"Da, I think there's something wrong with our house."
Bard looked up, pausing in his efforts to wedge the paint roller between the bathtub and the sink without splattering the porcelain. Tilda stood in the doorway to their new bathroom, her eyes dark with the sort of seriousness that only children have. Her clothes were streaked with dust and paint, the two most common elements in the Bowman household since they started moving in a few days ago. He could hardly remember what the floors looked like under their drop cloths.
He set down the roller in its pan and wiped his hands on his own jeans. "Did Bain break another lamp?"
Tilda shook her head, picking at the hem of her shirt. "No."
"A can of paint spilled?"
"No, Da." Tilda pouted, looking at Bard as if she was about to deliver some very bad news. "I think a ghost lives here."
"A ghost?" Bard raised his eyebrows with a faint sense of relief. Before they left the old house, it had been a leprechaun; in the months when they were still trying to sell it, the yard had been full of giant earthworms. "That sounds serious."
Tilda's small arms laced over her chest. "I mean it, Da. Someone keeps taking the books off my shelf, and leaving them around the room."
Bard wiped his forehead with the back of his knuckles, and instantly regretted it when he glanced at his paint-covered hands. There wasn't going to be an inch of him that didn't have Eggshell #9 on it by the time they were done remodeling. "And you don't think it could have been one of your siblings?"
"I know it for sure," Tilda said. "It happens when I'm in the room sometimes, with the door closed." She drew herself up. "Plus, I've seen him. He talks to me."
"Does he?" Bard said in good humor, picking up the paint roller again. "Does this ghost have a name?"
Tilda shook her head. "He hasn't told me."
"But it's a boy ghost." Bard was beginning to think he could see where this was going.
"No, it's a man. He's very tall and has long white hair."
Bard paused, looking at Tilda more shrewdly. Tilda looked at him with the same imploring expression. Imaginary friends were one thing. Making up fully grown men was another. "What else has this ghost said to you, Tilda?"
She thought about it, chewing her lip. "Not much. He just walks around most of the time, looking at stuff. Sometimes he asks me who I am and why I'm in his house. I think he used to live here."
"Is Tilda talking about the ghost again?" Bain wove around his sister to slip into the bathroom, sticking a glass under the tap. His boots and jeans were muddy—after one too many household disasters, Bain had been relegated to outdoor duties. "I've seen it too."
Bard looked at him, resisting the urge to raise an eyebrow. "You have?" Tilda's own expression went from hopeful to incredulous as Bain knocked back the glass of water.
"Sure," Bain said with a shrug. "It comes into my room every morning and dances the Macarena."
"Liar!" Tilda cried, small hands swiping at her brother. Bain danced away, his laughter ringing down the hallway after him. Tilda crossed her arms and made no move to follow.
"Bring that glass back when you're done," Bard called after him. He turned his attention to his daughter. "Tilda, does this ghost frighten you?"
She thought about it. "No," she decided at last. "He just seems sad. I think he wants us to move out of his house."
And there it was. Bard sighed. He had expected something like this to come up—Tilda had never wanted to leave their old house. She'd grown up there; it was the only home she'd ever known. From the moment he’d told her the family was going to move she had fought it with every fiber of her being, coming up with new reasons every week why they shouldn’t have to go. But he had to hope that she could find a new one here, in a new place without the thickness of dead memories hanging around it. A fresh start. That's what they all needed. And if Tilda had to invent some kind of creepy ghost figure in order to cope with the change, he'd do whatever he could to help the transition.
Tilda was watching him with wide eyes. "Do you believe me, Da?" she asked.
Bard set down the roller again and shuffled over so that he was kneeling at his daughter's eye-level. "Absolutely," he said with a soft smile. "But you know, Tilda, this is our home now. We're going to live here, and hopefully, we won't ever have to move again."
Tilda looked down, a small frown creasing her brow. "We didn't have to move…"
Bard swallowed past the lump growing in his throat. They’d had this talk many times before. "Tell you what—we'll both keep an eye out for him, and if either of us sees him, we'll ask him to leave."
