I've posted all of The House of Silver Oak.
If you like it, please buy a copy, leave me a comment, and if you don't want to buy a copy of Silver, maybe buy a copy of something else :)
The second link above is to the kindle version for 3.99.
The House of Silver Oak
By Nix Winter
Scanning, uploading and/or distribution of this book via the Internet, print, audio recordings or any other means without the permission of the Publisher is illegal and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, places, events and characters are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The House of Silver Oak
Copyright 2009 Nix Winter
Category yaoi, m/m, murder mystery, paranormal, thriller
Cover art and design by Nix Winter
Story by Nix Winter
All rights reserved. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.
The Second Lagrange Point Press
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The House of Silver Oak
pulsed the blood
yet so distant that history owns it more than the present.
Cain Hardrain stood in the center of his dream. His heart beat along with the sound of distant drums. The dream plane gave him a wholeness. Long black hair, tied off at the nape of his neck, picked up and tossed lightly by star breeze, he wanted to hold to this feeling of wholeness, of strength that he'd always found in his dreams. Sun touched skin, golden and yet silvered the scars of his life, round bullet puckers that should never have marred a warrior in buckskin pants with eagle feathers bound into his hair. His dreams crossed worlds, but always he was a warrior.
Darkness neared, coming too slowly for Cain. Chill danced warning over his shoulders, down his back. The dream world turned around him, a dizzying mosaic of life he could never have known. Apache myth, inner-city scrabbles, until the dream vision focused in on his grandmother, a woman that he'd never known.
Sun kissed fingers caressed the tuffs of corn in the moonlight. Long black hair swayed as she moved down the line of nearly ripe corn. Her dark eyes smiled at him. Ageless, untouched by the modern world, she only rarely entered his dream visions. Her gentle hand reached to touch his face, her smile wise, untouched by fear. "Don't go in the cellar, Raccoon."
Questions formed. He reached out to her, but a growing darkness hid her. Not the darkness of night, not the kind of darkness that a candle or flashlight could force into retreat. This darkness latched to his heart and ate, smothering and hateful. His bones felt fragile as early ice. Darkness crept into him and his vision covered with stabbing cold, ice clouded with death, and the only warmth lay in the ground, lay in the last soft breath. That thought drove him awake, away from dark dreams, back into the milky half light of a maybe spring day a few hundred miles out of New York.
"Shit!" He sat up, a hand brushing back sweaty dark hair. Panting, he swallowed, the cloud of the dream lingered over his eyes for a couple blinks. Yeah, no Purple Hearts for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, thanks. No. He had his Purple Hearts. To go with them, he had a Silver Star, but when he closed his eyes death still stabbed his eyes. "Hey."
The taxi driver looked at him in the mirror, her eyes more than a little cautious. "We're almost there. You really sure you want to go there? It's broke down and got a terrible reputation. It's like one of those houses out of a cheap horror movie."
Cain laughed. He ran his thumb over his forehead, smoothing away tension. "I oughta fit right in then, uh? This town got a bar?"
"Sure," she said. "We got a couple of them. You want nice or you want cheap?"
"Cheap will do." He'd gotten his breathing under control with the promise of a beer.
The whole town looked like something out of a re-creation. It leaned more tourist trap, than real. Nothing real had ever looked this good. He could imagine the local bed and breakfast offering photos in period clothes because love in the Civil War era was love forever. The small tisking sound he made got him another look from the taxi driver.
"You know, you really are a good looking guy," she said, making a preface to whatever was coming. "The caregivers up there, at that old shit of a place, they don't seem to come from good places. I don't know where the family gets them. In the last ten years there have been four suicides, two murders, and everyone else left before the month was out. Last woman had to be taken away by the county, white coats, you know? I'm not a religious person, but there's some shit up there in that house."
Cain shrugged. Ghost stories, it must be a good fit for the Civil War re-creation tourist crap. "Ain't nothing up there that's got anything on me," he said. He wished he didn't mean that, he really wished. "Look, don't worry. I'll fit right in. Crazy war vet, limping around, dark secrets in his eyes. Hell, I'm even half Apache. Don't you think that'll help sell the story to tourists?"
She rolled her eyes. "You're a jerk all right. Usually people start all nice and sweet. I guess I'll bet that you last more than a month."
In front of a neon speckled bar, with western saloon type doors, she put the car in park. "They say no one has been able to live at The Silver Oak since Shelly Gray killed his older brother, his brother's fiancé, another guest, and then himself. They say he was insane with jealousy. His brother had been accepted to law school in London and was marrying the heir to the biggest fortune in town. Shelly was a little light in the pockets, if you know what I mean." She put up her hand and drooped her hand down, making a commonly accepted sign for the flamingly gay. "He'd gotten horrible reviews from a New York gallery showing. They also say his father used to try to beat him into being a man. So the day his brother announced his engagement there was a big party, people from New York and Europe, big stuff. Late that night, he shot his brother and the fiancé, shot a guest that caught him in the hall, and went off somewhere to kill himself. The body has never been found. He's still haunting the house. I saw him myself, when I was a teenager."
"Sure you did," Cain snorted. Her words sounded like a script to Cain. He wondered how many times she'd spat that out at new visitors. He pulled out a hundred dollar bill, enough to cover the ride and the tip. "Sounds like he was a smart bastard and he got away with it. I bet he found his way to Paris and was living it up over there with the French. Oh, oh baby!"
Cain smirked at her shock. He grinned, gripped air with his hand and stroked it a couple of times. "Nothing like the French."
"I'm telling you," she said. "I saw him. He's blue, all blue now, his hair floating around him. I think he drown. It just looked like he was under water to me. People have searched all the lakes and everything though."
"What'd you offer a reward? Find the murderer get a prize?"
"Look, I got respect for veterans. You done good fighting for the country. Just be careful, okay?"
He sighed. "I'm always careful. Take my bag up to the house?" He pointed. Just over some trees, gray shingles, weathered iron work railings, and a tall lightening rod hinted at a forbidden fairy tale, "That it up there?"
"Yeah," she said, slight confusion in her voice. "That's it."
"Good. Then it's walking distance." He opened his door and used both hands to move his right leg out, grabbed his cane, and found his way out of the cab. "Thanks for the warning."
"Sure," she said, eyes still on the weathered roof just beyond the trees. "I'll give you half off when you want to go back. Just give me a call."
Planes and cabs made for a lot of sitting. His cane pushed back against his hand, but his knee won 'worst part of the body' with no competition. Limping, he made his way into the bar and made up his mind to get into the spirit of things. Cowboys in New York, maybe? He really didn't know all that much about the Civil War, but what he knew about war made him resistant to the idea of romantic re-creations. Guts stank when you ripped them out of bodies that were still trying to use them. Worse than rot, at least rot was some part of life trying to do it's job.
The empty bar gave no ear in his complaints nor opinion. One bartender wiped down glasses, his starched white shirt and puffy sleeves making him look like he belonged in whatever version of the world the town was trying to sell. The one god that seemed to smile on Cain was the God of Tall. He took the barstool like he was king of the hill, letting his burning knee hang, not even trying to mimic normal movement. "Beer," he said, changed his mind, "No, give me a whiskey, Bartender."
Bartender, complete with little wire rimmed glasses, gave him a once over. Bartenders are really good at seeing the homeless bum in the newly employed caretaker. "You're here for Silver Oak."
"Yup, but I'm such a bastard that little blond gay boy is going to run away with his 'tail' between his legs."
Bartender held out his hand, smirking. "Saul. Who told you Shelly was a boy?' He gestured towards a painting, life sized, over the fireplace.
The man in the painting smiled, an open mouth smile showing slightly imperfect teeth, but it was a smile as unique as any soul could be. Blue eyes twinkled with mischief. Blond curls, thick and lazy lay around a slightly longer than heart shaped face, reached all the way down to the dark velvet collar. A man from another time, not really of any time, listening to his own clock, Shelly Comstock-Gray wore too much lace, too much velvet, had paint smears on his hands, where he sat, one foot back under the chair, the other reaching forward. A contradiction, not at all proper or decently polite for a Victorian man, Cain who knew little to nothing about history, knew the man in the painting was more than a little eccentric, but his gut told him that he wasn't a murderer or a boy. He was most definitely a man.
"Was that done when he was alive?"
"Yup, last painting of him. Done by a friend. My grandfather found it."
"Long story. Here." Saul set a shot of whiskey on the bar. "On the house. So he resonates with you, does he?"
"Don't believe in ghosts," Cain pronounced, throwing back the shot. "Not even pretty gay man ghosts."
The painting drew his attention anyway. Looking at it, he could almost hear laughter, smell the summer roses growing by where Shelly sat. It won't be a bad world if this man's ghost still walked the Earth. Then he felt slightly guilty for wishing the man out of whatever heaven good people got.
Running his fingertip around the rim of the shot glass, he wondered what it would be like to be gay, to stare into those vivid blue eyes, find out what was behind them. Hair like that, that even in a painting could catch the sunlight, enthrall it, make a moment where summer would never end, he thought he could find himself wanting to touch hair like that. "He doesn't look like a murderer to me."
"I think he was possessed," Saul confessed. "His father brought something back from the war, something demonic. I think it killed both his sons in some kind of revenge. There's a museum. Got a bunch of his paintings, some letters."
Demonic Civil War artifacts. Pretty gay murderers. Feuding brothers. Beautiful murder victims. This place wanted to cover all the bases. Cain stared at his empty glass. Saul gave him another refill. "I'll be here a while. I'm sure I'll have time. Thanks for the whiskey."
"Can I ask what happened to your leg, or do you need another shot for that?"
The shot glass became a deep well to stare into. Dark lingering drops of whiskey turned red. Screams filtered back, muted only by his unwillingness to hear them. Machine guns tattered against his memory, but he tried to concentrate on the drums from his dreams, the steady sweet drums before his dreams had turned to death. "Bomb. Like I really needed a second Purple Heart."
"Wow," Saul said, hand tight on the bottle of whiskey.
Cain had been in this place before. This place where there isn't much to say. He looked back to the blond over the fireplace. What is the right thing to say?
"Thanks for the drinks," Cain said, shifting off the barstool.
"Hey, come down on Saturday. We're having The Strawberry Festival. You can get to know everyone."
"Have to see," Cain dodged. "I have to see what kind of restoration needs doing on the house." Suddenly playful, he added, "And Shelly might have driven me mad by then."
"Won't be the first," Saul allowed.
A couple shots of whiskey and his knee liked him a whole lot better. By the time he got to the driveway the relationship had begun to go bad again. His doctor at the VA promised he'd get used to it. There were people who ran marathons with prosthetics. At that moment, Cain was sure those runners had prosthetic nerve systems not prosthetic legs. Pain and whiskey seemed to like each other just fine though.
Still spring, the long driveway up to the house was lined by tall trees in energetic green colors. The house sat dead center on the drive, even numbers of windows, nice square lines, balanced and solid. It was the kind of house one could expect a fine upstanding doctor with shit tons of his own daddy's money might want to build.
Whatever people had come and gone, they'd never seen fit to pave the driveway. Not a big priority, maybe, but the uneven gravel made his knee hate him with a ferocity that he really wasn't fond of. Maybe that would be a good place for the contractors to start, once his patron actually proved she was going to pay for improvements to the old place.
There were three stories to the house and it had been white at one time, but now it was a rather cracked gray-cream color. All the windows seemed intact, but old glass was hardly good insulation. He'd been hired to care for the house, not to start a huge renovation project, but she had said needed improvements. Bad habit - making little projects into bigger ones. Walking around the house, ignoring his knee, he noted the riotous weeds, frost broken paving stones, and there wasn't even time to start thinking about turning the stable house into a proper garage for the car he didn't have.
He shook his head, trying to draw himself back to reality. It wasn't like he was staying here the rest of his life, to become the crazy old caretaker.
Still, there was quiet, like he'd never felt before.
New York just didn't have quiet like this.
Helicopters thundered, rushing past him. Pop, pop, gunfire. Voices yelled. Frozen, he stood there. The chaos of battle brought nothing into the present other than a trickle of sweat running down his spine. Standing there caught between the past and a watery pale present, something else entirely brushed past him.
Jerking around, he saw a man in a bowler had, shirt askew, eyes wide and crazed, too much of the whites of his eyes showing. In full color, he pressed the side of his fist to his mouth. A wind that didn't exist blew past him, washing out the colors and shapes of him, until he was gone, leaving just a slow deep mourning wail to adulterate in the wind.
Cain ground the end of his cane into the weeds strangling the gravel. That one he'd leave for his Native American ancestors to sort out. There was something a person was supposed to do for the wandering dead, but he didn't find himself caring all that much. He'd call his grandfather, after he made friends with his knee again.
He growled up at the empty sky, as if it would be sober, at least. "I ain't got nothing left to give, ya bastards!"
His body felt old, wrecked, so like this old house, ready to just fall over. He sat down, rubbing his knee where the prosthetic attached but no amount of promising made it stop aching hatefully at him. How much of a man had to be thrown away before the man was a ghost? "So Old House, you got anything left to give?"
The second and third floors both had eight windows each, tattered drapes and even some old shutters. He wondered what she would have been like in her prime. He sighed, imagining the fine laughter of those with money, of the favored sons, art and law. He imagined a robust father figure, thumbs hooked behind his suspenders, one of those great big handlebar mustaches.
In his mind, the fine father pursed his face and complained, "I have a lawyer and a daughter with balls. I'm not sure which is worse."
Cain snickered, head tilting back to let sunlight wash over his face, silky dark hair falling back from his face. He'd grown it out since getting out of the Army, well, since getting out of the hospital. Half rebellion, half wishing to be a wild Indian brave in his vision dreams where nothing could touch him, but mostly it was just that it hurt too much to get to the barber or to really give a damn.
Movement caught his eye and he froze for a moment, moving slowly to a position from which he could get back to his feet. Urban combat made buildings the enemy. His empty hand could feel a ghostly weapon, familiar and comforting, even though his mind knew it wasn't there. His shoulders the weight of his flack jacket.
Nothing. Then, in the far left window, second floor, a tattered curtain moved. A man, flowing poet sleeves, wavy hair to his shoulders, watched from the window. Beautiful, perfect curves and balance. Cain studied the face, only distantly comparing it to the portrait in the bar. The man starred right back, sorting through Cain like a man might examine a beautiful rose.
The man smiled.
Thorns ground into knots in Cain's gut. He knew that smile. Intense sadness, grief, rage snarled around in his gut. The man tilted his head, leaning forward a little. Just as tsunami fast and unrelenting, forgiveness and love surged through Cain.
Slender fingers reached out to touch the window, not really to wave, just a longing touch, reaching for a lover maybe. The man seemed so real, so intent in his action.
Cain turned, expecting to find someone else behind, the object of the man's longing look. When he turned to look at the window, the man who'd been so living, so real, was now a beautiful sketch of blue. Frowning now, the man looked so cold, empty. Blue fingers brushed the window again. Ice raced down Cain's spine.
He shivered, shaking off the emotions. Stupid story telling taxi drivers!
His imagination was not that good.
Ghosts were a silly idea held by primitive people with nothing better to do. They belonged to people trying to scare children or tourists and he was neither. He stomped toward the back door of the house, aggravating his knee on purpose because the pain was familiar and punishing at the same time. His bag, a military style ruck sack was propped against the back door. He grabbed it up, leaning hard on his cane, and hating everyone and everything.
The house wasn't locked. Ghosts were nonsense, but something had run off the last caretaker. Slipping his arm through the other strap, he started moving more quietly. It wasn't like he'd catch who ever played games in the house by surprise, but there was a difference between knowing he was here and where exactly he was in the house. Locals wanted to play dangerous games.
He could play dangerous games.
As quietly as he could, he cleared the first floor of the house. His knee would let him die before it would let him navigate the stairs to the second floor. The idea of throwing doors open and acting like an idiot was already starting to feel foolish.
The kitchen was fine, old enough to have a stove that ran on wood, but there as also an actual refrigerator, even if it was old enough to be green enamel, and not powered when he opened it. It was a mindset he didn't really get, green appliances without electric.
He put his pack down on the big butcher-block table in the center. Leaning, he took his weight off his knee. Gracey, a guy he'd met in Bagdad and become friends with, boosted himself up to the table, tapping a cigarette against the knife scarred wood. He didn't say anything, hadn't said a thing since he'd died, but amusement sparkled in pale eyes.
"You know, you bastard," Cain growled, "I am gonna call Gramps. You don't want no Apache medicine hitting your ass, uh? Get on with wherever you're supposed to be."
Gracey rolled his eyes, wiped his nose with a couple fingers, like a pinch. He leaned back, playing with the cigarette. He'd forgotten his lighter in the barracks the day he died.
Cain held his head, eyes squeezed shut. Already crazy, maybe the woman who owned the house really did pick pathetic people. Curiosity seemed to follow well with mad drunkenness. Another drink right the, seemed like a bad idea. There wasn't anything to be done about the madness. That by nature would come and go as it wished. Curiosity though, that was an itch that could be scratched.
Just outside the living room was a dining room that was the definition of dining rooms. The table, covered over with drape cloths that in turn supported enough dust to be considered some kind of form of art. The thing had at least twenty chairs. Standing there in the doorway, he found himself in the way of a maid in a prim black dress. All the chairs filled, laughter sparkled in the room. Candlelight glowed from the now draped chandelier. Champagne swirled in glasses, liquid light, now raised in toast. Glasses clinked against each other.
Shelly rose, holding his glass aloft, pride easy to read on his face, but his words carried no sound. Very quickly the color faded, the color shifting into dust and a sickeningly familiar stink of fresh blood. Rage grabbed Cain. The dusty drop cloth in his hands, he yanked, hard, and only managed to pull it up enough to show the rosy wood of the table at the far side.
The place reminded him of Sleeping Beauty, with everything covered and put away while the princess slept. Murder victims didn't wake with a kiss though and there had been people living in the house, caretakers, probably since the place was closed down. "You fucking ghosts are not going to win! This place is going to get brought back to life."
Determined now, he pulled the cloth away, dragging it from the whole length of the table. Triumphant, he stood with arms crossed, glaring at the polished empty elegance. Why he'd expected to find a dinner half eaten, he wasn't sure. He pressed his palms down on the table, he taking the weight off his knee again. He hung his head. There, reflected in the polished wood, a woman watched him - beautiful red hair, piled high and pinned with pearls, a flawless young face. Anger burned in her eyes. Diamond earrings, and cunning watched him from those emerald eyes.
His chest locked up. Ice crept down the back of his arms. Angry eyes, resentful, sullen, sharply intelligent, and dangerous, those were eyes he knew the look of and he met her reflected gaze without backing down. When she faded, he jumped back from the table, knee completely forgotten. "No wonder people left the damn table covered up, but I tell you, chick, I done seen people like you before. Get the fuck over it! I'm eating my meals on this table every day and you can just fucking get over it!"
The house took his ranting in good time, just like wood, glass, and marble ought to. Feeling stupid and a little crazy, he scratched the back of his neck and grabbed his cane from where he'd hung it on the table.
In his mind he could hear the local kids talking about the crazy new caretaker. Fine, he could accept his own craziness, but he wasn't giving up on this house. It had some secrets and he was going to lay'em out like rose petals on the bed. Smiling now, he limped his way into the next room.
It was a foyer, maybe. Big enough to be the foyer for an institution, draped paintings lined the walls. A marble floor, dusty, but still showing some polish where people had been walking. High heel prints paired with larger, athletic shoe prints. He assumed the heels were from the previous care giver. She should have cleaned the dust if she didn't want people to know she was entertaining. One would think she'd have cleaned the place up a little, so he noted that someone might have had some other motives for being here.
A grand staircase led up to the next floor. Carved railings, each unique, and reaching around to each other, showing scenes that even Cain recognized as Greek mythology.
Special. He would have thought someone would have sold those off. Admonishment smacked back at him, seemingly from the house itself, that nothing was going to be sold. "Okay," he said, raising a hand up. At least it was fun being insane. "Just keep your nails in, will you?"
To either side of the grand foyer, double doors held fresh secrets. "What's behind door number two?"
Hand about to grip the brass knob, he stopped before the rush of images could get him. Something had happened behind Door Number Two and he really didn't want to know right this very moment. "I need a beer."
The other option was the library.
A profoundly dusty place, with just a hint of lavender hiding in the air, he waved at the dust as if that would help. There had to be more than a thousand books, floor to ceiling with one of those neat little wood ladders on wheels. The desk was, Cain struggled to find the right descriptor, Louis XIV? Gold and white with little lion's heads for feet, maybe it wasn't anything other than unique. Slowly he made his way around the desk. He left footprints in the dust, and he had a hard time believing that the last caretaker hadn't ventured into the library. What else was there to do in a place like this? It wasn't like they were getting cable.
The desk looked as if no one had touched it in ... a hundred years? Certainly no caretakers had been in here. He leaned a little and blew dust from thick creamy papers. A feather quill spun in it's now dry inkwell, but the paper had words written in a fine and delicate hand.
'Forever is such a lovely dream. I forgive you. I understand. I love you in all good ways. I'll see you in Paris. S.' The letter was dated August 21, 1872. It didn't have to be, but Cain was sure the 'S' was for Shelly. How someone both long dead and probably not at all like he was being presented had taken a hold so quickly in Cain's imagination, he didn't know.
"You've been alone too long," a voice said, light, playful, accented oddly.
"Who's there?" Cain snarled, wishing he had a flashlight, a big heavy black one, even though it was the middle of the day. Wishing that he'd done a full house sweep. "Show yourself!"
"Why should I? I'd rather you didn't run away."
"I don't run from anything," Cain said, standing up, straight enough to hide the distribution of weight between his legs. "Who are you?"
Blue misted, swirling a little like a painting of a Chinese cloud, and a man stepped into the doorway. He seemed to have volume, substance, but he was blue, shades of blue from midnight in the shadows to summer sky for his eyes. Dressed like something out of Gone with the Wind meets Poetic Pirates, he looked very much at home in the dusty mansion. "Shelly Comstock Gray," he said, making a sweeping bow, but rising with a smile. "You're in my house. Who are you?"
"Cain Hardrain. I'm the new caretaker." He moved slowly around the desk, and towards the doorway, as if he were trying to get close to a wild bird. "If you're dead, it's not your house."
"Death," Shelly said, holding out a hand as if he expected it to be kissed, "is subjective. Hardrain. Such an usual name. Your skin is golden like tea. Are you a savage?"
Cain laughed, reaching for the extended hand, to shake, not kiss. "It's been said, sometimes. I can be savage as hell."
Shelly's hand passed easily through Cain's, back up to touch the lace at his collar. "Well, one either is, or one isn't, aren't they? Are you Northern or Southern? Not that I should ask, but I would really like to know before I let you stay in my house."
"That was over a long ass time ago, Shelly," Cain said, just giving up, until he got more information. Shelly was hardly the worst or most intimidating figment of his imagination.
The flouncing man could be a ghost. He had to allow for that. An open mind meant he might not be completely insane. Heading back to the kitchen, he said, "If it matters I was raised in New York. My mother was British. My father was Apache. People don't ask if people are savage anymore, unless it's at that kind of club and they're hoping for a close encounter of the leather kind."
"Excuse me," Shelly asked, "Did your mother escape then? You also didn't answer. Are your sympathies with the Union or the Confederacy, Sir?"
"The Civil war was over a long time ago, more than a hundred years ago. The Union won," Cain said, winking before heading into the kitchen. "Did you run off the last care taker?"
The door pushed open far enough to allow a slender man to slip through. Pointer fingers pressed to his chin, he appeared to consider Cain very seriously. "So you're European! That's delightful. Spanish, perhaps? Do you know the art of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot?"
"Nope." Cain opened up his pack, pulling out smaller black pouches. "So, did you run the chick off?"
Shelly pressed his palms together, studied the ceiling, and left without so much as a puff of blue mist behind him.
"Sounds like an admission of guilt to me," Cain growled at the empty room. "You keep your personal problems to yourself. I'll keep mine to myself. Got it?"
Cain let out the breath he'd been holding. This was the destination. He wasn't sleeping in the barracks or on the street. Tonight, he was here, in this great obnoxious house. He grinned and plotted a place to belong. The library was his now. Tension released him and he shoved his laptop back in his bag. Smirking, he grabbed up a broom older than Martha Stewart and stomped his way back to the library.
Books, so many of them. It was like a jackpot. He set his bag down on the desk. First order was getting the windows open. That used all of his considerable upper body strength, but he got both of them open. He put a bandana over his face and attacked the dust. A hundred plus years of dust rose, swirled, and for the most part got sucked out the windows into the late evening air. He didn't even try getting the higher up book shelves. Ladders and stairs were something he'd try in the morning, when his knee had considered forgiving him. What dust he didn't defeat with the broom and an open window, he got with one of his spare tee-shirts.
It wasn't a great victory, but he stood behind the desk, feeling the breeze at his back, and held dominion over the library. He stretched fingers interlaced, palms out. Impulsive, he pulled out his cell phone and 411'ed the closest pizza place. Meat lovers pizza, but they didn't deliver beer, so he only got most of what he wanted. While he waited, he pulled out his laptop and sat down at Shelly's desk. He supposed it ought to have been the father's desk, or the lawyer brother's desk, but his gut told him it was Shelly's. Carefully, he moved Shelly's letters over. He shook the last bit of dust out of the feather quill pen and set that on the papers. It looked so poetic. Silly and frivolous, but he found himself smiling.
In one of the drawers he found a couple candles. He used one of them to replace the one in the candle holder. It even had a glass bit around it. It would have been kitsch, if it hadn't been authentic. He imagined the candle stub having been the last one that Shelly had used. Authentically used by a dead man.
The chair had wheels, and he scooted closer to the book shelves on one side of the room. He felt more like a boy than a man in a wheel chair. With a copy of 'The Last of The Mohicans' in his hands he shoved himself back behind the desk and put his feet up on the shelf, so he could lean back in the last light of the day. James Fenimore Cooper, a haunted house, and pizza on the way, and maybe it was the stop at the bar, but he was feeling better than in... years. Some very small part of him, the part that observed and came to conclusions, wanted to point out that he'd been feeling better since he'd walked through Shelly.
His pizza came. The delivery driver was a smart little capitalist. He offered Cain a fifth of whiskey for thirty bucks. It made it a perfect night.
Candle light, a chair to sit in where he wasn't going to get rained on, wasn't going to get rousted and told to move along, a book with a pretty woman to save, and really decent whiskey. By the time a sweet male voice whispered in his ear that he should read it out loud, the logical part of his mind was already gone to sleep. He read chapters, until he wasn't sure if he were even awake any more or care that a very interested Shelly Comstock-Gray sat on the desk, one knee up, chin on his knee, listening intently.
At some point though, dreams won out and he slept in the chair, the thick hardback book on his chest, empty bottle on the floor by his lax fingers.
Sunlight filtered through the lace, mottling over Shelly's hair, over the white shirt he wore. The door to his room closed, but his response was just the slightest move of slender fingers, under soft and layered lace. Well-tailored black slacks concealed and informed the firm lines of his body. It was late morning. Any one of real status would be asleep still. The servants were focused on preparing for the evening's party.
"Oliver," Shelly replied, smiling over his shoulder, blond waves framing his face. "I was hoping you'd arrive early."
Oliver grinned, short dark hair neat around his face, side burns neatly trimmed. Black slacks, white tuxedo shirt, he twirled a long stemmed rose in one hand. Dark eyes glittered wickedly. "I brought rose wine."
Shelly let his shirt slip from one shoulder, revealing a strong and well build body, healthy and pale. "Are you saying you need to get drunk to want me?"
Oliver turned the key in the lock and pulled it out. Very familiar with his lover's room, he set both the key and the wine on the floor at the foot of Shelly's bed. "The only thing I need to desire you is breath."
Shelly took a step back from the window, as much as he loved the sunshine, he wanted just a touch more privacy with this best friend who would be his lover.
Oliver traced his fingers slowly down Shelly's bare shoulder, leaving goosebumps. "I want you, Shelly."
"How badly do you want me," Shelly asked, turning, letting his shirt slip from both shoulders and down, soft cotton and lace caressing over sensitive skin as it fell. Voice lower, sultry, inviting, he asked again, "How badly do you want me?"
Oliver licked his lips, trembling fingers, pushing Shelly's shirt the rest of the way free. Fingers traced slowly back up Shelly's arms, shivering so lightly, their eyes locked, searching each other's soul, until his strong hands grabbed hold. Pulling his lover to him, Oliver joined them, lips caressing lips, diving deep into forbidden intimacy with his love. Shelly melted open, pressing up, drinking his love down as if this might be the only moment they might have.
The world around them was decadent, gilt, but tainted with the end of Mr. Lincoln's War. What promises forbidden love could give came to little more than what kisses held the moment. Oliver growled into the kiss, his tongue caressing Shelly's tongue, cherishing him. His kiss moved to Shelly's throat, kissing down towards his shoulder.
"Today. I want… today." Shelly's voice was breathy, light. One slender leg hooked around Oliver's, pulling him closer, groin to groin.
