I am not in a relationship with a ghost.
I want that perfectly clear right now, because I know that people are going to misconstrue what I say and twist it into some horrid romance story. I’ve seen those types of books, I know they exist! Ever since The Problem started there's been a niche market for romance novels with a ghostly flair. They all have awful titles like ‘A Sinful Spectre She Can’t Refuse’ and ‘Unchaining the Poltergeist: A Paranormal Romance’.
You have no idea how painful it is for an Agent to see those. Ghosts aren’t romantic, not even Type Threes! If you think that a Poltergeist is going to gently levitate you off your bed, you’re going to get a real shock when it throws you head-first into the wall. And please, please, don’t try and initiate any kind of physical relations with the ghost of your recently departed lover! You will get ghost-touched and die.
Believe me, it’s nearly happened to me.
The ghost-touching part, I mean. Not trying to have physical relations with a ghost. I have never initiated any kind of physical contact with a ghost, romantic or otherwise, this is not that kind of story! I wanted to call this ‘The Angry Agent and the Stupid Skull: Not a Romance Novel’ to make that clear, but I was told it would ‘send the wrong message’ and that an artsy, poetic title for a memoir would sell better. Let’s see what the publishers come up with.
I swear, I’m going to kill George for making me do this. This is such a bad idea...
* * *
My story starts on the night of a new moon. The thin crescent was barely visible in the black, speckled sky, making everything darker than normal. In the city it doesn’t make much difference; there are ghost-lamps illuminating the streets, flickering on and off periodically to fend off ghosts. But we were out in the country, where there are no such comforts.
My colleagues and I were in the middle of an open field, low mist hanging over the ground. The only thing we could see was the dark silhouettes of trees in the distance, their leaves not yet grown back after the cold winter. The only sounds were the creaking of branches and the occasional blood-curdling screech from an owl.
It really was the perfect night for ghosts.
But it’s the perfect night for Agents, too. Light affects those with the Talent, so the darker it is the clearer we can see them. I’m not nearly as gifted as Lockwood, who sometimes needs to wear sunglasses in a pitch black room when staring at a Death Glow, but I’d take a dark sky over a full moon any day (or rather night) of the week.
I understand how it would scare someone without a Talent, though. With The Problem, literal monsters lie in the darkness, able to kill you with a single touch and you can’t even see them. Your imagination can wild as things that were harmless in the daytime start to look sinister when enveloped in shadow. The long tree branches start to look like clawed, skeletal hands, ready to reach out and snag you. The twigs snapping in the wind sound like bones.
Crack... Crack... Crack...
You realise how repetitive the sound is. You realise it sounds like dry bone rubbing on bone. Like a skeleton had risen and is taking slow steps towards you. The hairs on the back of your neck rise and your heart starts racing. You look back to the trees, terrified you’ll see glowing eyes watching you from the darkness. Because the moment it realises you see it, there’s no need for it to hide anymore.
But don’t worry. There aren’t any skeletons hiding over by the trees.
Because they’re chasing after my colleagues and me.
“You said it was a Spectre!” I yelled at Lockwood as we ran across the lawn, half a dozen shambling skeletons hot on our heels. “One Spectre, you said.”
“I thought it was!” Lockwood yelled back at me.
Delighted cackling rang in my ears. It was coming from the glowing green jar beside my rucksack, sitting safely in an iron chain circle about a hundred or so metres behind me and rapidly growing.
“I hate skeletons!” George whined, his voice already winded. “Especially ones that move! Why did you bring me? Tonight was supposed to be my night off!”
“I thought it would be fun for us to do a simple mission together, like old times,” Lockwood said.
“Well, I mean something a bit less high stakes than what happened in Aldbury Castle,” Lockwood said, somewhat sheepishly.
Lockwood was right, but in the same way, you could say there was more water in a lake than a bathtub. Or that taking the subway was cheaper than a night taxi. It didn’t mean that I wanted to start my evening off pressed against sweaty adults that were hurrying home before curfew, though.
So yes. Lockwood was right. But he was also very wrong.
When our client came to us (a rickety old farmer with a head that resembled a walnut) he told us death was haunting him. We politely agreed - he was very old - but he went on to explain that some Night Watch kids he employed saw a dark figure carrying a scythe roaming around on his farm after dark. Questioning him more about the ghost-fog that came with it and the suffocatingly cold aura it gave off, we confirmed that it did indeed sound like a ghost and not a someone celebrating Halloween six months early.
Lockwood went so far to theorise it was a standard Spectre with a flair for the dramatics and George pointed out it was probably one of the farmers who owned the land before. Scythes were commonly used to reap crops before it became the Grim Reaper’s favourite token.
Lockwood decided it was the perfect case for classic Lockwood and Co. to take on. Him, George and me together again, just like the old days. I even brought along the skull, an incredibly rare Type Three that only I could talk to. Not that it did much talking this evening. When we arrived at the farm all it said was ‘oooh, that’s interesting,’ and shut up. I couldn’t convince it to tell me what; my threats of dropping it in the empty well back near the farmhouse fell on deaf ears. The skull just grinned at me, like it knew a secret I didn’t.
So we set up our chains and iron shavings and went about scouting the field. It was early into the evening and around the time we were doing the second temperature reading (and it started plummeting rapidly) that I realised that I maybe should have pushed the skull a bit more. It wasn’t a standard Spectre like Lockwood said. It was far, far worse.
We had a ghost that could raise the dead.
“Why are there so many skeletons buried on a farm?” I asked.
“If I had time to research I could tell you,” George panted back. “I read there was rumoured to be a forgotten mass grave somewhere near the town, but I couldn’t narrow the location down.”
“I think we’ve done that,” Lockwood shouted over at us. “Okay, we’ll do Plan H.”
“What’s Plan H?”
“Lucy and I will split, leading the skeletons away. George, you run back to the rucksacks,” Lockwood instructed.
“Why do I have to?!” George protested, his glasses had fogged up and had slid down his nose from sweat, but he didn’t dare stop to wipe them on his shirt. “I dealt with the Wraith at the wharf two nights ago!”
“Well, I handled the Screaming Spirit the day before that. Mrs Campbell did not like me,” Lockwood countered.
Mrs Campbell most certainly did not like Lockwood, who had a striking resemblance to her husband. Mr Campbell had killed her and buried her body underneath the cellar so he could pursue their younger neighbour. Having such sensitive Hearing I was rendered near useless, curled up with hands clamped over my ears as the ghost leapt at Lockwood screeching bloody murder (literally).
“I’ll go back,” I said. I cast a hazard glance over my shoulder and saw the dark figure still looming where it first appeared. It was unnerving, being alone in a quiet openness and seeing a dark figure watching you with a scythe in their hands. Agents tend to get jaded pretty quickly to fantastical horrors that scare children, but sometimes you come across some ghosts that are unsettling.
“You’re amazing, Luce.” Lockwood cast me a beaming smile which may have caused my heart rate to pick up a little. “Ready then. Three, two, one... Go!”
We all darted off in different directions, Lockwood to the left, George to the right. I kept running forward for a moment, before glancing back again seeing if there was an opening in the skeletons I could double-back through.
Then my foot caught the edge of a large rock concealed in the ghost-fog and I went flying. Spitting out grass and dirt, I barely heard the creaking shuffle of a skeleton above me over the skull’s manic laughter.
"This is hilarious,” the skull said as I fumbled for my rapier. “I had forgotten how entertaining it was watching you flail around together. You survive the Other Side, but a pile of bones does you in.”
“This is your fault!” I shouted back at it, swinging my rapier like a tennis racquet at the skeleton’s bony arm reaching for me. I cut it clean at the elbow joint, sending the arm flying. “You should have warned us!”
“Oops. Accidents happen.”
The skull continued laughing and I pushed myself to my feet. With a well-aimed jab, my rapier rammed into the skull’s (the one trying to kill me, not the one in the jar, though that distinction was certainly vague right now) eye socket and heaved it clean off the body. Pushing past, I started running back to the ghost. Lockwood and George had divided the rest of the skeletons, leaving me a clear path to it.
As I started getting closer, I felt a heavy weight pressing down on me, like the air itself was getting dense. It was getting colder; I could see frost forming on the grass beneath my feet. My lungs started burning, my legs felt like lead as overwhelming exhaustion crashed over me. A dreaded feeling of hopelessness started building in my chest as I realised I might not have the strength to do this.