"But I don't want the ghost to go!" Tilda said. "This is his house. He told me so."
"Well, if he can produce a signed certificate of ownership, I will happily hand it over to him," Bard replied with a hint of sarcasm.
Tilda sighed. "I'm going to tell him you said that." She scurried off before Bard could make a reply. Her footsteps pounded on the old floorboards as she went, tracking her movement throughout the house.
Bard settled onto the floor, eyes wandering out the window thrown open to let out the smell of paint fumes. He wasn't overly concerned—Tilda had always had an active imagination. He'd never been superstitious, but the thought of his daughter being followed around by a tall, silent specter was a little unnerving. After asking his family to pick up and move several states away, a few paranormal imaginings were a small price to pay.
He let his head fall back on the bathroom counter behind him with a hollow clunk. He remembered the first time they had driven up to the house, the moving van outside the only evidence that this was to be their new home. The shutters were battered pale-blue where the paint hadn’t chipped away to reveal the greying wood beneath; the yard was a riot of tall grass and weeds, with a garden pressed close to the paneled sides doing its best to drag the house back into the dirt. Their neighbors were a good distance away, spread out down the gravel road like breadcrumbs.
Sigrid had known enough not to comment; Bain had exclaimed “We’re going to live here?” in his most dubious tone.
“It’s a bit of a fixer-upper,” Bard had said, fighting down the anxiety which had been building in his chest all day. “It’ll be fun. We’ll get to make it whatever we want it to be.”
Tilda had slumped lower in her seat, refusing to look out the window. As they spent the rest of the day moving all the furniture and boxes into the house, she had set out to explore the area like it was a hotel room, with all the excitement of being in a place she didn’t actually expect to stay in. She’d been comparing everything to the old house ever since—how the old refrigerator door would always stay open, and the old floors weren’t so loud, and her real bedroom had a bigger closet she could play in. Bard had tried to help her focus on the positives, like the view of the small lake down the hill and the deer that would occasionally wander through the back lawn. This was a peaceful place—forgotten, tucked away. With a new job working from home, it was the isolation that Bard needed. But Tilda wouldn’t understand that yet. So until she did, it seemed their house was haunted.
He picked up the paint roller again, turning back to the hideous yellow wallpaper covering the bathroom walls. He could only assume that the previous owner had picked it out while feverish, or dead drunk. With a slow swipe, he obliterated another stripe with a fresh layer of color. The air smelled like paint and sweet spring air from the open window. Piece by piece, they'd make this home their own.
When Bard finally settled the kids into bed that night he was already exhausted. The bathroom paint was set and drying, but there were a dozen more paint buckets waiting to be transferred onto the walls. Not to mention the fact that the hot water wasn’t flowing properly, and the air conditioning was finicky, and on top of everything Bain had managed to break a window while tossing a ball around outside. Now Bard trooped back to his bedroom, shoulders slumping, and just focused on going to bed.
He wound a path around the boxes covering the floor of his bedroom. Furniture was pushed up against the walls where there was room, and any flat surface had been piled with more detritus. All of his most valuable possessions had been moved in first, deposited in his room for safe-keeping where they were least likely to face paint or broken glass. Almost automatically, his eyes settled on a simple wooden jewelry box on the corner of the dresser, one corner nearly pushed off the side.
He rose from his bed, walking with slow quiet steps until he stood in front of it. He straightened the box, moving it safely away from the edge and resting his fingers on the lid. He'd carved it himself, a long time ago. The edges were still rough, marked with the little imperfections he'd been unable to sand away. His wife had loved it, perhaps even more than the emerald necklace nestled inside when Bard popped the lid open. He could remember the way those jewels looked against his wife's throat, the way they made her eyes sparkle.
He closed the lid again, his mouth twisting painfully. For all the clutter, the room still felt cold and empty. Unlived in. They'd brought that feeling with them, Bard couldn't help but think. That would pass in time, just like Tilda's ghosts.
Or so Bard hoped.