"Are you sure?" Oliver whispered, kisses low enough to be warm and wet against Shelly's nipple. "I'm happy with your mouth."
"More," Shelly moaned, hands working under Oliver's shirt. "Now. I want it now."
"Wicked boy," Oliver growled, hands undoing the buttons of Shelly's pants. "I love you, Shelly. I really love you. We'll go together, to San Francisco, so far away. We'll live together."
"Together," Shelly promised, a hand sliding over the front of Oliver's pants. "You do want me."
"Of course I want you," Oliver said, hands now cupping Shelly's bare ass cheeks, lifting him up. His own pants fell, letting him step easily free of them so he could carry Shelly to the bed. "I'm nervous too, you know. It's not like I've ever, before, you know."
"Touch me," Shelly begged, scooting back on the bed, knees bent. "Just touch me. We don't have do anything you're not ready for."
They'd studied together for years, come of age together. Both had reached their majorities within months of each other. First love, only love, deepest secret, and Shelly tipped his head, chin to his chest, soft rosy lips flush full of life.
"You are so beautiful," Oliver whispered. "At night, in my room, I close my eyes and think of you, only you."
"Do you think of touching me," Shelly asked, long slender fingers reaching between his legs to touch the soft rosy pucker, so private and intimate, "Here."
"Yes," Oliver said, blush darkening his cheeks. "Right there." His fingers were thick, the fingers of an engineer, a builder from a proud bloodline. Shaking, a finger circled slowly around the offered entrance. "Oil?"
"I knew you were coming," Shelly said, his blush making his eyes bluer, his hair seem fairer, "I got some. It's in the crock, just under the bed."
"You think of everything," Oliver said, appreciatively. "It's only one of the reasons I love you."
"We're really going to be together forever," Shelly asked, holding his knees, watching as Oliver's slick finger trailed slowly along Shelly's groan, back towards the sweet secret rose.
"Forever, Shelly. Whatever we have to do, that's what we'll do. I'll never be parted from you," Oliver said, pressing his finger forward into the heated sheath, opening the tender virgin ring. "Always."
"Always," Shelly agreed, inching forward a little, taking Oliver's finger deeper. "It's good. I like it. It's so wicked, so good. Everything feels so vividly."
"Artist boy," Oliver teased, smiling. "I'm not sure it's really big enough for my cock."
"Finger worked fine. Let's try."
"Wine. First. I went to a lot of trouble to get it, you know."
"Okay," Shelly agreed, sitting up.
Oliver backed away a little, rising and peeling off his shirt. "Definitely wine. What if I hurt you?"
"You won't hurt me. Do you want to? I mean, you don't have to."
"Are you kidding," Oliver said, pulling the cork from his bottle of wine. The scent of roses filled the room, wafting slowly, creating an aura of otherworldliness. "Of course, I want to be inside you. Isn't that what all men want? To be inside the one they love."
"I'm a man, just fine, but what I want is you in me. Does that make me less of a man?"
"No," Oliver hastily rejected. "You are a brilliant man, poetic, artistic, mouthy, and everything I have ever wanted."
Oliver crawled up over the bed, bringing the bottle of wine with him. "You are the flower of all that I could desire. Does that make me less of a man? That I shiver and cry out for you in my bed? That my cum spills as I think of my hands in your hair?"
"Who is to say what a man is," Shelly said, coming back up from where he'd reached for the oil, hand slick and dripping. "I want to drink… you."
Shelly took the bottle with one hand and the other hand took hold of Oliver's cock, stroking oil over the thick length.
"You really want me to do it?"
"Yeah," Shelly said, smiling so brightly his eyes closed for just a moment. "I do. We'll be one person."
"Yeah," Oliver agreed, voice low, in awe. "Till death do us part" he whispered, invoking powerful ritual magic.
"Yeah," Shelly agreed, stroking his lover's hardness. Trembling in fear and desire, he scooted closer, refusing to back down. "Now, take me now."
"Have you been reading those lady's novels again?"
"Maybe," Shelly said, all blush and shifting eyes.
"Lay back," Oliver said, taking another long drink of the wine. "I want to look at you, my virgin husband. Do you think we'll burn in Hell?"
"How could that be," Shelly said, "We're built for this too, aren't we? When you touch me everything that's good comes out in me."
"Angel, my angel," Oliver swore, laying himself over Shelly, just low enough that he'd find his way into his love. "You will tell me if it hurts?"
"How could it hurt? I'm waiting for you, longing for you," Shelly said, legs open.
Oliver's hands sought out Shelly's fingers lacing together. Hearts beating hard, heard enough that Shelly was sure he could feel the pounding of Oliver's against his chest. "Is this like in the books?"
Shelly groaned, legs reaching to wrap around Oliver. "Do it like us."
"Crazy bastard," Oliver whimpered, a hand slipping between them to encircle Shelly's passion, stroking, slow, knowing well the needs of his lover. The head of Oliver's cock pressed eagerly to a now slick virgin entrance. Heat and love, need that pulled through his belly, need so powerful that mingled with wine and drove him forward. The first joining push spread Shelly's relaxed and willing entrance, testing the boundaries of fear and acceptance. "You're magic."
"Oh god," Shelly whimpered, the thick shaft of his lover opening him, filling him with more sensation than he could have imagined. So sensitive, feeling every movement, the heat and hardness, he panted, sweat breaking out over his forehead. "More, take me all the way so it can never be taken away."
Oliver froze. "You're pale! Does it hurt?"
"Deeper! All the way!"
"Oh hell," Oliver growled, thrusting deeper, his cock slicked with oil and secreted into the body of his love, the keeper of his heart, he could hardly think, "All the way, Cumming!"
The deepest point brought a flash of pleasure in Shelly, white light behind his eyes as some part of his body was touched that he'd never knew could exist. To him it wasn't a prostate, but love, passion, a promise of forever. "Yes," he cried out, arms going around Oliver, clutching him tight. "Do it again!"
Not releasing crossed Oliver's eyes with strain, but he held back, balls tight, and he drew back just a little, then forward again, shaking in Shelly's embrace. "What? Are you okay?"
"Good, good, feels good, do it again!" Shelly cried out, louder than a secret lover should be even in his own family home.
"I'm cumming," Oliver begged, apologized, weak in Shelly's arms as he tried to stroke his lover's pleasure, tried to hold off and failed, his passion boiling out of him, spilling decadent proof of their love into Shelly's body. "Shelly!"
Shelly's body jumped to its peak as well, spilling liquid heat between them. Oliver's hand covered Shelly's mouth, hiding the cry as orgasm tightened and held, hiding the secret of their love as much as he could.
Clinging to each other, softness welling up around them, comfortable in each other, in the promise of the future. Oliver, now on his side, pulled Shelly close, tucking him safe in his arms. "Did it hurt?"
"Only at the start, but then it was really, really good, felt wonderful," Shelly said, dazed. "Forever."
"Forever," Oliver promised. "We will go to San Francisco. You'll paint pictures and I'll build fine buildings."
"Going to sleep now," Shelly purred, fingers interlinking with Oliver's.
"For a little while," Oliver agreed.
Everything was perfect. Such a perfect day.
A new day split Cain's head, not all the way, just down to about his eyeballs. It was proof that he'd had a really good night. "Oh God."
Gracey stood at the side of the desk, arms crossed, unlit cigarette in his fingers.
"Morning, Gracey," he said, wishing with all his power of regret that he'd taken his leg off the night before. "Standing guard, are you?"
His dead friend turned to look at him, expression full of irritation. Long red scratches stretched from his forehead down the side of his face to his jaw. A swollen eyelid did not make Gracey look anymore cheerful than usual.
"Shit. Red headed bitch?"
Gracey shrugged and went away as if he were nothing more than just a hangover scar. Cain shuddered. He checked the fastenings on his knee then pushed himself upright. Having gotten a good night's sleep in a place that he had a legitimate right to be though made him feel very protective over the place. Being in charge of the place felt like a mission too, familiar, satisfying. He sneezed and glared at the dust. The dust had to go.
A couple of slices of cold pizza made breakfast, then he went to see about washing up. The sink was broad, double basined, but didn't even pretend to have a faucet. No electric, no running water, and suddenly there was something else that he really wanted from the modern world. "Okay. Where's the toilet?"
The house and any other soul in it ignored him. It didn't make any reasonable sense, but he suddenly hated someone named Oliver. Lazy, worthless, failure of a man, leaning on the counter, head in his hands, he wasn't sure if he were thinking about himself or Oliver, whoever Oliver might be.
As he explored the house, he found that there was electricity. It had obviously been added well after the house had been build. With hope, he plugged the refrigerator in. It sputtered and groaned to life. Then for no particular reason, panic slapped him. Paranoia soured the air. He grated his teeth and refused. The panic stabbed up into his headache, but he wanted to believe that he could make a home here.
So he attacked the dust in the rest of the first floor, except for that one room. Like the library, it had double doors, white with raised gold decorative squares on the top and bottom. Cain stood in front of it, a few feet back though, and glared. Staring at the door made his mind go blank. It was like being so afraid of something that you won't even admit it was there.
"What the hell happened in here, uh?"
"I'm not sure how it started," Shelly said softly, behind Cain, a little to the left. "You hear me better than anyone else has."
"Uhg," Cain said. "I'm just crazier, I guess. What happened in that room?"
"I don't remember," Shelly said flippantly.
"Umph," Cain said. Dark eyes narrowed he turned and glared at the ghost. All in blue, Shelly glared back, not giving any ground. "Did you run the last care taker off? Did you kill anyone?"
"What did she say?" Shelly crossed his arms, making flouncing lace look very dominant and masculine.
"Nothing to me. It was the cab driver. She said you drove her off. I just wanted to know what to expect from you."
"Negotiating your terms of surrender already?"
"Fuck you, dead boy," Cain said, sweeping his way back towards the kitchen. "I don't surrender."
"No," Shelly asked. He paused at the railing, running a translucent finger over the dusted scene of Athene being born from Zeus' head. "Then you must be battling some terrible foes."
Cain leaned on the broom. "Did you go to war?"
"My father did."
"Then you won't understand. I just want to know if you're going to try and run me off. Just be honest with me, and we'll get along a lot better."
"Like the other undead you brought into the house with you?"
"You leave Gracey out of this. He's had enough shit." Cain limped off to the kitchen, banging the door open as he went.
"Do you like cats?" Shelly asked, boosting himself up to sit on the butcher-block table, as if he felt like he had solid form and mass to himself. Both palms on the scared surface, he smiled invitingly, not at all like they'd just been acting like wolves over territory.
Cain slammed his way through the drawers, looking for anything useful that might still be there. "What's that got to do with anything? You are a strange ghost. I think you really are a ghost. You're too strange for me to have imagined, but yeah. I like cats."
"Then I'm not likely to try to run you off. I like my cats. That last one sneezed constantly and people in metal carriages came to get my friends. Cats are the keepers of the doorway to the underworld, you know. I need them."
"You like Egyptian ideas, I take it," Cain said, rummaging around in his pocket for his cell phone. "It's really hard to make up my mind. So are you real or in my head?"
"What an interesting question," Shelly asked leaning back on the table, blue hair fanning out. He was still all drawn in blue, a walking piece of art. "Is there anything you think about or perceive that is actually outside of your head?"
"Don't play games with me," Cain said. He growled then spun to the cabinets. "So, figment of my mind, is there anything to drink around here?"
"The water from the well is clean and good. There will be no more liquor. I dislike it."
"Whiskey? Beer? Vokda?" Cain growled. Not only was he on bad terms with his knee, but his head was beginning to double time him too. Tension, like his soul was knotting up, pulling his very being into a black hole of emotion and experience that he just didn't want to deal with. Panic was not something a man was supposed to feel. Panic was not supposed to be so powerful, like a tornado dancing around, spinning his heart, stealing his breath. "Come on ghost! Help me out here, or stop making me think I'm going insane! I do not want to see ghosts or be told what to do by some sanctimonious rich brat."
"Relax," Shelly said, a warm breeze moving over the back of Cain's neck. "You are surrounded by ghosts. Everyone is," the warm, seductive voice said, warm breath like pressure flowing over his shoulders, under his loose tee-shirt. "Such demons of fire and screaming find root in your mind. Have you come from Hell?"
"Come from," Cain growled. "I'll never leave Hell. Leave me alone, Shelly. I'm not worth your time."
Shelly stepped away, but pointed lifted his hand, palm up, then let it drop into a flamboyant pointing finger. "You are too bossy for your own good."
"You're too modern to be a ghost. You're not like that girl. She just does her ghostly 'boo' and goes way."
"Don't listen to her, Cain Hardrain. She is a liar."
"Yeah, yeah," Cain said, waving a hand over his head as he limped out to the path out back. Over grown with weeds, it had been hard to walk on, but pulling weeds seemed like a simple, repetitive task to be taking care of.
Weeding also proved to be harder than he'd imagined it would be. There was also a safety and peace in the task, a great satisfaction of seeing the cobblestone path looking cleaner and put right. A sense of pride, a bit of hope sprung from the achievement.
He turned to go back into the house. He either missed the step or his knee gave out and he hit the stone stairs with both hands. The level of emotional intensity to the string of curses that flowed from Cain could have elevated the tirade into that of 'speaking in tongues' except that he knew all the words he was using and the devil wasn't fond of sponsoring miracles. He leaned forward, pressing his forehead to the cold stones, hoping that the pain in his leg, the leg that wasn't even there anymore would subside a bit.
Shelly's cool fingers brushed over his face, through his hair. "Give me your demons for tonight and I will protect you while you rest. You are a good man, Cain Hardrain."
"How are you going to protect me? I'm imagining you! I'm God buggered insane!"
"I'm more powerful than you think. You are my guest. Relax," Shelly seduced. Cain swore he could feel fingers rubbing his temples, a warm body pressed to his back. A feeling of well-being seeped into him, sweet and feather soft, holding him, wrapping warmth around him. The war fell away. The pain of his stolen leg fell away. Murder and carnage faded out of his world the way ghosts could fade away on the wind.
Waking up was… interesting.
The room smelled of lavender and sunlight on linen.
His teeth felt clean, like, really clean, and it disturbed him utterly that that was a surprise. Slowly he sat up to find sunlight streaming through sparkling clean windows. He lay, naked, in a bed of sunlight fresh linen and fluffed up, white and embroidered with roses. His prosthetic leg rested on a pillow at the end of the bed.
He felt great, really, no tension, no pain and when his hands landed on his head, his hair was clean, combed nice and lose around his shoulders. "Oh shit. How the hell did this happen?"
Shelly ghosted through the door, no longer dressed like a pretty poet boy, but like a French maid, even though he looked as male as he had before. As if one can look male in a short black skirt and white apron. Cain's clothes floated in the arms of the grinning ghost. "Good morning, Cain! How are you feeling?"
"What did you do to me?" Cain grabbed onto the covers with both hands.
"I possessed you a little," Shelly smiled apologetically. "You are a very virile man! Time to get up!"
Blushing, Cain pulled the covers up to his chin. "You can't take advantage of people like that! That's indecent!"
"Yes, yes," Shelly said, dropping the clothes. "I want you to buy me canvases today!"
"What? I don't have any money."
"That's okay. I have been watching the news. Identity theft is the largest growing crime in the United States. Damn Yankees."
"You… you're a ghost! You can't steal identities! You're Southern? You live in New York State," Cain growled. "And did they even have mini skirts when you were alive?"
Shelly pressed his fingers to his cheeks, his image taking on a very Japanese anime look. "I'm dead, not brain dead. I have to keep up with the times!" One hand shot up in the air, his hand making a flapping motion that meant nothing at all to Cain. "Get up Cain Hardrain. There's so much to do!" And with that Shelly disappeared without even the courtesy to walk to the door first.
Cain yelled at the disappeared ghost. "Shelly!"
He grabbed after his clothes, pausing a moment to smell his tee-shirt and think how lovely sunshine smelled, but he just couldn't find the panic or rage that had gripped him so hard the day before. Still blushing, he pulled his shirt on and grabbed his leg and pants. Damn ghost. Dressed like a French maid, with unforgivably nice legs too. Cain found himself laughing, snickering. The day before felt like a rainy day and today the sun was out. He blew air into his cheeks and decided he'd just go with it. Sunshine was better than endless rain, even if the rain was just an internal drizzle.
Renewed energy propelled him out into the hall. Night and day. The room had been clean and fresh, but the hall put him back in a house that hadn't been lived in properly for over a hundred years. Why his new boss cared about having a caretaker here was beyond him. What it needed was a bulldozer. The image was clear, big yellow bulldozer pushing the house over.
Blue flashed up like a hurricane, eyes narrowed, curly hair both soaked and lashing out like living lightening. "A bulldozer! You'd bulldoze my house! What an ugly yellow monster!"
If Cain had been a calmer man, he wouldn't run into storms. "Your house, Blue Boy," Cain growled questioningly back, leaning closer to the angry blue ghost, "It's my house now, Blue Boy! This house is my job and you can just stand back and watch."
Shelly blinked, one eye closed more than the other. "Get out of my house you, Yankee! You savage!"
As soon as breeze danced over Cain's throat, his instinct reached back into summer stories and walks with his grandfather. A spirit animal should have been something wonderful and fearsome like an eagle or a wolf. At ten he hadn't been happy to have dreamt a raccoon for his soul spirit. He could feel the raccoon spirit then, wicked and playful and fearless as it laid a protective mantle over his shoulders. "Blue Boy! You gotta learn to keep your hands to yourself!"
"I helped you yesterday!"
"You took advantage of me and don't think I'm not going to return the favor!"
"As if you could even hope to touch me, Savage! You have no power in my house.
Cain stomped by, his prosthetic sounding extra loud to his own ears, and down the stairs. "Its my house now!"
"OH yeah," Shelly howled, "I'm not going to let you bulldoze my house!"
At the base of the stairs, Cain spun around, grabbed both railings and leaned into the blue waterfall that jumbled back into the form of a unsettled fluttery man. Cain's dark eyes locked onto blue eyes, sorting him out. One step back up the stairs, Shelly's eyes went wide, and Cain took a long slow breath. "I am not going to hurt your house, Shelly. You're not going to run me off. Act out like a spoiled brat and not only will I spank you, but I'll get my grandfather to come down here blow holy smoke into this hovel."
Shelly's storm settled like falling cards and he was the rather un-intimidating poetic man form again. "My house is not a hovel! We had grand parties here. Oliver told me he loved me here!"
"That was a hundred years ago, Shelly," Cain yelled back. He wasn't sure he remembered having this much energy or excitement. Even his knee liked him and his head didn't hate him. "I've decided I like it here!"
Protein bar for breakfast and he found he didn't really want to tap his flask that he'd found in the very bottom of his back back. He picked up his cane, considered it, than put it back where he'd hung it on the butcher-block table
"I'm glad you like it here," Shelly said, peeking around the door "I don't really want to run you off, not really. You're cute and you're strong."
"Great," Cain said. He grinned lopsidedly, unselfconsciously. "So. How," Cain asked, looking over his shoulder, "Did I get naked and upstairs?"
"You walked," Shelly said, innocuous. Then fluttering his hands he postured like it was no big deal. "I possessed you. I didn't do anything that wasn't good for you. I liked you from the moment I saw you! Like I've known you all my life!"
"So you think I'm hot," Cain asked, hands on his hips. He felt it, in that moment, attractive, alive, desirable. Some deep part of his mind thought he ought to be feeling insane, but he ignored it.
Shelly touched a pointer finger to his lips, head leaning back just a little, eyebrows arched. "How should I know if you feel hot or not? Your golden skin suggests that you like the sun well enough."
Cain blew air into his cheeks. "No. Do you think I'm sexy?"
Purple seeped into Shelly's cheeks and both hands slapped at the air. "Now, now, such questions aren't polite, even given that you've got hot Savage and European blood, but a gentleman just does not ask such things of another gentlemen, nor of a lady, for that matter."
"So you understand identity fraud, but not getting hit on? Where are you getting your information?"
"A gentleman has resources," Shelly said, elbows on the table, fingers under his chin, gaze purposefully focused out the window and away from Cain. "So? Do you think I'm hot?"
"You're not bad," Cain said, giving Shelly an obvious once over. "Those old fashioned clothes are kind of cute."
"Old fashioned," Shelly snapped. "These are the latest! Made from Paris patterns!"
"A hundred years ago," Cain repeated. "Let's have breakfast. Must be something other than protein bars. What do ghosts eat?"
Shelly twittered almost, child like in his surprise. "I don't know. I've never eaten anything, but I used to very much like eggs and strawberries!"
"Eggs and strawberries?" Cain asked. "Where do you keep cold food? Like a working fridge?"
"Big cold box that has food in it?"
"The cellar," Shelly said cheerfully, the flush looking a little more red his face, his hair a little more yellow.
Cain watched the color transformation, wondering how far it would go, if Shelly would become natural colored and still solid looking. He wondered if he could touch him.
"No one goes there," Shelly tucked his hands under his arms, curling in on himself. "No one has been there since I died." His color shifted to deeper blues, almost to blacks. Cain was sure he saw thick rain drops gliding slowly down Shelly's curls, dark like oil. "The strawberry preserves are in the cellar."
Cain was sure that nothing in the cellar since 1872 was going to be any good. "Why hasn't anyone been in the cellar?"
"It doesn't want anyone in the cellar." Shelly disappeared. No glitter, no swirls, just gone, like he'd never been more than a figment.
His gut told him that Shelly was real. This feeling of peace and sanity were probably not good signs, but he'd keep them as long as he could. If he was insane, there probably wasn't much to be done about it and this could be a nice little fantasy world. Room and board and a pretty blond artist; that made it close to a best possible outcome. If he were sane, then things were probably more dangerous than they seemed; the something in the cellar for starters. If he was sane, he was even more convinced that Shelly was not a murderer. That likely meant something or someone had killed Shelly. For once in his life insanity was looking pretty good.
Though if he were insane and this was a fantasy world, there'd be better food. Sanity got a point in its favor. The last caretaker had left a canister of diet replacement powder, powdered milk, and a half eaten package of cream filled cookies, now stale. No blender, and come to think of it, no electric, Cain was thinking that was going to be a yummy blend. He wasn't sure what he'd been thinking when he'd let that woman talk him into this job, put him on a flight that same day. He'd just needed to get out of New York, away from people he owed money to and people who owed him money, and more importantly things he shouldn't be buying anymore. He could be detoxing here now, with cream filled cookies and mouthy blue ghosts.
His new employer had promised to send food and supplies. All he had to do was live in the house. Something about keeping the house continually occupied kept it from becoming some kind of historical monument. Usually, at as far as Cain understood, that would be a good thing. His new boss had explained that if the house wasn't continually occupied the Artistic Preservation Society and Kendall McBride would have the house converted to a monument, including tours by happy little grade school kids. Cain hadn't seen how that would be a problem. There had to be some money in there somewhere.
What his boss had said, hadn't made any sense at the time. Shelly wouldn't like it. Now that made perfect sense. God, what if Shelly was real?
Cain ran a hand through raven black hair and came to a decision. He disconnected his phone from his computer and wandered back into the dining room to find a chair. He slumped into a seat. There was only one number in his phone. He figured if he was found dead, there was only one person he wanted notified.
"Gramps, hey. Yeah, I'm doing good," he said, smiling as he stretched back a little. "No, I'm not drunk. No, I'm not stoned. Yeah, thanks. Hey, Gramps, you know, I want to talk about ghosts, like attractive all blue ghosts."
Several minutes pass, Cain slumped in the chair, elbow on the table. There were lectures. Then there were lectures in half dead languages long associated with the bad guys in cowboy movies. Cain slumped a little lower, fingers combing into his hair. "Hey. Gramps, I'm serious. I'm at this old ass house. Seems there was a couple of brothers. One was a little queer and the other might have had anger issues. So they whacked each other. Yeah, white boys, so like, one of them is still haunting this house."
The next part of the lecture drove Cain out of the chair and towards the back door, his cane forgotten on the table still. "Gramps, you know I don't have any 'supplies' with me, and I'm not sure I want to, uh, send him through. He seems kinda nice. Gramps, now, don't be like that. White boys can be nice, yeah, even if they're dead." Cain slumped down on the stairs out the back door, "So Gramps, yeah, what I really called about, no, oh, horse-shit, no, I am not sleeping with the ghost. Yeah, I know that can be dangerous, now, Gramps, this is serious. Look, there's something in the cellar. Something that scares my blue boy. Jeeze. I am not sleeping with the ghost, and what if I was? I can see who I want. I'm not a racist, Gramps."
Cain pressed his fingers above his eyes. "Yes, I understand that being dead is not the same as being white. Look, Gramps, I really need your help. Shelly, yeah, that's his name. Shelly says there's something in the cellar. Scared the crap out of him. No one has been in the cellar for, well, since he died."
"Damn, I hope it's not his body. You'd think they've have looked there when he went missing." Cain rolled his eyes. "Gramps."
Ignoring the swirl of blue that wasn't part of the sky, Cain got back up and went back into the kitchen. "There isn't anything in here, some cookies and some diet powder. I don't think people stay very long."
Cain rifled through a couple more cabinets. "Well, that would be the downside of a haunted house, Gramps. I don't even have any salt. I think sage is out. How would I know if there's an over grown herb garden?"
"Cain," Shelly said. Standing in the open door way, sunlight flowing through him.
"What? Oh, Gramps, it's Shelly. No, I don't think you can talk to him. Want me to put you on speaker phone. I know you're a shaman, Gramps."
"I want to help. I know where the garden is. There is sage."
"Great. Shelly, want to talk to my grandfather?"
Shelly shook his head. Worse he became translucent, the sunlight flowing through him.
"Ghost boy is shy, Gramps. I'm going to get that sage. I'll do what you said. Call you later."
Cain shoved his phone back into his backpack and headed out. "Okay Blue? Where's the garden?"
"Why do you need sage? Does your grandfather know that you are a man who likes his own kind?"
"Is that how they said it in your time? It's homosexual now," Cain said, standing before so much overgrown vegetation that it could have been a botanical garden for all he knew. "Where to?"
"Will you make it like it was? All neat and prim? My mother loved this garden. It was her passion," Shelly asked, walking confidently along a path that Cain couldn't even see. "My mother was an elegant woman, graceful and full of ideas. She thought women should vote and she never agreed with Father's choice to go south to be a doctor for the Confederacy. I thought she'd weed until there was only dirt. William spiked her tea with home brew."
Shelly looked back over his shoulder, curls falling around his face, making Cain very much want to see his hair the color it had been in life. "Abolitionists, prohibitionists, my mother was friends with them all. Mickey had more useful friends."
"Uh," Cain said, following along the garden path. The over grown path wasn't so good for his fake leg, but he wasn't going to tell the ghost that. "So you think abolitionists weren't useful?"
Shelly sighed, actually sighed, though how he did that without having to breath, Cain wasn't sure about that either. He knelt down, fingers passing through small blue flowers.
"Slavery is abhorrent. Your family must know something of it, what with naming you Cain?"
"What's my name got to do with it?"
"Cain and Able? The mark of Cain? You DO read your Bible, don't you?" Shelly asked, looking up.
"Not really. Savage, remember? My Gramps raised me. He's a shaman." And a drunk, Cain thought, but didn't say. "He isn't real big on monotheistic religions and stuff. So you think slavery was okay?"
"Not at all," Shelly said, shaking his head. "I said it was abhorrent, didn't I? I just think there was a better way than war. The north had their own kind of slavery, you understand, not that they called it that. People's greed is what causes slavery. War does not solve that."
"I guess the Civil War was really kind of messy. I don't like war. I've been to war."
"Father was never the same," Shelly said, "The sage should be a little farther. Is that where you lost your leg?"
"Yeah," Cain said curtly, "Your dad fight for the North or the South?"
"He was a doctor. He believed that President Lincoln was an uneducated man motivated by capitalistic concerns. He thought he could do best by being a doctor for the Confederacy. He didn't stay happy with them for long either. It might just have been that they were farther away and seemed more romantic. My father was full of romantic ideas."
"What happened to your father?"
"I don't remember. Get your sage." Shelly pointed, his being flowing forward, around the path, to hang like a glowing aura over the most unremarkable bush.
It didn't look like a holy plant to him. Without ceremony, Cain pulled off a sizable branch from the plant, giving only a little afterthought to the spirit of the plant, but he hoped it was enough. "If you don't want to talk about something, you can just say so, you know."
Shelly coalesced back into form, now wearing a proper suit, his hair pulled back with a black ribbon. "I won't ask you about your war either. I want to go into town. Do you have a carriage? The last woman had a carriage."
"You mean a car? I don't have a car. I came in a cab, like a car for hire. What do you want in town?"
"Canvases and paints. I want new brushes. I was watching the television and there was a man painting with such bright colors," Shelly said. The word television was said with special reverence.
"Where did you get a television?" Cain asked, "And what are you running it on? There's no electric."