I nearly screamed as a bony hand shot up from the ground in front of me, grabbing my ankle. I almost fell again, but with a hop, a jig and a swipe of my rapier, I was free. I kicked off the offending hand, taking a huge breath in.
That was better.
The distraction was enough to snap me out of ghost-lock that was being worked over me. It was so strong and subtle, I hadn’t even realised what it was doing. I had to be more careful. More skeletons were rising from the ground around me. Dirt and grass fell from them as they pushed themselves up, their bony silhouettes protruding through the fog.
I was so close now. Forcing myself back into a run, I darted past the skeletons. I wouldn’t let myself get ghost-locked again, I was better than that. I was going to feign an attack and throw a salt bomb at it. Before it could recover, I’d run to the iron chain circle that had our rucksacks and silver nets inside.
Reaching for my belt, I froze when I heard Lockwood cry out. I whirled around, searching in the darkness for him.
I looked back to see the ghost upon me, it’s faceless dark figure towering above me. The scythe came for my neck and I stumbled back just in time. I felt the cold metal nick my skin, warm blood instantly trickling down my neck, and I grasped at it in panic.
At that moment, I felt myself tip. My throat was cut, blood seeping out from my fingers, the Grim Reaper itself was bearing down on me, ready to finish me off. Panic and fear were threatening to overwhelm me, pressing against my skin and nerves wanting to escape. I wouldn’t be the first Agent that fell this way. At the end of the day, we are just children trying to fight the monsters in the dark.
My vision narrowed on the scythe. Even in the dull light, the sharp metal edge of the sickle glimmered. Thin fingers grasped the handle, as it raised it again. Metal...?
I knew how to end this. My other hand fumbled for a salt bomb from my belt and without pause, I threw it. The salt exploded, making the ghost hiss and recoil, but the bomb was too weak.
Alright then. I pulled out a flare and lobbed that at it instead. The field lit up briefly as the ghost screeched, its paranormal voice vibrating in my ears. I ran into the iron chain circle, diving over my rucksack. The skull was grinning at me, floating in its glowing, green ectoplasm as I pulled out the silver net.
I shook the net open and with both hands, I threw it. Not at the ghost, but at its scythe.
Then the night fell silent. I gasped for air, not realising just how stifling it had been before. The skeletons that were scurrying towards me collapsed the moment the silver net touched the scythe, the ghost’s Source contained.
Gingerly, I touched my neck again. The wound was already clotting, the blood merely beading along the cut now. “Lockwood?” I called out. “Can you hear me?”
Grabbing my torch, I followed his voice. Thirty seconds later, I found Lockwood resting on the ground, looking worse for wear. His clothes and face were covered in dirt.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Oh, this? Nothing.” His brilliant smile seemed even brighter against the dirt on his face. “I fell in a giant hole left by the skeletons when they rose. Couldn’t see it with the ghost-fog. Had a bit of a rough and tumble with the skeleton that followed in after me.”
“Lockwood? Lucy?” We heard George’s faint voice from somewhere in the field. “Is it over?”
“All over, George!” I called back.
“Let’s get the Source to DEPRAC and inform them about this mass grave that’ll need cleaning up,” Lockwood said pushing himself up, wincing as he popped his back. “Then home. We can relax with tea and carrot cake Holly made today.”
* * *
Tea and cake sounded good, but by the time we had dropped off the scythe for incinerating and made it back to thirty-five Portland Row I was barely able to keep my eyes open. Wearily waving Lockwood and George goodnight, I climbed up the flights of stairs to my attic, my entire body protesting.
“Pathetic,” the skull said to me as I groaned. “You need to lay off those burgers. Even I could get up these stairs quicker and I don’t have limbs!”
“I’m not tired from the stairs, I’m tired from being chased by skeletons,” I grumbled.
“And you said you were one of the best freelancers in London,” the skull scoffed. “You were ripping people off.”
“I am the best,” I said, pushing my bedroom door open. I couldn’t even get the rucksack off my shoulder, it was getting caught on something. My jacket or my belt, I don’t know. I didn’t care. All that mattered to me at that moment was falling asleep.
“With me,” the skull said. “You’re the best when we’re together.”
I wasn’t even listening to what the skull said. Boots still on, rucksack twisted around me, I collapsed onto my bed. I curled into the rucksack, like it was a giant, uncomfortable pillow and promptly fell asleep, a green glow on my face.
When I woke up, the first thing I noticed was how cold I was. I groaned, twisting around trying to pull the duvet back over my shoulders, but failing. Then I realised I wasn’t in bed, but lying on the floor. Groaning again, I pushed myself up, finally opening my eyes.
The second thing I noticed was a boy sitting on my window sill. He was gangly and thin with long limbs, hair spiked up wildly like he didn’t care to brush it. His clothes looked worn and baggy, a plain shirt and trousers hanging off his frame. His dark eyes were watching me.
I recognised him instantly.
“Hello again,” he said. His voice was faint like he was speaking to me over a great distance. “I didn’t expect to see you back here so soon.”
I looked around my room. It was the same as before. Before, meaning when Lockwood and I stepped into the circle of ghosts and went through to the Other Side. Everything was grey and dim, all colour sucked out. Icicles clung to the corners of the room, ice spreading across the walls like crackled spiderwebs. All the furniture was gone, all my piles of clothes that were scattered on the floor, gone. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see their outlines, but when I focused on them, they disappeared into the grey surroundings.
“Am I dead?” I asked.
That made the boy grin. His skin was grey and sickly, like the room. A faint light was shining through the window behind him, muted from the ice and frost. “Despite your best efforts last night, no,” he said. “You haven’t fully crossed over this time. ”
“What does that mean?” I look down at my body and gasped. I definitely wasn’t wearing a spirit coat but that wasn’t what shocked me. I was transparent. Holding up my hand, I could see the grey room through it, like I was looking through a frosted window. I felt cold, but more like brisk, winter chill, rather than the devastating cold I felt when my coat split before.
"Get it now?”
“How is this possible?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe sleeping so close to a powerful Source allowed your spirit to drift.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said shaking my head. I needed to get back. I was here with no protection. I needed iron. Or silver. I stood up, looking around for my rucksack.
“You come up with an idea then,” the boy said. “All I know is that your body is still asleep on your bed. Cuddling up to yours truly.”
“What?” I said, alarmed. “I am not.”
A wide grin had stretched back over the boy’s face again. It was uncanny how similar he looked to the skull. “Oh, you definitely are. Did you forget? You couldn’t even bear to be apart from me even when you sleep, so you brought me into your bed.”
“You’re making things up. I couldn’t get my rucksack off, that’s all,” I said firmly. “George is more likely to put you in his bed, not me.”
That wiped the smile off his face. The boy glared witheringly at me, no doubt remembering the time George had a bath with him. “Thanks for that. I’m going to be imagining it for days now.”
“You’re welcome. Now, how do I get back?”
“I don’t know. Roll off the bed?”
“I can’t do that! I’m asleep!”
The boy sighed, hopping off the window sill. “You really are useless without me, aren’t you? I don’t know how you’ve survived for this long.”
“I am not useless,” I protested.
“You nearly died this evening. Again. And you were saved by me. Again.” The boy had gotten awfully close to me now. He was taller than me, but not quite as tall as Lockwood. He looked older than me too, but maybe only a year. Two max. He had died so young...
“Aren’t you going to thank me?” He asked.
“For what?” I said roughly. “You didn’t tell me it could control skeletons! You knew it could the moment we entered that farm.”
“Just keeping you on your toes,” he said, amused. “Besides, I thought you weren’t relying on me anymore. Not that you have Lockwood again.”
I frowned. “What are you talking about? Lockwood thought it was Spectre. If you had told us, everything would have gone much smoother.”
His smile widened at that. “And miss seeing you all being chased around by a group of skeletons? I don’t regret a thing.”
“You will when I wake up,” I said. “I’ll dig a nice, deep hole in the backyard and drop you in it. We’ll see how long it takes for someone to find you again.”
