Chapter 20: Ghost conductor
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
Doc and I made up after we had stopped crying with each other. But I knew it was only temporary. Something had changed between us, and I didn’t see an end to it, for some time to come.
I went on shift at McNaughten’s at 11 AM, and collected a lot of smiles, as many questions, and not a few big tips from the locals who showed up for lunch. Even Dave, the day shift manager, was happy to see me, if only because I seemed to be bringing in business.
I tried to be as happy and enthusiastic as I could be, but one part of my mind was working over something I said the previous night. “Conduct them to the afterlife,” that was it. How does one get to the afterlife?
Who? What? When? Where? Why? Maybe I was picking the wrong “W.” Let’s try “Who?” Virgil conducted Dante through Hell, Beatrice through the Heavens. I didn’t see myself qualifying for either role. In Greek mythology, it was the lugubrious Charon who carried souls across the River Styx in his boat. Well, I was not Charon, either. I was Persephone, at least in name. Persephone was the daughter of the earth goddess Demeter and the wife of the god of the underworld, Hades. She went back and forth from Earth to the Underworld with the seasons, a bringer of life and death.
If names are symbols in magic, then I could go back and forth between earth and the life after death in some way. And to do it I needed names and symbols.
I called up Miss Angela Farr of the Decatur County Historical Society on my first break. She was pleased to hear back from me. I told her I’d actually seen a caved-in section of the mine, which got her excited. And then I made my requests.
Angela Farr thought a bit before she replied. “Yes, there was a list of the dead from the mine cave-in in the local papers at the time. I can find that. And I do have some information on the miners and their families, but only for some of them, you understand. Mostly those who left descendants. People like to know about their ancestors, you know.”
I was tempted to reply that I personally knew that to be true, starting with my parents, but let her keep talking.
“But I don’t know about the cemetery, Miss Sanderson. It’s not on any of the old maps that I recall. We just know where there were streets and buildings. The only reason we know the motel sits on the site of the old hotel is because they found the old foundation when they were laying a new one for the motel. Some archaeologists from the state university examined it. But no one has dug up the old cemetery.”
Well, that was unfortunate. It knocked out one of my solutions. Or did it? On my next break I called up Mac. I told him to get Angela Farr to come up here with her information as soon as possible, that she’d have to stay the night, because there was no way I was going to pull this off in broad daylight, and that I’d pay for the motel room if I had to. Mac laughed uproariously at my saying I could pay for anything, since I was flat broke much of the time, but he agreed to do his impressive best.
Mac came in about 6 PM on the restaurant side to have dinner, but after he was finished, he came up to the bar and told me it was all arranged, that Miss Farr would come up tomorrow afternoon, and that he had convinced Ciszek that we were working hard on the problem and to give us a free room again.
I asked Mac to talk to Doc about being part of this, but he put his foot down. “No,” he said. “I’ve had Doc on the phone to me today about you. I’m not playing messenger boy between the two of you. But Sanderson,” and his looks turned serious, “just between you and me, if you’ve got problems with Doc, you speak them plain and that’s all. I don’t want to hear about you giving Helen any lip.” He straightened up, gave me an honest smile, and left.
My shift ended at nine, and I was back at the house by 9:30. Doc was in our common living room, a movie on the television, a drink at her side, and she wasn’t paying attention to either of them. Indeed, she was snoozing sitting up, something I’ve never been able to do. Must be those long hours interns work means they develop the ability in order to survive. I dumped my stuff, shut off the TV, and gently woke her up.
“Doc, I have a favor to ask of you.”
She kept her face neutral as she replied, “Mac said you had something you wanted to discuss with me.” She looked only a little drunk, in other words normal Doc. I couldn’t figure her mood, even by trying to read it. It was either too muddled or too complicated.
I had to wonder if Mac had given her the same warning he gave me. So I delivered the request I had carefully composed in my head several zillion times that evening while at work. “I need your help tomorrow night. I’m going to try to send the ghosts home, I think. Problem is, I think the process drains me a lot, and I need a doctor to watch out for me, make sure I don’t overdo it. Will you help? I’m not just asking you as my doctor. I’m asking you as my friend, Helen. I need your support. I think you’re even needed for the magic to work at its best.”
Doc blinked back a few tears to keep them from showing. She looked at me thoughtfully for a bit, before she replied, “I’ll be there as your doctor, Seffie. I’ll be there as your friend. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how I can help you do magic.” She smiled and let a tear or two fall.
I didn’t really have any choice but to explain my half-baked idea. “I don’t really know how I do magic. I’ve had two magicians, one living and one a ghost, tell me so. But you said it yourself about ‘Nightfeather.’ Names are important, symbols are important, at least the way I do magic.
“When I was in high school, we did a lot of mythology. And naturally, I looked up everything I could about Persephone. Persephone spends time on earth and time in the underworld. But, at least according to some people, she’s a triple goddess. I represent Kore, the maiden — don’t laugh. You are Persephone proper, the matron.”
