When Johnny Sheppard was seven years old, he begged his father for a toboggan for Christmas. He got a chemistry set.
When Johnny Sheppard was eight years old, he begged his father for a toboggan for Christmas. He got a cricket set.
When Johnny Sheppard was nine years old, he begged his father for a toboggan for Christmas. He got a set of new leather shoes.
When Johnny Sheppard was ten years old, he begged his father for a toboggan for Christmas.
He got a toboggan.
Johnny's eyes bugged out of his head. Mr. Sheppard frowned. "I say, Mother. Didn't we agree to a new--"
"Toboggan, yes, yes, dear, we did, a new one," she said, elbowing her husband surreptitiously. "I couldn't find a new one, but you know, Doctor McKay is such a clever engineer that he didn't mind refitting his son's."
"Ahem. Yes," Mr. Sheppard said and went to call down the maid to bring in the morning tea.
Johnny couldn't care less if his bright new, sky blue toboggan used to be the snobby McKay kid's.
It was a toboggan.
Johnny kissed Mother on the cheek and shook Father's hand dutifully. He ran into the foyer to put on his long pants and his boots and scarf and the new mittens and woolly hat that nanny had knit for him.
"Don't you want your tea first, Johnny?" his mother called, voice wafting like tinkling bells from the drawing room where the Christmas Tree was set up.
"No, no, thank you Mother!" Johnny said and wrapped his scarf up over his nose and vanished into the snow.
Johnny's head hurt. His chest hurt. His throat hurt.
But today, oh, today had been glorious.
Heaven, Johnny was sure, was not going to be filled with fluffy clouds and strumming angels, like Father O'Miley preached about every Sunday. Heaven was going to be filled with mounds and mounds of puffy white snow and the joyful shrieks of tobogganers speeding down the hills faster than any race horse could go.
Johnny knew he had stayed out too late, but he'd been having so much fun; too much fun to bother about socks that were soaked through and the biting wind and the setting sun.
He pretended he didn't hear Mother calling him in for dinner until it was well and truly dark, then trudged back up the hill at the back of the grounds and towards the house. In the distance, he could see the warm glow of the gas lamps through the windows of McKay Manor and wondered if Mother would make him write a thank-you card to Doctor McKay.
Johnny wouldn't mind thanking the Doctor. The sky blue paint was fantastic and the runners of the toboggan had been waxed to powder-skimming perfection. But the thought of saying anything nice to a McKay sort of made him twisty inside. Ever since the day Meredith had been moved up a level in school because of his arithmetic skills, Johnny had sort of ever-so-secretly despised the gloating snob.
Johnny was just as good at maths as Meredith (well, almost) but Johnny preferred to spend his time playing cricket or conkers or running races with the other boys out back of the little one-room school over staying inside and carefully redoing the equations on his slate. It didn't make him stupider, like Meredith said it did. Besides, 'stupider' was not a proper word, Father said so.
The first sneeze startled Johnny and his nanny both on the doorstep to the house, and by the time he was finished the soup course his nose was red and throbbing from blowing it too much, and his face felt too hot.
Mother pressed a cool, dry hand against his forehead and sent him up to bed with nanny and a cold compress. Nanny made noises about calling a doctor, and Johnny's vision started to swim. Laying down made the world tilt a little bit less, but the dark was too cold. Johnny shivered and tried to burrow down into his blankets and his dratted nanny kept trying to pack ice around his arms.
"G'way," Johnny muttered. "Sl'pin," and coughed, and coughed, and coughed.
Eventually he tumbled into a deep, fitful sleep and dreamt of tobogganing on puffed clouds in the sky.
Johnny, of course, was wrong. There was no tobogganing in Heaven.
For Johnny, there was no Heaven at all.
He just slept, and slept, and slept, and never woke up.
The only thing that kept him from dropping straight down in the warm darkness of Forever was the vague thought that he still owed Doctor McKay a thank you note.
