Chapter 18: It’s a matter of timing
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
“The ghosts are back.” It actually took me a few seconds to get my head around what Mac was saying. So instead of blurting out something stupid, I said, “Which ghosts? All of them, or just the miners?”
Somehow, my just asking him cheered Mac up. He was the easiest man to cheer up I ever met. He replied, “Kevin Ciszek, Tim Taisey’s wife’s brother, has taken over managing the motel. He tells me several guests reported ‘spooks’ in their rooms. They weren’t very good at describing the spooks, but some said there were two types of them, so I suspect they saw both the miners and our recent dead. Nobody was hurt, but naturally Ciszek is worried he’s taken over a failing business and asked me for help.”
“Why’d he come to you?”
Mac’s voice turned somber. “County sheriff’s office called me up just before noon to tell me Tim’s body had been found. I had to go over to the motel and tell Maria. She can’t manage the place herself, so when Tim disappeared Friday morning, she called on her brother to help her out temporarily. He was unemployed, and tells me he’ll stay on as long as it takes for Maria to decide what to do. But he doesn’t want the business to go to pot while he’s running it.”
“It looks like Valerie Thompson left behind a loose end.” The thought cheered me up.
My tone of voice must have surprised Mac, because he raised an eyebrow before replying, “You don’t seem to mind. So what can we do?”
“Why don’t we run over to the motel? You can introduce me, I can pump Ciszek for anything he can tell us, and then snoop around a bit. And then I’ll plan on doing some ghost raising tonight. Can’t let it wait, since I have a shift at McNaughten’s tomorrow, and I’m not going to rely on my fake service to the country any longer.”
Mac raised his other eyebrow to that, but went along with my plan. Our first stop was actually McNaughten’s, to make sure I was still on for tomorrow and assure them I was showing up. Then to the motel. I wasn’t too impressed with Kevin Ciszek, who struck me as a loser. He didn’t have anything else to add to the reports about the ghosts. He hadn’t seen the ghosts himself, and made it clear he really didn’t believe in them. Or at least that’s what he said. On the other hand, he was willing to set aside a room for us this evening to go “spook hunting.”
I was walking out of the motel when I got an odd feeling. I told Mac to wait, and ducked in and out of the place several times. Then I went around to another entrance and did the same. Mac wanted to know what I was up to, but I shushed him and walked around the building, testing every fifty feet or so. When I finished the circuit, I turned to Mac and said, “I’m not sure, but I think there’s some sort of magical field surrounding the motel.”
Mac leaped ahead. “Might it have something to do with why the ghosts are still here?”
I threw up my hands. “Good chance. I don’t know how to express this, but it sort of feels like the soul-eater. But I can’t tell what it’s doing or how to dismantle it.”
Mac tossed in, “Pity Thompson didn’t stick around.”
I wasn’t exactly 100% happy with that remark, but I didn’t want it to bother me anymore, either. So I nodded to that. Because it would have been useful to have Valerie Thompson around. She would know what to do. But then again, so, I suspect, would Abigail Lane. And Abigail didn’t warn me about anything else. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know the ghosts were still here; after all, she was one herself. So maybe I was supposed to do this by myself.
I decided to try something. I went off, Mac trailing me, to one of the side entrances where no one else would see me, and stripped off my gloves. And then I tried to put my right hand directly into whatever this field was.
I succeeded. Which is to say that I managed to line up my hand with the field exactly. At which point the feathers of my hand stood bolt upright and tried to cut through the field, delivering me a jolt that felt like 10,000 volts of electricity running up my right arm. For five everlasting seconds, every part of my arm individually felt like it was on fire. And then I was hurled backward off my feet, right into Mac, knocking us both down.
I rolled as quickly as I could away from Mac, because I didn’t want my feathers to cut him. This was not just an idle precaution. Go look at the concrete slab that serves as the outside landing for that doorway. See that patch with deep divots in it? I made those that day. And even as I sat up, the feathers were still angrily fluttering.
Mac was OK, I was more or less OK, and that was good. What was also good was that the magical field wasn’t there anymore. As far as I was concerned, any time I could destroy something that soul-eater had created, it was a good thing. I still would like to have known what that field was supposed to do. Well, I might find out shortly. Mac and I agreed to come back at eight, when I would attempt to summon the ghosts and find out why they were still hanging around. And then he dropped me off back at the house.
I hadn’t put my gloves back on, because there was one other thing I wanted to try. I went walking around the yard to see if I could find my little bar of silver, the one I’d thrown at the soul-eater before taking flight. I tried to have my hand locate it for me, and to my surprise, it did. The feathers just started fluttering in a rhythmic motion that got stronger the closer I got to the bar. And once I found it, I tried stroking the feathers with it. The silver bar actually seemed to calm the feathers down, until they were lying against my hand, only rippling slightly.
I went in, sat down in my sitting room, and tried to think. I had a lot to think about. Abigail Lane had told me I didn’t understand my powers. And that hadn’t bothered me. As it shouldn’t have, because events were proving her right. But when Valerie Thompson said as much to me, it ticked me off. And Doc, well, Doc had really just been trying to be helpful, but it had rubbed me the wrong way.
It seemed to me that people sometimes want something for others, and other times want something from others. But the two aren’t all that distinct. If I did something nice for Doc, I’d want a sign of appreciation from her. In fact, now that I thought about it, it seems like every relationship is about wanting things for someone and from someone, both. It’s the terms of the trade-off that say what your relationship is really about.