“Hmm,” the boy hummed. His smile had lost its sinister gleefulness, but it still hung in the corners of his mouth. He considered me with his dark eyes, determining how truthful my threat was. “What’s a group of skeletons called, anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know how to make a skeleton laugh?”
“I don’t... what does that have to do -”
“You tickle its funny bone.”
“Oh, I’m definitely burying you tomorrow,” I said as the boy cackled at his own atrocious joke. Folding my arms over my chest, I said, “now help me get out of here.”
“You really should be nicer to someone who helps you out so much,” the boy said. I hadn’t realised but he had taken another step towards me. He was so close to me now. Too close.
“I am nice to you,” I said, keeping my feet planted. I couldn’t show my fear. I had to keep my breathing steady. “If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be one of George’s experiments.”
“You didn’t come fast enough,” the boy said, sourly. “Fine. Ready to wake up?”
“Yes. What are you -”
My eyes shot open and I rolled straight out of bed, my arms flailing madly. With two loud thumps, I landed on the floor and my rucksack followed. The glowing skull was cackling madly as it fell out and rolled across the floor.
“That’s exactly what I said!” It cried out to me, the jar still rolling.
“Did you have to scream in my face?!” I exclaimed, pressing my hand to my racing heart. “I nearly had a heart attack!”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
“Lucy, are you okay?”
I heard racing up the stairs and Lockwood and Holly came bursting into my room. Lockwood in his pyjamas wielding a rapier, his hair handsomely ruffled, Holly after him in a floral printed blouse and creaseless pencil skirt. I then realised that sunlight was streaming in through my window, and if Holly was here, then it must be after eight-am.
“I’m... I’m okay,” I said, struggling to push myself to my feet.
“Did you sleep like that, Lucy?” Holly asked, her forehead scrunching up in concern.
“I was really tired,” I said, finally managing to get the rucksack strap off my shoulder. I looked over at the skull in the corner of the room. “The strangest thing just happened...”
“I’ll put the kettle on, and you can tell us about it,” Lockwood said, relaxing as he saw there was no ghost up here, again. Or at least not an unwanted one.
“Maybe you and Lucy should get some more sleep?” Holly suggested. “It’s still early for you to be up.”
Both Lockwood and I shook our heads. “I’m can’t sleep now,” I said.
“I’m wide awake,” Lockwood added. “Here Luce, let me take your bag back down to the cellar.”
“I’ll start cooking breakfast, then,” Holly said helpfully. “Also, if you strip your bedsheets, I’ll put them in the washer for you. You don’t want to sleep in them again after getting dirt everywhere.”
I mean... I didn’t think it was that bad, but Holly was smiling ever so politely at me, so I decided just to do it.
* * *
Sitting at the kitchen table downstairs my stomach grumbled as Holly cooked whole wheat pancakes, humming delicately to herself. Underneath a tea-towel, the skull sat on the counter. I had brought it down with me, it was as much a part of this story as I was, but Holly still hated having it in the kitchen. It still liked making horrifying faces at her, and she was still prone to dropping whatever was in her hands when she saw it.
“So, what happened, Luce?” Lockwood asked, across the table from me. “Bad dream?”
“Something like that,” I said slowly. “I think I went to the Other Side again.”
Both Lockwood and Holly were silent. “That’s impossible,” Lockwood said, finally.
“I know. I know, that’s what I said. But I saw the skull there,” I inclined my head over to the draped tea towel covering it. “He was a boy, like when he worked for Bickerstaff.”
Lockwood’s eyes flickered towards it. “And what did the skull say?” Lockwood asked.
“He... it said that I hadn’t fully crossed over. That I was still, somehow, physically back in my room, but my spirit had wandered. My body was transparent. I could see through it.”
“Some kind of astral projection? Is that even a real thing?” Lockwood said. “Can spirits actually leave the body before dying? I wonder if my parents had researched it. Those spirit cloaks worked, so who's to say you couldn’t astral project? George will probably know something, but he’s still asleep.”
“He’ll wake up soon when he smells Holly’s pancakes,” I said.
Sure enough, only a few minutes later George came shuffling into the kitchen, thankfully wearing trousers. “Pancakes? Excellent,” he said, squeezing himself in the chair beside me.
“George, what do you know about astral projection?”
“Huh?” George said as he made himself a cup of tea, nearly splashing milk over the thinking cloth.
“I think I went back to the Other Side last night,” I said. “But, my body didn’t. Just my spirit. Or mind. Or something.”
Over Holly’s pancakes swimming in syrup and topped with dollops of cream (not hers, of course. Only Lockwood’s, George’s and mine. Holly’s just had a perfect, light drizzle of syrup.) I told George the full story.
After chewing on a large mouthful, cream somehow smeared on his cheek, he said, “astral projection to the Other Side could very well be a real thing. After Aldbury Castle I’ve been doing some research into other cases of people going to the Other Side. Nothing of course clearly stated that’s what had happened, but I found some with remarkable similarities.”
Everyone in the room was silent, clinging onto George’s words. Even the skull didn’t make a peep. George took this moment to take off his glasses, and slowly clean them on the corner of his shirt.
“For instance, people who had died in hospital and were revived,” George continued. “I’ve found several anecdotes that matched up to yours and Lockwood’s description of the Other Side. They described being in the same place as where they died, but everything cold and dark. One lady said it was as ‘like the sun had disappeared and the earth had frozen over’. She was convinced she had gone to hell.”
“That sounds right,” I shuddered. “If we have cases of people crossing to the Other Side, why isn’t this more known?”
“Who would believe them?” Lockwood said. “If I hadn’t done it myself, I wouldn’t have. So who would listen to the delirious ramblings of a person who had almost died.”
“What I don’t understand is why now,” Holly said, frowning prettily. “Why did this happen to Lucy now and not any time before?”
I felt my cheeks blush at this. “Erm... the skull said it was because I was sleeping with it. So close to it! It was in my rucksack. I still had my rucksack with me when I went to bed and the skull was in it.” Holly probably could have cooked another pancake on my face, I had gone so red. Thankfully, no-one said anything about it.
“And the skull helped you get back,” George mused.
“By shouting at me,” I huffed.
“You should try it again.”
“A controlled experiment, of course,” George said. His glasses had slipped down his nose and he pressed them back up with excitement. “You sleep with the skull again -”
“I did not sleep with it!”
“- and see if you go back to the Other Side.”
“But I don’t know how to get back on my own,” I said desperately. “The skull brought me back last time.”
“It can do it again, then,” George said, looking unfazed.
“What has the skull being saying about all this?” Lockwood asked, casting a glance over to the tea-towel.
“It’s been silent, so far,” I said walking over to it, pulling the tea-towel off the jar. The skull was grinning at me. “I don’t trust it,” I said instantly.
“It helped you last time,” George said reasonably. “And it’s always been helpful on jobs.”
“‘Helpful’?” I cried out. “The only reason it’s helpful is because I have to threaten it every day. It hates all of us! It would like nothing more than to see every one of us dead by the hands of a ghost!”
“Oh, not everyone. I still think you should be the one to kick Holly's bucket.”
“See, that’s exactly what I mean!”
“Erm... is it talking, Luce?” Lockwood asked.
“Yes! About killing us!”
“Now, now, don’t lie. I was talking about you taking that frying pan and giving Holly a good whack across the head with it. There’s a distinct difference.”
I threw the tea-towel back over it and sat down in a huff.
“But there’s a difference between us and you, though,” George said thoughtfully. “It likes you.”
George was lucky I had covered the skull back up (and Holly too, for that matter) because I could just imagine the expression it was pulling at his words. My face was making something very similar, but I wasn’t lacking the skin and muscle (and eyeballs) to make it anywhere near as scary.
“No, George. It doesn’t,” I said firmly. “It’s simply making do with the only person it can talk to.”
“I agree with Lucy,” Lockwood said. “We shouldn’t put our trust in it. It’s one thing when it’s floating in that jar, harmless, but on the Other Side it isn’t restrained. Lucy is lucky she came back alive. We shouldn’t even be thinking about experimenting with her life at risk.”
“Oh, but that’s not...” George looked crestfallen, but Lockwood wasn’t having a bar of it.
“That’s my final say on the matter,” Lockwood said firmly, ending the conversation. We turned back to our pancakes, but none of us had really our appetites anymore.