Johnny drifted. Sometimes he thought he was awake, but when he sat up the room was cold and dark and empty, all the furniture except for his bed covered in cobwebs, or rotting away, or vanished, so he knew he must be asleep. He lay back down and decided that next time he opened his eyes, he really would be awake, but when he sat up again there was an even thicker layer of dust on the floorboards, and even greyer film of grime on the windows.
Eventually Johnny stopped waking himself up at all.
Instead he thought a lot about Mother and Father and the smell of tea in the breakfast room mingling with the sharp scent of pine and cinnamon that was, to Johnny, the exact potpourri of Christmas.
Sometimes he thought he heard voices in the dark. First it was Mother weeping, Father begging, nanny saying goodbye. There was a whole day where Johnny swore he heard hymns and Father O'Miley's tediously long sermons, and then something like a shovel in dirt. After that there was a lot of silence, for a long long time.
The silence was peaceful and Johnny just lay in bed and enjoyed being able to sleep in. Soon it would be morning and he would have to go to school and that hideous Meredith McKay would be smirking at him from the front of the class room, all sharp nose and gold springy curls.
McKay... something about a McKay. Johnny knew he had to remember ... remember something. But Johnny never remembered what he remembered he had to remember in a dream, so he let the thought slide away, threading off into the darkness for a while, until it would come skimming back up, like a water spider on the surface of the pond out the back of the school house.
Then the voices came back – sometimes distant, floors below in the echoing grand foyer, or sometimes right beside his bed. None of them were voices Johnny knew so he stayed very still and hoped that the strangers wouldn't notice him and would go away soon. They always did.
There was a loud, harsh noise outside of the house, on the drive, that Johnny didn't recognize at all. It sounded like a big animal growling, but Johnny had never heard of bears getting big enough to make that kind of sound. There was some yelling and some grunting and for a while the bang of heavy things being set down on the wooden floor in a way that was sure to scratch the finish and make Father furious.
Then there was quiet again.
Johnny relaxed and was ready to slip back down into a deeper sleep when footsteps pounded up the stairway and into his bedroom and a sharp, grating voice said: "This place is filthy!"
The man, whose voice Johnny sort of knew but didn't, made an annoyed sound. Johnny thought was very unfair of him to say that his room was filthy, as nanny always kept Johnny's room very tidy. There was a rustle and an unfamiliar snapping sound, and then some beeping the likes of which Johnny had never heard before.
Curious about this new dream, Johnny cracked one small eyelid.
He could see only the vague darkish outline of a broad shouldered man with close cropped hair. The light pouring in from downstairs – much brighter than Johnny had ever seen gas lamps burn before – haloed around the man's head and shadowed his face. The man was holding something against his head and talking into the air.
"Yes," he said. Then, "Yes," again. Then, "Yes! Yes! I know that! Why do you think I...? What? I hired you to clean the – well, yes of course I meant upstairs too! Where on Earth am I suppose to sleep if you-- ... The master is going to be my lab, you idiot! I... you! Fine. The second half of your payment will not be coming and I will personally make sure that you never get another client again! You... what? ... a little late for apologies now! You do not screw a McKay."
Something about a... about a McKay... that Johnny was supposed to remember.
The man snapped his strange black thing closed and shoved it into his trouser pockets and put his hands on his hips.
"Fuck," the man said.
Johnny opened his other eye in shock. Johnny knew that word, of course, but he'd never heard anyone but a dock worker use it. Johnny decided he liked this strange man very much.
The man turned around and stomped back downstairs. Curious, knowing with the sure logic of dreamers that he would not get in trouble if he was caught out of bed, Johnny slid his chilled toes out from under his covers and tiptoed across the floor and down the steps after him.
The man was dressed strangely, as far as Johnny could tell by leaning over the banister and watching the top of his thinning hair move towards Johnny's parent's room. The man's clothing was too loose, hanging off his shoulders, cinched in at the waist but baggy everywhere else. His trousers had no shape at all, and his blazer didn't even cover his derrière. It was nearly indecent.
Johnny was thrilled.