"Can I see your television," Cain asked politely, holding the door open for Shelly, forgetting completely about the cellar and what he told his grandfather he'd do.
The sage got put down on the block table.
"Well, she did decide to put all of her things in ~my~ room," Shelly said, a spring in his step as he lead Cain upstairs. "Sometimes people can't find my room. I don't know why she could. I didn't like her. She didn't like my cats."
"I'll get you a cat," Cain offered, impulsively. He'd known Shelly, if one could call it that, for less than a day, but he felt, well, not alone, and he liked it. "I'll try to get the other cats back. How many were there?"
"A few," Shelly said obscurely, walking past the door where Cain had woken up. Hallway that hadn't even seemed to be there until Shelly walked into it came into being. For just a moment, when Shelly turned and walked backwards, he was in full color, blond with blue eyes, laughing, cheeks full of color, his black suit fancy, like what a well bred young man might wear to a dinner party. He almost skipped backward down the hall, laughing, and Cain could hear music, other people laughing. The hall was bright and fresh. The wallpaper was white and dotted with pink roses, the carpet a lovely blue. Shelly held out his hand, "Come on, Cain. I'll show you everything. I don't want you to leave, Cain. I like you." Then like mist burned off by the summer sun, the cheerful blond and flippant man was gone again.
Cain stopped there, the hall now tattered and peeling, the carpet long returned to dust. What a house this must have been at one time. "Shelly!"
Silence. He wished he hadn't left the sage downstairs. Cain wanted to know what had happened here, leaving Shelly lingering around like Christmas lights that never got put way. Cain didn't really want him to get put away, but at the same time, he wanted to know what had happened.
Shelly's door was carved, ornate, the doorknob was crystal, set into a tarnished brass back plate. Victorian and so like Shelly, delicate and otherworldly. He'd been invited, so he wasn't sure why he felt like he was invading as he turned the doorknob. That the room looked as tattered and ruined by time as the hall, he felt disappointed. Somehow he'd wanted to walk into that room and find it as new as the hall had seemed, and Shelly, flushed and smiling at who ever he'd actually been smiling at in the hall. Getting ready for a party maybe, laughing with a lover, a boyfriend maybe? He really did think Shelly would have had a boyfriend. Some tall man with dark brown hair and quite without warning that imaginary boyfriend turned into Cain himself, dressed in old fashioned clothes, leaning over Shelly's shoulder, whispering.
The room was as far from that fairy tale as a person could get though. The bed had been a four-poster, but at some point someone had sawed the poles off. The bedding though was new, cheap from some mega ware store, in mass market plaid. There in the corner of the room was a plastic shelf system and on top of that was laptop computer playing television. The shopping channel, it seemed and the cursor was right over the 'Buy Now' button, so all one curious little ghost had to do was apply pressure to the enter key. Score two for sanity. Minus one for the rule of law.
"Identity theft my ass," Cain complained, shutting down the TV channel. He wasn't going to let anything else get bought on someone else's name, not from the time he could be said to be in the house. From the date on the computer, he'd been in the house a day. Supplies should be showing up, but maybe if he called, he could ask for art supply crap as well. It would be like leaving treats to draw out elves at Christmas. He grinned wickedly.
Better, he hadn't wanted a drink in hours. He hadn't panicked since Shelly laid hands on him yesterday.
He wanted to clean up this room, get the dust out. Maybe he'd come sleep in here, even though Shelly hadn't put him here in the first place. Maybe Shelly was naked when he first manifested or something. Cain found himself wolf grinning while opening the first of two smaller doors. One was a closet, and believe it or not, there was a whole closet full of clothes. Tattered and yellowed, because he supposed it was easier to confuse humans than moths and time. Neatly lined leather shoes, so polished that even a century later, under dust and spider webs they still carried that sparkle. "You sure must have been something, Mr. Shelly," Cain said, picking up a black silk tie that crumbled under his touch.
There were shelves to either side of the small room. One held socks, undergarments that were too strange, even folded neatly, for Cain to want to touch them. So personal, everything was just as it had been. The other shelf held books, hardback, the pages so yellow, with ribbons as bookmarks spilling over them. On the very top was a hatbox, which seemed too small for a top hat or anything a male would wear, so Cain found himself opening it up. Inside were little wooden soldiers, carved by hand and painted in peeling colors, all colors, not nearly enough of them the same color to form an army with.
Slowly Cain sat down, shifting his short leg out to let it rest from the prosthetic. Mixed in with the little soldier boys were animals, cats, dogs, ducks, cows, and birds, all colored by some little boy long gone. He lined them up on the floor, imagining the little hands that had played with them. At the very bottom of the box was a letter on paper so yellow that Cain feared touching it, but he lifted the edge with a fingernail.
December 14, 1862
My Dear Son, My Dear Shelly,
I miss you more than I can say, my son. The war is cold, as if the world has all turned to grey and shall never see any of you again, but then I sit to write you and each of the rest of the family, and I find you are all my colors. You are the blue of the sky. Blue is the color of your laughter and your dreams and your silly stories. Shelly, my son, never let anyone tell you to be other than you are because if that were to happen the sky would certainly go grey. William is the gold of the sun, of justice and….
That was as far as he could go without risking the fragile paper by opening it more. It was obviously a very important letter. Perhaps it was the reason that Shelly was blue. Very carefully, Cain put the little wooden toys back into the box. If Shelly had been twenty-two when he died in 1872, he'd been twelve when he'd gotten that letter. Twelve-year-old Shelly was an idea. Cain swore he'd never think about kissing the man again, not that he'd ever thought about kissing the man in the first place.
Putting the box back where he'd found it, he worked on getting himself back to his feet. It shouldn't have been an issue. He shouldn't have been in a humvee that ran over exploding bits. It wasn't comforting to think about a little boy getting a wartime letter from a father and it was so old now that it was yellow and fragile. Of all the things that should go extinct, war should be on that list.
It was Detroit. It was like some post-apocalyptic zombie mill. The houses on this street had been lived in at one time. Police didn't come into this area. People who did come into this area wouldn't have wanted the police there anyway. Ricky Lace didn't remember when he'd gotten there, or why he stayed. Sometime after his last foster home in ninth grade and sometime before he'd turned nineteen, that's when his eyes turned dull like someone used to live there.
Quarter to eleven, he stood on a corner, one that the street light still worked on. He had braids in his dark hair. They brushed against the middle of his back. Dark eyes watched the street, waiting, though he wasn't really sure what for. Dinner. Money. Something better, where he won't dream. He wore tight pants, slung low over lean hips. His top was silver, a half top with a zipper down the center. He just didn't want to dream.
Dawn found him still awake, but no richer.
Mut was going to kick his ass. He could go back home and hope. He eyed the empty houses, the other milling workers, most more successful than he'd been. If he went home, if one could call it that, he'd probably get his juice. If he didn't, well, something else would happen. He ran his hands over the metal of the light post. Neither hot nor cold, just slightly rough, and for a moment Ricky wondered if he were even alive, really alive. If there was a zombie apocalypse, maybe he was already part of it.
The world sucked. He sucked. Literally. It was never enough. Sleep was never good, but sometimes, under the dreams, there was quiet. In that quiet, he wasn't waiting for ... something. Waiting seemed like so much work. A tear, hot and rejected, traced down one side of his face. Too light to be night, too dark to be day, Ricky felt sure that nothing counted him. The decision crept into him like weeds breaking through concrete, shoving open resolve. There were no bridges in this neglected part of Detroit, not to cross or fly from, so he created his own storm.
He left his spot, hips swaying, declaring his desirability, his availability. Long braids swayed over his back. Other prostitutes, dealers of various sorts had their own spots. It was like a parade of rejected toys. Overseeing the street was a large man named Crank. Crank was black the way Ricky could never be. Resourceful, dominate, and angry, Crank had been the de facto guardian of The Street for a couple of years, being paid off by both the gangs that wanted to set up shop here and the cops that wanted to know if anything really bad was going down. No one fucked with Crank.
Ricky walked past the steps he sat on, smiling and swaying. Crank's eyes rolled over him. It was hard to tell, really if Ricky was a boy or a girl, even though everyone knew him here. His kind of beauty was a wild card that people could write their own desires on. Crank motioned for him to come closer. "Short night, sweet cheeks?"
A plan was a plan and it only took a spark of courage, just a little bit of the anger inside to channel. Ricky moved up the steps. Crank could take what he wanted for free. That's what being powerful meant. Power was something Ricky knew, and knew he'd never have. In that moment, he just wanted everything to stop. So he spit in Crank's face. It was just like jumping off a bridge.
Dreams hit him fast, far, far away from his body, from the real world.
In the dream he was a blond man with long lace cuffs that brushed over his hands. He sat at a desk, the fading sunlight behind him. He'd been crying. He hurt all over, in ways that he hadn't even known a heart could hurt. Expertly, with long, elegant fingers, he blotted the letter he'd just finished writing.
Oliver had left him. He both knew who Oliver was and wanted desperately to forget who Oliver was. With his rich boy white fingers he touched the name he'd signed on the letter. He was Shelly.
Outside the library where he sat, where he cried, a party glittered in music and light. He would have to join them soon, but right then he felt so keenly excluded. In that feeling of exclusion, Ricky and Shelly merged into one. The day had started out as one of the best in his life. He'd made love to Oliver, found a trust and magic in the sweet bliss of the other's embrace. They'd make promises to each other. Hearts make promises. Hearts lie. Less than an hour after they'd lain together, a servant had delivered a letter.
Oliver couldn't really be expected to put his career in jeopardy, could he? He couldn't really run away to San Francisco or Paris. Of course, he loved Shelly, but love was not what built lives. Practical men understood this. He understood that Shelly was an artist and might find it difficult, but Oliver expected, deep down, Shelly had always known what was coming.
The thing was.... Shelly hadn't.
Forever is such a lovely dream. I forgive you. I understand. I love you in all good ways. I'll see you in Paris.
Only he won't. He knew this as Shelly and as Ricky. Oliver wasn't going to Paris, no matter how much Shelly might want him to.
The library door opened. A figure slipped into the shadowy darkness, far from Shelly's one lamp.
Shelly folded the letter quickly. "Margaret?"
"Leave me alone," she hissed.
"You're in my library," he pointed out.
"OH? It's yours because women don't use libraries? You're no better than I am, you faggot."
"My god, woman," Shelly spat back, the word woman just as ugly as the word faggot. "Would that I were you. I'd be the wife of a doctor and you could have the library."
She sneered, dark shadows painting her face. "You'd be welcome to it. See how long you like being nothing, except some man's accessory. He'd love me if I was a man."
Shelly rose, finger tips still on his desk. "Mine would love me if I was a woman."
"I doubt it," Margaret hissed. "Women are stupid, mindless creatures who can't properly sit a horse and would be laughed from the halls of learning. I am a prisoner in petticoats."
"If you're a prisoner, it's of your own making," Shelly said, shrugging. "If you want to be a man, then you should just do it. Cut your hair, wear pants, pick a new name. You have money. You don't have live as a woman if you don't want to."
Rage paled her face, sneered across her face. The shadows hardened her face. She strode across the room and slapped him, hard. He held his ground, hands still on his desk. "You're the one that corrupted your brother. Did you creep into his room at night like some demon?"
The hair stood up on the back of Shelly's neck. "It's not my fault if my brother wants you for your name rather than that sacred bit of power you hide under your skirts, woman."
"He loves me! He loves my mind! More than he loves that cock sucking sycophant that follows him around. He told me so!"
"Did he now," Shelly asked, knowing that his brother Michael loved Richard more than words. "So you're a woman and a liar?"
"That's not true! I have letters! From last summer!"
Shelly tilted his head, considering. Blue eyes narrowed a little, then went wide. "You're Andrew."
Shock lengthened her face. "He told you."
He held up a hand as he sat back down and leaned back in the chair. "You write like an adolescent boy with his first crush. Mickey just wanted to keep you from getting hurt. He loves Richard."
"He doesn't," Margaret hissed. "He said if he ever met me he'd love me completely."
"Well, for one thing he thinks you're French and for another he thinks you've got a cock. He was just being nice to you," Shelly said softly. "Mickey doesn't want to hurt anyone, least of all you. Maybe you should let him know. There might be a better husband for you than Michael Comstock-Gray. He's a great lawyer and all polished on the surface, but he's gayer than I am."
"You won't know what a man wants! When he realizes who I really am, he will love me all the more. How you have the gall to show your face in polite society, I will never know. Your paintings are as perverse as you are."
Shelly took a slow breath. "You should leave the library now, before I say something I will regret more than what I've already said to you." He paused for a moment, giving her his calmest look. "You're obviously having histrionics."
White knuckled, she spun and strode from the room.
With trembling fingers, Shelly reached to pick up his letter to Oliver. He'd give it to him in the morning, slip it into his luggage, or something. The afternoon with him had been so perfect, until, well, it wasn't.
Shelly took another slow breath, but letting it out felt harder. He grabbed his leg, fingers going white as he gripped his thigh. Blood oozed up between his fingers and then Shelly was Ricky.
He jerked, trying to come up off the hard surface he was strapped to. "Let me go!" He screamed, frantic.
Experienced fingers touched on his face, forcing one eye open. A light flashed over his eye, back again. "What's your name?"
"Shelly!" He screamed. "Ricky Lace! I'm Ricky Lace."
That first word, if it had been a deep seated trigger, exploded. Dr. Andi Maynor almost dropped her flash light. The first name echoed in her mind. "Where are you hurt, Ricky?"
"Let me die! I don't want to go back there anymore!"
She took his face in one hand and looked right into his eyes. His eyes weren't blue, and it irritated her that she expected them to be. "You listen to me, Ricky Lace. I was here in this moment so that I could save your life. I became a doctor so I could save your life. You are not going to die, do you hear me? You're not going to go back to where you were. It's a new life for you, Ricky Lace. You're going to do good things with your life."
"I can't do it again! Let me die!" Ricky cried, but less loud, his eyes locked with hers. "I'm sorry."
"We have a gunshot wound in the thigh," a trauma nurse said as he sliced open Ricky's pants. "Multiple contusions, lacerations, abrasions. Someone beat this guy half to death."
Andi examined the weeping wound. "Bullet wound," she agreed. "Not self inflicted. Let's get a quick scan for possible internal injuries and prep him for surgery."
"I'll take the scans in the OR."
She scrubbed up and the scans were waiting for her in the OR prep room. The kid had a couple of broken ribs, other damage. Some damage wasn't easy to fix.
Betina, the best anesthesiologist in the city, "I've never heard you say things like you said to that boy. Did you really say you only became a doctor so you could save him? You know he's a street hustler, probably an addict. He didn't get wounds like this in Sunday School."
"I said that," Andi said, studying the scans still. "I hope they catch whoever did this."
"Because I meant it. I don't know. I've never been moved by a patient like this before."
"Maybe you should let someone else operate, I mean, if he reminds you of family or something."
"No, I'm going to do it. This is important to me. I'm going to make sure he has a better life."
"You've been working the ER for what? Fifteen years, Andi? How many junkies you see get straight?"
"Enough. It happens. I don't know how to explain it. Maybe I knew him in a past life or something. You going to help me? It's going to be a long piece of work, Tina."
"You know I'll help you."
"Good, because here comes the guest of honor."
The hair stood up on the back of Cain's neck. It felt like a sniper had him in the sights. He reached out to the mirror at the end of the closet and rubbed a little of the dust away. The red headed woman stood in the door way, an old fashioned pistol in her hand. She wore an evening gown, her hair up, pearls and diamonds again, like the first time he'd seen her reflection. "I'm not going to let you stop me, Shelly. Only two of us are going to Europe. I can't let you interfere in that."
Cain looked over his shoulder, looking right in to her eyes as he turned slowly. "You're Margaret right? What happened?"
Her hand shook. She seemed to stare right through him and then she fired.
It felt like the closet, the whole world crashed down on top of him. He felt himself falling. He felt a huge sense of failure, that he should have been here! He should have been here to protect Shelly!
Just as fast as he was falling, he was there, and everything was new, but still all over the floor. He had his leg, but now, he was missing his heart. It hurt, so much, picking up Shelly's clothes, putting them back on hangers, throwing the ones with dried blood back into the room. The room still smelled like Shelly. He could hear Shelly's voice, the last day he'd seen him, when they'd made love. He grabbed onto the closet rod and buried his face in Shelly's clothes sobbing.
The authorities said that Shelly had committed the murders, run away, but Oliver knew that couldn't be true. They hadn't looked into the matter enough. They hadn't found or cared about the blood he'd found in Shelly's closet, or the clothes all in disarray. Shelly would never leave his clothes this way, never. If Shelly were alive, he'd have put things in order. He'd want them in order when he returned. Oliver sank down to his knees, a hand touching the stained wood floor, the dark spill that was the closest he might ever be to Shelly again.
Cain groaned, growled, pressed a hand to his head. The dream was still painfully vivid in his mind. Oliver failed. Cain understood that feeling. He'd been failing most of his life. The clothes were all over him though, and damaged, ripped from age and dust and moths, and god knows what happens to clothes in a fricking haunted house. He pulled himself up, hating his knee, and everything else in the world. However long he'd been there, night had come like an early and unwanted guest.
"Light before 'net, idiot," he growled at the previous caretaker. Practical things needed to be done around here. Air blown in his cheeks, teeth clenched, he stomped down towards the room he'd woken up in the day before. It was just as dark, but smelled clean, like sun warmed linen still and was more what he associated with Shelly, the Shelly he'd known, not some long dead guy that got into too much shit to get out of.
Maybe it had been red headed woman that ran the last care taker off, not Shelly. He really couldn't see Shelly running anyone off. Talking them to death, maybe. Smiling, Cain shifted into a really good humor. Bitch slapped by some poltergeist and knocked on his ass, probably going through all kinds of withdrawals from previous bad behaviors, and what he had stuck in his mind was Shelly, full of life and blush, reaching out to him before the man had disappeared into whatever ghosts disappear into. His grandfather would smack him for, well, being impractical, but he didn't want to help himself. It was the first time he'd felt happy in longer than he could remember. The thought flitted through his mind and he didn't take time to analyze it. This time he'd save Shelly.
Spirit or not, Cain was going to take care of him.
Turning around and walking back towards the stairs without having done anything in the room, Cain plotted revolution. The stairs in the dark were more difficult than he'd have liked to navigate. Feeling vulnerable made the world feel fragile too, as if the story were already mostly over. He had things he wanted to do though.
By the time the sun was coming up, he'd gotten a fire going, found pans, distilled water, found oatmeal that didn't seem infested or too old to eat, and made holy water with the sage and some salt. It had been so long since he'd spent summers with his Grandfather, pretending to be a shaman too. Medicine man, heal thyself. If that were easy there'd be no war. Gramps always said that the Great Spirit could only give the right medicine if a person found it on the path of their life.
That didn't work much for a root canal. As the sun rose over the drive way leading up to the house and the raging forest of trees surrounding it, Cain sang good morning to the sun for the first time since he'd been a boy. Shirt off, arms raised over his head, in a language that he'd considered dead, from a heart that might as well have been dead, he sang good morning to the rest of his life.
Next stop was to call to ask for some changes from his boss, who was more than a little amused. He got another warning about the cellar and a promise that at least a couple of the cats would get brought back. It was a good early morning call, better than most. Then there was more firewood, because there wasn't much to run the stove with and he wasn't fighting with the dark again. He found a fireplace in the room Shelly had given him, but Shelly's room was no where to be found. Cain left the small wild flower he'd picked in the empty hallway with mystery house design, and went back to find some lunch. Shelly's room was there, right there, but he just couldn't see it right then.
The supply truck arrived early afternoon with enough boxes that it looked like he was moving in. All he had to do was sign. There was a letter from the contractor girl he'd saved in the sand. She was getting married. She was pregnant. She was glad he was working for the family and hoped he stayed. Some people were just nice. As he thought about it, he could see Shelly in her smile, her blue eyes.
From the moment she'd gotten there and started with planning educational infrastructure, he'd been fascinated by her. She'd drawn him like a slope pulls unlocked wheels. His mind was working a little too well right then to like where that was going. Shelly.
The art supplies that he'd asked for showed up. Just a cheap watercolor set though, paper, brushes, colors that didn't seem all that exciting to Cain. He put them on the table, with a canning jar of water, but not his distilled water. The rest of the stuff slowly got put away until a van showed up with a petite little black woman. It wasn't marked and his defenses went on full alert. It took all his will not to grab his combat knife.
A loud impact of van door closing and he put down the little paring knife he'd been peeling potatoes with too. Civilians did not stab each other, or at least they weren't supposed to.
The back door was open though and he soon found himself face to face with a slacks and blouse clad young woman with conviction burning in her eyes.
"I didn't mean to be singing too loud," he apologized. "This morning. It's just a ritual Gramps taught me."
Conviction burned brighter. "I don't care what your grandfather taught you, Mr. Hardrain. Is it your intention to have a feral cats overrunning this estate?"
"No," he said, hands on his hips, warm sun working tension out of his bare chest, no matter what he thought.
"Then why do you need those cats returned?"
"Oh, well." This cute dead boy I like wanted them back. Yeah. "Well, there's a rodent problem."
"You think a death by teeth and claws, being eaten while you're still alive is a humane death? I don't care how much money your patron has. It is my goal in life to prevent suffering."
Cain blew air into one cheek, shoved his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. "Good goal. You bring me cats or what?"
"Have you listened to what I've been saying? Cats can contract horrible diseases eating other living creatures. It would be best if you could keep them inside where they are safe, feed them healthy food."
"I'm listening," Cain said, smirking. "Do you like to run?"
"I mean, just that, if you liked to run, you'd maybe know what it is to be free a bit." He brushed past her, going to the van. "I'll try to make sure the cats get healthy food. I'll take good care of them."
"When they breed? When you have a hundred feral cats, Mr. Hardrain? What will you do then? Thin them out with your rifle?"
Cain peeked in the van's window, seeing only two cat carriers, which he was good with. "What's your name, lady?"
"I'm Officer Patrice Smith. I brought back the two cats who seemed most upset at being in the shelter. Some of the others have already been adopted. Two of the remaining ones are recovering from being spayed."
Cain sighed. He'd never owned a cat himself, but there had been plenty of free cats on the reservation. "Great. Gimme the two you brought and come back with the rest when you're ready. My boss is paying for food and all. I'm sure they're not going to go hungry. Aren't there worse situations in the world that you could put that self-righteous fire to? Starving cats? Starving kids?"
"How dare you judge me? What are you doing with your life working for the Comstock-Gray family? Do you know what they do?"
"I knew one of them when I was in the sand. She was a first class person. Gimme the cats, will you?"
"You're from New York?" She unlocked the back doors, pulling the carriers out.
He took them from her, one in each hand. "I grew up there, during the school year."
"I'm sorry if I came across a little aggressive." She pulled a couple other bags from the back, set them in a blue and white kitty litter box and headed for the house. "The care takers of this place are a little strange sometimes. We haven't had one stay longer than a week in years. The stories about this place being haunted are pretty hard not to believe sometimes. So…is it?"
"Is it what," Cain asked, setting the cats on the table. They mewled, little paws reaching through the bars and cat cop girl glowered, but got over it.
"Is it haunted? By a huge black dragon that wants to eat souls? They say the murderer still walks the halls, seducing unsuspecting care takers. There was a guy two summers back who hanged himself. This place is crazy hard to find anything in. It took two weeks to find the bodies, even after they started stinking."
"Great," Cain said, letting one of the cats out. It was all black and very interested in cuddling him. He let it down though and it made for the stairs up to the bedrooms. "What murderer?"
"Shelly Comstock-Gray, of course. Don't you know the story?"
"Tell me," Cain said, letting the other cat out. It took to the stairs as well.
"What are you making?" She turned one of the high back chairs around and straddled it, resting her office worker dressed arms over the back. "Is that a wood burning stove?"
"Yup. Mashed potatoes and burgers. Tell me what happened here?"
"Feed me dinner," she said with a bright smile.
"Okay, but I was infantry, not a cook," he warned.
"So, it was right after the Civil War. John and Mabel Comstock-Gray had two boys, Michael and Shelly. Michael was the perfect son. He was a lawyer, prim, engaged to a socialite. This was the place to be then. A lot of fancy New Yorkers would come over here for parties and stuff. Pretend like they were in Europe. Shelly was an artist. That's all he cared about, and boys. He was pretty, blond. They said he'd slept with every guy in town."
Cain raised an eyebrow. "So he was sexually active."
"Yeah," she said, "gayer than Christmas in July. So one week there was a party celebrating Michael's return from university. It was said that he was going to announce his engagement to Margaret. Seems Shelly was banging this guy from Philadelphia though and Michael walked in on it. Fighting broke out."
The story didn't ring true to Cain. A thick déjà vu pulled at him and he was pretty sure saying, no, it wasn't like that, wouldn't really sound so sane. "And?"
"Well, there wasn't really anyone here that night. There had been a great big dinner party, but this storm blew in out of no where. The party had been broken up by rains. Rain was a bigger deal then, but you know even now, rain like that would be a problem. Something like, thirty inches in two days. I don't even know why the Comstock-Gray boys and their lovers were still here. Maybe the house is cursed. The levee broke that night too. Flooded the house, the whole area. They never found Shelly. Most think he ran off. Michael, Richard, and Margaret were found where Shelly shot them, on the third floor."
"How do you know Shelly shot them?"
"It's just the story that goes around. He haunts this place, you know? Sometimes he'll say it's his fault."
"You ever seen Shelly? Talked to him?"
Patrice grinned. "When I was a little kid, I used to come over here and try to wait for him. I saw some black fog once. Scared the crap out of me."
"So if I tell you I've seen Shelly you won't think I'm crazy?"
"Yeah," Cain admitted, throwing a couple burgers into the brand new frying pan. "I don't think he killed anyone."
"That's what the swinger was saying, before he killed himself. Shelly's tricky. You shouldn't stay. Besides, the preservation society in town has a contract with the Comstock-Grays. They dropped a law suit against them, in exchange for a lease on the house and property, if the house stands empty for more than a month. When they get a hold of the place, they're gonna fix it up and start tours. It'll be great for the town."
"How do you like your burger," Cain asked, not much liking that idea or the whole town for that moment. "It's going to be a while. I like it here."
"You'll die here, you'll be part of the legend. Another victim of Shelly."
"With so many people dying here that night, how come the killer might not be one of the other people? Maybe they killed themselves because they were trapped by the flood. People did that in Katrina, I think."
"It's just the story that's been handed down. Shelly didn't have any friends who spoke for him then. With all the people he'd slept with, you'd think some of them would have come forward to clear his name or something."
"You would think," Cain said, feeling guilty. "Here, there's bread. Fix it up for yourself. I didn't put nothing away yet."
"Thanks. So, you want more of the cats? You're going to take good care of them? You promise? If you leave, we're coming to get them again."
"Well, that's a good reason for Shelly to keep me alive. Bring the ones you still have back, okay?"
"Sure. You are a good cook," she said, mouthful of burger being swallowed. "Want to come to the barbeque we're having in town this weekend? It's the Strawberry Festival."
Playful, but still serious, Cain put some spicy mustard on his burger. "Only if Shelly can come."
"As long as he doesn't kill anyone, I'm sure he's welcome too," Patrice said. "No hard feelings about the cats?"
"You might not want to be such a jerk to people until you've actually got a reason," Cain said, having forgotten about the potatoes. "I'll give you plenty of reasons if you get to know me."
"Shelly!" Cain yelled up the stairs. "Your fur bags are back!"
"Some of them, anyway," Shelly said. "She's right. You shouldn't stay. I liked that man, who, well, took himself to the other side, and all."
"What brought that on? I've been nice enough haven't I? I need this chance, Shelly. I'm not leaving. If I haven't killed myself yet, I'm not going to."
"What if I kill you?"
"First you want to bang me, then you're thinking about killing me," Cain teased. "Kinky."
"I'm serious." Shelly whispered. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Then don't," Cain said. "Want to go to a Strawberry Festival? In town?"
Shocked, Shelly's blue slipped into the cat he was petting. The cat jumped up on the butcher block table. "I don't think I can."
"Get out of that cat. It is seriously strange hearing a cat talk."
The Shelly possessed cat rubbed up against Cain's arm. "But it's warmer."
"So why can't you go with me? It doesn't hurt the cat, does it?"
"It didn't hurt you and I think I just can't go that far from the place where..."
"I just can't, that's all."
"I'm no expert, but if you don't get out a bit more, you're going to be depressed. That can't be good, even for the dead."
"Stay much longer and you will be an expert on the dead." Shelly-cat moved over to Cain's plate and took a bite of his burger.
Cain ignored it, though it was odd that Shelly said he hadn't eaten, but that wasn't stopping his burger theft. "So who's Oliver?"
Shelly-cat pounced on Cain's hand and sank its feral little teeth in. He howled and only by the great strength of his stubborn will did he keep from flinging the poor beast and the reckless ghost possessing it across the kitchen. One eye twitching, he growled, "Pissy little bastard! Don't make me hurt this cat. I am going to find out about Oliver."