He settled onto the bed with a sigh that welled up deep, eyes roving the clutter. There was so much to do, yet for everything he accomplished it seemed like five new tasks sprang up. Even exhausted before bed, he couldn't seem to sleep. There was something he had to do first.
He couldn't remember when he started. He'd never been one for prayer, or journaling. His wife had always borne the burden of hearing about his day, and in telling her he felt better every time. After she passed away, well, it was difficult. His relatives encouraged him to pray, but as Bard saw it there was nothing any deity could give him unless they planned on a miracle of a Lazarus proportion. So instead, he had just started to speak one night, just like he’d used to before the worst had happened. He’d been doing it ever since.
"Hey, darling," Bard said as he reached down to unlace his boots. "Shoes in the house. I know what you'd have to say about that. You'll have to forgive me. Until we're finished moving in I'm terrified of stepping on a loose nail." He kicked his boots off and set to changing into his clothes, speaking as he did. "The kids aren't taking to the house yet, but I suppose I should have expected that. You were always better at convincing them of things than I. It would sure be easier to do all of this with you here." He sighed, stripping off his shirt and exchanging it for a simple grey one he wore to bed. "The house is nice. It's a little isolated, but maybe that's good. You remember how nosy our neighbors used to be. Now there will be no one to bother us but ourselves." He leaned back on the pillow. "I think we'll be alright here. Maybe for the first time in a while."
He lay silently for a moment, as if he might hear her voice from the pillow beside him, already thick with sleep. There was only silence. Not even the sound of his own voice could make the room feel any less empty. It did not feel like a release—it felt like picking at a scab which never truly healed, but one which itched every night nonetheless.
He leaned over and turned off the light. The darkness of the room was pierced by moonlight from the window across the room, pale curtains hanging translucent. Bard stared at it, feeling his eyelids begin to droop. The house creaked and shifted around him, seeming to settle itself down into sleep alongside him. He couldn’t help but feel like it was watching him, quiet and contemplative, as he drifted off into something beyond the room and finally closed his eyes.
After a month the drop cloths came up, and the worst of the boxes were either unpacked or banished to the attic. Shoes were left at the door and the clutter of the move was replaced with the clutter of everyday life: dishes piled in the sink, homework strewn on the table, toy tableaus forgotten in the middle of the hallway. New routines tentatively began to take shape. The kids started at their new schools, and Bard would spend the early mornings before they left sitting on the back patio with a cup of coffee, looking out over the river. His days were, for the most part, spent alone, working at his computer until the rumble of the bus at the end of the lane signaled his kids getting home. They were settling in. The comfort of mundane life returned.
Unfortunately, not all parts of mundane life were comfortable.
"Da!" Came the familiar shriek. Bard closed the spreadsheet he’d been working on with a sigh. He made his way up the stairs to Sigrid's room, where his three children were standing around and shouting at each other at increasing decibels.
"I told you not to touch my stuff!" Sigrid yelled at Bain.
"I don't care about your stupid bracelets!" Bain retorted.
"Stop fighting! Stop it!" Tilda cried.
"What's going on here?" Bard spoke over the noise. A brief moment of silence as the children turned to him wild-eyed. Then the room exploded again.
"Bain's been taking my things again—"
"Have not, you just lost them—"
"It wasn't him! Stop being so stupid"
"Alright, alright," Bard said, raising his hands. "Oldest to youngest, go."
"Bain's been sneaking into my room and stealing my jewelry," Sigrid said without hesitation, crossing her arms smugly. "I'm missing a pair of earrings and a necklace."
"Why would I want any of that?" Bain grumbled. "It looks tacky anyways."
Sigrid fumed. "They fooled my friend Angie. She thought they were real diamonds."
"Well, Angie probably also thinks Santa—” At a warning look from Bard, Bain glanced in Tilda’s direction before finishing lamely, “rides a yellow elephant.”
"Bain, you deny taking them?" Bard interrupted before the argument could take off again.
"Of course I do," Bain said. "I never even come in this room. It smells like one flower ate another flower and puked it back up again."
"Well your room smells like something’s been decomposing in a barrel of sweat for the past ten years!" Sigrid shot back.