“He takes you out every night on dangerous jobs, risking your life,” the skull whispered in my ear. “But he won’t let you try coming back to the Other Side, again? Surely you see the hypocrisy in that. Always so manipulative that Lockwood is.”
Painfully aware of everyone glancing at me, I kept my lips firmly shut.
* * *
For the next week, everything had continued on as per usual. Holly divided the jobs up between us, giving us time to relax at home, which I still wasn’t quite used to. I had tried reading up about astral projection during my spare time, but I didn’t have George’s patience to sift through all the pseudoscience nonsense that came with it.
I almost felt sorry for the person who believed all that tripe, but if they thought that by ‘opening up their chakras’ ghosts wouldn’t be able to hurt them, they deserved what they got. Instead, I did the practical thing which was locking the skull away in the cellar, ignoring the way it moped, whined and insulted me for it.
The risk of being trapped in the Other Side was simply too great and too dangerous. So imagine my surprise when I went to bed one night and woke up on the Other Side. Sitting up, I rubbed my arms futilely against the cold, looking around the dark bedroom.
“Good evening,” the boy grinned at me. He was leaning against the wall opposite, his hands in his pockets. “Or morning, rather.”
“How am I back?” I asked wearily, standing up. “Did I die?”
The boy rolled his eyes at me. “What’s with you and dying? No, you’re not dead.”
“Then how did this happen, again? You’re downstairs in the cellar.”
“Actually, I’m underneath your bed next to some old underwear you’ve kicked under here. No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend if that’s what you wear.”
“What?!” I exclaimed. “How did you get under my bed?!”
“Lockwood probably saw these in your laundry and that’s why he’s never asked you out. I bet Holly wears much fancier underwear. The type that’s all skimpy and lacy.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my underwear!” Even in the frozen Other Side, I could feel myself flushing. “They’re comfy.”
“Mhmm. As I said, that’s why you don’t have a boyfriend. Take it from me.”
“From you?! You’re a skull! Who’s hiding underneath my bed!”
“I’m not hiding,” the boy said. “ Not willingly, at least. Believe me, there are a million other places I’d rather be than getting cosy with your dirty underwear. Cubbins snuck into your room about an hour ago and placed me here.”
“I’m going to kill him,” I snarled.
The boy perked up, looking excited by my proclamation of death. “Oh, you’ll get your chance. He’s asleep in the corner. He intended to watch over you and wake you if he thought you were in any danger, but he fell asleep about fifteen minutes in.”
“I’m definitely killing him. Skull, send me back.”
A lazy smile played on the boy’s mouth. He didn’t move.
“Skull,” I tried again. “ Please send me back.”
“What’s the matter, Lucy? Don’t you want to be here with me?”
“No, I don’t,” I said firmly. “I’m alive. I don’t belong here.”
“Yet here you are. Life in Death.”
“Lucy.” He started moving now. He pushed himself away from the wall and started walking towards me, his hands still in his pockets. “What’s the matter, Lucy? Don’t you trust me?”
This was really dangerous. Like Lockwood had said, in the jar it was harmless. But here, the skull - boy - spirit - had power. And I was defenceless. My agent training kicking in, my eyes darted around the room, looking for something to protect myself with, but like last time, there was nothing.
“Silver and iron don’t exist here.” The boy was watching me, a malicious smirk on his face. “No water or lavender, either. I’m offended, Lucy. I thought you and I were so close.”
I should run. He was already too close to me again. One touch and I’d be dead and really belong here. He hadn’t tried to ghost-lock me, yet. Could he do that here?
“Do you think that I would hurt you? After everything we’ve been through?”
“You’ve tried a hundred times,” I forced the words out. “Every second thing out of your mouth you’re cheering on my death.”
The boy pulled a face. “Please, I haven’t done that in months.”
“You were with that wannabe-Grim Reaper! That was last week! You said it was entertaining watching us being chased by skeletons!”
“Well ... fine.” The boy shrugged. “You should have seen it from my point of view, though.”
“And you never even told me it could raise skeletons.”
“Will you get over that, already?” The boy rolled his eyes. “ You already went in there thinking it was a Type Two, it’s hardly my fault you completely lost your cool when it had slightly unique powers.”
“I did not ‘lose my cool’. That was George. He broke our formation, that’s why we had to flee.”
“Poor Cubbins,” the boy sighed, mockingly sympathetic. “You really should just push him down the stairs and be done with it.”
“I didn’t know you were so keen to bring George here,” I said, witheringly. “You two would be best buddies, hanging out in the Other Side together.”
The boy blanched, clearly not having considered that. “On second thought, you keep him. And you’d better start feeding him more healthy food, ‘cause with the rate he goes through cakes, it won’t be a ghost that kills him.”
“Sure, no problem,” I said. “I’ll get onto that as soon as you send me back.” It had the subtlety of a Poltergeist in a china shop , but I was desperate.
“I’m disappointed in you, Lucy,” the boy sighed. “After all the times I’ve saved your life, you still don’t trust me.”
“Only a fool would trust you,” I said.
The way the boy stared at me with his dark eyes made me uncomfortable. It felt like he was seeing straight through my words, into my soul. “You’ve done an awful lot of foolish things when it comes to ghosts,” he said. “You’ve never asked me, you know.”
“Asked you what?” My mouth felt dry and my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth.
“What did you call it, the Lucy Carlyle Formula ? The series of questions you ask every ghost before you bundle them up in silver and lavender and ship them off to be incinerated.”
“Because I know the answers already,” I said. “You’re twisted and perverse, and delight in everyone else’s misery. All you want is to cause as much chaos and conflict as possible.”
The boy never had a chance to respond as a suffocating pressure fell on the house. It clammed around my throat, pressing into my brain, against the back of my eyes. I squeezed my eyes shut against the pressure. Ghosts were coming. Strong ones.
“That’s another spirit,” he said conversationally. “More than one, actually. They’re drawn to you. I’ve told you before, you’re a bright beacon in the darkness, full of warmth and light. Without those fancy cloaks you and Lockwood had, you’re even brighter here than you are in the living world.”
“I... I need to go.”
The corner of his mouth curled up. It wasn’t a friendly gesture. “Yes, you should,” he said. His hands remained in his pockets, he didn’t make another move or gesture towards me.
“Hmm? What’s that?” He pulled his hand out of his pocket to cup his ear. “My ears must be stuffed full of wax, because I think I heard you insult me, before.”
There was a thudding now. Not a noise, but a pressure that would ease off then rush right back, again. Like a dozen footsteps, walking up the stairs. “Skull, if you don’t help me...” My words trailed off, as I couldn’t even think of a good threat.
“What? You’ll die?” His eyes widened in mocking concern. “Should have thought about that before you called me perverted.”
“Skull, I’m sorr-”
I couldn’t even finish my apology as the boy made a rude face and blew a loud raspberry at me. “Go jump out a window.”
The thudding was in my ears now, I could almost feel my teeth rattle. I barely had opened my mouth for one last desperate plea when the bedroom door opened and a group of blank-faced, grey-skinned people stood there, staring straight at me.
“It won’t hurt much,” the boy said. “Things work differently here.”
I didn’t waste another second, running over to the window and throwing it open. With one knee on the sill, one hand clinging to it above my head, I looked down and froze. I couldn’t jump out from this! I’d be lucky if I only broke my legs. I’d then get swarmed by the ghosts piling into my room behind me and become one myself!
The Hobbling Ghost of thirty-five Portland Row. The Crippled Carlyle. Oh god, I could see the headlines already. I wouldn’t even make it onto the front cover, I’d be a page fifteen next to the ads for cheap furniture and discount dentures.
“They’re nearly here,” the boy whispered in my ear and I screamed and nearly fell out.
Clinging to the wooden frame painfully, I didn’t dare look back. Instead, I desperately looked down at the wall, for a ledge or a gutter pipe, or something I could climb onto.
“You’re out of time,”
the boy said. Then I felt a pair of cold hands push my back and I feel out the window. My stomach jumped up into my throat and arms flailed, stretched out and flapping in some evolutionary instinct that homo sapiens never had. The ground was coming closer and closer, and I screamed and -
I jerked awake, my bed creaking from the vicious movement. Scrambling, my legs tangled in my duvet as I half fell out of bed and picked up the spare rapier from the floor beside me. My eyes wide and straining, I looked around my room that was just a moment ago crowded with ghosts.