He followed the man downstairs, treading very quietly and stepping over all the floorboards that he knew squeaked. The man pushed open the door to the master bedroom and Johnny hesitated. No one but his parents and the maid were allowed in the master bedroom; Johnny had only ever been in it once that he could remember, and that was when Mother was very ill with a cough and Johnny had snuck in to see her.
Father had whipped him with a switch for disobeying the doctor's order to keep Mother isolated, but in the end Johnny had not taken sick as well and Mother had recovered.
Now Johnny stuck his head cautiously around the frame.
His jaw dropped in dismay.
Mother's heirloom wardrobe, the large four poster bed he remembered so well, the beautiful drapes and the patterned rug, the hope chest; all of it was gone. The floors shone with new polish, the walls gleamed a fresh whitewash instead of the rich burgundy wallpaper, and all around the perimeter of the room there were shiny metal tables with tubes and glasses, chalk boards and metal boxes with glass faces and chairs on wheels.
"Where's my parent's room?" Johnny demanded.
The man stopped in the middle of the master. He turned around slowly and faced Johnny. He set down his suitcase, blinked a few times, then shook his head and rubbed his arms. "Odd," he said.
"Where's my parent's room?" Johnny asked louder, stepping around the door frame and standing up straight.
The man blinked again, then completely ignored Johnny – the nerve! Johnny may only be ten years old, but he was the heir to the Sheppard name and fortune! – and bent to retrieve his suitcase.
He stowed it up against a wall and proceeded to dig around in a brown paper box for blankets and pillows, muttering all the while about the poor condition of his back and what sleeping on a metal table would do to it, and how he was an idiot for not getting the delivery of the sofas moved to a day earlier.
"I said!" Johnny screamed, walking straight up behind the man, "Where is my parent's room!"
The man ignored Johnny again, and it made Johnny so furious that he reached out and punched the man in the top of his thigh.
Or at least, Johnny tried to.
His hand passed right through the man, then right through the table too.
Johnny half expected his hand to go right through the floor as well, but the wooden boards stopped him. Johnny let the momentum carry him all the way down to his knees and stayed there, staring at his hands.
They looked solid and real to him.
"Oh," Johnny whispered. "Oh, oh, no. No, no."
And then, even though he hated it, but because Johnny was still just a little boy, a little boy without a Mother at all, he realized, a little boy who was completely alone and completely terrified, Johnny began to cry.
Eventually, Johnny ran out of tears. It hurt too much to cry any more. He curled into a ball on the clean bare floor and wrapped his arms around his knees and shivered with cold and, yes, he wasn't too proud to admit, terror.
By the time Johnny pulled his weary, aching head up to look at the man, the man was sleeping fitfully on one of the long metal tables in a sack of slick shiny cloth. Johnny pulled himself up, head throbbing and throat burning and his eyes itchy and dry, and scrubbed at the tear tracks on his cheeks. He stumbled over to look at the man.
Now that Johnny wasn't making any noise, the man seemed to be sleeping a bit better, sighing and relaxing back into his flat pillow. He had a sharpish nose, a wide slanting mouth, and a slowly retreating hairline. He looked familiar, but Johnny couldn't quite place him.
Hand shaking, heart beating against the back of his tongue, Johnny reached up and touched the man's pillowy cheek. Johnny's small fingers, still slightly chubby with youth, passed right through. Where they came in contact with the man's flesh they tingled, hot pins and needles shooting up Johnny's arm. He wrenched his hand back and stared at it. He poked his fingers with his other hand – still solid, but hot, so hot.
Johnny clamped his hands together. He suddenly realized that he was freezing.
Johnny wanted his nanny. When Johnny was cold, nanny would make him a cup of chocolate and bundle him up in a down blanket and plonk him down on the setee by the fireplace in the library and read him Grimm's fairy tales. She did the best voices. Johnny especially liked the parts where the people cut up the monsters and wolves.