“Even though I have no children,” Doc dryly added, “and therefore am as qualified as you. I know enough about this to ask who the crone is supposed to be.”
“It’s the Decatur County historian. But please, please don’t tell her that.”
The idea that we were sharing a secret got Doc smiling. “And this will somehow make it easier for you to do magic, even though . . . ?”
“I don’t know, Doc. I’m winging it. But even if it does nothing for my magic, it will still help if you’re there. Besides, how many ghosts are you going to see in your life?”
Well, that settled that. Doc and I got to talking about how using magical energy might drain me, and I explained how the ghosts were acting, compared to what she so briefly saw in the ravine a week ago. And we got along well enough. Somehow, I’d done something right for Doc, though I wasn’t sure what. I hit bed early, and slept until late. I figured I needed it.
According to Doc’s instructions, I ate like a pig all day, stayed away from caffeine and alcohol, and spent a fair amount of time stretching and pacing. My fifteen minutes of fame seemed to be over; I got only the usual number of visitors for my fortune telling hours.
And then I joined Mac and Doc to have dinner at McNaughten’s with Angela Farr. I rarely eat at McNaughten’s. I work there, and it seems weird to see the waitresses I know so well as colleagues having to serve me. Angela Farr had an entire briefcase of materials on the former mining village of Jacksonville, and she had put together a list of the dead from the cave-in with notes to remind her about anything known about them. She was curious as to exactly what we were going to do, and at one point asked if an archæologist was going to join us. Mac, bless his soul, kept her entertained and diverted anytime I came a cropper, including telling her about one of the more embarrassing incidents that had happened to me when I worked as a waitress here. It turned into a long dinner with dessert, which Doc reminded me by gestures that I should eat.
So we moved to the motel just about 8 PM, as I wanted. I had Doc stand to my left, where she could check my heartbeat or pulse without interference, and Angela Farr on my right with her list of the dead. And then I stripped off my gloves, got out my silver bar, soaked a handkerchief in whiskey Doc had brought along, wrapped it up, put it in my hand and began my incantation.
Angela Farr’s eyes had bugged out when she saw my hand. She had started to say something once or twice, but Mac, who stood facing us, shushed her. And then came that moment between the end of my invocation and the appearance of the ghosts, and even Angela Farr held her breath. When the ghosts appeared, she stood, simply stunned, for several moments. And then she clutched at me. “What are they? What’s going on?”
“They’re ghosts,” I told her. “The ones you can barely make out were among the miners and their families killed in the cave-in. We know one of them is named Hank Jones. Call him and see.” And I rested my right hand on her shoulder, while grasping Doc’s hand with my left hand.
Angela looked though her list. “That would be Henry W. Jones, 27, no kin. What do I do?”
“Call for him.”
Angela looked a bit dubiously at me, but decided to go ahead with it. And just as she started to speak, I tried to lend her some of my power. The result was weird. Her voice wasn’t very loud, but it seemed to pervade the whole room. “Henry W. Jones, come here.”
Jones came forward. He looked a little better defined this evening. In fact, so did every other ghost but Charlotte, who had faded again almost back to where she started the other night. It was as if my magic had leaked out of her into the other ghosts.
I took my hand off Angela Farr and put it on Hank Jones. And it was as if the magic just flowed out of me into Jones. My feathers fluttered quickly. My knees buckled, and I would have fallen if Doc hadn’t held me up. Jones seemed to snap into reality, until he himself pushed my hand off him. “That’s enough. I thank you, miss. I can see you clearly now, as the other woman said. And I can see the hotel, too.”
“The 1896 hotel?” I couldn’t believe my luck.
“Aye,” he nodded. “This is Munro’s.”
“Miss Sanderson,” Angela piped up excitedly, “that was the name of the hotel. It was named after Patrick Munro.”
He turned to her. “That’s right, ma’am. Paddy Munro runs the place, and charges twice its worth every day.”
Angela was besides herself. “Oh, Miss Sanderson, I need to talk to him some more.”
I sighed with relief. Some people take this supernatural stuff easily. Others do their level best to pretend it’s not real. Angela was taking it for reality. Maybe it was Hank Jones’s definitely period dirty miner’s clothing. I turned to Doc. “How am I doing?”
Doc used her clinical voice. “Your pulse doubled during that. Eat an energy bar, and let’s continue.”
So we did. I managed to divert Angela from her new best buddy long enough to call more names off the list of the dead. For some, she got no answer. But she did get three more, who I brought up to the same stage as Hank Jones, before Doc called a halt. I tried to protest, but she sharply reminded me that I had agreed her word would be final. I had been hoping for restoring at least eight ghosts.
At my urging, Hank Jones proceeded to lead us out of what he thought was the hotel to go to the cemetery that was there in 1896. We moved slowly. Angela wasn’t that spry, and Mac gave her his arm to lean on while she plied Hank with as many questions as she could. Doc was holding me up, because I was exhausted. The rest of the ghosts followed us, not just the three I had revived, but all the others. They moved like sleepwalkers, yet another reason we moved slowly.