"I know who took the jewelry!" Tilda cried at the top of her high voice. Sigrid and Bain immediately stopped talking. Bard stared at her expectantly. Tilda took a breath. "It was the ghost."
Sigrid groaned and Bain threw his hands up in the air. Even Bard felt his heart sink a little in his chest. He'd hoped as they settled into their new home that Tilda would let her ghosts fade away.
"Let me guess, the ghost was also the one who disorganized my entire bookshelf as well," Bain said, rolling his eyes.
"He just wanted to see what books you had brought!" She shot Bain a sly look. "He said you have bad taste."
"Tilda," Bard began, but she turned on him with hurt eyes. She recognized his tone: it was the careful, gentle voice he used to when explaining the painful edges of reality.
"You don't believe me either!" she cried. "Well, I don't care. I know he's real!" Tilda turned and fled the room, her feet thudding on the wooden floors all the way down the stairs. Bard cast a look on his other two children, who were torn between looking guilty and sullen.
"What?" Bain said. "She's always talking about the ghost. All the kids at school think she's weird."
"Really Da," Sigrid agreed. "You should tell her to stop. It's not healthy."
Bard sighed. "Bain, help your sister search her room for the missing jewelry. Then Sigrid can search your room so she knows you didn't take it." He walked away from the mutual sound of complaints and went looking for Tilda.
He found her huddled on the steps of the back porch, her thin knees pulled tight to her chest. He held back for a moment, trying to make out the faint sound of her voice as it whispered into the crook of her arm. The back lawn, which was more of a field, ran down a sloping hill to the edge of the little lake far below. Trees leaned over it at haphazard angles, and the over houses across from it looked distant, unreachable. He lingered behind in the doorway for a moment, listening to her whisper into the crook of her arm. As he stepped forward at last, the whispers stopped.
A long pause without acknowledgement. "I don't want to talk to you," she said at last.
Bard sighed quietly to himself. "Alright. Who are you talking to?"
"The ghost," she replied.
"The ghost," Bard echoed. He sank down beside her on the steps, leaning his elbows on his legs. "Where is he now?"
Tilda craned her neck to see around him. "You're sitting right next to him."
The motion was involuntary. It transcended belief or skepticism. Like it was being pulled by a string, Bard's head turned. The space beside him was as empty as ever, but the air was heavy with expectation. Bard nearly laughed at himself for the knee-jerk reaction to look, as if he expected anything but an empty step. He didn't laugh. When he turned back to Tilda, she was watching him.
"You can't see him," she said glumly. "He told me."
"Why can't I see him?"
Tilda sighed. "You're too real."
"So the ghost isn't real?"
"No. There's different kinds of real-ness. You're the wrong kind."
Bard almost smiled. It all had its own kind of logic. Children were rarely irrational, he'd found. He hadn't been able to reason Tilda out of the belief that a monster with hundreds of hands lived beneath her bed; he'd banished it with a stuffed dragon to watch over her, and she'd never had trouble sleeping again. The solution made sense when you considered the problem. Adults were the only ones that tried to outwit the soul with the mind. Growing up meant realizing that the stuffed dragon was only cloth and padding, but the monsters were still real.
Bard shook his head. "What's the ghost saying now?"
Tilda bit at the inside of her cheek. "He isn't saying anything."
The silence drew out between Bard and his daughter. He wanted to reach out to her, but he knew she was too old for a hug and a kiss to fix it. They'd have to work things out some other way. Back to the stuffed dragon approach. "So the ghost took Sigrid's jewelry."
"Where did he put it?"
"I don't know."
Bard repressed a sigh. "Well, if you do know where the jewelry got to, you can tell me. I promise I won't be mad."
Tilda turned to him, her eyes filled with hurt. "I didn't take them, Da. I promise."
"Okay," Bard said gently. "I believe you." This time, he realized he meant it.
As if reading his thoughts, Tilda's lip stuck out. "You said you believed me about the ghost before. I don't think you do."
Bard struggled to find the words to broach the subject. "Tilda, why do you talk to the ghost?"