Treading carefully, Johnny walked out of the master bedroom and into the main hall. All the furniture was gone – the wallpaper was the same in the hallways, dark green and gold stripes, but the runner in the middle of the floor had been torn out and replaced with more of the same shiny black wood. There were dusty outlines against the walls where the hall tables and vase pedestals used to stand, and so many brown paper boxes and trunks that Johnny nearly couldn't navigate around the corner.
The door to the library was thrown wide, and Johnny moaned with relief to see that absolutely nothing had changed in that room at all. He ran into centre of the room, scrambled over the back of the settee, and dropped down on the marble ledge beside the grate, anticipating the warm radiating out of the hearth.
None came. The marble mantle was stone-cold.
Shivering, tears burning again in the back of his eyes, Johnny started in utter disbelief at the black, scrubbed grate. There were no ashes, no cinders, no fire, nothing.
More than anything else, the lack of fire terrified Johnny.
Father always had a fire burning in the library grate.
Curling in on himself again, Johnny let loose a long, scared wail.
His family was gone. Left!
They had moved out and left Johnny behind!
Alone with a strange man who was not really there, who could not hear or see Johnny, who talked to himself.
A man who was...
Johnny gasped as the realization struck.
The man was a ghost.
That was the only explanation. Johnny's hand passed right through him, and the man didn't seem to be able to hear Johnny. He must be a ghost. A ghost or an angel or a demon or some spirit.
Maybe the man had driven Johnny's family out, scared them away. Scared them so badly that they had forgotten to fetch Johnny. Or maybe the man – yes, that was it! – the ghost man was holding Johnny ransom! Johnny had been kidnapped by a ghost.
The grate next to Johnny suddenly sparked and a fireball appeared. Johnny shrieked and leapt away from the mantle, crashing painlessly through the settee and rolling head over heels out the other side.
The ghost man was standing in the door way, a magic wand clutched in one hand, a mug of something pungent and bitter smelling in the other, and the slim black thing squeezed between his shoulder and ear.
"Awful!" the man said into the air, and Johnny cringed and curled his hands over his head, wincing at the sheer annoyance in the man's grating voice. "This place is a tomb – it's drafty and cold and -- well, yes, yes, of course I knew... well the contractors putting in the spray insulation better show up at the asscrack of dawn tomorrow or I will start breaking heads. At least I have the remote gas fireplace set up... Well I'm not completely stupid."
The ghost man walked past Johnny, unconsciously giving the boy wide berth, and plopped down on the settee. He propped socked feet up on the marble ledge where Johnny had been sitting (no slippers! Johnny thought, horrified, before he realized that he wasn't wearing any either) and took a long slurp from his mug.
The man tossed his magic fire-making wand down against the arm rest and Johnny crept closer and peered at it, crouched on the other side of the settee. It didn't look like any sort of magic wand Johnny had ever read about before – it was cream coloured and rectangular and covered with little grey buttons labelled things like 'on' and 'high' and 'automatic timer'.
"—killing me," the man said and Johnny snapped his attention back up to him.
Killing? Johnny thought, cold terror dropping like a lump of ice into his gut.
"Absolutely killing me. I cannot wait for the cleaning service to set up my bedroom. Ah, my lovely, wonderful, precious prescription mattress. What do you mean, clean it myself? Carson, I am a world famous scientist. I rewrite the laws of physics on a daily basis. I am too busy to clean my house! That's why I hired a cleaner."
Johnny slunk around the side of the settee to look up at the ghost-wizard-man's face. He was slurping from his mug and talking, no, not into the air but into the slim black thing that he was pressing against his head.
Johnny wondered if this Carson person had been trapped inside it, like Johnny had be trapped inside his house. The ghost man was still ignoring Johnny, but Johnny knew that the man had to know that he was there – he had walked around Johnny.
Miserable, Johnny slumped back against the marble mantle place, grateful at least for the warmth that the magical fire provided against his back.