But now it was daylight again, and it was only me and -
George jerked awake, the string of drool snapping and fell onto his t-shirt. With dozy eyes he looked around, alarmed. “Huh? What?”
“I am going to kill you!” I screeched (sounding remarkably like Mrs Campbell) kicking off my covers. Poking my head underneath the bed and sure enough, I saw a glowing jar with the skull floating inside. Grabbing the jar, I stood up and threw it as hard as I could at George. “Get out!”
George didn’t need another warning. Scrambling to his feet, pulling up his trousers that had slid down his backside - I really didn’t need to see that. No amount of bleach would erase that image now burnt in my retinas - he fled the room, skull tucked under his arm.
* * *
George was officially suspended from active duty the few days following. I was mad at him, but when Lockwood heard about the ‘experiment’, he was possibly even more so. I thought he was actually going to fire George, but George was the best at what he did, and I’d imagine a short, painful demise of Lockwood and Co would follow if he left.
Not that we didn’t try to operate without him, though. While George moped around like a child who’d been grounded, Lockwood and I handled the jobs the next few evenings. And a not-so-secret part of me enjoyed spending time with just him. No George. No Holly. No floating skull in a jar. Just Lockwood and me, and that brilliant smile that made me feel like some pathetic, doe-eyed school girl.
Unfortunately, with the pair of us together there’s a bit too much disregard for protocol for it to be practical for any long term considerations. I’m not going to list everything we didn’t do ‘by the book’ on the last job, because it’s not interesting, and more embarrassingly, far too long. But really, we did the Cooper family a favour by setting those curtains on fire.
So, after the curtain incident, Lockwood and Co. more or less fell back into its old routine, again. But there was one thing that kept bugging me, and I didn’t know who to talk to about it. If I went to George I was worried it would excite him a bit too much and I’d be roped into Astral Projecting to the Other Side: Round Three. But I also didn’t think this was something I could talk to Lockwood about either. And Holly... well. We’ve only just managed to start talking to one another with genuine civility. Let’s not push it.
All that was left was the very person - thing - that was causing my dilemma.
“Oh ho! You’ve remembered I exist!” The skull cried out when I pulled the cloth off it. “It’s been so dark and lonely down here ... ”
“Skull, I need to ask you something,” I said.
“Collecting dust, like some useless trinket in an antique store. I really am underappreciated. First by Marissa Fittes. Then you. Then those Rotwell scientists didn’t even deem me worthy for creating the gateway. Then you again -”
“You won’t believe what’s been crawling around down here. You really should get a terminator in. Or just set the whole place on fire. I heard that’s what happened on a job yesterday. Fantastic solution, you should do it more often.”
“Skull! Stop whining, already!” I snapped, already having enough of it’s moping.
The skull gnashed its teeth together but fell silent. Bobbing in the green ectoplasm, it waited, watching me through its empty eye sockets.
“Why didn’t you ghost-touch me?” I asked, jumping right to it. I never was one to beat around the bush.
The thing with skulls is that they always looked like they were smiling. This particular one was more expressive most, but even sometimes I had trouble reading it’s expressions. Its row of teeth bared at me, perhaps smiling in amusement, perhaps snarling with danger, or maybe it was simply resting impassiveness.
“Well... that’s the funny thing,” the skull said slowly. “I don’t have any hands!”
I rolled my eyes at it. “You do in the Other Side,” I said. “I felt your hands on my back when you pushed me out the window. But when I woke up, I didn’t have any marks.”
I was fairly certain the skull was actually smiling now. “You’re body never came to the Other Side, remember? So how could I hurt your body if it was never there?” It said.
I opened my mouth. That made sense, but... “Why was I running from the other ghosts then? If they couldn’t hurt me then why did you push me out the window to get away from them?”
The skull was grinning wider now. But as I waited, it simply continued bobbing in the glowing ectoplasm, not answering my question.
“Fine, be that way,” I said coolly, reaching to cover it back up with the cloth.
“You’re always so suspicious,” it said. “You’d put more trust in a raving, murderous Limbless than in me.”
“Because I know you better than I know the Limbless,” I said.
“Do you? Three times you’ve come to the Other Side. Three times, I’ve helped you get back, alive. Safe. There was no personal gain in it for me to help you, and yet you still claim I’m untrustworthy.”
I suddenly felt weary and over this conversation. It was the middle of the afternoon, and Holly and I were going to be heading out to job together, shortly. A possible Spectre that was terrorising a retirement village. It already had taken two* lives. That asterisk was because we were still waiting for the coroner report to see which ones were a victim of the ghost or just old age.
“Want to come along and handle a ghost with Holly and me?” I asked. “I’d like an extra pair of eyes.”
“Well aren’t you bold,” the skull said, sounding pleased. “Oh yes, I’d love to be there.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You know it’s funny. I’ve kind of missed having you along. It’s been strangely quiet not having you whisper insults and ill wishes of death in my ear.”
“The easiest way would be to push her from the iron chain circle when the ghost is close and let it do the work. That way you could say you weren’t around and happened upon her dead body after. Don’t worry, I’ll be your alibi.”
“I’m not trying to kill Holly.”
“Of course you’re not,” the skull said, giving me a large, exaggerated wink. I rolled my eyes and took it off the shelf.
* * *
The Sunshine Gardens Retirement Village was a quaint little collection of identical cottages at the end of a cul de sac. There was a low hedge which ran around the outside and a garden with a shallow pond and a trickling waterfall near the entrance. They had their own grid of ghost-lamps which were already on when Holly and I arrived in the afternoon.
“Do you think the ghost is that strong?” Holly asked, looking weary.
I closed my eyes for a short moment, trying to pick up on any paranormal sounds. All I could hear was birds chirping nearby and the dull roar of cars driving around the nearby streets. “I doubt it,” I said. “They’re probably just paranoid.”
While most adults were reasonable about ghosts and The Problem, there were two outlying groups. The paranoid and the sceptics. Paranoid adults were the ones who call us in hysterics, saying the murderous ghost of their estranged great-great-great uncle was in the house, throwing things and trying to kill them. It’s never a surprise when it turns out to be a Stone Knocker and a few sprigs of lavender above its favourite door does the trick.
The sceptics though, they think we’re nothing more than con-artists preying on people’s fears.
Oh, they knew ghosts existed, but they didn’t believe in just how dangerous they were. Do we really think they’re that gullible? Sceptics had a surprising resistance to ghost-lock, as their sheer stubbornness seemed to protect them. They were the type to get scratched up by a ghost and claim the cat did it. When they didn’t own a cat.
“It’s killed two people, already,” Holly said.
“Unconfirmed,” I said. “I’m not picking up on anything unusual right now.”
“Our client says the phenomena are concentrated to the community hall,” Holly said. “We should go there and find a good place to set up for tonight.”
I nodded silently and followed after her, both impressed and surprised by Holly’s new-founded confidence in the field.
The hall was exactly what you’d imagine in a retirement village. A long, rectangular room with plain off-white walls and worn timber slat flooring. Rows of fold-out, white plastic tables filled the room with matching grey chairs, all ready for weekly bingo and checkers.
As Holly set up the iron chains near the entrance, I walked around the hall, listening for any paranormal noises, but it was still too early. I wasn’t getting any chills or lingering feelings of Malaise. Walking back to Holly, I opened my rucksack and pulled out the green jar. “What do you think?” I asked the skull.
“I’m glad I died before I got old enough to live in a place like this,” the Skull said. “I’d advise you the same, but you’d manage it with or without my help.”
“I didn’t realise they had retirement homes in the eighteen-hundreds,” I said.
The skull gave a strange jerking motion and I realised it was shuddering. “They were called workhouses. They weren’t just for the old, but anyone who couldn’t support themselves. I would have ended up in one if my Master didn’t find me.”
“Before Bickerstaff? Why? What were you doing before you worked for him?”
“ I was an orphan. You know, the usual story.”
“Oh, like Oliver Twist!”
“You know, Oliver Twist! ‘Please sir, I want some more’ and he holds out the bowl for gruel...” My voice trails off. Okay, fine. I’ve never read the book.
“Why are you quoting Oliver Twist?” Holly asked.