Tilda shrugged her narrow shoulders. "Because he's here. And he looks lonely."
"Why does he look lonely?"
"I don't know. He just does. He's kind of mean, but it's just because he's sad."
"Do you think maybe you should stop talking to him?" Bard suggested. "Maybe talk to more people at your school instead?"
Tilda shook her head stubbornly. "I don't want to. I want to help him."
Bard almost sighed, but a smile crossed his lips all the same. His youngest had always been compassionate to a fault. Once they had found a bird that had hit a window and broken its wings. Tilda cared for it until it died a week later, never getting tired of trying to feed it. Maybe it wasn't so strange that she could empathize so strongly with an imaginary ghost.
"Alright," Bard said. "What can we do to help this ghost?"
Tilda thought about it. "I don't know. He seems to like shiny things. Maybe we could buy something pretty and leave it out for him?"
Bard nodded. "That sounds fair. You can come with me in town and pick a few things out."
Tilda grinned. "Thanks Da! I'm sure the ghost will be happy."
The next time they went into town they picked up some convincing costume jewelry from the local thrift store and put it in a little bowl outside of Tilda's room. When one of the necklaces was gone the next morning, Bard smiled to himself. He wondered where Tilda was hiding them. She was bound to get bored eventually, and Sigrid would get her jewelry back. And if it meant entertaining the “ghost” for a little longer, he didn't mind.
Going to bed after nearly a full day of hauling extra boxes into the attic, Bard felt as if his body was a balloon losing all its air. His muscles felt sore, weak, beaten. His mind even more so. Yet he still lay awake a few minutes more, staring at the wall across from him as if it wasn't completely blank. For a while, he couldn't bring himself to speak. He kept thinking of Tilda's ghost, the whispers she would speak into her hand. Could he really tell her to stop, when he lay here talking to his dead wife at night? Maybe he understood Tilda better than he thought. He couldn't make himself stop either.
"I'm worried, Ingrid," Bard sighed. "Sigrid and Bain are always fighting, and Tilda... I don't want her to pull away from reality. But she's so convinced." Bard stared at the ceiling. "Part of me wishes it was real," he said tonelessly. "If there was such thing as ghosts, maybe—maybe you—" His voice choked itself into nothing. He didn't try again.
Almost violently, he rolled over to tug the lamp chain and plunge the room into darkness. He lay awake for a long time, steeping in the darkness, listening to the house murmur and eddy around him. Sleep toyed with him, tugging him under and then dragging him back to awareness with every passing minute, until finally he managed to fight his way deeper into the dark.
Hours later, Bard jolted awake. He had come out of sleep suddenly, but not from fear—he hadn't been dreaming, and his pulse and breathing stayed regular. He'd been awakened by the sudden and intense sensation that someone was lying in the bed with him. He hadn't felt afraid—the sensation had been one of contentment, yet it had been strong enough to startle him awake. The pillow beside him was empty and unruffled, the blankets smooth. Bard pressed his palm to the surface of the bed and expected it to be warm—his hand came away cool with the night. He curled it tighter. The room was as empty as ever.
He rolled over, trying to banish the feeling. No one had slept beside him in years. It was merely an echo of something long gone that his body hadn't forgotten yet. But when the floorboards near the end of his bed gave a quiet, dusty creak, Bard found himself sitting upright and looking to the space as if an invisible foot could have tread across the floor.
"Is someone here?" Bard asked, even though the answer to the question was obvious. His voice sounded flat, like the noise was unwelcome. Bard remained upright for a long time, staring at nothing, breathing quietly, simply listening to the sounds of the house around him. He did not feel as if he was being watched. Instead, it was as if something was tucked away, hiding until he fell back asleep and it—whatever it was—could resume its nightly routines, the same way a deer might freeze when a hiker chanced too close. It felt almost as if Bard waited still and quiet for long enough, he might catch a glimpse of something too wary to be seen.