Johnny's arm accidentally brushed the man's leg and the man jumped and shivered. Johnny curled in on himself and bit his bottom lip and waited to be yelled at. Instead the man set down his mug on the floor and sat up and waved a hand at Johnny. Johnny was too startled to move in time and the man's hand passed right through his head.
Johnny felt suddenly sick.
"Huh," the man said, sitting back again, staring at his fingers. "There's another one. One of those odd cold patches. Yeah, the whole damned place is filled with these little pockets of cold air. And a breeze – I swear I heard wailing this morning, Carson. And like, crying or something last night... what? Oh, don't be ridiculous. I don't have an imagination to get carried away by in the first place. Only I... well, yes, I guess some company would be ... yeah, okay, say... a month from Saturday, after I've got the movers to set up the spare bedroom? And, God, hot running water. Yeah, okay. Bye."
The man snapped the black thing closed and shoved it in his baggy trouser pockets and retrieved his mug of black liquid – coffee, Johnny realized – and sat glaring at the fire for the rest of the morning. There was a knot between his eyebrows that told Johnny that he was thinking and thinking so hard that it was best that he was left alone.
Johnny's Father used to get knots like that sitting in that very same place on his face, while in that very seat, and it made something in Johnny's chest hurt.
At noon, the clock on the top of the mantel chimed and the man's stomach grumbled and he got up and went to the kitchen, leaving Johnny and the magic fire behind.
Realizing belatedly that he probably should be hungry by now, too, Johnny trudged after his captor. When he got to the kitchen, he found the man fighting with the old wood burning stove, blowing ineffectually at the smoking kindling and muttering things like "swear to God, renovating the whole kitchen, stainless steel, electric stove, the works," and utterly failing to start the fire.
"Let me," Johnny said, because even if this ghost wizard man had driven away Johnny's family, Johnny still wanted a warm breakfast, and the only way he was going to get that was to help.
Johnny slid in under the man's arm, being careful not to touch him again because that was mostly unpleasant, and reached into the stove to rearrange the wood when the man looked away to find more matches. Johnny blew gently, the right way, when the man touched a freshly sparking match to the crumpled newspaper under the wood chips. The fire wavered and caught, and the man pulled himself up, crowing triumphantly.
"Well, you didn't do all of it yourself!" Johnny snapped, but as usual the man ignored him. Johnny was starting to wonder if it was worth talking to his captor at all. "Besides, if you're so fantastic, why didn't you just light it with your magic wand, huh?"
The man was too busy pulling frying pans out of the brown boxes and eggs, milk, and butter out of the pantry to answer. He cracked three into the pan, set it on the wood stove, then hesitated. Contrite, Johnny inched closer and folded his hands and asked, in a small soft voice, "May I have one too, please?"
The man cracked a fourth egg into the pan, scratched his head at himself, and went to dispose of the shells. He came back to the pan with another mug of the coffee – it came out of a burbling contraption on the counter the likes of which Johnny had never seen before in his life – and a wooden spoon to scramble up the eggs.
He said nothing to Johnny, so Johnny said nothing back, taking the time to study the compact, sleek device that made the coffee. He wished he could try some – the man seemed to be enjoying it immensely. Johnny's hands passed through the machine and the counter.
Hm – but it hadn't passed through the wood inside the stove.
Experimenting, Johnny concentrated really really hard on touching the juice glass the man had left sitting beside the coffee making device. The first time Johnny's hand passed through it. The second time, he made it wobble. The third time, Johnny managed to knock it right off the counter.
Eye wide with too-late realization, Johnny watched the glass fall through the air. He reached out to try to catch it, failed, and jumped backwards as the shards of glass sprayed out across the kitchen floor. They passed through him, of course.
The man jumped at the sound, and whirled around brandishing the wooden spoon like a sword. Johnny ducked his head and covered it with his arms again and yelped, "Sorry, sorry!"
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" the man snarled. He put his mug down on the table and left the room. Johnny stared at the mug, then tiptoed over. He stuck his face over the rim and inhaled. It smelled great. But his lips passed through when he tried to slurp, leaving only a vague sensation of warmth.