“Err... the skull reminded me of Oliver Twist and I was trying to explain it.”
“That’s so awful,” Holly said, her face wrought with sympathy as she looked at the skull. The skull gave her a rude expression in return. “Oliver Twist was an orphan boy from the eighteen-hundreds. The orphanage sent him away to workhouse, where he became involved with the wrong sort, like thieves and prostitutes. Dickens was praised for his accurate representation of the impoverished society in London.”
The skull snorted. “‘The wrong sort?’ Thieves and prostitutes were the only ones who survived in the slums. Your Oliver Twist would have ended arse up in the Thames if he kept to his morals.”
Surprising even myself, I felt sadness for the skull. I could imagine him as a boy, dirty and starving on the streets... No wonder he looked so thin. “Bickerstaff was awful, but I’m glad he got you out of that life,” I said.
The skull narrowed its eyes at me. “What is this, a pity party? Let’s all join hands and talk about how sorry we feel for the ghost who grew up poor? I don’t want your pity, Lucy Carlyle.” And with that, the skull disappeared into the swirling ectoplasm with a huff.
“What did the skull say?” Holly asked.
“... Nothing much,” I said. “Let’s get back to getting everything set up. I want to have a look around before it gets dark.”
It was around nine-pm when the tapping started. We were sitting at one of the tables, I was doodling away absentmindedly in my sketchpad and Holly was reading a book when I heard it. I thought it was Holly at first, tapping her nails on the table and was getting increasingly irritated. But when I looked up to tell her off, I saw both her hands holding the book. The tapping noise continued.
Holly and I did temperature readings, and I focused on the sound. “It sounds like plastic. A piece of plastic tapping against something, over and over.” I walked around the hall, trying to locate it. It was loudest near the back of the room, and a temperature reading said that spot was two degrees colder than the rest. But nothing else happened. Just the tapping.
I tried speaking to the skull, but it still seemed offended from earlier and was ignoring me. The only words it said was near midnight and they sent a chill down my spine. Or maybe that was the dramatic drop in temperature that came a few seconds after.
“The game is about to begin.”
I turned around and saw an old woman standing in behind me. Her white eyes were vacant, staring off into nothingness, her body transparent. Her feet hovered above the ground.
“Hello,” I said. “What’s your name?”
The woman didn’t react. She didn’t seem malicious... right now. I felt the chill that came from ghosts, but no uneasy dread or ill intent. Still, I have been tricked before. I needed to keep my wits about me.
“My name is Lucy Carlyle,” I tried. “What’s yours?”
The woman opened her mouth, but no sounds came out. The tapping sound was getting louder. That same, repetitive sound of plastic hitting plastic.
“Why are you here? What do you want?”
“Thirty-five?” I repeated. My heart started racing.
“... thirty-five, seventeen, four...”
“Lucy, what’s going on?” Holly asked from behind me. She had her rapier drawn, her eyes were wide.
“She’s listing numbers, write these down,” I ordered Holly, repeating them to her. The tapping was so loud now in my ears, like my own pulse echoing back.
“Lucy, this isn’t what we should be doing,” Holly said. “We need to contain the ghost and find the Source -”
I turned away from Holly, fully focusing on the old woman, again. Guessing by her age and crocheted cardigan she was a resident of the retirement village. What did she do to remain haunting this place? What had happened to her? “I hear you,” I said. “I can help you. Tell me what those numbers mean.”
The old woman looked straight at me, her white eyes piercing. “ ... I had done it...”
I took a step forward. Yes, this was it! I was finally getting somewhere! I just needed to push a bit more... “What had you done?”
A salt bomb went off in front of me, but it was too late. The old woman touched my arm. It felt like the skin on my arm had been ripped off with an icy knife, the pain roaring up from her touch, to my body and into my head. I suddenly felt like I was back on the Other Side, with the lethal cold tearing my body to shreds. I heard the sounds of screams all around me, echoing in my ears.
My vision blurred, and in that split-second everything was grey, and I wondered if I had crossed over, again. I tried turning around. If I was in the Other Side, I’d see the boy instead of the skull, but something was forcing my body down onto the ground.
I wish I could describe what those next few minutes? hours? were like, but I don’t know the right words. Everything was hazy; it felt like a dream or an out-of-body-experience. I could hear things (distant voices that sounded like they were spoken through water and wailing sirens that were stretched and warped) and I could feel my body being moved around, but I had no control.
Eventually, everything started sharpening and reality settled around me. I was lying in the back of an ambulance, two paramedics with me.
“You’re very lucky your colleague administered an adrenaline injection straight away,” one of them said. “You’d be a door-nail, otherwise.”
I’m not sure how medically accurate that terminology was, but at that point, I could barely make gurgling sounds let alone formulate words to ask. I was then whisked off to the hospital, where the doctors and nurses treated me like I was suffering from some life-threatening wound. They hustled around me, constantly checking my vitals and jabbing me with needles.
My arm had turned purple and blue, and I had difficulty moving my fingers. A terrible thought occurred to me and I wondered if I’d need it amputated. If they can’t stop the damage from spreading to the rest of my body, it was the only solution. But the doctors seemed pleased with what little I could do, and my arm was soon slathered in a lavender-scented ointment, wrapped up in bandages and into a sling.
I wanted to leave, but the nurses insisted I stay so they could monitor my vitals for longer. Knowing my condition wasn’t serious and that they couldn’t hold me in the hospital against my will, I was seriously considering sneaking out while they were looking the other way when visitors arrived.
To my embarrassment, I couldn’t even wrangle myself out of bed before Lockwood, George and Holly saw me lying there, hooked up to an I.V. drip, my arm in a sling. They were all pale-faced and worried, but Holly looked the worst of them all. As soon as she saw me, her eyes filled with tears and she started crying, apologising through little hiccups that she should have stepped in sooner and that it was all her fault.
Even when she was crying, she looked pretty. I’m a red-faced, snot-nosed, puffy-eyed mess when I cry.
Holly then told me the whole story. She learned that the ghost was Harriet Jasper, who died several years ago of a heart attack. During Monday night’s game of bingo, she had completed a row to win the game when her heart gave out from excitement. Her Source was the final plastic bingo chip that had fallen between the gaps in the flooring.
“I was calling out to you, but you were completely ghost-locked,” Holly said. “I was too late with the salt-bomb, I should have been quicker...”
“It’s not your fault,” I said. I couldn’t blame Holly for this. Me lying in the hospital bed was my doing, not hers. “I’m alive because of you.” Holly gave me a wet smile, her lower lip trembling and I was worried she would start crying again. Before she had the chance, I turned to Lockwood. “So, are you here to take me home?”
With the four of us pressuring them, the nurses had no choice but to reluctantly let me leave. I was given a badly photocopied sheet with instructions on how to care for my arm, which I threw in the bin as soon as I was out of sight. I was an Agent, I knew how to tend to ghost-touch. And what I needed was a hot cup of tea.
As I headed towards the kitchen of thirty-five Portland Row, Lockwood called out to me from the front door. “Lucy, do you have a moment?”
I looked back, surprised. He looked unusually serious, his brows were drawn together in a frown, his beaming smile gone. “Yeah, of course,” I said.
George and Holly kept walking past us towards the cellar, leaving Lockwood and me alone. I felt nervous, like a child knowing they were about to be scolded by a strict parent for spilling craft paint all over the carpet. I wondered if this was how George felt, before.
“Lucy, you’ve got to be more careful,” Lockwood said, and I winced.
“I know,” I said, looking down at his feet. The leather shone with fresh boot polish. I looked down at my own scuffed ones and thought I probably should clean them at some point, too.
“Do you? I’ve told you before how I feel about you doing that kind of thing. Your talent is incredible, Luce. There isn’t another Agent in London who can hear them better than you. But it makes you the most vulnerable. Trying to contact them is dangerous. You’ve proven that, more than once now, yet you keep trying.”
“So what, you want me to leave, again?” I asked, my throat suddenly tight. I coughed, trying to clear it.
Lockwood’s eyes widened. “No, of course not. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I just don’t want you taking any unnecessary risks when we can avoid them. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Unnecessary risks. That was rich coming from Lockwood, who was the most reckless of all of us. The dark, hollow image of him sprung up in my mind but I quickly forced it away. “I won’t,” I promised him. “It won’t happen again.”