The cat released him and staggered across the table. Cain caught it up, petting as it purred away the confusion for both of them. "He's a bit cracked. I won't let him hurt you."
"I would never hurt the kitties!"
"Well you sure as hell hurt me and I don't think I taste good. Biting other people was okay for rich, white Northern boys?"
"Oliver was my lover. We'd been in love all our lives, or nearly so. I thought he loved me."
A moment of vertigo, of nausea, wormed through Cain. "I do love you."
As soon as he said it, he turned and stomped out the back door the echo of a headache promising him impending misery. There was no way he could love a dead white guy, yet the feeling grounded him, felt like the first real thing he'd ever felt.
Storm clouds hinted gray at the edge of the still blue sky. A few steps from the back steps Cain's anger mellowed. The Universe knew things that he didn't. He'd sung to the rising sun and even with the crazy rising like flood water he still felt better than he ever had.
This was like a spirit journey. The raccoon spirit laughed within him, then manifest at his feet and ran toward the garage. Excitement fluttered and Cain strode after it. He needed to find out what happened here and he'd bet his life that Shelly hadn't killed anyone.
The hum and compression of the hospital seemed surreal to Ricky. He'd been chasing a rabbit or was it that he'd drank the wrong bottle?
"Mr. Lace," Dr. Joffre said sternly. "Are you even able to listen to me?"
"You have been severely injured. It is inexplicable why you are not in intensive care as it is. If you keep trying to leave the hospital, you are going to die. Can you understand that?"
"Good. Because Dr. Maynor would be beside herself if you did not heal properly. She has given a lot to this hospital and she has a lot of friends here. So we're all looking for you to get well and do well with your life, Mr. Lace. We've started a fund for your college education."
"I can't go to college," Ricky said, confused. "I didn't finish high school or get my GED."
"Are you having suicidal thoughts, Mr. Lace?"
"Not right now," Ricky said.
"Then there's time. You might like going to college."
Ricky felt his dream pulling at him. It was so important, so important. Oliver was going to die again. "No."
"Let me do my job, Mr. Lace, and you may yet live to become a functional member of society. No one will harm you here. You're in a hospital. You're safe. Do you understand that you are safe here?"
"Yeah," Ricky said, but Oliver. He could see him so clearly. Dark hair, long, dark eyes, golden skin. He could hear him singing.
"Will you stay in this bed?"
"Yeah," Ricky said, but he knew he was lying.
"Are you in pain? We want to make sure we're managing your pain effectively."
Everything hurt, really. Telling the doctor that would result in more drugs and Ricky didn't want that. It was just a whisper in his heart, but he felt an inkling of what he did want. In the dreams, when he was Shelly, he felt... valuable, wanted, clean.
He waited until the hall grew quiet again. The doctor gone, nurses and their aides working on more deserving patients, he sat up again. Spitting in Crank's face had been the dumbest way to commit suicide short of death by broom stick dildo.
One eye swollen shut, he held onto the bed with both hands as he swung his legs over the side. He didn't really know much about religion and stuff, but he knew that some people thought that souls came back in reincarnation or something like that. He'd been Shelly and something had gotten really fucked up, worse than this screw up life he was living now, at least at the end of Shelly's life.
He grunted as he pushed off the bed and his legs took the weight of his body. If it wasn't broken, it was sure bent pretty good. He didn't actually remember getting out of bed before. There it was. The answer to everything. Pain causes amnesia.
Limping he made his way towards the door, only to find himself on a leash made of needles and tubing. There was enough bruising on his arm that he didn't know what he'd come in with and what he'd gotten in the nice safe hospital. He ground his teeth as he pulled out the needle and let the line drop to the clean tile floor.
This wasn't a story. He tried to keep his breathing quiet as he limped out into the hall. He wasn't Alice. No. If he were in that story, he'd be the Mad Hatter. There was something that made hatters mad. He wondered if it was starvation, or prostitution, or bruises. The nurses had all gone chasing other rabbits and he picked up a woman's coat from the nurse's station. In the pocket he found a set of keys with the remote to a car.
As straight up tall as he could, he made for the elevator. This time, he'd keep Oliver from going into the cellar. Lies, lies, everything was lies.
No one noticed him as he limped out of the emergency room. That had been his one big ace in the hole. No one ever noticed him. He wasn't black. He wasn't white. He wasn't a man. He couldn't be a woman. He couldn't remember being a kid and he failed as an adult. The only thing he'd ever wanted that wasn't a high or oblivion was Oliver.
Oliver had grown up in his dreams with him. Oliver was going to die, just like he had before. It was in the cellar.
Finally a car, white and a few years old, beeped when he aimed the remote at it. High on endorphins and determination, he opened the door and slipped in, the opening in the hospital gown putting his very firm and very impure ass on someone's nice upholstery. Smirking, he hoped they had insurance.
He'd never had a driver's license, but he'd plead self defense. It was self defense to save the life of the person you loved, right?
The hinges refused. Cain stared at the ancient door as if it couldn't be serious. Paint barely clinging to it, he thought the wood had turned fragile. The brass of the doorknob felt small in his hand, as if the people who'd built it were slighter than he was or maybe it had shrunk with time. He grimaced, leaned close to peer through the uneven glass. Brass didn't shrink, he didn't think. He grimaced and tugged harder on the door. It wasn't locked. The latch gave. It was the hinges.
Disastrous. The whole fricking place.
Shelly cleared his throat. Cain glared, both at the interruption of his planning and because he hadn't expected him. A blue finger pointed towards the larger double doors that would have opened for a car to go in or out. Cain's glare turned in to a grimace, but he moved to those doors.
"There's nothing useful in there," Shelly said, arms across his chest. Now he wore a jacket, a darker tie around his throat, old fashioned, but perfect on him. "There are no horses."
"If you think I'm calling up the Humane Society for horses," Cain grumbled aggressively. Those doors opened easily enough though, spilling light into the tomb that was the garage.
Dust billowed out and Cain had to cover his face, coughing and gagging. For a moment it wasn't dust, but sand and he had his back to a wall, rifle in hand, words mumbling into his headset, words he could feel himself saying as if he were saying them now, but couldn't hear, couldn't understand. When his eyes blinked open again, the dust had settled and what sat in the garage was not a 1966 Corvette.
Shelly sighed happily and strode into the garage. He ran a hand over one of the round 'head lights' and along the dark leather seat. "We had such good times."
Cain pulled a long face and circled around the thing. "What the hell is it? A carriage? Like for Central Park?"
"This is my Phaeton. I got it when I was seventeen. I had a pair of black horses, Romulus and Remus. It was like flying."
"Umn," Cain commented. "I bet it did all of twenty miles an hour."
"Or even more," Shelly said. His hand, hardly blue at all, brushed over the leather seat, not moving the dust even a little. "It was magnificent."
On the other side of the carriage, Cain leaned against it and reached for Shelly's hand. Their fingers moved through each other, but their eyes connected. "Don't bite me anymore. I'm going to find out everything, so you might as well just tell me now. What happened here?"
"I don't remember." Shelly traced a finger around Cain's hand, not touching him, but there was an illusion of them both being flesh and blood. "Margaret says it was my fault."
"That doesn't mean you did it."
"If it's my fault, why does it matter if I did it or not? Mickey and Ricky were still dead. Margaret was dead. I was dead. Oliver was still gone. It was probably my fault. I didn't stop it."
"I bet you tried," Cain said. "Come on. Let's get this out in the sunlight."
"Why?" Shelly asked, his hand such a pale blue and sinking into the seat as if it had become both heavy and too thin.
"Because, my dear boy," Cain said, imitating an antique accent. "We're going to clean it up and take it to the Strawberry Festival in two days."
"Are you asking me to go driving with you, Mr. Cain?" Shelly blushed, blond curls laying over his face, framing blue eyes that watched Cain with anticipation. Cain could just see the colors in his little ghost now, the dark chocolate brown of his suit, black satin of the ribbon tied at his throat. Sweet pink lips like some California wine, and he smiled, oblivious.
"That would be a yes," Cain said, grinning. In his mind he tried to count up the hours since he'd had a panic attack and couldn't, but didn't really care. "So you going to help me get this thing out in the sun or what?"
Shelly clapped his hands and it actually made a sound, though it was mostly Cain that pulled the carriage out of the garage.
"You'd think someone would have covered it up with a dust cloth or something. Someone did that to the table, at least. You think people ran away from this place like they were afraid for their lives." Cain complained.
The thing had room for only two people and it was higher up than he had realized in the garage. He gave a pull on the seat and the suspension felt sound still. Maybe it had been locked down somehow and released as he'd pulled it out. He didn't know.
Shelly climbed up into the seat, his collar a little higher now, a deeper brown, knee high boots polished until they looked like glass. Those blond curls were all pulled back into a small pony tail, and he wore a hat, a top hat type of deal. He grinned, devilish, lips pink, eyes blue, full of life and desire.
Cain pulled his vest straight, dizzy for a moment because he was wearing a vest and boots.
"Why Mr. Comstock-Gray is that a new carriage you have there?"
"Indeed it is, Mr. Hastings. Would you care to join me, this fine afternoon?"
Oliver crossed his arms on the edge of the seat. "Mother will have my head. You know we're supposed to be at your house this evening. Happy Birthday, though it looks like you've already gotten your birthday present."
Shelly giggled, not very masculine, but very happy. He scooted a little closer, leaned down. "Come on, Ollie. Once around town, then we'll take it down Campton Road, just a little bit? We'll be back and all proper by dinner!"
Oliver's hand just happened to touch Shelly's very solid and real hand, warm in the summer sun. The air near Shelly smelled of leather, horse, polish, a little linseed oil, and Oliver, rubbed his thumb around Shelly's thumbnail. "You've got paint on your hand."
"See? I'm utterly useless without you! Ollie, it's my brand new Phaeton! Best suspension in the world! The boys are ready for a run!"
Cain felt everything, as if it were himself, not someone else's memory. He could feel the warmth of the smooth brass edging under nervous fingers. "I haven't finished my school work for the day."
"I guess it is too magnificent of a Phaeton for a sixteen year old," Shelly said, straightening the reins.
"You're only seventeen and only by a few hours! You never do your studies anyway! What are you going to do with the future anyway? Mickey's already at university and you haven't even finished Latin."
Shelly leaned closer, so close that Oliver could smell the mint on his breath, the warmth, life. "Latin is a dead language. My horses are very alive."
Oliver's lips tingled as he looked up at his beautiful neighbor. He bounced on one foot, fidgeted. "I'll be dead if I don't finish my Latin this year."
Shelly's nose wrinkled. "You aren't going to die if you don't learn Latin, Ollie. But you will die, if you don't take a ride with me in this brand new Phaeton! On this beautiful summer day, with two powerful specimens of horse flesh just ready to burn the roads, on this, my one and only seventeenth birthday! You will die alone, in an office with a half empty pot of ink as a clerk in your daddy's shipping business! Is that what you want? Is that what you want? A corner in an office as a clerk?"
"I'm going to be a doctor," Oliver insisted. "I'm going to university next year."
"Fine, fine," Shelly said, his jaw tightening, a flash of something darker in blue eyes. "Go be a doctor! I don't care."
"It is your birthday."
Shelly sat straighter, looking away into the distance. "Go study your Latin."
The carriage shifted as Oliver climbed up. He grabbed the reins from Shelly's unsuspecting hands and gave the horses a sharp go message. Shelly's hat went flying, but he cheered and reached for the railing, holding on as Oliver sped the horses down the drive. Oliver laughed happily. Gavel flew.
People cursed as they flew through town. Shelly's hair came undone and whipped around. They caught up with the Wilson boy where town met the long Campton road and the two of them raced, leaned forward, all into it. The new Phaeton and powerful black horses out stripped Wilson who yelled at their backs that he'd let them win on account of Shelly's birthday.
Shelly held up his hands, feeling the wind, eyes closed. "Per sempre!"
Oliver reigned in the horses, bring them to a leisurely trot to recover just as they entered a forested area. "What'd you say?"
"Per sempre," Shelly said, turning in his seat to face Oliver, one knee up on the leather bench seat. "It's Latin for 'Forever'. That's what I want. Just like this, forever. Riding around in a carriage, with you."
"That's Italian," Oliver said softly, slowing the horses a little more and paying very good attention to that. "It's 'forem' in Latin. I think our wives will have problems with that."
"I don't need a wife." Shelly whispered.
Oliver licked his lips, heart beating faster than the horses could run. Mouth dry he held the reins as tight as he could as he turned to look at Shelly looking at him. "I don't either." His whisper was quieter than Shelly's had been.
Shelly, arm on the back of the seat, leaned forward just a little. "So you be a doctor."
"Yes," Oliver said, unconsciously leaning forward a little. "I'll be a doctor. Respected and proper."
Shelly leaned a little closer, blue eyes looking right into Oliver's dark eyed soul, so deep it reached Cain more than a century later. "And I'll be your improper assistant."
Oliver licked his lips again, shifted the reins. "Maybe you're the artist who lives upstairs, from my, my practice."
"Maybe," Shelly said, sounding more like a promise than a possibility. He closed the distance between them then, lips to lips, the mix of impulse and steady.
Oliver's heart utterly stopped. He dropped the reins, both hands coming to touch Shelly's sweaty and tangled hair. The kiss stayed simple, just lips to lips, eyes closed. Shaking, both of them, their eyes opened at the same time, summer sky looking into the deep secrets of the forest. Oliver still had his hands in Shelly's hair when the kiss broke, lips parting by just enough to breath and speak. "What will people say?" Oliver whispered against Shelly's lips.
"I don't care," Shelly whispered back. "You're all I think about. You're art and poetry and speed, all in one and I want to always be near you."
Oliver pressed the kiss again, his hands holding tight in Shelly's hair. A breeze caressed over them. The horses complained, but nothing mattered. They were all that was.
When they finally let go, settled back facing forward. Shelly shifted, fastening his coat again, licking his own lips. "I wish we could dance tonight."
"We'll go upstairs." Oliver said, looking straight forward. "You can still hear the music and the servants will be gone, working. We can dance there."
"So you'll dance with me," Shelly asked, watching Oliver out of the side of his eyes.
"It's your birthday, isn't it?" Oliver encouraged the horses again and they took off at a proper not racing pace.
"Do you wish I was a girl?" Shelly whispered under the mottled shade of the witnessing trees.
"I've never wanted to kiss a girl before, Mr. Comstock-Gray."
The ride back to Hasting's House was quiet, calmly sedate, utterly belying the color still in Shelly's fair cheeks. They came primly up the drive to find Oliver's father waiting with a riding crop in his hand.
He moved it behind his back as Shelly took the reins and made sure that he was between them as the Phaeton stopped. He bowed his head politely. "Good afternoon, Mr. Hastings, Sir. I thank you so much for allowing Oliver to accompany me. Will you be at the ball this evening, Sir?"
"I will be," Mr. Hastings said ominously. "This is obviously too much carriage for a boy like you."
"Oh indeed, Sir," Shelly said, hands trembling. "Oliver was just telling me that. He's so level headed! I'm sure I could have come to terrible misadventure if he had not been a steadying factor. Sir, perhaps you could be so kind as to see to my Phaeton for a week or so, just to see that it works properly and I'm not likely to come to any sad end with it, as your judgement is the supreme statement on durability. I'm sure the newness of it just went to my head. It is commonly known how flighty I can be! If perhaps, you were to put the Phaeton and my team through their paces, for a couple of weeks, just to assure yourself of their quality, then I might be better able to use them properly."
The older Mr. Hastings blinked, mouth shifting to the side as his anger mangled into desire for a piece of expensive and state-of-the-art technology that would take weeks, months to order in, and would cost more than would be reasonable, as he had decently serviceable carriages as it was.
"I thank you so for your son's duty. His willingness to sacrifice for the well being of a neighbor is highly commendable," Shelly said nodding, obviously repentant. "If you'd allow him to walk me home, Sir, I'd be deeply grateful."
"That's quite a walk," Mr. Hastings hesitated.
"But so good for cooling my hot young head, Sir," Shelly said, climbing down and offering the cherished reins to Oliver's father. "We'll be there in good time to get ready for the ball. It is my seventeenth birthday, after all, Sir."
"Yes," Mr. Hastings agreed, taking the reins. He set the riding crop down on the floor of the carriage. "Certain reminders of decorum must be set. Oliver, walk Mr. Comstock-Gray home, but leave your boots here."
Shock and disbelief washed over Shelly's face, but he hide it by tucking his chin, looking duly obedient.
Anger churned over Oliver's face though and he jumped down from the Phaeton and threw his boots one after the other as if he could throw away years of frustration and fear.
"Enjoy the day, son," Mr. Hastings said, thin lips smiling with satisfaction.
The boys walked down the drive, quiet. Oliver set the pace, refusing to slow because of gravel. Only Shelly saw the tears that ran down his face. By the time they were out of sight, Oliver's white socks were dark with dirt and red.
Shelly stopped, bent over a little, and grinned. "Come on, Ollie. Ride me!"
"Oh my god!" Oliver groaned, hands covering his face. "You're incorrigible! You're like the devil made into cordial!"
"So I'm sweet," Shelly said with a grin. "Come on, on my back."
"You can't carry me the whole way." Oliver sank down to the side of the road, looking over bruised soles.
"I won't have to," Shelly said. "Something good will happen, and we have one pair of boots and we wear the same size."
"My feet are going to swell."
Shelly rolled his eyes. "Don't be dramatic. Come on! I'm older! I can carry you."
"This is your fault!"
"Well," Shelly said, excuses in his mind like a card sharp has spare aces, "Un. Yeah, it is. So let me make it up to you."
Shelly squatted down in front of him and wiggled his shoulders.
"There'll be no dancing tonight," Oliver complained.
"You don't know that. Tonight is a ways off yet."
Oliver sighed but put his arms around Shelly's neck, let Shelly pick him up. "I'm sorry. It's my fault too. My father is... stern."
Shelly didn't say anything. Oliver rest his head against Shelly's and they made progress towards the House of Silver Oak. The foundation of the house dated back to the War of Independence. One branch or another of Shelly's family had held it all that time. Before that, there were roots in Europe of shadowy, but monied connections. Old money still was more valuable than showy new money.
In less than a mile a cart carrying supplies for the ball rumbled close and slowed. Mrs. Patty Baker smirked down from where she sat. "What ever are you gentlemen doing?"
Shelly grinned up at her, winked, and gave an innocent look that could have stolen cream from a mother cat. "Well, we have only one pair of boots, Mistress. Fate has dealt us a great adversity!"
"Were you robbed? Are you hurt?"
Oliver hid his face behind Shelly's fluffy hair.
"Not robbed," Shelly said, inflection conveying how very unjust circumstances were, "Just chastised, unfairly."
"Ha! I saw you and your new toy, Mr. Comstock-Gray. I'd hardly call that unjust. Would you gentleman like a ride?"
"Oh most certainly, Mistress most Kind."
"You're going to be a politician. I can see it now. Get in the back."
"Your generosity shall not be forgotten!"
"It better not be," she mumbled.
Shelly helped Oliver into the back of the wagon, then climbed up near him. Once they started moving again, Shelly peeled off his boots, socks.
"What are you doing, fool," Oliver grumbled, arms across his knees, cheek on his arms.
"Now, now," Shelly comforted. "You have more dignity than I do and I can see your feet are not swollen at all so stop being a baby."
Oliver reached out to touch the fine polished leather. "No one will believe they're mine."
"Sure they will. Pull your pants over them and we'll scruff them up with your socks."
"What will we say happened to your boots?"
"Do you really think anyone is going to ask me what happened to my boots?"
"No. I guess not." Oliver started peeling his socks off, wincing at the torn and bruised skin. "You can't always get everything you want, Shelly."
"We'll have to see about that," Shelly said, with a half smile.
"I say, Mr. Hardrain," a female voice demanded. "Are you alright?"
The present came back to Cain like a flood light in a hang over. He groaned pressing a hand to his head. He lay on his side in the Phaeton, the dust of decades having crawled into his nose, down his throat. "I need a drink."
"I'm not sure that would be a good idea," the woman said. She was smartly dressed in a dark blue suit. "I'm Kendal McBride. I represent the Artistic Preservation Society."
"Oh." Cain said, sitting up, scrubbing at the dust on his face. "Great. I must have fallen asleep. I'm getting this carriage cleaned up."
"While I laud that idea," she said, stepping back a bit. "I'm not sure that's such a good plan. Do you have any skills at artifact restoration?"
"I was just going to clean the dust off," he said, climbing down. He felt very attached to the old wagon, carriage thing, now. "I thought I might see about taking it into the Strawberry Festival on Saturday."
"Really," Kendal asked, tilting her head. "If you want, I could get a team to work on it, see about arranging a horse. You do realize it's not gasoline powered, right?"
"I'm not stupid," Cain spat back, being careful to get down without giving away his prosthetic too much. "I need a drink of water. Come in?"
"Alright," she said, following him up the stairs. "This house is a very important house and it needs to be restored. History is being lost as it just falls down from neglect."
He held the door for her and she glared at him. He made a face behind her back and went to the sink. Hand pumped water had to be better for you, somehow, if only for the upper body work that came with it. He found two glasses, even if one of them was really a canning jar. "I agree. I'm going to restore it."
"But." She put her brief case on the butcher block table and snapped it open. The photos she pulled out were prints of photos, old sepia photo. "The House of the Silver Oak is not some house that you flip, Mr. Hardrain."
He set the real glass by her and picked up the photos. "Call me Cain. I want to do it right. We can keep it all historical and stuff. I'm getting to like it that way. There isn't going to be any kids walking through here though. I'm not leaving."
"The Comstock-Gray's are going to pay for restoration?"
"That's what she said."
"They've never been willing before," Kendal said, suspicious. "The town is building an income from the notoriety surrounding the last dinner party. The Comstock-Gray's own most of the town, so it's to their financial benefit to encourage the stories. I want to stop that. The history of this family, the art that was created is so much more valuable." She handed him another photo print. It was full body of a beautiful woman in black velvet and pearls.
"Shelly did this?"
"No," Kendal said gently. "Shelly was more of an impressionist. He was ahead of his time."
The next photo print had to be of one of Shelly's works and Cain was hard put to say exactly what it was. He turned it around a couple of times, and then, like a splash of cold water, he knew. It was that first kiss in the mottled shade under the summer trees. "This is beautiful. Where is this painting now?"
"Somewhere in the house, I presume. Unless some 'caretaker' managed to sell it off. Someone got a photo of it in 1956. It hasn't been seen since. What does it say to you?"
Cain ran fingers over the darker blush that curved through the center of the painting. "Ah," he drew it out, "kinda personal. Can I keep these prints?"
"If you like. There is no ghost, you know? Wherever Shelly is he's at peace. The only thing haunting this house is people's overactive imaginations."
"I want the horse to be black, a gelding."
"That's what Shelly always had," Kendal said, reassessing Cain.
"I know. He got it for his seventeenth birthday."
"How did you know that? That's not in the library or public knowledge." She managed to stand up even straighter.
Cain felt glad he wasn't going to face off from her in a court room. "Maybe he told me himself."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"So tell me a true story then? What really happened here that night?"
Her face paled, dark eyes grilling him over. "There were many nights before that night and after that night. It's not the only event in history."
"What's in the cellar?"
"What cellar? The house doesn't have a cellar." She pulled out her business card and set it on the table.
"I thought all these old houses had cellars." He picked up the card, turned it around, then back to the front. "Kendal M. McBride. What's the M stand for?"
"You're just full of questions," she said as she closed her brief case. "I have one for you."
"Are you an alcoholic?"
"Yeah," he said, tossing the card back on the table. "I have been, but I haven't had anything to drink since the day I got here. This place is good for me. You feel really familiar to me. Ever been to Iraq?"
"No. Look, I'll work with you to help restore the house and grounds in an historically correct manner, allowing for some modernization to make it legal for you to live here, but if I catch you drinking, I'll sue the family on the grounds that a drunk caretaker is negligent and worse than none at all."
"Got'cha." He put both hands on the table and leaned forward just a little. "But you're going to help me clear Shelly's name and if we can find his paintings, I want a gallery showing for him."
"Deal. I shall send people around to take care of the Phaeton. On Saturday I'll send by my own horse, Anthony."
"What's with all the Roman names? Romulus, Remus, and Anthony?"
Kendal laughed. "His sister is named Cleopatra."
"Isn't that a little creepy."
"Not at all." She smirked, "The Egyptians quite favored it and Anthony is a gelding, in any case. You're not at all what I expected. Patrice said you were quite intimidating."
"Good," Cain smiled. "Somebody had to take care of Shelly's cats."
Disbelief in her voice, she smirked, "So then I'll see you and Shelly at the Strawberry Festival."
Cain nodded. He wasn't too sure he was ready to go riding with Shelly again, but the thought did have it's appeal. As she let herself out, he got another glass of water and headed back to the library. His feet hurt and sitting down with a book for a little while appealed to him a great deal.
The woman who owned the car had a gym bag with a change of clothes, jeans, T-shirt, and running shoes in the back seat. Being a skinny bastard, they fit Ricky just fine. He cleaned up and changed in a gas station bathroom. Staring in the mirror, being honest with himself, he looked like shit. It took several tries to get the last of the mascara he'd been wearing off. A couple of teeth were loose, but he hoped if he left them alone, they'd tighten back up.
His braids felt more like fuzzy dread locks, but he didn't have the hours it would take to fix them. They were distinctive enough that he ought to have cut them, but he really didn't have will to do it. Staring at the mirror, he tried to see blue eyes, curls, but all he got was mocha colored skin and eyes like dark secrets. The cellar dream mixed around in his gut with hunger and pain killers that couldn't last forever.
He rinsed out his mouth one more time then shoved the bag, coat, and hospital gown into the garbage, under a bunch of paper towels. The shoving made him dizzy and he held the wall for a moment. Sin lived in the cellar. Oliver needed not to go into the cellar. Ricky's head felt like it folded in on itself for a moment and he wondered what 'concussion' actually meant. Maybe it was like percussion which had something do with drums.
Hurry. Hurry. Have to warn Michael. His thoughts ran around in circles, using Shelly's voice. "Yeah, yeah, going already."
It was early morning as he stepped out of the bathroom. A newspaper delivery truck was parked just the other side of his stolen car, with no one in the driver's seat. Casual as the wind, he walked by the open door, listening intently for any movement, looking for any opportunity. A backpack sat on the floor under the steering wheel. A quick pilfer through found him a wad of small bills that he shoved into his pocket. He zipped it back just as the driver came back around the corner.
A bigger man, round in the middle glared at him. Ricky licked at the corner of his mouth and looked him in the eyes for a moment. "Got a cigarette, man?"
"Get away from me, you fucking bum. Get a job. You expect the rest of us to carry your sorry ass?" Big man looked at his backpack, decided it hadn't been touched and pulled himself up into the cab.
"You blacks all thing you're owed something. If I'd bought ya, I'd want my money back."
Ricky flipped the man the bird as the truck pulled out.
As soon as the truck hit the road, Ricky shuffled into the gas station. He got a hoody with a skull on it, an energy drink and a burrito. It was a bit dry, but the clerk gave him a discount and Ricky didn't really care. You get what you pay for.
"I gotta get to New York. There a bus stop round here?"
"Sure," the sleep, maybe twenty year old clerk said. "Right here. Bus is due in ten. Want a ticket?"
"Yeah." Ricky said. He peeled off a few bills in his pocket and counted out the money for the ticket before handing it over. "That enough?"
The clerk nodded, banging something into a machine that had to be older than him by decades. "You look like someone kicked your ass."
"Could be," Ricky allowed. "Where am I?"
"Just outside of Cleveland. Man, you okay?"
"Yeah. Just gotta get to New York. My," he paused a little, like he wasn't used to sharing, "My brother's in trouble and I gotta help'im."
"I get you." The sandy blond clerk said, nodding. "You ought get some food to take with you. I got burritos just coming out. I'll give you a couple."
"I got money enough."
"No," the clerk said, "I'm Terrance. I lost my brother last year. I hope you get there in time." He bagged up a couple of burritos and a couple pieces of fried chicken. "Here. In the name of brotherhood."
"You don't gotta." Ricky said, a hand real light on the bag, like it might get snatched back.
"'Course I do."
"Cuz if we don't take care of each other, ain't no body else gonna." Finally the bus ticket printed up and Terrance sorted it out all even before handing it over. "You wanna be getting on that bus before Big Zeke comes back, uh?"
The bus rolled in then and Ricky left it at that. There are two main kinds of luck and it wasn't always bad.
"Here," Terrance said, pulling a silver medallion from around his neck. "You'll need this."
"What is it?"
"Saint Christopher. It'll get you there safer."
Ricky hesitated. His one unswollen eye searching the innocent looking face of his sudden friend. "I ain't Catholic."
He reached out, took the slender chain and the dangling medal. "I'll bring it back."
"Okay," Terrance said. "Go on then. Do good things."
"Good things," Ricky asked, slightly confused.
