She stopped. There was more to say, but she wasn't fucking saying it in front of all of them. They'd jeer enough, as it was. Any second now, she expected, the jeering would start.
One of them - Karl, the captain of the basketball team - said, "What the fuck is she talking about?"
Like that had shocked him into action, James stepped forward. "Shut up," he said, crossing from them to her. He grabbed her arm, and tugged her away from the tree, and then the jeering did start, but it was behind them and Seri honestly couldn't have cared less.
"Listen," she said, as they closed the distance to the steps. "I really am. I'm sorry. The house, it was haunted. That woman we saw, she was murdered by her husband, and he stowed her body in the attic and it had been there for almost fifteen years."
They stopped at the bottom of the steps, and James let her go, turning to face her with a small amused smile. "When you talk," he said, "you really talk, don't you?"
Seri grinned. She'd only meant to smile, but it sort of got out of control. She ducked her head. "Well, no one ever really wanted to know, before. Mostly, people got angry with me if I talked about it, not if I didn't." She hesitated, smile slipping, and peeked up at him. "Uh, that was why you were mad at me, right?"
He shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Mostly I just wanted to know I wasn't crazy."
"You're not crazy," Seri promised him. "Well, you might be, but not over that."
"Good," he said, and smiled at her, and she smiled back, and it was just fucking perfect. And then she thought of what Camille would say, and almost choked on a laugh, but he just eyed her curiously and said, "So how do you know so much about what happened in the house?" Before she could say anything, he added, "And why were you talking in the past tense?"
"Well," she said, and the bell rang. Her grin widened. "I'll have to tell you another time."
He smirked at her. "Like, say, Friday night? If you're free. Dinner and a movie; I remember."
"A little normality might not hurt," Seri agreed. "Pick me up at six?"
"Sure." He grinned, and turned to head back to the tree.
She let him go two steps, then called, "Oh, James?"
When he turned, she was in front of him, lifting up onto her toes so she could reach to lay a hand on his shoulder and touch her lips to his. Just a little kiss, close-mouthed, brief, and then she stepped back, grinning. "See you Friday."
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