The strained, pitying smile Lockwood gave instantly told me he didn’t believe me. “They’re dead, Luce. They’ve had their chance.”
“I know that,” I stressed. “I know, but there’s a reason they’re still tied to this world. Something keeps them back, and if I can help them move on without using iron and incinerating their Source...”
I knew this was a pointless conversation. I felt exhausted and was really wanting that cup of tea. It must have shown on my face because Lockwood took pity on me and let me leave rather than drawing me into another debate.
Entering the kitchen alone, I saw the skull sitting on the counter, watching me. Wearily, I turned the kettle on.
“So...” It drawled and I bit the inside of my cheek. “You’re a few numbers short of a bingo, aren’t you.”
“You’ve had all day to yourself and that’s the best you can come up with?”
“Of course not,” the skull said. “But anything cleverer would be wasted on you. The worms in your stomach have more brains than you.”
I sighed. “I’m really not in the mood for this. I’m going to shut the latch on your jar if you keep it up.”
“Go ahead and silence me then, you wilted cabbage. You’d die by putting your shoes on the wrong feet and trip trying to walk up the stairs.”
“Why are you so upset? You’re normally so happy to see me grave peril.”
The skull swelled up in its jar, horrifyingly bulbous and chomped its teeth together. “I’m not upset.”
“No? What’s this then?” I asked, putting my good hand on my hip. My other was still in the sling across my chest.
“This is me reprimanding you for being as dense as the Queen’s chamberpot. Not even a Night Watch brat would have been stupid enough to let that old hag touch them, you dalcopped bespawler.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Go boil your head, lubberwort.” And with that final, perplexing insult, the skull turned and vanished in a huff.
* * *
The skull was never short on creative insults and rude words (I had learnt most of the ones I knew from it), but there was something charmingly antique about those last ones he called me. It made me think that if Oliver Twist really was an orphan boy living in the eighteen-hundreds, those would have been the insults he heard on the streets over the sound of wooden carriages riding past and the foul smell of rotting food and sewerage.
With those thoughts in my head, I placed the jar next to me in bed that night. The ectoplasm was giving off a light glow as it slowly swirled around behind the silver-glass, the skull nowhere to be seen.
I struggled to fall asleep straight away. I’m not sure if it was from being forced to sleep on my back because of the sling, or because of my heart racing so fast. Eventually, I drifted and when I woke, it was to a biting cold prickling my skin.
I was lying on the floor in my grey bedroom. Leaning against the opposite wall, the boy was watching me coolly. “... Hi,” I said awkwardly.
“Before you ask, no you’re not dead,” he said.
“I know,” I said, looking down at myself. I was transparent, like last time, except for my hand. The part of my hand and arm exposed under the bandages was solid grey, like the boy’s skin. “Why is my arm like this?”
“ You were touched by something from this side. It has more belonging here than the rest of you, right now.” Perturbed, I looked away from my hand. The boy then asked, “why are you here, Lucy?”
“You were ignoring me,” I said. “I was trying to speak to you all day.”
“Did the thought occur in that empty head of yours that maybe I didn’t want to speak to you?” The boy said. “I know I don’t have much to work with, but you should really learn how to read body language.”
“That’s rich coming from you!” I exclaimed. “You make grotesque faces when you want attention!”
That made the boy grin. “Have I ever shown you the Happy Farmhand?”
“I don’t want to see anything you call a ‘Happy Farmhand’.”
The boy’s grin widened. “Your loss.”
I took a step closer to him. He was still leaning against the wall and I was in the middle of the room, now only a few steps away. “What happened in the retirement home got me thinking,” I started.
“That you're not the main character in a novel and your death is as inevitable as everyone else's?"
“That you didn’t ghost-touch me.” At my words, the boy’s eyes narrowed. His lips pursed, but he didn’t say anything. “I want to know... if you can’t, or you chose not to.”
The boy had completely tensed up now, I could see it in his posture; the way his shoulders rose slightly, his eyes narrowing to thin slits as he glared at me. “Can’t?” He repeated, the word spat out like venom. “You think I can’t?”
“It’s not a bad thing,” I said hurriedly. “You’re a Type Three. You’re different from other ghosts. And you’re trapped in the jar. It could be holding your power back, even here.”
“Do you know the difference between Type Twos and Type Threes?” He asked. “I mean the real difference. You’ve already figured out it’s not an ability to communicate.”
“You have your own will,” I said after a moment. “Type Ones and Twos are fixated on something, which draws them back to this world. They’re little more than their obsession.”
“Astutely put,” the boy said. “Congratulations, I no longer think you have the intelligence of a garden worm.”
“Oh, goodie,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“I have my desires, too,” the boy said. “But it isn’t something so menial as what draws other ghosts back. My death was an accident and I rejected it. I wanted to continue living as I was. So I did.”
I licked my lips, my mouth dry. “Just like that?”
“Initially. But I wasn’t alive, I was dead, and I had to accept that. There’s a lot of power to be found in death, by those capable of understanding it. So to answer your question, Lucy, I am far stronger than any mindless Type Two you’ve encountered before.”
I licked my lips again. I could feel the dry, chapped skin under my tongue. I really needed to put Vaseline on them when I woke up. “No, you didn’t. You haven’t answered my question. Are you that strong here, or does the jar hold you back?”
“Why don’t you free me from the jar and find out?”
Nothing about the boy’s expression told me that was a good idea. “Why do you want to get out? You’d still be stuck in the same place by your Source.”
“‘Why do I want to get out’?” His eyes widened comically in surprise. “I have been in this jar for nearly thirty years and at the bottom of a river before that. I have a death count to get back up. And believe me, being unable to do anything for that amount of time I’ve come up with some very creative ways.”
“Oh my god, you’re hopeless!” I threw my one transparent arm up in the air.
“I won’t kill you, Lucy,” the boy assured me. “ I’ll even keep Lockwood alive since you like him so much. Cubbins and Holly though, I can’t guarantee.”
“This was a waste of time,” I muttered to myself. I couldn’t believe I had come here willingly to listen to this. His refusal to answer my question all but confirmed that he couldn’t harm me even if he wanted to. A strange disappointment sat in the pit of my stomach as I realised he probably would.
“And you can still bring me along on your jobs,” the boy continued talking, unaware of the damp mood that had fallen over me. “I’ll be far more helpful than when I’m in the jar.”
“You can attack other ghosts?” I asked wearily. “I thought you said you keep to yourselves and you don’t interfere with each other.”
The boy smirked. “Accidents happen.” He pushed himself away from the wall, and towards me. I had to calm my breathing, beating down the instincts that told me to flee. “If I was free from the jar, a spectacle like last night would never happen again. I’d never let anything hurt you, Lucy. Human or ghost.”
I blinked in surprise. Then came the awful, familiar pressure clamping around me of multiple ghosts swarming into the house. Shaking my head, I tried to rid the thudding already in my ears.
“Speaking of.” The boy scowled at my door, which would soon have the other grey ghosts piling through. “ They really need to find their own human.”
I suddenly had a million questions, but it was my time to go. Swallowing nervously, I stepped away from the boy and walked over to the frosted window. I hated heights. I hated falling. The knowledge that it wouldn’t actually hurt me didn’t make this any easier. Why people went skydiving and bungee jumping for an adrenaline rush, I’d never know.
Bracing myself against the open window sill with only one hand, I took deep breaths, hopelessly preparing myself for the fall.
I glanced back and saw the boy behind me. The thudding was getting louder as the ghosts came up the stairs. I jolted as the boy reached out to my face, his cold fingers touching my cheek. Unlike when the old woman touched me, he didn’t send me into agonising pain. It was so light and gentle, like a feather brushing against my skin.
This close, I could see the details on his face I hadn’t noticed before. A dusting of charcoal freckles across his nose. A faint scar that ran across his chin. I realised suddenly that when he wasn’t grinning maniacally he was actually quite good looking. I was lost in his humourless eyes. They were dark and intense, and I could see far more intelligence behind them than what he normally lets on.
Then he leaned forward and kissed me.
Long seconds passed as his cold lips pressed against my transparent ones and he pulled back. He looked at me, trying to read my expression, but I was frozen on the spot, my body and mind completely shut down.