"Yeah. Everyone's got good in'em."
Ricky just turned and limped towards the bus. He got the chain around his neck and gave his ticket over to the driver. The driver could have been a hundred years old, still black as the ace of spades and probably just as sharp. He looked Ricky up and down. In a cultured Southern accent he asked, "Your name's Barack Obama?"
"Yes, Sir," Ricky said softly.
"Where are you going son?"
"I'm going to New York to help my brother. He's in some awful trouble."
"You mean any trouble for my bus?"
"No, Sir. I just want to sit quiet and get here I'm going."
The old driver motioned him on. Bigger stops had better security, free of the frailty of human judgement.
Ricky went up the stairs one at a time, suppressing a groan each step. The bus was dark though, with tall seats. He found a seat about three rows back that was empty and he settled himself in gingerly. His bag of food on his lap, one hand around the Saint Christopher's medal, he wondered, seriously, if he was going utterly bat shit crazy.
He didn't really have a brother and he'd never known a 'Michael' that he won't rather blow than talk to. Sex had been what he'd traded for so many things, but had nothing left at all to trade. No family was really going to come looking for him. Even the hospital had probably just left it at a police report over the stolen coat and car. What made him most valuable was his sins.
Without the coat, he felt cold and he held the warm bag closer. He'd had that dream though, so many times. He had to see if the house was real. It felt so vivid. He knew he'd know just how to get there if he could get close enough. The House of Silver Oaks. He huddled in his seat, pulling the medal up to his lips, to kiss it like he'd seen in movies.
"God," he whispered. "You got to help me get where I'm going, help me do good things."
Andi stood where her car had been. It was just her and the parking lot light. She was an older woman in her early sixties, but spry, hair cut butch short and dyed an irreverent fire engine red. She'd done her internship at this ER. She'd done her pre-med in 1965, an age of flower children and upheaval that still hadn't been really keen on women doctors. By 1977 she was one of the best trauma surgeons in Michigan and she'd been happy with her life.
"No, I'm not reporting it. He's just a hurt kid," she said into her cell phone headset as she waited for the rental car.
Her boss, a woman half Andi's age, and ten times her business skills urged, "You should call the police. He may be young, but he's a hoodlum. He's dangerous, Andi and he is probably mentally unstable. Why give your heart to some kid you just met? You've never done this before. Have you been under stress that I don't know about?"
"Kristine, I expect he's very unstable," Andi allowed, "But I really feel strongly about this. I'm going to go get him back myself."
"You shouldn't go alone."
"You should exercise more and eat more vegetables," Andi countered, waving as a dark blue car circled the parking lot. "I think my rental's here. I've got the GPS tracker. He's going to need more help than he knows. He doesn't need a jail cell. He needs someone to take care of him."
"He can't be your son," Kristine protested, frustrated.
"He has to be someone's doesn't he?"
"I WILL put you on administrative leave if you pursue this, Dr. Maynor. There is no justifiable reason to go chasing after a drug clouded prostitute and suspected gang member. He might be being pursued by people much more violent than you."
"Then you do what you need to, Kristine," Andi said. "Meaner administrators than you have attempted to make me respectable."
"If you don't return to your shift and leave the social work to those trained in it, I will put you on immediate and indefinite administrative leave, without pay."
"I haven't needed my paycheck from this place since 1987. Here's my car now. Talk to you soon."
The new model car, a little boxy, but cheerfully modern stopped and a smartly dressed young man stepped out of the driver's seat. "Dr. Maynor?"
Andi ended the call with a touch and pulled out her wallet out. "I'm Dr. Maynor. Did you bring me the spare phone charger and the case of water."
"Yes, Mam," he said, holding the door for her. He checked her id, scanned it in to his handheld. "The extended state insurance was approved and added as you requested. It's hydrogen powered. There are six cells in the back. Here is a list of charging stations between here and New York. They're more plentiful just outside of New York." He held out the handheld for her signature.
She signed, smiled. "Thanks. And a ten percent tip, for yourself."
His eyebrows shot up. "Madam is very generous."
"It's a brand new day after all." She took possession of the car and looked back at the hospital that had been her home for almost forty some odd years.
"Is there a special destination?"
"It just seems like the right thing to be doing," she said.
He stepped back and she set her phone into the charger, letting it sync with the GPS in the car. She pulled her music player from around her neck and pressed the small oval into it's on sync impression. She fastened her safety belt, adjusted the mirror so she could see the hospital one more time, then once again to see behind her properly. Her phone beeped to announce the app had found a connection to her car.
She'd only known Ricky Lace for a few hours, but she needed to see that he was okay. It was just luck that he'd stolen her car.
Henry Grenly's hair had been red once. At sixty-two it was snow white. He counted it as a sign that he'd be going home soon, home to his sweet Lord Almighty.
"Did you ever have any kids," Mark asked, as he loaded the last box of books into Henry's car. Mark Keys was junior pastor at the All Christ Keep Church of Redemption. Henry had made a stop in to give the Wednesday talk and do a book signing.
Henry pressed a hand against his box of books, wishing he'd sold a few more, gotten the message out a little more. He leaned and nodded. "I did. I had a son."
"He shot himself in the head a year before he graduated high school."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Henry." Mark reached out to lay a hand on the older man's shoulder, but Henry moved back a bit and reached to close the hatch back on his car. "He was a homosexual and that bullet isn't anything compared to Hell."
Mark turned his head a little, looking at Henry and away at the same time. "I just don't believe the love of God works like that."
"The Bible is very plain about this issue, Pastor," Henry said, accusatory.
Mark shook his head gently. "Acts 10:28. He said to them: 'You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.' Who is it for us to say that god has judged? The Holy Spirit calls me to love. It is Caesar's to make the laws, but ours to be the vessel of God's love."
"We're each a different part of the Body of Christ then aren't we? I'm called to speak against the sin of homosexuality and the pride of women who have abandoned their God given calling." Henry slammed the hatch down and pulled his keys from his pocket. He shook the keys at Mark, giving the younger man an image of some great and fearsome witch doctor. "Such wishy washy nonsense dilutes God's Word and makes everything okay."
"I thought that was part of the point of Acts 10. Henry," Mark said, lovingly, "Nothing can dilute God. God makes us as we are and all we can do is love each other as we'd love God, live our lives along the good path he has given us."
"You're a fool and your church is lukewarm. HE'll spit the lukewarm out of his mouth."
"We're not lukewarm. Hate isn't warmer than love, but it tastes much worse. Did you hate your son, Henry?" Mark asked tenderly.
"I don't hate the sinner. I hate the sin! Get out of my way you pretender. You'll be warm enough when Hell fire licks you all over for eternity."
"You should meet my God sometime, Henry. He loves you." Mark stood back, hands clasped in front of him, bringing him closer to prayer. "Think about that. You are loved as you are, right now."
That was about all of that that either one of them really wanted to stand.
Henry Grenly got in his car and slammed the door for good measure. There had been homosexuals in the congregation and he should have known better when that couple walked in holding hands, a little child holding onto one of them. It was unforgivable. He gave them God's word anyway, offering them the Truth of their Nature and their need for God's Grace and healing.
The response had been lukewarm. Lukewarm! He needed to be a better preacher. He needed to get people fired up!
He'd take a day and fast! That would make his words stronger! He reached up to the visor and pulled out a well worn piece of paper. Next stop was a Strawberry Festival in some small town he'd never heard of. "Well, fine! That'll be fine. Lots of nice families to hear the true Word of God."
Cain felt his book slip from his fingers, heard it hit the floor. He stood up, whole, complete. He flexed his foot, then looked around him at the barracks. He did not want to be there. Gracey sat on his bed, polishing his boots, and Cain knew this day, this dream. He knew the whole sequence of events as well as he'd know assembling his rifle or drinking a bottle of whiskey.
"Hey." Gracey's ghost said, from behind him.
Cain spun, the hair standing up on the back of his neck. This was Gracey's ghost too, not Gracey, who hadn't even looked up, because that day, he hadn't.
"What the fuck?" Cain took a step back, his dream self still locked in the sequence of events, but yet, pulled out, into a new path.
"It's gonna happen again," Gracey said softly.
"What's going to happen?" Cain doubled up his fists, resisting the urge to turn as he knew the First Sergeant would be in the door any moment.
"It's just a dream. You're already dead. You should fucking move on."
"Why? Why me Gracey?" Cain's hands moved to gesture by his head, frustration, guilt making him feel like a live wire.
"I want you to save her for me. You owe me that." Gracey threw a locket to Cain.
Cain caught it, pressed the latch. Inside was the red headed woman. An upper body shot, her hair down though, lazy red curls brushing against soft looking lace and a low cut bodice, it was a very intimate portrait, something to give to a lover. "I don't owe you anything. I didn't ask you to do what you did. How is she involved in all of this? What happened that night, Gracey?"
"People make mistakes. Sometimes really bad mistakes."
"That was a long time ago!" Cain growled, clamping the locket shut.
"You died too."
"I'm alive, Gracey! I'm not dead."
"Try to keep it that way," Gracey said, eyes not tracking as Shelly ran right through the barracks wall, across the room, and out through the other wall. "For shit's sake, keep your cock in your pants! Do it differently this time!"
Cain had seen only Shelly though, hair free and flowing, blond over bare creamy shoulders. Silk flowed around his body, a loose robe that fluttered as he ran. Cain stared at where Shelly had run through the wall, and it turned into the hallway where Shelly's bedroom was. The hall was perfect again, fresh as morning. Cain ran after him, leaving the old dream behind.
He found himself laughing. Reaching out for Shelly's arm, he caught him and Shelly turned, his other arm holding the gown closed. "I've waited so long for you!"
Cain brushed soft hair back from Shelly's face. "You're so beautiful. How can any man be so beautiful?"
Shelly pressed himself to Cain, slender fingers reaching up to brush over golden skin. "It's Saturday morning. We only have a little time until the festival, but all the servants are working. We should be alone."
Cain reached to pull his tie free because it felt too tight around his throat. The starched linen under his fingers felt too stiff, to unfamiliar. "No. This isn't me. I'm not Oliver."
"Yes, you are," Shelly whispered. "I'm Shelly and you're Oliver."
"No. You're Shelly and I'm Cain." Cain drew Shelly's hand to his lips, kissing his palm, then his wrist. "Oliver's gone."
"No! He can't be. I," Shelly said, trying to pull away.
"Stay with me," Cain asked, still holding Shelly's hand. "I do want to make love to you, but as me, not as Oliver."
"Oliver and I could have been very happy," Shelly said.
"Probably," Cain said, feeling a bit of his own resentment fall away, "But things aren't always like we plan. You never got to dance with Oliver that night, did you?"
"On my birthday?" Shelly asked, letting Cain pull him closer.
Cain ran a hand up Shelly's back, lifting the silk gown. "Yeah, on your birthday." He swept Shelly back up in strong arms. "When was your birthday?"
"I don't remember," Shelly whispered, face pressed to Cain's shoulder. "Why does it matter?"
"Maybe today is your birthday then?" Cain asked as he carried Shelly back down to the library. Still holding him, he squatted enough to start his music player. He doubted he had much good ballroom music, but he had some Chopin which sounded so much better in the shared dream than he thought his little laptop speakers might really sound.
He set Shelly down on his feet and pulled the silk up around his shoulders. "This is not then. This is now. Will you do me the honor of this dance, Mr. Comstock-Gray?"
For a moment, Shelly only seemed half there, lost some when between then and now. His hair darkened, not to blue, but to a warm chocolate brown. It lengthened, and wove itself into braids. His skin warmed into a sweet mocha, smooth, yet different than Shelly had been. Darker eyes watched Cain fearfully. Still clutching the silk, he hardly noticed as tears slipped to race down his cheeks. "What if you don't like who I am now?"
"The only person that would matter to is you. I like you just fine." Cain held out his hands. "Dance with me?"
"I don't want to change," Shelly whispered as he gave Cain his hands.
"Change is part of life," Cain said, a little more of his own resentments falling away. He wasn't sure he knew how to waltz, but Oliver must have. He let the part of him that had been Oliver guide them a little, carry them around the room as if it had been a grand ballroom. "I think you're very beautiful."
"Do you truly think so?"
"What point is there in lying to you? If I just wanted a fast screw then we'd be doing it upstairs."
"What do you want, Mr. Hardrain?"
The song changed and Cain kept the dance going even though he wasn't sure how to answer. At the beginning of the third song, he stopped, hands moving to Shelly's shoulders. "I want...."
"That day, when we kissed, the first time."
"I want to be worthy of you. I want you to love me because I'm worthy of you. I want to love you in such a way that you deserve to be loved. I don't want to be a coward."
"You were never a coward, Oliver." Shelly's trebling fingers, now with odd callouses on them reached to touch Cain's lips.
"I'm not Oliver. I'm Cain. You've moved on, but you're still tied to this place. You haven't let go of the past." Cain's strong hands moved to caress the long braids, exploring them. "What's your name in the present? I'll find you."
"Nothing. I don't have a name in the present and I can't leave you. I failed you." Shelly tried to pull away, refusing to look Cain in the eyes.
"You have a name," Cain growled. "Are you mad because who you are in the present is a black man?"
"That's not true," Shelly hissed.
"It is. I can see and you must have looked in the mirror sometime too. He looks like an adult, maybe early twenties? What's his name?" Cain asked in Oliver's voice.
"I don't know. He doesn't use his birth name. I don't know. You left me here! I didn't leave you."
"I've just been waiting for you to catch up with me," Cain/Oliver snarled.
The kiss that joined them roared savagely. Cain's hand in Shelly's long dark hair. Shelly's leg went around Cain's leg, pulling him close. Lust and need distilled through decades reverberated between them. Sharp, now that the kiss had started, they both fell into physical need like starving men, like this moment was the only comfort, only sweetness to be had. Shelly pushed Cain back towards the desk, but Cain spun them around getting Shelly to the table, on his belly, with only trousers and silk between them.
"Did you think this was going to be just like the first time again?" Cain's voice was deep, possessive. "I'm not some innocent little boy, afraid of his daddy and what people might say."
Shelly moaned, lifting his ass under Cain's weight. Cain pressed him back down, hands sliding along Shelly's arms until their finger's locked together, holding on for dear life.
"It's always been the same," Shelly whispered, "Like a dream I can't change."
"We're going to change it," Cain promised.
He gave Shelly's hand another squeeze then reached to undo his pants. Urgently, he pulled Shelly's gown up, revealing smooth mocha skin. The temptation to touch drew him and he reached a hand through to touch Shelly's hard cock, stroking. "You feel so good!"
"Ahhhh!" Shelly gasped, his fingers tightening around Cain's. "Forever! Can we have forever?"
In the dream there was no need for base mechanics, the mundane details of human coupling. Cain's passion drove home in Shelly easily, gliding on Shelly's own desire and need. They moved, clinging to each other like a blend of past and present. Cain held him down, held to him and Shelly cried out in a voice that Cain had never heard, deeper, accented differently. "Oh Jeezus! I got to find you this time. Oliver!"
So close to his own climax, Cain kissed Shelly's shoulder, pressed his cheek down as he released. "My name is Cain Hardrain. I'm waiting for you at The House of Silver Oak."
Dream or spirit plane, neither of them noticed the red headed woman watching from the doorway.
Kendal M. McBride pulled into the drive way and let the car cool while she leaned back for a moment. Cain Hardrain was an unsettling man. While she was very glad that she could start serious restoration to the house, he left her with a deeply unsettled feeling. There was something about him that made her want to both nurture him and beat him at the same time as if he were a willful little brother.
She'd taken care of all the arrangements though. Got a team of people out to work on the Phaeton, arranged a trailer to bring Anthony over in the morning, even procured a period set of clothing that should fit Mr. Hardrain decently enough. The unsettled feeling won't leave her though. Carrying that into the house was just asking for a stormy night.
With a sigh, she let herself out of the car, grabbed her brief case and put on her most carefree smile.
She'd met Lisa in college. It had been like meeting a long lost lover. In fact, that's what Lisa had always sworn it was. So a law student and a Tarot card reader met in the dorm room... There had to be a joke in there somewhere, and Kendal didn't put stock in anything that couldn't be measured. She could measure her love and happiness since she'd met Lisa as well as she needed too. It was like a perfect latte. She didn't really know what made it work, but it did.
"Honey, I'm home." She said playfully.
Lisa peeked out from the kitchen with a smile. "Hey, Beautiful. We should eat dinner before we go."
Kendal locked the door and set her briefcase down on the table in the hall. "Where are we going?"
"I made your favorite!" Lisa said, her hands clapped together. Today her hair was a faint baby blue and every piercing she owned was in, all the best stones. "Fresh california rolls and tempura."
"Oh, must be going some place really good then." Kendal sat down at the breakfast bar, smiling as she watched her lover bounce around the kitchen, the very cutest building hurricane. "I went out to see the new caretaker. He's very nice. I think he may help us do a decent restore on the place."
Lisa paused, hips cocked, low riding jeans barely up to her belly button. Pointing with both fingers simultaneously, she started the lecture. "Now I know that's important to you, but it's just an old house. I know you don't believe that you were Michael Comstock-Gray, but nothing good will come of fiddling with that house or what happened there."
"I think you want me to be Michael just so I'd have a cock sometimes. Seriously, Lisa, Honey, this has nothing to do with what happened at that house on that single night. This has something to do with a great family history and how wonderful that place would be as a museum."
"Do you think it was easy for me to accept that I was Richard?"
"Yes. You told me that the first day we met, but I kept talking to you anyway."
"You're impossible! You know it's true!" Lisa complained as she set Japanese style plates down in front of Kendal. "I did a reading today. The new caretaker is Oliver. The reincarnated Shelly is coming, but what's happening with Margaret is confusing. I think what happened is going to replay. I think we should go to Hawaii tonight. I packed for us."
"Did you now," Kendal said neutrally. "I think Hawaii sounds wonderful. We can leave on Sunday."
"We might be dead on Sunday," Lisa said, hands on the edge of the bar, glaring firmly.
"We might, but if we are, it's not because Shelly killed us."
"I told you, Shelly didn't do it."
"But you don't know who did," Kendal pointed out, the last little fins of a tempura shrimp between her fingers. "You trust me, right?"
"I trust you," Lisa said, knowing she'd lost the fight.
"So don't worry. Sunday, we'll go to Honolulu." Kendal wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.
"Nothing's changed. I'll still follow you anywhere."
"Then you deserve what you're going to get," Kendal teased. She ran her finger along Lisa's lower lip. "Don't be afraid baby. The best Tarot reader in the world once told me that the cards only show what is right now, how things will go if nothing changes. Even if we were Michael and Richard, now we're Kendal and Lisa and that's a whole different cup of tea. The leaves are going to be different this time."
Lisa moved around the counter to wrap her arms around Kendal's shoulders. "If we do die, will we still be together in the next life?"
"If I have anything to say about it, I'll never be apart from you."
"Did you eat?"
"No. I was too upset."
Kendal moved the plate of tempura where she'd be able to reach it when she turned around on the stool. She drew one of Lisa's legs up into her lap, like her lover was almost in her lap. After a small kiss she asked, "So you're feeling better now?"
"I'm always better when you're here." Lisa leaned in to return the kiss. "I was worried about you."
"I'm fine." Kendal kissed each of Lisa's cheeks, then reached for a bit of tempura zucchini. "Let me feed you?"
Lisa opened her mouth, even as she tried to lick Kendal's fingers.
"We're going to be okay. I promise."
Ricky woke up on the bus and his stomach positively screamed at him. Hungry. When he moved the rest of him had a word or two to say as well. He was pretty sure he had Crank's boot print on his forehead and where his ribs didn't quiet hold together, maybe on his thigh, or maybe that was where Crank had shot him.
A little clearer in the head, he had a moment of utter terror at being outside the hospital. The bag of food in his arms was cold, but he sat up a little more and opened it reverently. Fried chicken. His mouth watered, but he looked around him first. There was just an old woman across the isle and she was sleeping. Carefully he pulled out a drumstick and bit off some of the greasy cold meat, while being careful of his loose teeth.
"Hey," the woman said and he cowered, shoulders hunching painfully. "Do you know where we are?"
He shook his head, trying to hide the bag of food with his body.
"Do you know what day it is?"
"It's Saturday," someone a couple rows up said. "We're in Pennsylvania for another few hours."
"Thanks," the woman said, settling back into her blankets.
The other piece of chicken and one of the burritos down, Ricky felt a little less paranoid and starved. The next point was seeing how much money he had come into. The bag of his remaining food, minus the energy drink which he decided to have now, was tucked beside him. It took a little shifting, but he got his wad of bills out and started counting. Twelve hundred and ninety-two dollars, and that was after the bus ticket and food, seemed like an awful lot of money for a newspaper delivery man. Maybe Big Zeke was delivering more than newspapers. That was either really good, in that he won't come looking for his money or really bad in that he'd be extra mad when he did come looking. Either way, he just had to make it to Silver Oaks and keep Cain from going in the cellar.
Then Big Zeke or Crank or anyone else could come get what ever they felt like they needed to have.
That last dream with Oliver had been the best ever, way better than those that were like some old fashioned movie. If he could have a day like that, then he'd count all the debts up as paid.
Buses are safe, but they're also boring. Very, very gently he got up to walk back to the bathroom. He pulled down a paper towel and set his bag of food on it. Dark stain had seeped through the jeans he wore. Gently, very carefully with the bus' jerks to help him along, he took down the stolen jeans. His nightmares were right about one thing. It was definitely a bullet hole. It had missed the bones and stuff, or he'd not be standing. Or maybe Crank hadn't wanted to kill him. Uncooperative bastard.
He didn't remember his piss being quiet that dark either. Damn body. It never did him any good. It was either too pretty or too fucked up to be of any real use. He just had to make it a little ways more, do something good with his life.
Andi found her car by the gas station, found the keys under the seat. It was out of gas, but that was hardly the worst thing that had happened. There was blood on the seat though, and on the floor. What was driving her patient was a mystery worth solving to her.
The door to the store rang as she entered. She walked around, looking for the odd blood splatter. There was a tiny bit in front of one of the coolers and she hoped with all her heart that her patient was not drinking any of the energy drinks on display. She grabbed up a couple of apples and cheese sticks to take to the counter.
"My name is Dr. Andi Maynor. I'm looking for a patient of mine." She pulled a print from a security camera out. "This is him. He's hurt and I need to find him."
Terrance crossed his arms and stared at her, the best in passive aggression. "Someone hurt him."
"Yes," she agreed. "He needs to be in the hospital."
"Umn." Terrance shrugged.
"If he dies, and he will if he doesn't get medical treatment, it's going to be partially your fault." She leaned on the counter, eyes narrowed menacingly.
"All I know is he was hurt real bad and running from someone. I knew someone would be along after him. He's just a man trying to get home to help his brother. How do I know you ain't the one that hurt him."
Andi's mouth snapped shut and she grimaced as she pulled out her wallet, then her id. "See? Dr. Andi Maynor. I'm trying to help him."
"He's in God's hands."
"And you're in mine. You have a stolen car on your lot with blood in it and a missing man. You may not trust me, but how do you think the cops are going to feel about the word of a respected trauma surgeon?"
"He went to New York, on the bus."
"Thank you." She picked id back up and pushed her food towards him. "Was he speaking clearly? Did he seem disoriented?"
"No, he was fine. Lifted a wad of cash off the local strong arm man."
"Great," she said sarcastically. "How long ago did he leave?"
"Early this morning, about seven." He gave her a receipt and her stuff in a bag. "Why you chasin him?"
"He's my patient. He stole my car," she said, reasonable, but the she titled her head and said, "I thought I saw him in a dream."
"He's a little young for you, ain't he?" Terrance backed away from the counter, glad then of the bullet proof glass.
"He's going to be a little dead for anyone, if I don't find him."
She waved, then speed dialed her auto club, asking for a tow. It would be better to take the new car. He might not recognize her coming. Once back in the car, she queued up the bus route and headed off. If she was lucky, she figured she had maybe twelve hours to get him back in hospital.
"That's Henry Grenly, Ph.D." Henry glared at the Strawberry Marshal.
"I don't care how many letters you have after your name," she said. A matronly lady in pink crepe and a pill box hat that had been a little vintage in the 1960's, Norma Kettering had been Strawberry Marshal for two decades. "We did not receive your application for a booth until after the December 3rd deadline. I have returned your check, Doctor Grenly."
"Now see here, woman," he said firmly. "I am here to do God's work. You don't have the right to deny me the opportunity to preach the Word of God here today!"
"You don't have a booth, Dr. Grenly," she repeated, patiently. "The Sherif is my second cousin, once removed, and I'm completely sure that she'll see you to our local 'rest stop' for the evening if you are disturbing the peace."
"The sheriff? Your local rest stop? Woman, you are impeding the Word of God! Do you want to go to Hell?" He slapped his hands down on her white linen covered table, shaking her slender vase of white daisies. "A woman shall have no authority over a man and I, by the grace of God am a man, woman."
She folded her hands in her lap. Looking up at him, she looked over the top of her gold rimmed reading glasses and said, "No, you sir, are a great annoyance on this otherwise fine day. We're here to celebrate strawberries. I'm sure God will understand."
A woman, tall and strong, in a crisp sheriff's uniform walked up, a cup of coffee in one hand, a strawberry tart in the other. "Hey. Norma, is this gentleman causing you problems?"
"She's infringing on my rights of free speech," he declared, pointing a finger at the gray little old woman. "I paid for booth. My check was posted by the deadline. I cannot be responsible for the US postal system. If an item is post marked by the deadline, then it needs to be accepted."
"He's got plans to disturb the peace, Sheriff," Norma said, both his check and application now in hand, tidy and gaining authority by their very orderliness. "His topic is not congruent with strawberries."
"Be that as it may," Sheriff Kettering said tolerantly. "He's right. If it's postmarked by the date, then it should be allowed. He's got a right to have his peace heard," she paused, and turned to the guest. "You do understand that this festival is a family affairs and if I catch you insulting people of any ilk or using profanity such as the word 'hell' or if I think you're using God's name in vain, I shall be duty bound to arrest you."
"People need to know what awaits them," he said, slapping the back of his hand against his palm.
"Now either you can or you can't have a family friendly booth. Which is it?"
"Who is your superior? I want to talk to him."
Sheriff Kettering took another bite of her tart, giving herself time to chew. "I'm the elected law enforcement official here. Do you have a problem with women," she asked leaning over to look at his check before saying his name, "Dr. Grenly?"
"No, women are beautiful when they're in God's plan. A woman's not supposed to have authority over a man."
"Now that there's hate speech, Dr. Grenly. Now I think you best just sit quietly at your booth and sell your books if people seem interested."
"God will not smile on those who try to muzzle those who speak his word!" He banged the side of his fist against his palm.
"Now, I'm not a big church goer, but I seem to remember that God has some problems with people who break the law." Sheriff Kettering finished off her tart and followed it with a swig of coffee.
Norma tapped her fingers together, eyes narrowed. "Render under Caesar and in this case, Caesar wants a nice quiet, family friendly Strawberry Festival."
"And does your family friendly festival welcome homosexuals and lewd women?"
Norma slapped her hand down on her little pill box hat and stood up, fury simmering in her eyes as she leaned forward. "I am a homosexual and a lewd woman!"
"Now, Norma, don't poke the weasel. It's going to be a lovely day. I understand the new caretaker will be joining us in period garb, driving Shelly's Phaeton."
"You don't say?" Norma settled back down in her set, straightening her hat with both hands. "So set our guest up in booth A7, then?"
"Come on then, Dr. Grenly," Sheriff Kettering said. "I'll show you where you're going to be at. Now you don't have any offensive banners or posters or anything, do you?"
"The Word is of God is always edifying." He said, unsure just how he got to be in such a liberal part of the world right here on the East Coast.
"We just don't want to be scaring anyone with any hate speech, if you understand me." The booth she lead him to was right next to the booth belonging to 'Lady's Box', which was either the most needy target audience or the least likely to be interested.
They were all ready set up, with their staff dressed as tavern wenches with skirts about as long as Henry's kindly tolerance. He stopped, hard, eyes wide. "You can't be serious."
"Of course we can. All the adult material goes over here."
"The Word of God is not 'adult material'!" He roared.
"It is the way you preach it at our Strawberry Festival. I'll make sure to send round a nice tart for you, Dr. Grenly."
The pink and blue clad girls across from him waved at him. He had to find himself a chair. It was going to do be a hard day doing God's work. Indeed it was!
Lisa stepped out of the bathroom, a blonde wig on, ringlets by her face. She wore a very Victorian gown with a neatly done bustle in green damask. She held out a white gloved hand. In a slightly Southern, slightly British accent she asked, "Why good sir! I don't believe we've been introduced!"
Kendal leaned back in her chair. She wore a prim black tuxedo, with a black mustache penciled in. "My lady," she said, rising up and offering her arm. "I do believe you get more beautiful every year. Just how is that possible?"
"First you start out with some yoga in the morning! I'll show you how!"