Johnny sidled over to the stove to suck up the fire's warmth instead, and keep an eye on the eggs. Right before they were going to start smoking, the man came back into the room wearing strange dirty white shoes and brandishing a cobwebby broom and a dust pan. He started to sweep up the broken glass, and Johnny said, careful to keep his tone neutral to avoid even more trouble, "The eggs are burning."
The man turned around distractedly, said "Hm?", and then dropped the broom and dust pan – spraying the glass everywhere again – and leapt at the frying pan, which had started to billow black smoke.
He grabbed the pan off the stove without a towel wrapped around the black handle, which Johnny supposed must have hurt, and dropped it onto the butcher block in the middle of the room.
"Well, fuck," the man said again, abandoning the eggs to cool while he finished cleaning up the glass. Scared by his anger, Johnny shrunk into the corner and stayed there until all the glass was tossed into a metal trash bin and the man had dished out most of the eggs onto his own plate.
He left the burnt ones in the pan, for Johnny, the boy supposed, and moved into the formal dining room to eat. Johnny stared into the pan, at the black eggs, and sighed. He wasn't all that hungry anyway.
Or hungry at all. Even the smell of the cooking eggs wasn't stirring his appetite.
Johnny followed the man to the dining room, taken aback for a moment by the man's absolute lack of table manners of any sort. Johnny's Father's dining set was still there, a heavy mahogany table with ten matching chairs, but the seats had been reupholstered to match the new dark blue wallpaper.
Beyond the dining room table was the wide bay window, the top half of the panes frosted amber, yellow and green stained glass. The warm tones filtered the harsh sunlight, dappling the ghost man's face with summer light.
Something inside Johnny snapped.
Johnny let his feet carry him over the window.
It wasn't winter.
When Johnny had gone to bed, the world had been sleeping beneath a diamond-sparkle blanket of crisp Christmas snow. It now was early summer, the trees emerald with new leaves, the drive at the front of the house overgrown with gutter weeds and wild flowers.
Before he realized it was him making the sound, Johnny heard scared, pathetic whimpering. Behind him there was a clink. Johnny spun around – the man was staring right at him. His mouth hung open and his fork lay haphazardly against the edge of his plate, where he'd evidently dropped it.
"It's not winter," Johnny said.
The man jerked and blinked as if someone had slapped him on the face. He rose slowly from his seat and walked towards Johnny, hands outstretched. Johnny stayed perfectly still, and the man's hand passed through his shoulder and touched the window pane behind. The man hissed at the cold, snatched his hand back and rubbed his fingers.
"What happened?" Johnny asked.
The man jerked back another step, gulping, and for a quivering second, stood still and thrust his chin up defiantly. "There's..." he began. "There's no such thing as..." Then his resolve crumbled and he fled the house, shooting down the hallway and out the wide foyer doors, banging them back.
Johnny followed his progress across the driveway from the dining room window. The man stopped in front of a battered carriage with no horse hook ups and sat on its hood. He whipped out his talking device again.
"Carson!" he screamed into it. "I ... I saw... I think my new house is haunted!"
But. But no. The man was the ghost.
"I was in the dining room – there was... there's that strange stained glass that I hate, you know, the one I want to knock out, and it the ... there was a shadow. No, no, not a body, per say, but you know, sort of the outline where the sunlight stopped, like shafts through a cloud only no clouds and inside my house!"
Johnny looked down at his arms and legs. The sunlight was indeed shafting around him, but ... couldn't the man see Johnny?
"I don't know, I don't know!" the man shrieked. "It's not like I can call the Ghostbusters! I am not being ridiculous! Carson, I saw it. I touched it and the whole area was cold."
Only now did the man look back up at the window. When he did his jaw dropped, and so did his talking device. It fell out of his hand and crunched on the gravel. Johnny could hear a faintly tinny "hello? Rodney? Hello?" echoing up out of it in a Scottish brogue.
Johnny waved slowly at the man in the drive way.
The man turned completely white and waved back.