I have to wonder whether anyone saw us. We must have looked like a curious procession. Some cars did pass by us, but they were too fast to realize what they were seeing. I never heard a word from anyone about it, though.
After all this, I should have guessed where the cemetery was located. It was just behind 164 Pine Street, where Charlotte had lived with her two kids. (Their place was dark now. Charlotte’s sister had taken the kids to live with her, sixty miles away.) The actual lot was nothing but bare ground now. We arrived, and I told Hank Jones I thought this is where he and his fellow victims should rest.
Jones looked about, paced through the cemetery he saw, and then came back to me. He hesitated before saying, “Beggin’ your pardon, miss, but this isn’t where we rest. Our bones,” and he pointed west, “are up there in the mine. That’s where we’ll rest.”
My oh-so-clever idea turned out to be not so clever, after all. I’d picked a cemetery, their cemetery, as the right symbol. But it wasn’t really their cemetery. The ghosts wanted to lie with their actual bones. I looked west, and thought about going through the ravine. No. Nohow, no way, not in the dark.
I had not come this far to have to leave it with so little accomplished. I turned to Doc. “Give me another energy bar.”
Doc must have sensed my determination, because she just handed it over to me. Mac, on the other hand, was aghast. “Sanderson,” he said, “you can barely scale that wall in the daytime. You can’t manage it at night.”
I finished wolfing down the energy bar, took several gulps of water from the canteen Doc wordlessly offered me. “I’m not going to scale the ravine, Mac, but I am going to get these ghosts home. Hank Jones, whatever happens to me, keep following me.”
I’d left my gloves off while all this was going on. Now I composed myself, and for the first time in my life, I leapt up into the air and transformed into a birdlike creature in front of people. I swooped back down to Hank Jones’s ghost, circled him a few times, and then set a course: west.
It was after midnight by the time we reached the site of the mine cave-in, and I transformed back into my human body. Hank Jones and the others were standing there. I said to him, “Will this way into the mine do?”
Jones nodded. “We came out this way, we should be able to go back this way.” He paused, and then said to me, “But before we go, miss, I have to tell you. Having that thing suck away at us all those years was one of the worst experiences I ever had, worse even than being caught in the mine when it collapsed. But I’m glad I lived to see a person turn into a bird. That was a marvel.”
There wasn’t much to say to that except, “Thank you.”
Jones nodded. And then he stepped over the edge and into the open pit.
It wasn’t until the third miner went that I saw what was happening. As each miner went in, they disappeared, and another miner became more visible. The energy I had given them they were passing back to their fellow ghosts. It was enough that all fifteen of the miners and three of their ladies came forward and went back down into the mine. To rest in peace.
And then I looked around. There were three ghosts left: Charlotte, Terry Bruno, and one of the tourists. I guess the other one had been eaten completely by the creature before it left town. All three were almost as well-defined as Abigail had been.
“Well, you three look in good shape. All you have to do is go back to your bodies,” I said to them.
Terry Bruno spoke up first. “We don’t know where they are.” The other two said much the same thing.
I couldn’t believe it at first. Ghosts, well, new ghosts arise and depart from their bodies as a rule. But, I reminded myself, these ghosts were captured by the soul-eater. It must have somehow disconnected them from their bodies.
They might have energy, but mine was flagging, and I still had to get back to town, and it wasn’t going to be on foot. So I told them I would deal with them as quickly as I could, and dismissed them.
And then I climbed to the top of a nearby hill and sat on it. Flying is wonderful, no question about it. But it’s active work for the body, and I needed a rest before I tried again. Sitting on a hill is a different experience. It’s peaceful, quiet, relaxing. I could see Farnham off to the east: the bright neon of The Pit Stop and the commercial district, the tower of the cogeneration plant in the north, the ribbon of the Interstate swinging through the town in the south. Elsewhere I could turn and see a vacant landscape roll on to the next set of hills or mountains, whatever formed the horizon. And above were stars as people never see them in cities, in all their thousands.
I’d done my job, well, most of it, and the rest I would manage somehow, now. Ghosts would not plague Farnham much longer. And I was glad I had Mac and Doc along for this, even if I’d had to leave them behind in the cemetery. Because I wanted them to like me, to be proud of me. They’d certainly done enough for me.
With that, I realized why I hadn’t been able to write that letter to send back home. Not only was home not home anymore. Home was here. Farnham I hated for the miserable dump it was. But I’d taken on a job to solve one of its problems, willingly. I guess that made it my town. Certainly the townspeople who had come to see me thinking I was this “national security hero” had thought so. And Mac and Doc were here. Oh, I could see I was still going to have problems with Doc, but we had done it tonight. We. Hear me, Abigail Lane? This is my place and these are my people, at least for now.
And that gave me one more idea, a really good one, as long as I didn’t get arrested as a felon for it!