"Frankly my dear," Kendal started, but couldn't finish before breaking into a grin. "Where's your parasol? We can go watch them set up?"
"Certainly. You're sure we'll be in Hawaii tomorrow?"
"As certain as I am of my love for you!" Kendal promised as she kissed Lisa's cheek.
The sun kissed them both as they stepped out of their house. The Festival already colored the air with laughter and happy yelling. Silver Oak sat on the hill above Kettering and if one's eyes were sharp, the shining Phaeton could be seen from their place. Seeing Shelly's polished treasure filled Kendal with a deep satisfaction. It sent a forbidden thrill through her to think that Shelly might ride down on it into town. While she most certainly did not believe in either ghosts or reincarnation, it was a lovely thought.
Cain woke in his bed again, prosthetic at the end of the bed. "I'm gonna spank your cute little ass, Shelly!"
Shelly became visible at the end of the bed, just darkening into place. He was quite blue today, not a hint of living flesh. "I was just being helpful. You should go, just keep going. Don't stay here."
"We've been through this," he said, throwing the covers back. He didn't care about being naked in front of his personal little demon anymore. "I'm going to get some ofuda to wear though so you can't possess me. Don't do that anymore."
"I promise, as long as you don't go near the cellar."
"Damn, what ever is in that cellar has me curious. I'll hire some people to clear it out, fill it up with cement." He said flippantly, but he did mean to find out. He had a suspicion that it was Shelly's body and that finding it would free him.
"You stay away from the cellar!"
"Alright, alright," Cain said holding up a hand. "I'll stay away from the cellar. What's in the box?"
"That woman. She sent clothes up for you." Shelly said. "Do you think I've really become a Negro?"
"Geeze, Shelly. Savage, Negro," Cain said. He ran his hands through his hair, found it clean again. "So what if your skin is darker. He's probably got more problems because his soul's half stuck in this house. Do you think less of me because my skin is darker?"
"Only when you just first got here," Shelly said. He smiled, playfulness pushing back some of the melancholy. "But you're such a charming savage. We changed things yesterday, this morning. I don't know what will happen."
"I liked that feeling when I got here. Before, I was so sure that everything was going to be bad. I kept having these dreams of the day Gracey died."
"Were you lovers?" Shelly asked, lips tight.
"There's neither here nor there. Gracey was an important friend of mine. I think he likes Margaret."
Shelly scowled. "I told you. She's dangerous."
"Did she do it? Did she kill you? Did she shoot you in the closet?" Cain asked.
Shelly's eyes went distant, vacant. Slowly he turned to look through Cain. A dark trickle of blood ran down the side of his face. "It wasn't in the closet."
Then he was gone again.
Cain sat there with his head in his hands, just shaking. He couldn't do this! It was just too complicated! Panic hit him then like it hadn't since Shelly had first touched him. What in hell was he doing? He wasn't gay! His hand gripped his head so hard that if it could have the fingers would have driven right into his skull.
"So you think he could love you," Margaret said.
She leaned against his door frame. She wore riding clothes, a riding crop in her hand, red hair piled high on her head. "You can't seriously believe that he'd love a little puppy like you? The stink of new money is all over you. You're going to be a doctor? With your patron living over your clinic? What kind of patients will you be seeing?"
Cain stood, both legs strong and whole. The room around him was done in wood tones, very masculine. Dark brown bedclothes, a mahogany writing desk, and Oliver lifted his chin staring at the woman in his doorway. "You're very forward."
"For a lady, you mean? Are you the lady? Do you bang him or does he bang you?" She opened her mouth, making a little 'O' with it, while her hand moved back and forward, suggestively. "Does he smell like everything you can't have. He's above your station. You're nothing except the son of a sailor who made his money with other men's blood."
"That's not true!"
"It's not? I wonder what your daddy will think when everyone knows you've been banging Comstock-Gray blood and that's really where his investment is at. Did you know that Shelly's daddy owns your daddy? Maybe it's father like son?"
"My father's nothing like me! I'm leaving! I'm never going to see this family ever again!" Cain felt Oliver's humiliation, his outrage, fear, shame, and he stepped back a little from it, even as the dark roots of those powerful emotions reached across the century.
Margaret stepped into the room, shut the door behind her, her arms pressing against her breasts, almost innocently lifting the soft curves. "Oh? So you don't care that I locked Shelly in the cellar? He's just going to embarrass us at the ball this evening."
"You can't have locked Shelly in the cellar! He'd never be quiet for that!" Outraged, both Oliver and Cain wanted to shake this woman within an inch of her life.
"He would if he wasn't awake." She stepped away from the door, a hand opening it just a crack.
"What have you done?" Oliver and Cain shoved her aside, reached for the door, then Cain grunted as he dropped to his knee. The past and present separated. Oliver ran, bounded down the stairs towards the cellar that Cain hadn't even found yet!
Cain had to crawl back to the bed. The stinging humiliation of it was enough to bring him back to his own time and emotions.
Margaret moved through her ghostly dream sequence. She crossed the room and ransacked the desk Oliver had been using. Smiling, victorious, she lifted the letter he'd written.
Cain knew those words on that letter, new them line by line as if they'd been etched into his soul, carved into his skin. Evil words that he hadn't meant and probably never would have delivered.
She tucked the letter into her inside jacket pocket, straightened the desk a bit and let herself out, smug as a well fed feral cat.
He worked himself back up onto the bed and grabbed his leg. It was going to work differently this time, by god. "Gracey!"
The ghost appeared, squatting on the balls of his feet, balanced on the footboard.
"You want that red head, you better get her out of whatever crap she did in 1872 and back in the present, got me? She killed Shelly that night. I know she did."
"S'long time ago," Gracey said softly, his voice soft as a still breeze.
"Then get her into the present, Gracey. Make it good to go, man."
"Good to go," Gracey said, giving a salute before he disappeared.
Cain didn't really have the emotional reserves to process that Gracey had started talking or to connect the increased connection between them with when it had first started. He'd not seen Gracey until he'd nearly died with the loss of his leg.
Margaret sat in the window of her guest room, a green velvet pillow under her bent knee, pale cream morning gown draping over her leg, pooling at the floor. Hair down, long red waves reached the middle of her back. An ink pot nestled safely near her, but her pen sat over the paper, still, her eyes staring at some far distant world outside her window. It was like a dream, the sweetest moment before the nightmare began.
Today she would confess to Darling Michael. She was Andrew. Surely he would love the soul more than the body. He would understand, this time, this time he would understand. Even the sunlight felt chill though. What was to come was distant, she told herself firmly, as she dipped another quill of ink. The morning was just like the virgin morning, but her heart repelled the innocence she'd had that morning, so long ago. It was different this time. Michael would be at the party today. She could feel the storm at the edges of her being, building in nature. That first morning, she hadn't felt the storm coming.
This time it would work. She'd take care of Oliver, so he couldn't interfere. Shelly had to be too preoccupied to bother over his brother or other events. She had something special for Richard. Compulsively, she set her pen back in the pot and patted down her pocket for the small vial. When she had him alone, she'd declare her love, explain who she really was, and he'd love her, truly. She caressed the little vile through the chiffon of her gown, then picked up the pen again. In a very careful hand she wrote:
"My Very Dearest Kendal...."
The knock on her door was out of place. She muffled it out of her thoughts, focusing on this new letter. It insisted. Like the beating of a heart. Out of sync with her own, it pounded against her reality, driving her farther into it. When she looked back down at her letter, the light lacquered writing desk on her lap, the ink she'd traced into words only moments before now read, "My Very Dearest Michael...."
It was probably some servant. The Comstock-Gray household had the worst trained servants of any house she'd ever been in. Very deliberately, irritation radiating from her as she moved the desk from her lap, she rose from the seat. Part of her screamed in uncontainable rage! This wasn't how it went! This was wrong! How was she supposed to win Michael/Kendal if she changed her plan!?
She crossed the room, gown swishing as she walked. Resentment, hurt clawed like angry cats around her heart. With a rebuke on her lips, she jerked the door open. A young looking Asian man stood there, hands in his pockets, a crooked smile on his face. His hair stood straight up, tipped in neon-blue. He had Gracey's lazy cat grace, slothful wisdom in his eyes. "Hey, Andi."
"That's not my name," she said, chills flowing over her, inertia trying to change direction. "Leave me alone."
"This is what we meant to do. It's time." He pulled a hand from his pocket and held it out to her. "What are you afraid of?"
"You don't really love me! You love someone else!"
He put his hand back in his pocket and shoved his way into the room. "It doesn't matter if I love you or not," he pointed out. "It matters if you love you."
"That's a lie! A stupid lie! How can I love myself if no one else loves me? That's just you telling me that you don't love me as I am!" She spun around and in the turn her voice deepened. She grew a little taller, her hair thin and white. Rage in angry eyes and she pointed at him condemningly. In Henry's voice she spat, "You're the devil! You want to take me to Hell! I am not a homosexual or a woman!"
Gracey's future self laced his fingers behind his head and rolled his eyes. "It's big, red, and it hasn't got shit for night clubs yet, but I won't really call it hell. You have to forgive yourself for what happened that night, happened since."
"Only God forgives," Henry snarled. "There is no escape for sinners."
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only begotten son so that whosoever believeth should not perish, but have eternal life," Gracey's future self quoted. "Even when you were Margaret, you didn't really want to kill all those people."
Henry's smile broadened, more gracious and poisonous than the preacher man had ever managed. Margaret stepped through the mask that was Henry, in full day dress, a high lace collar, bustle, white elbow gloves, all set to go calling. Her fiery red hair lay in ringlets by her perfect face. She held her hand out to him and at the last minute flicked her palm up.
A blast of will hit him, drove him back, just as the closet door opened. "I will not accept your future! I will not accept that Michael doesn't love me! You can't make me be alone!"
Back in her safe reality, she tugged up her gloves, then leaned over to look in the mirror, catching up stray hairs, recomposing herself. She would not be beaten by Shelly! The worthless little faggot of a man.
It was the morning of her engagement party! The man she was to marry would love her today! With calm pride, cool determination, she stepped out of the guest room and nearly ran in to Shelly.
He'd just come back from a drive, wearing just a linen shirt with broad ruffles of lace at his collar, cuffs. His hair was barely contained, only half in the pony tail, sweaty curls clinging to his face. Blue eyes twinkled happily. He gave her a sweeping bow, all without losing his grin. "Good morning, Miss Margaret! It's a beautiful, momentous day!"
"Oh? Why is that? Do they let you dress like a member of the family and not like a servant?"
Shelly giggled, tugged self consciously at his cuffs. "No, Oliver will be here today! It'll be a wonderful day for everyone!"
"You lack the gravity of your station," she hissed, pulling her skirts closer and heading off with her head held eye. He was an idiot! Her plan would work wonderfully and he'd get what he deserved. Maybe even Michael would laugh at that fool after this.
Shelly, a hand on his hip, nose twitching, gestured at her back. "Gravity makes things fall!"
Rain lashed his back, filled the air so much that he could hardly see. Shelly held up his arm, trying to shield his vision. Somewhere beyond the carriage house, closer to the fish pond, ground gave way under him and he slipped, sliding in the thick mud as he tried to keep his footing and failed. Wind pressed him down then, not distinguishing man or tree. He had to get up! In this end-of-times-storm he had to find Margaret and make her tell him what she'd done to Oliver, what she'd done to Richard.
"Margaret!" His voice barely carried above the scream of the storm. The worry that Oliver was out in this rage tore at Shelly's soul. "Oliver!"
He saw her skirts then, dark and heavy, dragging in the mud. The wind gave him some relief.
"Margaret!" He gained his feet then, driven and frantic. His hands clawed at the mud on the way up. "Stop! Come back! Where's Oliver!"
Lightening jagged through the sky above them and he froze.
She pointed a pistol at him, skirts held up in one hand. Her hair sagged by her face, too dark from the rain to really be red anymore. "You weren't supposed to!"
Shelly held his hands up, slowly turning to the side to give her a smaller target. "Wasn't supposed to what?"
"You were supposed to go to the gazebo! To wait for Oliver! I wanted you to wait until we were gone to Paris! Crying!"
"Where is Oliver!"
"I'm not going to tell you! Unless you help me get Michael alone! I need to tell him the truth!"
"The truth or what you want to be true, Margaret?" The wind stayed calm and Shelly wanted to think that the stars were watching them as he took a step closer to her. "Let's go back in the house. Michael's waiting in there. I'm sure he'll be very surprised to see us all wet like this, don't you think? He won't want his fiance out in this storm!"
"You think if I calm down I'll be 'reasonable', tell you where your faggot of a lover is! I'm calm! I'm clearer than I ever have been! You and your brother would take everything from me! Leave me in misery! Laugh at my pain! You told me to live as a man earlier! Do you not see anything of what I am? I'm a beautiful woman, smart and cunning! I'm not going to let you beat me!"
"I don't want to beat you! You're going to be my sister by marriage, aren't you? You're family! Why would I want to hurt you?"
Her jaw clenched. "Because I hate you! I want to hurt you!" Her finger squeezed the trigger.
Shelly's eyes widened, his heart holding for just a moment for the bullet that never came. She squeezed it again. He rushed her. She brought the small pistol up and down across his face as he took them both to the muddy ground. "Science, Maggy! Water's bad for gun powder!"
He got both hands around her wrist, shaking the pistol free. Blood ran dark down the side of his face where the pistol had torn open his skin.
She bucked and snarled. "Get off me! Monster! Rapist!"
The pistol dropped finally, hitting the mud and sliding over an edge that was much nearer than Shelly had realized. "I won't rape you if we were the last humans left after the apocalypse! You get no advantage over me just because you've got tits!"
Her other hand came up, fast, hard. The pale rock in her hand dark after the first strike, splattered.
Stunned, Shelly's hands went weak. He blinked. Oliver stood in the distance, untouched by the rain, wearing the tuxedo he'd worn to the ball. His smile was so sad and Shelly felt utter shame. Tears stung his eyes. "Ollie," he whispered, heart closing off his throat.
The second blow slowed the world even more. Shelly crumpled to the side, lips parted, eyes still locked on where he'd seen Oliver. Mud sucked up into his mouth, the cold pure rage of the storm. Above him, she stood, one foot to either side, and rolled him onto his back. Cold mud leeched the burning in his scalp. "Oliver?"
"He's dead," Margaret whispered, throwing the rock into the pond. "It wasn't my fault. He fell down the stairs! I just wanted to lock up until tomorrow! I left a letter saying where he was so that the servants could find him, tomorrow. It's not my fault he fell! It's your fault! If it wasn't for you he won't have been here!"
Moving just took too much energy, too much strength that he didn't have. "Go get Michael. He'll help us."
"Do you think anyone will believe me that it's not my fault? You're just a faggot! No one is going to miss you!"
"I'm not dead!" Shelly shot back, but he wasn't sure he said it out loud. "Don't push me into the water! I'm not dead," he screamed. He was standing on the bank though, watching Margaret push him. Body limp as soggy cloth, he stood there watching as she shoved him towards the water. Once the hill caught him, he slid easily, one lax hand reaching back up to where Oliver had stood, free of the storm. Mass hit the water with a splash.
Lightening cracked again and both of them could see, for just a moment, sinking into the water, hair fanned out and blue eyes open accusingly, so much like he had been moments before, Shelly sank below the water.
"But I'm not dead!"
She took a couple steps back from the edge, her hand pressed to her mouth. "Oh God."
"That's right, you murderer!" Shelly screamed at her. "You murdered Oliver!"
She grabbed her stomach and dropped to the ground, her very soul turning inside out. Rain poured down, beating her back, dragging her long hair towards the mud.
Shelly wrapped his arms around himself, rocking back and forth, blue tears sliding down a pale blue face. "I don't want to die!"
Ricky didn't remember when he'd gotten off the bus, or how he'd ended up sleeping on the floor of a gas station bathroom. Maybe he was dead. He wasn't sure, except that he couldn't die yet. He had to do good things. A voice whispered up from within him that nothing he'd ever do would be good enough to make up for the stain that he was.
The cold of the floor stiffened his muscles, turned ache into diamond hard permanence. He had to get there early, early enough to keep Oliver from going into the cellar. Hands on the ceramic sink, he pulled himself up. He froze when he saw himself in the mirror. So blue, pale, eyes dark, hair light and curly, all wrong, he slapped the mirror with all his strength, which only managed to hurt his hand.
Limping and slow, he let himself out of the bathroom and there it was! Up on the top of a hill, distant enough, but insight; there was the house of Silver Oak.
There were several cars at the station, lots of laughing and playful people. One woman wore a hat in the shape of a strawberry. Ricky approached her, smiling, a hand over the dark patch of dried blood on his stolen jeans. "Hi! I'm trying to get up to that house up there!"
The woman looked at him as if he'd fallen out of the sky. "That must be some powerful need you have there, son."
"Yes, please? Can you give me a lift?"
"Are you hurt?"
"Nothing that won't be okay," he lied. "I have friends waiting for me at the house."
A younger man, maybe the woman's son leaned over the hood of the car, car keys in his hand. He smiled. "I heard they're doing some kind of reenactment up at the house today, or that there's going to be some showing of Shelly."
"That's it," Ricky seized the lie. "I'm playing Shelly in the reenactment. I just took too long in the bathroom and my stupid friends are playing a joke on me. It's been a real long drive up from Charlotte. I'll see that you get some commemorative stuff if you can give me a ride!"
"We're going to have the murderous Shelly Comstock-Gray in our car," the son said playfully. "No coming on to my girlfriend!"
Ricky held up both hands, giving his best innocent as hell smile. "Oh, don't worry. I'm gay."
The mother pressed her hand to her chest and rolled her eyes. "It's just too much excitement for the day!"
The girl in the back seat scooted forward and opened the door. She was a sweet, round faced strawberry blond. "You'll make a really hot Shelly! I can't wait to see you in all that blue make up!"
Ricky let himself slip into the car, trying really careful not to betray how much protest his body gave him. That his private hallucination was a public entertainment disturbed him and at the same time validated him. As the car moved out, Ricky asked, "Do you think he was really a murderer?"
"That's what the stories say," the mother said holding a small guide to local history. "We're from Chicago and this is our vacation before Stewie goes back to college."
"Only if Shelly doesn't kill me first," Stewie, the son said ruefully.
The mom turned in her seat, as far as the seat belt would let her, and held out her hand. "I'm Abigail Tooth. This is my son Stewie and his girlfriend Tabitha."
Ricky shook her hand. "I'm Drey Marks, from Charlotte."
"Very nice to meet you, Drey. That wasn't very nice of your friends to leave you."
He shrugged. "We just play jokes on each other sometimes. They didn't mean anything by it. I'll get them back sometime. We're getting college credit for doing this gig. So it works out good all the way around."
"What's your major," Stewie asked, glancing in the rear view mirror as he turned to drive into the town proper.
"Acting," he said, feeling that was true, just that the school was the street and the tuition was blood.
"What school are you going to," Stewie asked again.
Their eyes locked for a bit and Ricky gave him a smile. "University of Michigan, Detroit."
"You must pick up accents really good. You sound like you're from Detroit your whole life." Stewie mused. "Some kind of equal opportunity that has a black man playing a blue eyed blond? Did you know his father fought for the South? I read that in the guide book."
"I didn't know that," Ricky said. "I guess I have to work hard to get into my part, uh?"
The Strawberry Festival glittered, sparkled with balloons and colorful banners. Little children ran up and down the single isle between booths. People strolled leisurely in period garb. Ricky watched them feeling disassociated as the past and present mingled.
"I think we can get up to the main house if we just go one more block over," Abigail said. "Now don't worry about, Stewie. Sometimes he thinks he's a criminal justice major."
"I could change my major," Stewie said defensively.
One block over, Stewie took a right and headed up towards the big house. Then they had a clear shoot up to the half derelict house. Just as they left the village, past and present tangled for Ricky and he yelled, "Stop!"
"What?" Stewie asked. "Here?"
"Yeah, right here," Ricky said. The hill looked so steep and uninviting now, but in his head, he could see it how it used to be. Lush, with flowers, a symphony of color, all his mother's work, no.. Shelly's mother's work. "This is where I want to be!"
"Okay, you'd know best," Abigail said gently. "Are you sure you're alright, son?"
"Never been better," Ricky said, letting himself out as soon as the car stopped.
It was like coming home. He knew there was a path up, right up to the front door. As he walked, he felt more and more like he was Shelly. His mother would be fretting over the evening's ball a bit. His father would probably be in the library, pretending as if there wasn't going to be an evening ball. Shelly had ridden that morning with friends and he'd gone to the end of the drive to see them off. Now he ran up the path between the flowers. He'd just say hello to his father, tell his mother he loved her. He had a haunting feeling that he really wanted to tell his mother how much he loved her. He needed to tell her, though that moment, as Shelly who was just returning home, he didn't know why himself.
Pastor Mark Keys sat at his desk. He just did not know what to do.
He wanted to believe that no one would ever harm another. He especially wanted to believe that a Christian would not harm another person.
The love he felt for people left no room for violence, little enough room for doubt, but Henry Grenly had left a sliver of worry. It felt wrong that the Holy Spirit could tell him to call the police on another preacher.
He didn't want to do it.
That's what it was.
He fingered the sticky note with the phone number to the Kettering Police Department written on it.
Preachers should be above reproach.
"I am not above reproach," he said out loud and then he picked up his phone. A sense of peace came over him.
"Hello. My name is Pastor Mark Keys. I feel the need to warn you about a man named Henry Grenly."
Sheriff Kettering sighed as she listened to her second religious nut that day. The Strawberry Festival brought them out, but that's what you got if you were going to have a festival because it was the favorite fruit of the local mass murder suspect. "Well, you see the problem with that is that Kettering hasn't got a doctor. So there's no way Dr. Grenly could shoot her while she's trying to save the life of another shooting victim to start with. Now we got us 150 people in this town, one air strip, and one gun, which I've got strapped to my hip. " She paused, nodded as a little boy in blue face paint ran up and made a face at her. She gave him a look of mock fear. "I don't care of God did tell you Himself. Edgar Casey could walk up here and tell me that story and there isn't going to be a double homicide in Kettering today."
Her nose twitched. She scratched her eyebrow, the phone still held to her ear. Finally she nodded. "If I go check on Dr. Grenly, will that make you feel better? Fine. I'll go check on him, see if he has any weapons on him, okay?"
The third 'milk maid' was a man. He was a man in a short blue skirt with enough tulle underneath to make a couple hundred dish scrubbers. He had shaved legs and net stockings that went all the way up to his thigh. The two girls with him laughed and giggled. In fact, they all did. They had a 'Shelly Special' that was guaranteed to drive the virgin out of anyone!
Dr. Henry Grenly hated them. He was right there! Right across from them. His books clearly visible. Homosexuals, transexuals, fornicators! And people kept coming, streaming through the sparkly plastic fringe that blocked off the two adult booths from the rest of festival.
It was evil! It was despicable! They just did not want to listen! They thought just because he was a Christian he had nothing useful to say to them! They'd put him in a prison!
Heartburn rose in his throat, growled like a demon in his chest. God would make them pay! He was innocent! He'd done nothing wrong and yet they treated him as if he were the criminal.
"Excuse me, Sir," a woman said to him.
"Yes, Sister," he said, smiling, heart burn converting to possession, pleasure.
"I'm Dr. Andi Maynor," she said, holding out her hand to shake.
There was something familiar about this woman, something vile. Instead of shaking, he thrust one of his books into her hand. "You need to read my words! Through them you can come to know our Savior."
"I've been Born Again for almost fifty years," she said, irritated. She set the book down and showed him the photo of Ricky. "Have you seen this man? I'm a doctor and I'm trying to find him."
"With that hair? He's a sinner."
"Aren't we all," Andi asked, really getting irritated.
The milk maids and man snickered.
"Seriously, please look at the photo and tell me if you've seen him."
"That's from a big city and he's indecently dressed," Henry pointed out.
"It's a security camera footage shot, from the hospital where I work." Worked, she amended in her mind.
"He's not going to tell you anything," the milk maid in pink said. "He's a stick in the mud that a good fuck couldn't even help. Let me take a look?"
"Watch your mouth, you sinner! God will have no pity on the likes of you!"
"Yeah?" Mint maid jeered. "If he's anything like you we ought to have pity on him!"
"Yeah," Pink said, "I saw him. I thought he was hurt really badly, but he said he was an actor, here for the festival. My boyfriend and his mom, and me, we picked him up back at the gas station."
"Where is he now?"
"Up at the house. He seemed almost like he knew it."
"Thank you very much!" Andi said, tucking the printed out photo back in her jacket pocket.
"You took the letter from my room," Oliver accused.
Margaret sat in a lavender damask arm chair, a slender held between delicate hands. "What letter, Mr. Hastings? I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
Oliver ground his teeth. "You do know. Return it to me, immediately."
"Oh what," Margaret asked, closing her book with a slap. "You're such a big man. Are you going to hit me?"
He leaned closer, a hand gripping the arm rest of her chair. "I do not hit women."
"And if I were a man? Would you hit me then?" She rose, the book falling to the floor. She'd changed into a darker blue gown, a fine Irish lace at her throat. Without telegraphing her intent, she slapped him a hard ringing blow. "But then you're not really a man either, are you?"
"What did you do with the letter?" He took a step back, jaw jutting out as he adjusted his cuff. "I never mean those letters. I write them as a way to see what I am not."
"Oh," she drawled. "I delivered the letter for you this time. The look on his face... just inconsolable. One might think your defective kind were capable of feelings."
Oliver paled, utterly deathly white pale. "What kind of human being are you?"
She pressed the tips of her fingers to her chest, tilted her head. "Oh yes, I do have my regrets. I understand Shelly took to the cellar. I do hope he won't do himself any harm."
"You're a stupid woman. Shelly would never hurt himself."
"Not even after you've left him, after you couldn't bare the shame you were bringing on your father?" She stepped to the side, moving around him towards the door. "If you'd seen his tears, you'd understand my concern."
"You shouldn't have intruded yourself into our lives!"
"But I'm going to be his sister, aren't I? What does that make me to you? Oh that's right, nothing. Even if you put him in a skirt you can't marry him and you'll never touch the Comstock-Gray money."
"I don't want his money!" Disgusted, Oliver strode past her. In the foyer he waved down a servant. "Have you seen Shelly?"
The woman curtsied. "Not in an hour or so, Mr. Hastings, but he was headed towards the carriage house when last I saw him. He seemed to be distraught. It's possible he went for a ride. He does that when he's unsettled."
"Thank you, Missy," he said, tipping his head in gratitude.
He strode out the back, not through the kitchens, but through the green room. Color had not come back to him. He'd just explain and Shelly would understand. He meant to go straight to the carriage house and through to the stables. Shelly must have been with his horses. Oliver thought about if he could afford a horse that was fine enough to please Shelly. He'd demand money from his father. He'd find a way, he told himself, though even as he left the house, he knew that things would never sway Shelly. Shelly would either forgive him and it would be as if it had never happened, or Shelly would never look at him the same again. Tears threatened to return some heat to his face. Men did not cry.
A splash of blue caught his eye, about ten paces from the back of the house. The cellar doors had a bit of blue silk stuck between them. His heart tore in two. Shelly couldn't possibly have taken the perceived rejection so absolutely. "Shelly!"
Desperately panicked even as he told himself to remain calm, he struggled to open cellar doors. "Help! Help me get these doors open!"
With one great pull, both the wooden doors opened up. The force carried him back, then he recoiled forward, towards the pitch black of the cellar and narrow wooden stairs. His feet skidded on rain soaked ground. Two hands touched his back. For a flicker of thought he thought it was Shelly, reaching to steady him, the way Shelly always had, but then the hands pushed him. He held to the doors, feet slipping, sliding. Hard stair hit the back of his leg. The doors closed on his wrists with the full force of his fall and their weight. He screamed, but the darkness absorbed the sound.
Someone stomped on his hands and before he thought about it, he let go. The doors fell shut, muffling his voice as he fell to the bottom. The dirt floor of the cellar was more mud than hard pack. Most of the food store had been moved up into the house to protect it from the rising water level. As he tried to sit up, he found his right arm refused to obey him. It hung limply at his side. The shaking started then. Everything hurt to a level that he had not thought could coexist with coherent thought.
There were spikes on the stairs, wooden spikes. He inferred this because with his good hand, he could feel one sticking in his stomach still. This was an attempted murder. It hadn't been Shelly. Hands too small. Shelly won't ever hurt him, not even if he couldn't accept him again, after that letter. Sometimes men cry in the dark.
Cain hit the wall with his shoulder, blinking, and only a hand on the railing and a soldier's body kept him from tumbling down the stairs and into the foyer like a fool. Shaking he sank down into a failed squat. It was too easy to forget that he was a quarter short of his leg ration. "Fucking shit," he said, pressing a hand to his chest, as if that could stop his heart from racing. "I know what's in the fucking cellar and it's pissed and it's me."