He kissed me. He had kissed me. My first kiss...
The boy grinned. “Pervert.”
“ Kissing a ghost and not even waking. I thought Cubbins was the one to look out for, but you’re the real deviant.”
Then he pushed me hard in the chest and I fell backside first out the window.
* * *
I feel like I need to take this moment to stress it again. I am not in a relationship with a ghost!
I didn’t want him to kiss me and I don’t believe for a second he did it out of romantic interest in me. If you’re saying ‘Oh, but Lucy, he’s only rough on the outside! Underneath he’s sweet and caring!’ let me assure you his apple is rotten to the core and that I hope you choke on it.
He didn’t kiss me because he likes me. The skull is malicious and entertains itself my trying to get reactions out of me. That’s all! If he - it - truly liked me, it wouldn’t have spent the next few weeks making lewd comments every time I was near! I can’t even repeat the things it was saying they were that awful! It was one of the few times I was glad no-one else in the house could hear him.
“Ohh, I didn’t know you could cook, Lucy,” George said the morning after that terrible night as he entered the kitchen. “What’s in the oven?”
“A skull,” I said aggressively, glaring at it through the oven window. Inside, the jar of ectoplasm was bubbling away furiously. “What was the optimal temperature you said?”
“Hundred and sixty,” George said, his eyebrows shooting up into his hairline as I swore, turning the oven down from the two-twenty I had it roasting at. “It must have really done something bad for you to put it in the oven.”
I didn’t reply to him as a furious blush crept across my face.
See. Not romantic at all. Real couples don’t stick the other in ovens when they’re angry with each other. Nor do they kiss the other one and push them out a window once they’re done. There is no romantic behaviour from either one of us and if you see any, you need to get your eyes checked!
The skull eventually was taken out of the oven by Holly. When she first found it, her shriek of terror dislodged the dust from the cornices of my attic bedroom. The skull sat then sat in the sink cooling down, shouting all kinds of rude insults at anyone who came in. Holly probably would have resigned on the spot if she could hear it.
Then it was moved downstairs in the cellar. I avoided it as best I could, which was surprisingly difficult considering it couldn’t walk. Still, the cellar was where most of our things were, and even when I had the latch on the jar closed and a scrap of fabric draped over it, it still sat in the corner of my eye, demanding my attention.
At first, I didn’t take it out on missions. Whenever I dared - when there was a particularly difficult ghost to handle, or we were struggling to locate the Source - I tried talking to it. More often than not, it would leer at me like the perverted skull it was, saying something along the lines of how I’ve ‘finally given in’ or that I should let it out of the jar so it could ‘show me a good time’. Whatever that meant.
I didn’t even entertain it’s behaviour, closing the lever whenever it suggested such things. It took the skull three weeks, but finally, finally, it got the idea and stopped. And everything went back to normal, for a time.
Until, I woke up on the Other Side, again.
“This is getting tiresome,” I said, rising to my feet. “How did it happen this time? You’re on the other side of the room. You’re not anywhere near me.”
“Maybe you’re just getting stronger," the boy said. “You don’t need to be so close to my Source to pass over, anymore.”
“Great,” I said unenthusiastically. “I guess you’re going back downstairs to the cellar.”
The boy baulked. “ I’d rather stay here.”
“And I’d rather not have to deal with this every time I fall asleep,” I replied. “It’s tiresome, you know.”
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I haven’t needed to sleep in a hundred years.”
“Well, aren’t you lucky.”
The boy frowned at my snappish reply, but I avoided looking at him. Throwing myself out the window seemed pretty easy this time. It meant not staying here with him. Like this. I had finally stopped thinking about him not as a skull, and now...
“Lucy.” His icy hands caught mine on the window sill as I was pushing it open.
“Let go of me,” I ordered.
“Why don’t you want to stay here with me, Lucy?” I could hear the grin in his voice as he asked the pointless question. He knew exactly why. “Lucy, Lucy, you’re too easy. The only thing that got you this riled up was mentioning Lockwood.”
“I’m not riled up,” I said. “I want to leave, that’s all.”
“You were always so defensive of him, before,” the boy mused. His mouth was so close to my ear, I could practically feel his teeth against my skin, bared in a wide grin. “Now, he barely gets a reaction out of you. I wonder what changed...”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said roughly.
“No? You don’t even bat an eyelash when I insult him, anymore. I was right thinking your interests have shifted.”
“Stop talking in riddles.”
“I’ll make it as simple for you as I can, then.” My breath caught in my throat as his hands left mine, his fingers trailing up my arms almost absentmindedly before falling away. “You like me, Lucy Carlyle.”
“I mean, how could not?” The boy sighed dramatically. " I’m charmingly irresistible. It was only a matter of time you succumbed to my rebellious charm.”
“‘Charming-’ you’re about as desirable as a gumboot floating in pond scum!” I finally turned around and looked at him. His stupid grinning face made me want to punch him.
“I’ve been called worse, even by you,” he said, unfazed by my insult. “Admit it, you love the excitement I bring. I’m the only one who can rile up like this, and you’d never have it any other way.”
“I most certainly do not! You’re mad!”
“Am I? Tell me I’m wrong,” the boy said. “You hate Holly and her perfect structure. You hate Lockwood’s scepticism and blindness. How many times has he expressed his displeasure for your abilities? That he’s told you your job is to remove ghosts, and nothing more?”
“That’s because he’s trying to keep me safe,” I said, weakly.
“He’s smothering you,” the boy said. “He denies you who you are. Who you can be. You’re far more suited to this side than you realise, Lucy. Maybe that’s why you keep coming back. You could become a Type Three when you die, if you allowed it."
“I don’t want to become a ghost,” I said, my voice shaking.
“Life doesn’t have to end with your death. Think of a new adventure. With superpowers.”
That made me snort. “You’d make a better villain than a superhero.”
“Why, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
I rolled my eyes, turning away from him, again. “Yeah, well, don’t get used to it. When I get back to the living world I’m putting you back in the cellar.”
“Lucy,” he said my name again, tugging my hands off the window sill. He forced me around, so his dark eyes were staring straight into mine. I felt like an open book; everything I wanted to hide away was exposed before him. “You have a gift. Not everyone is as special as you. Don’t throw it away.”
My heart was racing. The thudding in my chest matched that in my ears from the other ghosts already in the house. I felt like I was on a job, facing a dangerous ghost. And I was. But I knew he wouldn’t hurt me and I knew it wasn’t fear that was making my stomach flip and my breath shallow.
And then I woke up.
And everything went back to normal, because I’m a professional Agent at Lockwood and Co. who handles the removal of ghosts and other paranormal problems you may have and I certainly would never get into any kind of romantic relationship with a ghost.
Okay fine, we kissed again. Are you happy now? Just like last time, ghosts were swarming into my room and he kissed me before pushing me out the window. Three times now, he’s pushed me out that window and I don’t think I’d ever get used to the feeling of my stomach flying up into my throat or the panic as the ground comes closer and closer. I’m going to have to figure out another way of waking up...
That’s where the romance novels get it wrong! I mean, they get a lot of things wrong, but this one in particular. They play too much into the taboo love affair and disregard the realism. In romance novels, it’s all ‘Oh no, I can’t let anyone see me getting molested by the ghost of Lord Dingleberry in the library’ but in real life, it’s about getting thrown out windows so other ghosts don’t kill you.
Realism doesn’t sell romance novels, but Lord Dingleberry does. The skull certainly wouldn’t. He’s far too sardonic and sadistic to make for a romantic lead. And dangerous. Not in the suave, pirate captain sense which was in another book I saw, but in the ‘really gets a kick out of people dying and may “accidentally” kill you too’, sense.
And that’s why I’m not in a relationship with him. You heard how he was talking about me freeing him from the jar! Even if I wasn’t dead before I even hit the ground, he’d very quickly entertain himself with other people’s deaths! And I’d have to be the one to stop him. Not the Lucy Carlyle way, the official way.
No, he’s better off staying in the jar. And I’m best off not believing love would solve problems like some naive heroine from a romance novel. I can’t abuse this unique gift to travel to the Other Side, it’s too dangerous and unstable. But should it happen unintentionally every once in a while... well, accidents happen.