The room remained motionless and dark. With a quiet sigh, Bard lay back down. His eyes were sore—closing them brought instant relief. He would only rest for a while, perhaps pretend to sleep. It wasn't long before he felt himself drifting away, too comfortable and tired to care, even when that faint suggestion of another presence in the bed beside him stirred on the edges of his consciousness. It felt good to fall asleep beside someone again. Even if they were only a dream.
They'd grown used to the rhythms of the house, which doors would swing open unless you pushed them all the way closed, which floorboards creaked on their own at night. Things seemed to fall off certain shelves no matter how well-placed they were—Bard suspected anything from an uneven grade to a rogue draft. When he lay in bed at night he could track the sounds of the house as if another person was travelling through it, touching a gentle chord on his life and lulling him to sleep as gently as the sound of quiet breaths beside him.
He found he was growing fonder of their new home every day, as if the memories the house held were seeping into his own. He felt like the wood on the banisters, polished by decades of different hands, had been smoothed by his own fingers. The dent in the wall near the sink seemed to remind him a story he knew, yet one which had happened years before he even laid eyes on the house. There was some piece of the past that had stayed alive here, memories that lingered on in the folds of the curtains. Maybe they weren’t his, but he’d come to treasure what was left of them all the same.
Sigrid and Bain were doing well in school, making friends and getting along well with their teacher. Even Tilda had started mentioning her classmates, but not nearly as often as she still spoke of the ghost. It had been months now since moving in, and she finally seemed to have started accepting their new home; but the tall man with the long, pale hair had failed to see himself out. He’d handled it as best he could, along with the missing items and rearranged items (almost always books) that came along with it. He could cope with a “ghost” in the house as long as it behaved itself.
Bard was clearing away the last of the moving boxes when he noticed his wife's necklace was missing.
The open jewelry box scarcely registered as he stuffed the smaller boxes in their larger counterparts, clearing packing peanuts off the surface of the dresser. He was just about to snap it closed without a second thought when the familiar silvery gleam failed to catch the light from inside. He stopped, setting the boxes down. The necklace was gone.
Heart beating faster, Bard picked up the jewelry box and carried it down the stairs. His children were sitting at the table, Tilda with her homework and Sigrid and Bain with a bag of chips between them. Their laughter and chatter didn't stop until Bard set the jewelry box down on the table. Their eyes traveled to it, uncomprehending.
"Kids," Bard said in a carefully level voice, "Did any of you take your mother's necklace from this box?"
Resounding silence replied. "I'm not angry," Bard said. "But that necklace is very special, and I want to keep it safe." Bard looked pointedly at Sigrid when no one else stepped forward. He knew how much she admired that necklace, and he'd let her wear it on a few occasions. But she'd always asked.
She widened her eyes at him. "Da, I didn't take it. I know better."
"Well it wasn't me," Bain said flippantly. "Green's not my color."
Tilda slumped a little lower in her seat as her siblings made their excuses. Bard fixed her with a stern gaze, his arms crossing over his chest.
"Tilda?" he said.
She shook her head. "I didn’t take it."
Bard paused. "Well, if no one at this table took it, that means that it's been stolen. And I'll have to call the police."
Tilda's eyes grew large. "But Da, you're forgetting the ghost. He probably took it."
Irritation rose unbidden. "Tilda, this is serious," Bard said.
"So am I!" she huffed. "If none of us took it, and it's gone, then it was probably the ghost."
"Grow up, Tild," Bain muttered under his breath. "Ghosts aren't real."
Tilda's foot lashed out at him under the table, making him yelp. "Just because you're too dumb to see him doesn’t mean he isn't there!" Tilda snapped. "He took the necklace, I'm positive! I can ask him where he put it, tell him it's important—"
"That’s enough," Bard said, his voice rising in spite of himself. Tilda fell silent, chewing her lip. "Tilda, you know that necklace was your mother's. It's very important to me. I promise, if you just tell me where it is, I won't be mad at you."
"I'm not even tall enough to reach up on your dresser," Tilda protested. Her lip was trembling now. "I'm sorry, Da, I don't want mom's necklace to be missing either. Just give me a chance to ask him... I’m sure he’ll give it back.”