Rocking back and forth, the anger that had plagued him all his life, the suppressed panic that came screaming out as panic attacks since he'd gotten out of the army. Doing the math in his head, he realized he'd the panic had started when he was nearly the same age as when Oliver died. The long ugly death in the cellar, bleeding out from an abdominal wound, as the rain filled the basement, fearing for Shelly, longing to be found, wanting to say good bye, wanting to go to San Francisco. Cain cried as he rocked, his hand going around his gut, as if he could hold in what had bled out a hundred and forty years before. That's not how it was supposed to be! He'd had a hotel reserved, with a balcony and a view of the bay. There was supposed to be champagne and he'd pose for Shelly and they'd laugh and sleep until noon. There were going to be lunches at this nice little cafe that he'd found, close to the place he'd found for his clinic.
He played the story out in his head. They were going to grow old together. Maybe they'd adopt a child and be Uncle Ollie and Uncle Shelly, see that the child was doted on and had the best education. He was going to get Shelly a new horse. Sitting there on those steps, so nauseous he wasn't sure he wasn't going to splatter paint the stair well, he could see so very clearly in his mind how happy, the bright beautiful smile his lover would have given him when he'd given him the new horse. The apology horse. The horse that, even if he'd bought it then was now long dead, the calcium it's bones dissolved and reabsorbed into other living creatures.
Cain shook his head, clenched up his jaw and decided. "I'm Cain. My name is Cain Hardrain and my grandfather taught me better than this. Fucking ghosts. I'm not a fucking ghost! I'm Cain Hardrain! Shelly you little shit! You're alive too, just like me! You're that boy I saw in my dream! I am going to find your ass!"
Shelly was obviously engaged elsewhere. A flash of jealousy went through Cain, and then he bitch slapped the feeling right out of his head. Shelly did not sleep around. Shelly loved him. Shelly had loved Oliver. He had to know if this crazy ghost shit was true! If he hadn't gone bat shit crazy then he knew where Oliver's body was.
The police work in that time had been appalling! Listing Shelly as missing and not even hardly noticing that Oliver was also missing. So easy to attribute blame. Well, if it was his old body that was laying down there, must bones in the mud, then he was going to see it. He needed to see those bones. The whole bleeding tragedy of this house, that day - it needed to end!
Determined, he inched his way back up to his feet. To the cellar!
In the lady's sitting room, Margaret pulled a neatly tailored black doe skin glove a little bit more into place. The plan was meant to work. The house would pass to the Artistic Preservation Society and 'Michael' would be in the house almost every day. 'Richard' would be easy to deal with. This would be the last time to feed the cellar. Just this last time.
Ricky/Shelly expected the door to be open and it was. The house smelled like cooking strawberries and cinnamon. Thick bouquets of roses adorned both sides of the foyer. Both of them hesitated. Ricky counted it as hallucination, maybe the entrance into a heaven he wasn't sure he was going to get to stay in. Shelly wanted this moment to last forever, to never go much farther in this day.
He'd made love to Oliver and when this day was virgin, he'd walked through that door with a spring in his step, on top of the world. his mother had been in the kitchen, his brother about to announce the best marriage arrangement Kettering had seen in a hundred years, and he was going to use that cover to slip away with Oliver, away to San Francisco. He knew the day didn't go that way, but he wanted to hold to how it had seemed earlier in the day.
That he was standing there, in his own house, in a body, a still living body, and staying in that moment was harder. It was maybe the hardest thing he'd done in a long while. As Cain came down the stairs, a determined look on his face, he knew, he knew just how this day had gone on some other days since that first day.
"Cain!" Shelly said in Ricky's deeper voice.
Cain froze, head turning slowly. He lifted a hand, to point or reach out, or both. His lip twitched with a thought that didn't make it to words. "Shelly."
Ricky smiled then, knowing the dreams had been true, everything had been true. "You're my lover and you loved me," Ricky said, his smile flickering like a radio station that won't stay tuned. "Don't go in the cellar. Please. I don't want you to die."
Ricky took a step forward, but Cain crossed the distance faster, arms going around him. At first it was just to help him, help this stranger, but as he touched him, felt the warmth and life in him, his arms closed around him holding him as he fell, treasuring him. Cain's heart wrapped around Ricky as if he were the best and greatest treasure the world had to offer. "I know you. I do know you. God what happened to you? I won't go in the cellar. I'll stay here with you. We'll get you help."
Shaking now, his reserve and drive all burned up, Ricky reached up to touch Cain's lips, to brush over his eyebrows. "I feel like I'm hope and I saved you."
"You did! You saved me," Cain said, feeling Oliver sigh and smile deep inside his soul. "You came all this way for me."
"I didn't want you to die," Ricky said, tears shiny across dark eyes. "You won't die, right?"
"I'm not going to die for a long time and neither are you!" Cain said, sweeping Ricky up in his arms. It was a difficult ungainly walk to the library chair, his prosthetic hitting the floor hard ever time he stepped down. He held Ricky close though, tenderly. "I'm going to call 911. You'll be okay."
"I been shot," Ricky admitted, "And I'm pissing blood."
"So what? We'll get a med team in here," he said, setting Ricky down on the floor in front of the chair. He grabbed his backpack, digging through it for his phone.
Neither of them noticed Margaret's spirit in the library doors. Her hands clenched, driving her nails into her palms, even through the leather gloves. This was when she was supposed to taunt Shelly, when she was supposed to win over him! It wasn't supposed to work like this! This wasn't how it went! They couldn't do it differently! Her plan was going to work!
Neck tight, rage grinding his teeth, Henry opened his eyes, blinking. He looked up at the house. Whore son! Faggot! He was going to steal her life! His life! Henry sat down and looked around him at the booth, the books.
With calm hands he reached out to his cash box. Under the top drawer was a revolver. It had been his father's in WWII. It was a man's weapon. Discreetly, behind the table of his booth, he held it in his hand, a man's hand. Margaret hissed under his consciousness, just past the boundaries he'd worked so hard to maintain and build, to strengthen. That, out there, was a no man's land where the love of God could not touch. A shiver went across his shoulders and he shoved the pistol into his jacket pocket.
The murderers, thieves, were in the house above, working at ruining his life, stealing everything he'd ever wanted. Energy boiled in him, screamed in his heart and he had to have release for it. Calm as an active volcano, he walked away from his booth, finger caressing his trigger. Evil had to be stopped before it hurt other people!
"Shelly's real, right," Ricky asked, his fingers tracing around the spreading patch of dark on his leg.
"I think so," Cain said, confused himself. "It's this house, or maybe it's more. Where did you come from?"
"Detroit. I was dreaming that I was a rich white boy since my first foster home. It's okay, you know, if I don't live."
"It is not okay," Cain said sternly. He had his phone now and he sat on the floor next to Ricky. "What's your name?"
"Ricky Lace. You're Oliver, from my dreams. Thank you for not going in the cellar."
"I've had those dreams too, but I'm not Oliver. I'm Cain. You're really tore up though. How did you get hurt?"
"I tried to kill myself. Death by enforcer. I spit in Crank's face. You? How did you get hurt?"
"It's old. I'm not really hurt. It was the war."
"Oh. I should have done that," Ricky said. "Do you think, maybe, you could have loved me, like Oliver loved Shelly?"
Cain just had to press send to start the 911 call, but he shifted, pressed his hand to Ricky's cheek, looked right into his eyes. "I'm Cain, but I feel for you, right now, here in the present! Maybe this is what love at first sight is. Maybe it's all kinds of crap I don't believe in, but I feel love you Ricky Lace, right here, right now. So don't you fucking die on me. I don't think I could stand that. If we're still trying to work out shit that happened almost a hundred and fifty years ago, then us dying now is only going to make that clean up worse, got me?"
"I better stay here and do good things with you, hadn't I?"
"Yeah, you fucking better," Cain said, pressing send.
Shelly rose up out of Ricky, leaving the younger man with his eyes half open. Lips tight, Shelly crossed his arms and clenched his jaw. "I will not be a Negro."
Waiting for the call to connect, Cain looked up at Shelly, sneered. "You're an arrogant dick and I've been waiting a long time to tell you that."
"You were a coward then and you're little more than a savage now. You left me!" Shelly shouted.
Oliver stepped right stepped right out of Cain, leaving him mumbling who he was to the 911 operator. Angry, Oliver slapped his hand down on the desk and it was like a breeze blew threw the papers, letters there. "I never would have left you! I wrote the letter. I've written dozens of them! I wrote them so that I'd see who I didn't want to be! I never gave you any of them! Margaret told me you'd gone into the cellar! I was looking for you, to explain! I love you, Shelly Comstock-Gray, you lace wearing, dog fucking sodomite!"
Shelly chewed his lower lip for a moment and whispered, "I've never done a dog."
Oliver crossed to him, touching his face tenderly. "I took your innocence that day. I was a beautiful day."
"It was the last day."
"No, it isn't. We are Ricky and Cain now."
"How can you love me if I'm a Negro?"
"Skin color means nothing to me. We'll go to San Francisco together. I had tickets for us. First class. What was your favorite book on that day? You'd been telling me about it."
"I was reading... reading Henry IV."
"Pull it off the shelf."
"Maybe we can together?"
Cain looked up just as a green leather book fell from the shelves and spilled out onto the floor, an envelope spinning farther across the floor.
"No, I need an ambulance. Not the police. He's hurt, bad, but I don't know how. No, he's been shoot. I don't know when. Insurgents shot him. It wasn't friendly fire. I'm at the House of Silver Oak, in Kettering." Suddenly the fog cleared in his mind. "His name is Ricky Lace. Send a hilo. He needs immediate med-evac. He's been hit bad!" He crouched, half shielding Ricky with his body.
Nervous, Ricky reached up to brush fingers through Cain's long dark hair. "Maybe war was a bad idea. I'll take care of you too, Cain," Ricky said, though his voice sounded like Shelly's. "You're right. Skin color does not matter. Only loving you, taking care of you. I won't be able to stop the panic without being.. Shelly."
Phone held to his ear, he looked up at Ricky and smiled. "Just don't leave me."
"Yeah," Cain said.
"I'm a felon."
"I'm alcoholic." Cain said, smiling softly. "Maybe we just work on the not drinking, the not committing felonies."
"I'm a hustler," Ricky whispered, ashamed.
Cain winked. "Want to be my housewife?"
"You make it sound so simple? Just like that," Ricky said, leaning his head on Cain's.
"Well, why isn't it? We're in a better place than Oliver and Shelly."
"Did he die easily, in the cellar?"
"He thought about you until the last moment. Now we're here and we have another chance! We'll get new tickets," Cain said, fingers reaching to catch Ricky's wrist, to feel the pulse. He didn't remember dropping the phone, but he picked it up, to find the 911 call connected still. "Is that ambulance going to be here soon?"
Andi's wheels kicked up gravel as she went up the drive way. Slow, cautious, utterly disturbed by how familiar the place felt. It was like she could see a mob of flowers in the front, all kinds, not just the dead grass that was there now. Hair standing up straight on her head as she got out of her car, reached back for her medical bag, her head spun. Dizzy, the strongest sense of deja vu washed through her.
She'd never had children, but she could remember a little blond boy with blue eyes and a sweet smile. She remembered kneeling in the grass with him, watching butterflies in her garden. The memory that wasn't filled her with an intense bitter sweet sadness.
Her bag was big, more an EMT bag than the modern doctor's house call bag. She flung it over her shoulder and strode towards the house. Up the stairs and she knocked before letting herself in, "I'm a doctor!"
She opened the door, turning the knob slowly, as quietly as she could. It felt wrong to come into the house this way, though she couldn't say why. As the door cracked open, her thoughts shifted a little, so her own inner voice felt different to her. 'It's the servant's entrance.' "Hello, anyone home?"
"I'm home, Mrs. Comstock-Gray," Margaret said. She leaned against the far door, wearing the dark gray gown she'd wore after the ball, that she'd died in. She fiddled with her black leather gloves. "I never thought I'd see you show up here. Come to save your poor little murderous son?"
"Who the hell are you? I'm a doctor. I'm here to help a patient of mine." Andi had never wanted a gun so badly in her life. "I don't know you and I'm not Comstock-Gray."
"Oh yes you are," Margaret said. "You want to know what happened that night?"
Andi stepped into the house, closed the door. The scent of strawberry preserves washed over her. "I am going to go through you. I have a reason to believe that my patient is in this house and I need to get to him."
"You don't want to know what happened? Did you think his last words might be Mommy?" Margaret turned, placing a hand on either side of the door. "No. He was a little faggot who died crying out for his lover."
Shifting the strap on her bag, Andi took another step into the kitchen. "Did you hurt someone?"
"I did," Margaret said, a tiny bit of remorse flashing over her face. "I hurt them all. I killed them all. I hit your little boy in the head with a rock."
As subtle as she could, Andi reached for her cell phone. "Who did you hit with a rock? Where are they now?"
"Shelly, of course. Do you think you're a doctor? You think you can just change who you are? Forget?"
The woman was obviously psychotic. With her phone behind her, Andi pressed the speed dial for 911. "What's your name?"
"My name is Margaret Comstock-Gray, or it will be. I'm going to be your daughter-in-law. My plan is going to work. Michael is going to love me."
"Again, I'm Dr. Andi Maynor and we're at the Silver Oak House. The police never figured out that you were the one? Where did you hide the bodies?"
"You're talking to someone other than me," Margaret hissed. Rage building, her fists doubled and she screamed, "Do not ignore me!"
A brick wall of energy ran through the kitchen, throwing pans, cracking the butcher block table, and throwing Andi back, hard against the door. She gasped for air, struggling to hold her bag's strap. The door suddenly opened the wrong way and she flew out, tumbling down the stairs into the dirt. The door slammed shut again. Siding from the rest of the house grew, flapping over itself, edging out to cover the door completely.
Andi scrambled backwards, getting to her feet, eyes wide as the space she couldn't cross between seeing and understanding. She'd never had children and she wasn't a Comstock-Gray, but she wasn't going to lose her patient either. The second story window was not that far up. Lips pursed, she dusted the dirt from her hands and went back up the stairs.
She boosted herself onto the metal railing set into the concrete steps, balancing carefully for all her yoga classes were good for and gave a jump to the protruding window sill. She was light and strong and the wood held enough for her to pull herself up and get a look in the window.
Old wood didn't promise to hold too long so she lowered back down, finding the railing with her toe, then settling back on it. She jumped down and grabbed up a rock. With a good over hand throw she put it right through the window. She peeled off her hoodie, just hanging it around her shoulders as she went back up. The hoodie went over the edge of broken glass and she carefully pulled herself up into the house. It took a moment to tug the bag of medical supplies in behind her.
Once she was completely in the house, completely committed, the weight of grief hit her as if her had become cold running lead. The bag hit the floor, the strap only barely held in one limp hand. She covered her mouth with her hand to stifle the cry. Both her children, her babies! She rocked back and forth on her feet, feeling the long full gown brush against her legs, the weight of piled up hair, and the overwhelming pressure of not being able to do ... anything.
The closet door shook and she blinked. Her stomach twisted like a double helix, her experience of then and now binding together in the core of her being. Feeling dead, like dust that just didn't know when to settle, she dragged the medical bag to the closet and reached for the door. Hand about on the door knob a cold chill went over her, narrowed her throat. Upper lip between her teeth, she grabbed the knob and turned.
Time braided around them. Gracey was Mr. Comstock-Gray, the man Cain had known as Gracey, and a lean Asian man all in one moment. He settled on being Gracey and shoved his hands in his pocket. "I made a mistake."
"I know you." Andi said, her soul broken in two, like a seed just sprouting. Along the path of her life, she would have found a lover, a husband, a girl friend, someone, except that never had anyone felt... right. It was as though she'd been waiting for someone all of her life. "Where have you been?"
"I missed you in this life," Gracey said. "I failed you in the last life where we were together. I'm so sorry, my darling, but I feel that it will get better. I have always been a simple man. I thought the red head I sought was her, but it was you."
Andi closed the distance between them, her hand going to the back of his head. "You will not mistake me or forget me again, will you?"
"No," he promised.
She pulled him closer, kissing translucent lips, soul to soul, without regard to body, or lack there of. "What are we going to do about Margaret?"
"I don't suppose just shooting her would put things in order," Gracey asked, a ghostly hand resting on Andi's shoulder.
"I don't shoot people and shooting people obviously didn't do you any good. I wonder if we would have met, if you hadn't died."
"I died and we still found each other."
"Point," Andi conceded. "I need to save my patient."
"If you die here, we can stay here together." He suggested, his hand moving to cup her face. "I get so lost without you. Would it be so bad to stay here? Just like this. This doesn't hurt like being alive."
"I don't think so! We have a future, but it's not like this. I'm in line, next year, for a treatment to protect my telomeres. I could live long enough to see you born again, grown."
Gracey grinned. "Granny, you going to rob the cradle?"
"You won't be a baby when we meet again." She laid her hand over his and gave him a light squeeze. "I like being alive. There are definite advantages. Right now, we're going to keep our son alive." To say such a thing was disconcerting, world upending. This soldier was not someone she'd ever known, let alone reproduced with, yet he was, and she could feel their line moving forward into the future, a beautiful strong future. Even if that future was a little like knowing there was a happy ending waiting, there were still several hundred pages in between. A lot could happen.
"Cain? Is Cain our son?"
"Cain? No, Ricky. What happened to you? Why so foggy? It seems so clear to me now." Andi took a step back, a part of her mind evaluating that she was having a romantic discussion about children with a ghost, the ghost of a man recognized mythologies did not explain.
He ran his fingers through his hair, rocking a little. "I don't .... I don't know."
"Can you help me or not?" She asked sternly.
He nodded, dark eyes dropping back into an endless restless wariness, back into being just Gracey. Silently, he unsheathed his pistol with his left hand, gave her a mission accepting salute with his right. "Put that thing away. We don't need guns, even just remembered impressions of guns. Whatever happens, you stay with me after this, got me?"
He nodded. She nodded in return and pulled the strap of her medical bag over her head. One last moment of nostalgia pulled her and she looked back at the room. It was just a guest room, but for a moment she could see it as it was on that last day, beautiful, elegant, roses over flowing in vases, filling the air with a sweetness that she remembered believing in. The past pulled at her and she could remember standing there, studying the room, trying to figure out what had happened there, to understand the secret lives of her sons.
And it hit her. She turned back to Gracey. "We stayed together, after. There was a daughter afterwards."
Gracey shrugged, not understanding, not caring. His present was all that mattered to him, and Andi had a feeling that his present had stayed somewhere in the Middle East. She'd help him, but triage said get the more wounded patient first, and well, the dead could be patient.
That other red headed woman, she hadn't been real patient though, and Andi was sure she was going to have bruises that weren't imaginary or serenely spiritual. Mythical half answers had never appealed to Andi. Staring at different slices of time as they over lapped each other, she could accept that the soul of a human could take on more than one incarnation, perhaps being driven by strong unresolved concerns. There were so many unresolved concerns related to that night that this house had become a gravity sink, drawing souls back. She had some plans of her own and they didn't involve living in this house perpetually.
She turned her back on the past and opened the bedroom door. The hallway looked about ready to fall down, faded and peeling wallpaper, carpet that was half dust, and she felt relieved. It was better to see things as they were in the present. There's a good reason time moved one frame at a time!
As quietly as she could, she moved towards the stairs. Above she could hear music, laughter, echoes of some long gone party. What kind of crazy fuckers build a ball room on the third floor? Cautiously she started down the stairs. The dining room was directly in front of the stairs, then there was the foyer, with the library on one side and the women's sitting room on the other.
There's been rain that night. She remembered standing on the front porch, a cloak around her shoulders, angry that her ball had been disrupted by the fickle nature of the sky. Rain beat so hard on the roof, hitting the ground, bouncing. The horses had bowed their heads, stomped, complained.
On the porch, she'd waited for her husband to bring their carriage, Michael had joined her, his strong hand on her shoulder. "We'll find them. I promise."
"Well, you tell him that I am truly wroth with him. And her, I have no words. You'll call off the engagement, of course." She drew the cloak tighter around her, staring off into the distance.
"Don't be silly, Mother," Michael had said gently, his voice mellow, yet concise, pointed, the tool of a lawyer. "Shelly has done nothing with Margaret, other than try to help her in some way. I'm told they argued earlier. They're probably at the gazebo, just trapped by the rain. Oliver is missing too. I doubt the three of them are engaged in some tryst."
She cleared her throat, a growl like sound. "He's probably run off with Oliver. I knew they'd do it eventually. Oh god," she turned, feeling suddenly old in that moment a hand reaching out to grab Michael's tuxedo jacket, holding him in a tight grip she whispered, "You don't think Mr. Hasting caught them and... dispatched them?"
"Mr. Hastings was well into his cups by the time the storm became and issue. I suspect he believes his son has run off with the wicked never-do-well son of his best patron. He likes his money entirely too well to have seriously hurt either his son or yours, Mother."
"Shelly won't leave without saying goodbye."
"We'll find him. I promise. Go with Father. The hotel in town is built stronger and everyone will be there. We'll bring Margaret, Shelly, and Oliver with us as soon as they return."
"Why don't you come with us now," she asked, knowing Michael would try to make it out to the gazebo to check on his brother. "Don't you go out, you and Richard. Why did the night have to be so ruined?"
He gently peeled her hand from his shirt and drew chilled fingers to his lips. "Don't worry, Mother. It's just a storm. Everything will be fine."
"The sheriff is going up to the house," Lisa said sadly, her hands tightening on Kendal's arm.
They stood in the center of the festival booths. The scent of preserves and cotton candy colored the air, competing with burgers and hot dogs.
Kendal turned them, moving around so her back was towards the house. With a gloved hand she reached up to cup Lisa's face. "I've thought about it."
"The house," Lisa said sadly. "It's all you think about, really."
"No, it's not," Kendal insisted.
"We're going to die today," Lisa whispered. "Just like we died then."
Kendal wrapped an arm around Lisa, pulling her closer, the bustle lifting up a little higher. She took off her top hat and blocked the sun that was fading anyway, covering over with storm clouds. "We're not going to die. Tomorrow we're going to be in Hawaii."
"Are you going to go up to the house," Lisa asked accusingly. "Something's going on for the sheriff to be going up there."
"You had a vision," Kendal said softly, leaning close to kiss Lisa's lips softly. "Maybe it was even a little bit of a memory. I've had them too," she admitted, "But now, I realize there's something more important than that house, then those dreams."
"Really?" Lisa looked up at her lover, bit her lip, and pressed a little closer. "What?"
"You." Kendal said, closing to a deep kiss. When the kiss slowly ebbed, Kendal tightened her hold on her lover. "Let's move to Iowa. Get married. After Hawaii, of course."
"What about the house?"
"Shelly's a big boy. He can take care of himself."
"Oh my god! We're not going to die!" Lisa bounced, her smile beautiful and tattooing itself across Kendal's soul.
"I told you," Kendal said.
Holding each other, they strolled back towards their house, just an unspoken understanding that they were done with the Strawberry Festival, done with the past.
Margaret seethed. It was just like it had been before. She'd done everything the same, gone through all the memories and places! She stood in the lady's sitting room, drenched. Mud in her hair, caking her gown, she wanted it to be the same is it had been! Michael and Richard needed to be here! This time they would believe her!
It was true! Shelly had raped her! He'd taken his smug pride and shoved it in her heart and he'd tried to hold her to the ground! She'd only done what she had to! She defended herself! She was brave and strong and this time! This time they'd believe her.
She dripped alone in the women's sitting room. She'd practiced what she was going to tell them. It was Shelly! He'd shoved Oliver into the cellar and they had to try to save him! He might still be alive. Shelly had come after her because she was a witness! She pressed the back of her hand to her face, stricken. He'd attacked her! He'd always wanted what Michael had! Jealous! He'd been so jealous!
They won't say what they'd said before!
She could hear Michael's words though, angry, cutting, accusing, "What have you done to my brother?"
How could they accuse her? She was a woman, fragile and innocent! How could they take the side of a homosexual degenerate over her? "NO! Stop it! You have to believe me!"
The flawless replaying memory drew tightly into focus. With a jerk, she pulled open the drawer of a small side table and pulled out the matching pistol to the one she'd lost in the pond. "Swear that you love me! That you love me utterly and I am all that's important to you!"
"Don't be a fool," Michael snarled. "Where's Shelly?"
"Are you intimate with your brother too? Is that... is that how you got corrupt?" She aimed the pistol at Michael, hands growing steady. "He stole you from me! I have loved you since we were children!"
"What you're feeling isn't love, Margaret," Michael said, holding his hands out to show he wasn't a threat. "We just need to find Shelly and everything will be fine. We'll have a beautiful wedding in London. Our grandparents will be there. My mother will cry and fuss over you. You'll have a lovely house and lovely parties."
"And you'll be sticking you manhood into his .... asshole!" The pistol moved to aim at Richard, who stood up just a little straighter, his angular jaw clenched.
"Yes, that's probably true," Michael said, "But you can join us. You can have two men who will adore you, Maggie."
"I don't want two men!" Her pistol moved back to aiming at Michael. "I want you! I've always wanted you! I'm Andrew! You love me!"
"Oh my god," Richard hissed.
"Do you see? Do you see how it feels to have the one you love ripped away? Michael loves me!"
"No. Michael didn't reply." Richard said repentantly.
"What did you do," Michael snapped, looking over his shoulder at his lover.
"He was just a kid. I didn't want him to despair. I thought he'd get over you and meet someone one else."
"Trusting little fool," Michael said, affectionately. "Have a care and allow me to handle my own correspondence in the future."
"Certainly," Richard said, smiling faintly, the connection between them evident. "Margaret, I'm sorry. We hoped you might come to love us both."
"What perversion," she hissed. "If I can't have him, you won't either!"
She locked eyes with Michael. He glared, tall and proud, as if knowing he was right could convince her as well. She hesitated a moment. Richard moved, leaping. The first bullet hit him in the shoulder, knocking him back, as his blood splattered over Michael's shocked pale face. The second took his heart and he was gone as he and Michael fell.
Michael screamed. Anguish ripping through the empty house. Arms around his lover's body, he continued screaming. Richard's blood spread across his white shirt, seeped over his hands, pooled between his legs and his scream only stopped when his breath ran out. Dark confused eyes looked up at Margaret without comprehension, not understanding, lost. He pulled Richard closer, holding him as if he could shove his own life back into Richard's body, as if one heart could beat for two. "But Richard."
Margaret stood there, pistol at her side, all emotion gone from her face. "Why didn't you love me like that?"
"Who are you?" Michael asked, his focus shifted back to Richard, a bloody hand caressing over the unbreathing lips of his lover.
"I'm Margaret. Your fiancee," she said, lifting the pistol again. Michael never saw her squeeze the trigger again, didn't have the awareness of what was happening.
It hit the side of his head, left the other side, splattering the room. He slumped forward, Richard still in his arms, a look of peace on his face.
Margaret looked at them, dying with and for each other. This story was always going to end that way. It was their fault. They got what they deserved. She had three bullets left....
She had a new life too, and he had more bullets, many more. They didn't take her seriously. They thought they could hurt anyone they wanted to!
The story was changing this time. She'd killed Oliver four times. He just came looking for Shelly, every couple of decades, he came again. This was the last time through the story though. Margaret turned the pistol on herself one last time.
Henry had never felt such clarity! God had brought him to this house to use him as a tool of Divine justice! He knew things he could only know if God had given him the knowledge. He could hear the sheriff's car coming up the drive way. A door at the back of the house revealed itself, the panels of siding fluttering away like rose petals on the wind.
It was the wrong way to go in though. He couldn't catch the sinners by surprise that way. Like the Red Sea opening though, a cellar entrance rose from the tangle of weeds behind the house. He grabbed the black O rings and pulled hard, jerking the doors open.
Conflicted emotions cut through him. Guilt. The palms of his hands burned as he stared down into the darkness. He'd never been here before. He couldn't have shoved anyone down these stairs! That was what the sinners were likely to do. It was the Devil tempting him to lose faith in God. He pulled a small flash light from his pocket and shined it into the darkness.
"Lo, I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death," he whispered as his light passed over first one set of bones, then another, and another. This evil had to end!
God was with him. He was called to this spot to cure this evil. Carefully he walked down the steps, pulling the cellar doors closed behind him. He pulled out his gun and walked carefully, trying not to touch the poor un-sanctified dead. At the very base of the stairs lay another skeleton in antique clothes, half buried in now dried mud. Henry leaned over, studying this skeleton, feeling some painful emotion as if this had been someone he'd actually known. "May God have your soul in His hand," Henry prayed, before moving on to the far side of the cellar, to a door that he shouldn't ought to know was there.
He wrapped a nervous hand around his pistol. God was with him. Evil would be smitten. Courage, he held to his courage and his faith in God.
Sheriff Kettering parked her car, studied the house for a few moments. That preacher's call had left her unsettled. She understood how to deal with a homicide. They'd seen crime scenes when she'd been at the academy. How the caller had known that a doctor would be at Silver Oak, unless that caller had inside information, she wasn't sure.