But there’s no guarantee that both parties will see the trade-off in the same terms. That’s why I had blown up at Doc. She was trying to be helpful and no doubt expected some appreciation, and I’d taken her conduct as a threat to my adulthood. Come to think of it, I did a lot of that. That’s why I’d always retaliated directly anytime a customer in McNaughton’s got fresh with me, instead of bringing in the shift manager to sort it out for me. You don’t threaten me with anything. But I guess I sometimes overdo it.
Well, that took a load off my mind about Doc. At least now I knew how we’d fouled up. But I needed to get back to thinking about the ghosts and my magic before going out to the motel this evening.
Maybe the two things are more related than I think. If the ghosts are still around, what do they want? And under what terms will they give me what I want, which is to see them go on to wherever ghosts go when they cease wanting to be ghosts? That was more a framework for dealing with the ghosts than a solution, but until I knew what the ghosts wanted, it was as far as I could go.
And what did Abigail Lane want? “Defender of the nation,” and I became one of her concerns. The implication was that my potentials could be important in defending the nation. Take that, Valerie. No, leave Valerie out of it. It meant I barely understood what I could do. And Abigail certainly warned me about that. Which in turn implied I could have coped with the soul-eater, if I’d known more about myself, and should be able to handle the ghosts as well, if I could figure out how.
There’s bad worrying, where you just get worked up about things you can’t affect, and there’s good worrying, where you are working on how to affect things. I was “good worried” as I went to the kitchen to prepare dinner, and feeling the better for it. But Doc was already there, and she was back to drinking again. She didn’t look too bad, though. And she suggested that we order out pizza and have some beer with it.
So after we ordered, we sat down at the table with beer, and Doc started off. “Seffie, I don’t know what I said or did that upset you so much. After hearing from Valerie Thompson what had happened to you, I was just so happy and proud for you, and then you basically told me to mind my own business. Why did you do that to me?”
Always to the point, Doc. And the simple answer is that you called me a child and treated me like one. And the simple answer won’t work because that’s not what you intended. It’s the terms of the trade-off, Doc, I understand that now. “Because, Helen, sometimes you and Mac are like my friends, and sometimes you’re like my parents. And sometimes you play the wrong roles, as far as I’m concerned.”
Doc snorted. “That’s not going to change, Seffie, until you change.”
No, I suppose not. And even then, I’ll have to prove it to you. It’s sad, Doc Helen, but we’re going to have this fight again, aren’t we? “Then I guess I’m going to have to change. And so will you, and so will Mac.”
There was an awkward pause in our conversation. I didn’t know what to say next. And Doc was looking at me as if she was reckoning up my character traits. And then she took me by surprise. “So what changes do you want from me?”
“I honestly don’t know, Doc. I didn’t make up a list. But here’s a deal: you and Mac stop bugging me about my family, and I will do right by them. Promise. Don’t push me to tell you what that means, I don’t know yet, but I will do the right thing. OK?”
Inwardly I was immensely relieved. Yes, I’d set myself up to write that letter I had been avoiding. But Doc was going to trust me on that. It was like I’d solved one problem by giving myself a new one, but one I would simply have to solve.
At this point, I had to pull the plug on the conversation before it took any more out of me. So I switched to my forthcoming attempt to deal with the ghosts. “I do need one other thing from you, Helen, and you’re not going to like it. I have to go to the motel tonight. The ghosts have reappeared. I don’t understand everything that’s going on, and I need all the information I can get. Crazy Cathy is the one person whose ghost hasn’t showed up. You told me she wasn’t crazy, but something else. I need to know what that else was, because it may be important.”
Doc shook her head. “That’s confidential information about a patient.”
“The patient is dead, Doc,” I replied, raising my voice. “Knowing this may keep me from joining her.”
Doc leaned back and looked down into her lap. Then she looked up at me and there was this odd smile on her face. In a quiet voice, she replied, “Sometimes I think of you as two different people, you know. There’s Sanderson, who is this rabid porcupine. And there’s Seffie, who is like the porcupine’s soft belly. You’re back in Sanderson mode again.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then said, “All right, Catherine Wise, Crazy Cathy.” Doc opened her eyes, looked me straight in the eye with a pitying stare. “You ever wonder why I just accepted your strangeness, Sanderson? Because you weren’t the first. Officially, Catherine Wise suffered from schizophrenia. In reality, she was something like you. Other people’s thoughts would come into her head, confusing her. And she could see things she couldn’t possibly see, and that confused her, too. She couldn’t explain well what was happening to her, and she had trouble telling what was real and what was not. So in practice she was schizophrenic after all.”
And some pieces fell together. The soul-eater must have found Crazy Cathy, recognized her as a magician, and eaten her soul. But for some reason it couldn’t survive in her body. Maybe because she was crazy. And so it must have destroyed her body the way it did out of frustration. Since it had eaten her soul, she could have no ghost.
“I’ve told you something important, have I?” Doc’s voice interrupted my thinking.
“It solves the puzzle of why I’ve not seen her ghost,” I told her.
“Good. Because I’ve just violated an oath to tell you that, Sanderson. So if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather we finish drinking our beer and eating the pizza when it comes without any further conversation. I don’t want to talk to Sanderson for a while. I’ll wait for Seffie.” Doc looked tired and sad.
I just nodded. Somehow we weren’t in synch again. I had been foolish to think I could solve it in just one conversation. So we sat and drank and ate, and the Doc went back to her side of the house and I went back to mine.
I had ghosts to fight. And then I thought of Doc’s curious conceit, that I was Sanderson and Seffie, and realized that fighting the ghosts was a Sanderson attitude. I needed to talk to the ghosts. I hoped I could do a better job with them than I’d just done with Doc Helen.