Bard felt a twinge in his chest as he looked into Tilda’s eyes. Whatever she was going through, reprimanding her wouldn’t solve any of it. With a few short strides he crossed the distance between them and scooped Tilda up into a hug like he had when she was so much smaller. Sigrid and Bain's concerned eyes were on him as he stroked Tilda's hair. "It's alright," he said quietly. "We'll all look around the room in case it fell, and if we can't find it we'll call someone tomorrow. Okay?"
He felt Tilda nod against his shoulder. “I’ll ask the ghost tonight,” she mumbled. Bard didn’t tell her not to.
The next morning, he woke up to find the jewelry box on his bedside table, the emerald necklace glittering inside. He sat up, looking blearily around the room drenched in early morning sunlight. His door was closed, the room as he'd left it. If Tilda had snuck in at night, the sound of a chair scraping across the floor to reach the dresser certainly would have woken him if the opening door had not. Bard was notoriously a light sleeper. If someone had been in his room, let alone right beside his bed, he would have known it.
Yet here the box was, necklace and all, sitting nonchalantly within arm’s reach as if he had left it there before bed. Bard reached out, half expecting the necklace to melt away under his fingers. It was as real as ever, though the metal felt strangely cold to his fingers. It must have been Tilda. There was no other explanation.
When he came down to breakfast the next day he found Tilda sitting at the table with a mouthful of cheerios. “The ghost said he’d give the necklace back!” she said cheerfully. “He was grumpy about it, but I think he knew how much you wanted it.”
“Well,” Bard said a tad awkwardly, ruffling her hair. “Tell him I said thank you, then.”
Tilda grinned a sugary smile and slurped up the rest of her milk. “He also told me his name.”
"Oh?" Bard said. "I thought you said he didn't like to talk."
Tilda nodded. "I bothered him until he told me. I think he felt bad about the necklace.”
Bard chuckled in spite of himself. "Alright. What is our mysterious housemate’s name?”
"Thandeel?" Bard tilted his head.
"No, da," Tilda said in exasperation. "Thran. Doo. Eel. If you say it wrong he'll get mad."
"Thranduil," Bard said, rolling the word around his mouth. It was very strange. He couldn't imagine where Tilda could have come up with it. "What happens if he gets angry?"
Tilda shrugged. "He might stop talking to me for good."
Bard merely shook his head as Tilda focused on her cereal, repeating the name in his mind. Thranduil. He hadn’t heard anything like it before. It had a pleasant sound to it. As Bard watched his daughter from across the table, part of him started to wonder.
Buying groceries had never come easy to Bard, let alone cooking for anyone outside his immediate family. He stared at the wall of boxed cookie mixes, wondering which one was least likely to end up in giving one of Tilda's classmates a horrific food allergy. The shopping cart by his side was already packed—all that was left was to find something palatable and hopefully non-lethal to contribute to the Science Fair snack table. As the new parent in town, he didn't know anyone to ask about what was expected from him. Maybe he was going to go a bit overboard, but if it meant helping Tilda fit in at her new school, he'd do it gladly.
As he wavered between the box of snickerdoodles in one hand and sugar cookies in the other, a woman with frizzy brown hair and a knit cap stepped up beside him and went straight for chocolate chip, pulling down three boxes with businesslike gestures. She must have felt Bard watching her, because her eyes flicked from the boxes in his hands to the slight frown on his face.
"You look a bit lost," she said kindly.
Bard chuckled. "They're for the Science Fair. I like peanut butter myself, but some people are allergic."
The woman gave the boxes another cursory glance. "Snickerdoodle," she said decisively. "Every other parent is going to go for sugar cookies, after all." Her eyes found Bard's overstuffed cart. "Looks like you're ready to feed a small army there."
Bard laughed. "Three kids, two of them teenagers. An army might have less of an appetite." After a moment, he held out his hand. "I'm Bard, by the way."
She shook it with a firm grip. "Hilda. You folks are new in town, aren't you?"
"We just moved in on Dale Street," Bard confirmed.