The 911 operator had said it sound like two women, some hostilities, a possible murder. It was all probably just a prank. Her birthday was coming up in a month. If this was a prank she was going to cite someone for misuse of 911 resources.
Nervous, she got out of her car, put her hat firmly on her head and, and unstrapped her pistol. She'd grown up in the shadow of Silver Oak, being told the stories of Shelly as if he were the bogey man, but a strange patron saint of Kettering bogey man. It was as if the town couldn't decide it's own nature and reveled in having both purity and vice.
She knocked at the back door. "Sheriff Kettering. I'm going entering the premises now!"
"Thank god! We're in here!" Cain yelled.
She crossed the destroyed kitchen quickly, pistol held in both hands. "Are you alone? Are you hurt?"
"Ricky's unconscious! Hurry the fuck up will you? He's in shock and I think he's dying!"
Kettering touched her bluetooth headset, connecting her to the station. "Nan, get me a helicopter up at the Silver Oak. We need emergency transport."
"It's going to take at least twenty minutes to get them there."
"Acknowledged." Kettering said, pressing the door to the dining room open just a little. The dining room table was splintered, right down the middle, parts of it sticking in the wall by the door. She drew back a bit, clenched her jaw and went through.
The woman who'd been asking about the missing patient stood on the stairs, a hand on her shoulder, holding a strap of a big bag. She stared off into space as if she'd become a statue.
"Hey!" Kettering shifted around in her memories for the woman's name. "Dr. Maynor!"
She took a shuddering breath, looked around startled, as if just woken from a dream. "Sheriff! Oh fuck!" She ran down the rest of the stairs, heading for the open doors on the north side of foyer.
A servant's entrance opened from a panel in the wall that Kettering hadn't even known was a door. A skinny little man stepped through, pistol held out.
"No!" Kettering screamed, "Put your weapon down!"
Andi turned just a little, looking to see what the Sheriff meant.
Henry fired, just as Gracey's hand grabbed the pistol, pulling it just a little off target. It tore through Andi's shoulder, sending her spinning towards the ground.
Kettering brought both her arms down hard on Henry's arm, then slammed her hands, still holding the pistol, into his face, driving him back against the door he'd just come through. She kicked his dropped gun away from him. She grabbed his shirt, throwing him forward onto the ground on his stomach. "Hands out to the side, Dr. Grenly!"
"You can't interfere with God's Will! He sent me here to smite evil! There are bodies in the basement! Great evil happens here!"
Straddling him, she holstered her weapon and reached for his wrists, pulling them back to the hand cuffs. "The only evil I see is you. I got a message from God too."
"The bodies in the basement! I didn't do it!"
"We got to work that out yet, now don't we? Dr. Maynor? You okay?"
Dizzy, Andi had pulled herself up against the wall, a hand over her bleeding shoulder. "Damn, being shot hurts!"
"Helicopter should be here in just a few minutes. I can take both of you to the hospital."
"Ricky! Ricky Lace, you better not die on me! I quit my job to come find you!"
"He hasn't said anything in half an hour," Cain said, grief coloring his words.
Andi looked up and found a gentle faced man smiling down at her. His face was blue, his hair wet. He held out a hand to her. "Mother, you shouldn't have come."
She reached up and took his hand, forgetting all about not wanting to die here, needing only to embrace her son. She wrapped her arms around him, holding him tight, desperately tight. "I love you so much!"
He embraced her too, holding her. Taller than she was, both of them dressed for the past, he pulled back just a little and smiled. "I wanted to say goodbye. I'm so sorry that I didn't tell you I loved you that day. I so sorry you were sad, Mother."
"Oh my baby," she cried, tears rolling down her face. "You didn't do anything wrong, my Shelly. I was and am very proud of you. Don't you die in this life. We can hold on and move forward. What happened then is gone. Do you forgive me for not finding you, protecting you that night?"
"I couldn't save Michael or Oliver," Shelly confessed, shame and grief carving his face. "I was so stupid!"
She touched his lips, then his hair. "If there were anything to forgive, I'd forgive you. I always had faith in you. Please let go of the past, let go of this house. Be Ricky."
"How can you love me, as him?"
Mrs. Comstock-Gray smiled, the pride of a mother. "I knew you the moment I saw you. I did become a doctor to save you. I'll adopt you in this life. You'll be my son and I will love you."
"He's a grown man." Shelly whispered, wanting to believe her offer anyway.
"It does not matter how grown you are! You will always be my son!"
"And you my mother," Shelly said, bowing. "That life, this life, and in any other."
Andi struggled against the hand trying to give her an IV. "No! Where's Shelly!"
"Dr. Maynor, please relax. You and the other patient are both on board. We have an estimated arrival time of ten minutes."
"He is alive. Once we got a line in him, he began to stabilize. There's a team waiting for him when we touch down. We're going to do everything we can to save him."
"He's my son," she said, relaxing into whatever pain relief they'd given her. "He's my son."
Hazel eyes looked into hers. "Are you sure about that? Who is president right now?"
"Biden," she said, "First term, after two for Obama. I'm sure. Not my biological son, but I'm going to adopt him."
"We'll do our best to keep him alive for you. Rest now. Just let us take care of everything."
It was over. The house felt empty. Cain sat on the front steps watching the helicopter take away a young man that carried his heart away with him.
It wasn't exactly love at first sight, but that was the easiest way to explain it. He didn't feel like Oliver anymore.
He could hear the Sheriff cursing in the back. He knew what she'd found though. Freedom felt good. The skeletons were out of the closet, so to speak. He smirked as he imagined his previous incarnations dancing across the yard. The panic he'd felt for so long was gone, even more so than when Shelly had possessed him.
In less than a week, he felt like he'd lived two lifetimes. Gracey joined him then, sitting on the steps, his unlit cigarette between his fingers.
"So who were you in all this, Gracey?" Cain asked, but the man had gone back to being silent as a ghost.
They sat there for a few more minutes. He'd have to call his employer. He wondered if he still had a job, if they'd still need him. He wondered if he still wanted the job. "I wonder how much of medical school the GI Bill will cover. Gracey, my man, you should move on. What you got left to do anyway?"
"I was always proud to have you with my Shelly. You were good for him. Steadying."
"Holy shit," Cain said shifting around being careful to lift his leg so it was resting on the step. "You were Shelly's father."
"And your friend," Gracey said. "It wasn't your fault that I died. I chose my path and I'd do it again. Shelly needs you."
"You loved him a lot."
"I loved both my sons," Gracey said, though as he stretched out a little rolled his shoulders, he changed from being a disaffected soldier to being a smartly dressed Asian man. "Only one of them needed more help than the other. I'm going to leave him to you now."
"I'm going to miss you."
"I'll see you again," Gracey said. He stood, stepped away from the stairs. "The future is open, bright. You're going to like it. Be a doctor. You were a good doctor. Read the Bulwer-Lytton, the one in blue. That one is for you. Take good care of him." A bright light opened behind him and Gracey turned and walked into it, as if he'd done it a million times.
Then Cain's nearly constant companion was gone. It was a closed feeling. He'd never see Gracey again. After a couple deep breaths, he painfully shifted himself up to his feet. If the future was all that bright, maybe he'd get a leg that wasn't made out of second hand plastic and aluminum.
The blue book wasn't that hard to find. Third shelf up, right at eye level for him. He pulled it from the shelf. He limped over to the chair. His phone was still on the floor and he picked it up. His fingers moved from instinct and he dialed his grandfather.
"Hey Gramps," he said tiredly. The blue book sat on the desk, his hand on the book. "Yeah, still alive."
He laid his head on the desk for a moment, phone to his ear. "Yeah, I'm sleeping with the white boy now, but he's not white anymore. He's more black than white. That make it better?"
Cain squeezed his eyes shut, rubbed his eyebrow to relieve some of the tension. "It just won't be the same calling you if I hadn't pissed you off, you know?"
He leaned back, grinning. "You know, Gramps, I think you might have been an angry white man in your past life." He had to hold his phone away from his ear, but he found himself smiling even more. When his grandfather calmed down a little, or at least stopped yelling, he brought the phone back and said, "And I love you, you know that? I'm really glad for all that you done for me."
His grandfather went on as he shifted a little of his focus to the book. He opened it, to find it hollowed out in the center. Dreadful use of a book, but there was an envelope, thick and yellowed, with Oliver Hastings written on it, in a faded black ink that looked more sepia than black. He put his grandfather on speaker phone.
"It's against the balance of nature, boy! Do you understand me? Nature will not be ignored. Do you think technology is going to ever be able to be stronger than the flow of energy and life? You have to respect life!" He could hear his grandfather smacking the back of his hand against his palm. "The old rituals work for a reason, Cain!"
His grandfather's last words were drawn out to him, slightly slurred. Inside the paper envelope was a sealed plastic wrapper. The paper inside that was pristine, even the holographic seal he could see on one of the papers.
"Gramps, hold on, be quiet for a moment, uh? I just found something. Oh, holy shit, just give me a minute."
"You okay, boy? Boy? What is it? What do you got there? You remember to listen to your spirit guide there boy!"
"Oh yeah," Cain said distantly, laying the papers out on the desk. They were made out to Cain Hardrain. Stock certificates in Apple, Microsoft, some strange company he'd never heard of called Methuselah Pharmaceuticals. "Gramps, I own stock. It's here in my name. A lot of it."
"What kind of stock boy? Did you make it yourself? You remembered to clean out the chicken properly, right?"
"It's not chicken stock," Cain said, still in shock. "It's Apple stock."
"You can't make stock out of apples, boy. That mulatto boy has messed up your mind. Next you're going to be telling me that you like the creme brulee."
"Mulatto? No, no this is stock, in a company. Apple, Microsoft, Methuselah, and Tempo Dynamics. I think this is worth a lot of money. Gramps, I think this is a lot of money."
"Cain? Tell me what's going on there."
"I will, Gramps. I'll tell you everything. Me and Ricky will come see you soon. I got to go. There's a sheriff here and I got to get to the hospital."
"Are you hurt, Cain?"
"I'm okay, Gramps. I'll see you soon. I love you."
There was a pause and the old man said, "I love you too, Raccoon Thief."
Cain smiled as he shoved the stock certificates into his backpack. "Don't you be telling anyone about that name."
"Why not? That's your real name, isn't it?"
"On the reservation," Cain allowed. "I have to go, Gramps. I'll call you when I know something."
"We'll do what we can for him here. What's his name?"
"That's a perfect name for a homosexual mulatto."
"If you're mean to him, rude to him for any reason, ever," Cain warned.
"Yeah, yeah," his grandfather apologized in his own way. "I'll be a modern man."
"Good." Cain closed the call on that note. It was about as good as it was going to get.
Sheriff Kettering found him then, her hands on her hips. "Mr. Hardrain, can I give you a ride to the hospital? It's about an hour away. I'm going to need a statement from you."
"I'd like a ride," Cain said. "I'm happy to cooperate in any way I can." He shoved his phone into his pocket, slung his backpack, that had everything he owned in it, over his shoulder.
She nodded, still shaken by what had happened. "Let's go then. The house is going to be off limits, as a crime scene. We can pay for a hotel for you. You should get checked out at the hospital too."
He nodded. He didn't think he'd ever need to see Silver Oak again. Standing outside though, looking back up at the old house, echoes of a past life flowed by him, around him. Oliver was dead and gone though.
"Gonna make me sit in the back?" He asked.
She hesitated, then opened the front passenger door for him. "Let me put your bag in the back though. There's been enough shit today."
He handed it to her, smiling gently. He had no idea how much money those stock certificates were worth.
Neither of them said much on the way back into town. They drove right by the still going Strawberry Festival, which was growing ever more 'festive' as the day went on. Cain wondered if it would be more like Mardi Gras by the time the sun was down and the kids were at home. He had a brief flash of 'Children of the Corn' or some dark movie.
Cain didn't like hospitals. Regulations.
As it turned out, Ricky didn't have any legal family. Being unconscious, it was hard for him to tell anyone else what he wanted, and friends visiting hours were not nearly long enough for Cain's tastes. He'd spent more time in the hotel than in the house where they'd both died and found each other again. The stuck up place won't even give Andi information about Ricky's condition.
He guessed that was fair enough. After all, someone had hurt Ricky in the first place and they had no way of knowing if it had been them, or someone else.
Neither Ricky nor Shelly showed up in his dreams though, and Cain worried that Shelly had gone all together. He'd said his good byes to his mother, and taken off, gone in to the great white something in between to negotiate for a body he liked better.
But day after day, he walked the three blocks down to the hospital, sat with Ricky when they'd let him, read to him. This time he wasn't reading some old classic out of a dusty library though. He read him stuff by Anne Rice, Piers Anthony, and books that didn't have covers and he wasn't even sure what they were until he was twenty pages in. He read romances and Japanese comics, trying to act out the expressions and voices he imagined in the characters.
Ricky's face cleared of bruises. He didn't need the doctors to tell him that he was doing better. Better wasn't always good enough.
On his way to the hospital one day, Cain stopped in at a travel agent. Tickets first class to San Francisco were more money than he'd seen at one time, maybe in all his life.
Then he remembered the stock certificates.
That day he didn't visit. First there was a bank, then a stock broker and the stock broker won't release information until he could prove who he was, which required a birth certificate, his dd214, a state id, and a notarized statement that he was who he was. The VA office was able to help with most of it, but he was really frustrated. He needed about $5,000 for the trip he wanted to offer Ricky.
Sitting across the desk from a man who was probably wearing clothes that cost more than Cain was actually look for, made him want to squirm anyway.
"Yes, well, Mr. Hardrain," Quincy Douglas said. "I do hope you will consider allowing me the privilege of being your broker."
Cain leaned forward, nose wrinkling. "Will it make you give me money sooner?"
"How much money did you want to withdraw? There is an account attached to this portfolio. Dividends have been paid out for some time."
"How much money do I have?" Cain asked.
Quincy picked up a very nice black pen and on a sticky note made of paper that could have carried ink for a certificate, wrote a figure. He turned the pad around to display the total to Cain.
"There are three decimal points?"
"Those are two commas and a single decimal point, Mr. Hardrain."
"Does this mean I have six million dollars in my account?" Cain asked his finger moving from one zero to another, counting again.
"Currently. Dividends are due on two of your companies next month."
"So I could have twenty-thousand dollars today?"
"Certainly," Quincy said, "What account would you like that transfered into?"
"I don't have an account."
"I'll facilitate one for you then, Mr. Hardrain. I can have cash and an access card delivered by currier later this afternoon."
"Like five hundred in cash? Small bills?"
"Anything you'd like, Mr. Hardrain. I can arrange a line of credit with the local department store, if you would allow. That would allow you to get certain necessaries."
By which Cain understood that he was severely underdressed. "Yeah, I'd like that." I'm kinda dating this spoiled rich boy.
"Where shall I send the currier?"
"I'll just wait here for it, if that's okay."
"Of course. We can send out for some lunch for you, if you like. There's a very nice restaurant on the upper floor of this building. I can arrange reservations for lunch for you."
"I think I'd rather order in. Can I get a second card with Ricky Lace's name on it? For him to use?"
"Certainly, if you wish," Quincy said.
Cain strode into the hospital and the afternoon nurse did a double take. He smirked and winked. She smiled back.
He wore neatly tailored black pants, a shirt of fine cotton, his dark hair neatly trimmed. He had a spring in his step. Money shouldn't have made such a difference, but there was something about not being a homeless crazy drunk that really appealed to him.
Ricky had had a bath that day, a change of sheets, but he looked so still. It took the bounce out of Cain and he settled himself in his chair, picked up the book they'd been reading. "I'm sorry I missed yesterday. You look more beautiful today. You could smile for me, if you wanted."
Cain slipped his fingers under Ricky's held his hand very gently, as his eyes sought where they had been on the page. He slouched down in the chair a little, tired. All the money meant very little if Ricky didn't wake up. He closed his eyes, laid the book on his lap. He wondered what it would be like to just stay right there, like sleeping beauty, until Ricky came for him.
He opened his eyes and found himself in Silver Oak, on the third floor, when he'd never had the opportunity to explore. He was himself, but whole. The ceiling above was glass, like a green house. Along either side of the ballroom, beautiful chandeliers glittered with candle light.
The floor in black and white tiled marble was polished to a high sheen. He himself wore a tuxedo. "Ricky!"
There was a chair at the far end of the ballroom and Cain strode to the far end, his shoes clicking as he went. He grabbed the chair, pulled it around as he moved to the front himself. "Ricky!"
He sat there, his pants barely high enough to cover his hips, shirt, just low enough to cover his pecs. His lips shone brightly in the candle light. Colored beads made bracelets and necklaces. His eyes were glassy, lost in a world not quiet anywhere between the worlds.
Cain dropped to his knees and gathered Ricky's hands up in his own. "This past. It's over, Ricky."
Ricky licked his lips, sensual, overly sexual. "I'm a hustler. I don't deserve anything more than a street corner."
"Look at me."
Ricky's head rolled to the side, dark eyes looking into Cain's.
"I love you, Ricky Lace."
"What's that supposed to mean to me," Ricky asked.
"You love me too."
"Do I? Maybe I just wanted out of the guilt I felt. I feel like I've been alone all my life."
"But your life isn't over yet. Look at me, really look at me."
Ricky reached out to touch Cain's face, warm golden skin. "Was I really Shelly?"
"You're still Shelly. I'm still Oliver. Those are just the first chapters of the book. We have so much more to do!"
"You want me? Like this? I've been with so many people. I don't even know how many dicks I've had up my ass."
Cain drew Ricky's hands to his lips, kissing each knuckle gently. "That doesn't matter. What matters is what we do going forward. Can you love me? I have only one good leg and I have nightmares from hell. My grandfather is my only family and he's a racist pig most of the time, but I love him."
"I could love you," Ricky agreed, sitting up a little more. He shoved some of the bracelets off his wrist, revealing white scars of various shapes and intensities. "You're good and brave and god, you're so gentle with me. I don't know how to live like a normal person. Get a job and a car and drink lattes."
"I don't know how to do that either, but we don't have to. We can do anything we want. Dance with me?"
"Weren't we supposed to do that a long time ago?"
"Better late than never?" Cain said, getting back to his feet, a hand held out.
Ricky shoved the bracelets from his other wrist and offered Cain his hand. Cain took it, pulled him close and slipped an arm around his waist. "Do I get to lead?"
"This time," Ricky said, looking slightly offended. "I get to lead next time."
"You can lead this time, if you want?"
"Will you just dance with me?"
They danced, flying around the ballroom floor. For just a moment, they were Oliver and Shelly, but it was really much more fun to be Cain and Ricky.
Ricky sat up in the hospital bed, arms across his chest. "So you're saying I'm not Cinderella, I'm Pocahontas?"
Cain pressed his fingers to his eyebrows and peered at Ricky with Narrowed eyes. "I'm sure as hell not John Smith. Will you focus on this. It's important that we know before Gramps gets here."
"It's not going to work. You can be a raccoon, but I'm not an animal."
"Uhgn," Cain complained, laying his head on the bed. "I didn't say you were an animal."
"Well, what if I'm something a raccoon likes to eat? What if you eat me? What if I eat you?" Ricky shyly reached out to touch Cain's hair, brushing through the silky darkness. "What if I can't do it?"
"Everyone can do it," Cain said, a hand on Ricky's thigh, through the hospital blankets. "Trust me, please?"
"Maybe we really need that smoke stuff? Peyote?"
"We don't," Cain said. "What I need is for you to look into my eyes and trust me. We've been across the centuries together. We've seen some crazy ass shit. Looking at your true nature together shouldn't be that hard of a leap."
"What if I'm an ugly alley cat?" Ricky made motions with his hands like a raccoon and a cat fighting it out.
Cain looked up at him. "Is that what you think you are?"
"Maybe I'm a cockroach? They live pretty much forever."
"My raccoon spirit is definitely not eating a cockroach, so we'd be safe." Cain smirked in victory.
"Fine, fine," Ricky gave in, "Let's just do this then. Look in my eyes and show me what kind of shit I am."
Cain touched the side of Ricky's face gently. He recited the prayer his grandfather had taught him when he came of age, over and over again until reality relaxed. Cain emerged onto the dream plane in leather pants, hand done, laced up the side, a raccoon black lines across his face, his arms. He was in the tee-pee that he'd done his own first spirit quest in, a roaring fire.
As he'd reached the spirit plane, he knew Ricky was there too. He danced, moving, letting his body feel the power and grace of his spirit animal nature, the connection to life and to Ricky.
He ran then, suddenly, through the leather wall as if it weren't there, through the Pacific Northwest forest, bare feet touching from rock to log, to clear ground, running with a trust and belonging in nature. Broad blue sky stretched above him, breaking through the tall trees. He leapt to a tall boulder, arms spread out over head and cried out, singing to the forest, the sky.
The land had not belonged to his ancestors, neither white nor red. The land could not belong to anyone because it owned itself. Sunlight warmed his bare chest, dried the black paint over the firm lines of his chest.
A shadow crossed over him, drawing his eyes upwards. A bird soared, arms stretched out wide. He whooped and ran for the river, his long black hair whipping around him. At the river, the bird hit the water, batted at the air with great black wings, until it gained it's balance and glided smoothly across a surface that was only still in the dream world.
Cain sang, language-less, his spirit to that of the bird. It rose, rising up from the water, growing taller as it shifted into the form of a man with long brown hair that swayed against a lean body. Pale blue paint swirled over his dark cheeks, down his throat, to expand and flower over his chest. Black wings tattooed his arms, curving around slender arms. He lifted his chin and looked right into Cain's eyes.
The wild touched him deeply, left all of civilization far, far away. He shied away a little.
Cain squatted, clicking with his tongue, calling to him, hand held out.
Ricky took a step forward, arms out as if they'd become wings again, chin tucked against his chest.
On all fours, Cain bristled, a hand pawing at the shore, but his eyes kept Ricky's eyes, souls connected.
Finally Ricky called back, a beautiful song, the song of a man, flickering without language, invitation only. Water moved around him then, like time restarting. It swirled around bare dark legs, bubbling, churning white and cold. Ricky licked his upper lip and jumped, taking to the sky again. Great black wings spread, caught the air, climbing.
Cain screamed, cried out in abandonment, then jumped as well. The black paint spread and the trickster raccoon fell away, giving him solid black wings as well. It took all his strength, all his will to push against the air, to chase Ricky.
The black swan dove, gliding through the trees. Cain, a more russet swan, followed, matching pace and speed until they rose up from the other side over a broad valley. Sunlight glinted from beautiful black feathers. As high as the sky would let them, they matched, synced.
Then their wings touched, tips first, then their hands, human hands, and the spiraled through the sky, exhilarating and free. Cain hooked a leg around Ricky's leg, holding him closer. Ricky pressed forward, arching against him. Lips to lips, they kissed, tongues as entwined as their souls were growing.
The dream brought them back to the tee-pee. Warm fire, thick blankets, and Ricky lay under Cain, a leg around his waist, both hands on his face. "Kiss me again?"
To devour one's lover, deep and filled with need that could never be completely filled, Cain kissed him, loved him. Ricky ran his hand down, slowly over Cain's bare ass. Neither feather nor leather separated them.
Kisses trailed down Ricky's chest, blessing every part of him. Cain traced his tongue around one of Ricky's nipples, then suckled gently. He arched up into the sensation, his hard excitement brushing against Cain's. He cried out, the same beautiful blend of humanity and nature.
His fingers combed into Cain's taking hold firmly and he tugged, pulling him back up. Ricky drove the kiss home then, possessing Cain's mouth, soul, penetrating him with a need to possess and mark. He rolled them, pinning Cain under him.
A hand on folded blankets, he rose up and stared down at his love. "You are beautiful," he whispered. With great reverence he caressed Cain's chest and the mark of the swan rose up through his skin, dark and graceful. "You are everything I want."
"Ahhhh," Cain sighed, parting his legs. One leg hooked around Ricky's legs. The other bent. "Yes!"
Ricky kissed him again as he lay down along the length of Cain's hard body. He slipped a hand back under Cain's head as he kissed him. Wet lips against wet lips, he whispered, "I want to possess you, never give you back."
"Then take me," Cain offered. He was no longer the raccoon, no longer the hiding trickster. He was home.
Ricky positioned himself at Cain's entrance, instinctively knowing that in this world, necessities like lubrication would take care of themselves. He pressed forward into the heat, tightness of his virgin mate. Cain groaned, his soul and body both opening to Ricky, allowing a knowledge that crossed lifetimes, crossed universes if it needed to. Once deeply into his lover, he held there, staring into Cain's eyes. "I love you."
"I love you too!" Cain cried, breathless.
Ricky moved, stroking their joining. Almost like flying they worked together creating a rhythm older than humanity. Passion between them binding them. Their cries blended, onyx and ruby souls. Souls, not physical bodies, no matter how sweet their passion felt, they released together in an explosive action that let them rise up from the ground.
Swans again, wings mastering the wind, they climbed together into the blue sky.
The nurse stood in the door, just watching over them. She was standing there when the older Mr. Hardrain got there. Hands in his pockets, he snickered.
She looked at him, tilting her head. "You must be Cain's grandfather."
"Rabbit Hardrain," he said, holding out a hand. He was a short man, with long white hair, feathers and beads braided into the small braids at his temple. He wore faded blue jeans, a tie-died tee-shirt and open toed sandals.
She shook his hand. "Beverly."
"Very nice to meet you, Beverly. That's my grandson. He fought in the war."
"I see," she said, arms across her chest, holding the tablet computer she used.
"When he was a kid, just coming of age, we did a spirit journey to see what kind of animal spirit he aligned with." Rabbit said with a smirk.
"That must be nice to have those kinds of traditions."
"Hn. Cain he didn't want to do it. Not modern enough for him, but when he did, he found out he was a raccoon. I never thought that was quite right. Boy's not a raccoon. Now we get the truth."
"Raccoons are cute, but they always tell us to stay away from them when they're in the parking lot."
"They bite," Rabbit pointed out. "They're really tenacious little buggers though. They can get through just about anything!"
"So what is he now?"
Cain lay with his head on the bed, Ricky's hand in his hair, both of them so peaceful, so good with the world. Ricky leaned back, the fluffed up pillows behind his head, holding him, cradling him.
"Isn't it obvious? He's a swan, just like that boy he's in love with. I could have told him that ten years ago and he won't have believed me."
"What animal are you?" She asked.
"Oh me? I'm a coyote," he said with a bright grin.
"What do you think I am?" She asked. "I've always been interested in nature, pagan thought."
He grinned a little brighter. "I'm going to be in town a few days. Maybe we could do a spirit quest for you and find out. You could bring a friend or two, if you like."
"Gramps? What are you doing?"
She smiled playfully. "I almost thought your grandfather was flirting with me."
"He was," Cain said, giving his grandfather a stern look, which only made Rabbit laugh. "You got to have twenty years on her, Gramps."
"Age means nothing! Only adult or not adult," Rabbit said, moving to hug Cain. Cain stood, holding to the bed for a moment to let his leg get ready to take his weight. He opened his arms and wrapped his coyote grandfather in a tight hug. "Gramps, this is Ricky Lace, Ricky, this is Gramps."
Rabbit moved to hug Ricky too and the wide eyed boy might have bolted if he could have, but then family arms were around him, hugging him lovingly. "You can call me Rabbit or Gramps, which ever works for you. Both you need new names."
Cain blushed. "Yeah, I think we're just going to stay with Ricky and Cain."
"No, no," Ricky said softly. "I want a new name."
Cain tapped his chest, looking indignant. "The last name he gave me was Raccoon Thief."
"Well, at the time it fit just fine," Rabbit said, smirking.
Cain crossed his arms reluctantly.
"I think you," Rabbit said, smiling at Ricky, "Will be Gray Swan."
"Oh," Ricky said softly, "I like that! Gray Swan Hardrain!"
"Exactly!" Rabbit said, nodding approvingly.
"And you," he turned to Cain, dark eyes narrowing. "You will be Doc."
Cain's shoulders slumped. "What kind of name is that? Doc Hardrain."
"Is what people going to call you," Rabbit said with a wink.
"That's a long ways off," Cain said. After a moment of trying to stare his grandfather down and losing, he said with a soft smile. "It's good that you're here. Ricky gets out tomorrow."
"Call me Gray," Ricky said, sitting up proudly. "I'm going to change my name to that. I want it on all my paper work and stuff."
"I think it's a lovely name," Beverly said. "Gray Swan Hardrain. Can I take your vitals now?"
"Oh yeah," Gray said. "Sorry about that. We didn't hold you up too long?"
"Not at all!" She said, connecting her tablet to the computer by Ricky's bed, letting the data download. "You look like you're doing good, though your heart rate spiked a few minutes ago. You both know that you shouldn't engage in sexual activity until doctor releases you?"
Gray nodded. Rabbit thwapped the back of Cain's head lightly, which got him an angry glare.
"I heard that swans mate for life. Do you think that's true?" She unhooked her tablet and tilted her head.
"Yeah," Gray said. "I'm sure it's true."