"Dale?" Hilda raised her eyebrows. "I thought I saw that old place finally sold. I suppose you've heard folks say that it's haunted."
"Haunted?" Bard laughed, though he didn't find it particularly funny. A strange feeling was working its way through his chest. "Why do they say that?"
"Well depending on your outlook, they say it because it's true," Hilda said offhandedly. "I suppose people have seen a fair amount of strangeness around that house for as long as I can remember. Things moving around when no one's home, voices and noises in the night, seeing someone in the window who isn't really there. Nothing serious, mind you,” she said quickly. “Things stay pretty quiet up there. But there’s always been something strange about the old place.”
A pause drew out between them as Bard flashed back on the house’s little idiosyncrasies he’d simply taken for granted. He’d never seen any figures in the windows, but had he ever really looked? "Do you believe it’s haunted?" Bard asked at last.
Hilda looked at him shrewdly. "You're living in that house now. Are you sure you want to know the answer?" When Bard made no reply, she smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry. That's not very neighborly of me, to go spooking you like that. Tell you what: I live over on Hickory Way, the place with the bright blue door. Bring your kids over for dinner sometime, before they eat you out of house and home. My husband grills a mean hamburger."
Bard smiled, and shook her hand. "I'll have to take you up on that."
As Bard pulled up the gravel driveway to his house, he sat in the car long after the engine had already stilled. The house leaned over him, not particularly intimidating in the daylight hours. The paint on the shutters still needed a new coat, and the colors seemed washed out with age—but the overgrown rosebushes and slanting porch lent a wild sort of charm. It didn't look like a place of death, the kind of house an unsuspecting family pulls up to at the beginning of a horror movie. It looked like a home, and if that home had belonged to many different people, then maybe they had each left a piece of themselves behind. If that's what it meant to have a ghost, Bard wouldn't complain. He hoped he could press a piece of himself to the house, in the new shade of paint in the upstairs bathroom, the new handles on the doors. There were worse legacies to leave behind.
Later that night, long after he should have gone to sleep, Bard found himself sitting upright on the edge of his bed and staring at the moonlight slanting on the floor. He knew he should slide under the covers and simply go to bed. The idea in his head was practically insane. But he couldn't help it. After speaking with Hilda at the grocery, her words had chased themselves around Bard’s head until he couldn’t hope to ignore them. After all, it wouldn’t take long to prove himself wrong.
He cleared his throat. "Um. Hello." The empty room responded with a resounding, and slightly judgmental, silence.
"You talk to your wife almost every night," Bard muttered to himself. "How is this the line in the sand?" Louder, he began again. "I don't know if you're listening, or if you're even real. My daughter thinks you might be." He shook his head. "I don't believe in this kind of thing. But if you are real, I want to know." He paused, and after a moment, threw his hands up in the air. "So can you give me a sign? Some kind of proof? If I live in a haunted house I'd at least like to be sure about it one way or another."
He sat silently, his breath hardly stirring the air, ears prickling with every faint movement. Nothing happened. "Come on," Bard said. "Thranduil? That's your name, isn't it? Give me a sign, Thranduil, or make a skeptic out of me."
A clunk filled the room as loud as a stone dropped into a well. Bard jolted, his heart pounding, until he looked over at the source—a book had fallen off the shelf. Laughing to himself, he stood up to replace it. He'd have to get a level up here and see if he could fix it. But as he leaned down to pick up the book, the cover caught his eye. At first he didn't recognize it—it was a book he had bought for Bain, who had then outgrown it. On the cover was a grinning skull, illuminated by a tacky green light. Thirteen Chilling Ghost Stories the title proclaimed.
Bard set it back on the shelf. The back of his neck prickled, but when he looked around the room it was as empty as ever. At the same time, something was different—the room felt more present around him, the empty corners filled with the knowledge of something more. The air was as stiff and silent as a held breath. Bard was afraid to puncture it.
He slept on the couch that night. As he lay in the dark, he thought that if their house was in fact haunted, there was a good chance the ghost had an odd sense of humor.