She’s here, but she’s not here. She’s dead, but sometimes she still feels so alive. She’s alone, but she’s surrounded.
Everything is different now. She’s different now.
She’s lost Mitchell and George and Nina. She’s gained Tom and Hal and Eve.
It isn’t the same; it’ll never be the same, but it isn’t so bad either. It takes her a while to realize it, because it takes time for them to settle in and find their new places, but it isn’t so bad moving forward with them. Except for the grief and the vampire threat and the ghosts and the nemesis, it’s actually – well, it’s comfortable. Sometimes, yes, she’d say she’s comfortable.
“What are we going to do when Eve starts to grow up and can talk and that?” Tom asks. He’s sitting close to Annie, his shoulder pushed up against hers as he smiles at the baby. Tom is good for that, a physical presence.
“What do you mean?” Annie asks.
“Are we all like – we’re her family, right? When she grows up, it’s us that’ll be there.”
Tom cried on her shoulder when George died. He put up with Annie’s grief and her fear. He even put up with her rules for the most part. He’s still practically a kid himself, but he worked his shifts at the café and he dedicated his pay to the house and to Eve without a word from Annie.
Annie isn’t sure how she would have managed without Tom. She isn’t sure where she would have gone or what she would have done. Sometimes she feels like she’s taking care of two children, but even so, she doesn’t know how she could have done it without Tom. She knows that sometimes Tom is the one taking care of her.
“Of course, Tom. Yes, we’re her family,” Annie says.
Tom holds out his finger and Eve wraps her tiny hand around it.
“Yes,” Hal sniffs from his place in the chair. “Her ghost mother and her werewolf uncle.”
And then there’s Hal and Hal’s, well – Hal’s different. He’s cold where Tom is warm, closed where Tom is open. He’s stiff and he’s structured and he’s quiet, but he’s chosen them, he’s fought to protect them, and sometimes Annie looks at him, at his face tight with concentration and his shoulders stiff with restraint, and she can tell that he’s trying so hard to make it all work. She suspects that’s true even when he frustrates her or when he’s locked in his room and unyielding, when he seems as though he isn’t trying at all.
Tom shrugs. “Ain’t so bad,” he says. “There’s kids growin’ up worse than that. Besides, she’s got a vampire uncle too, don’t she? And a good one at that. Look at her. She’s got it all.”
Annie looks to Hal for his response, but Hal doesn’t say anything. He holds Annie’s look for a moment, and then he turns back to the book he’s been reading, his arms pulled tight to his sides, his legs stiffly bent and feet placed firmly on the floor.
When it was just the four of them, before everything curdled and soured and died, they used to gather at the table, Mitchell and George with a bottle of whiskey between them, Nina a glass of wine, and Annie her cup of tea. They gathered willingly enough at Annie’s request, but when she pulled the box out from behind her back, they all groaned in unison.
Annie didn’t let it douse her excitement. Her smile faltered for a moment, true, but she pressed on, eagerness still audible in her voice.
“I found it under the bed in one of the rooms upstairs. What do you think? Shall we?”
Mitchell took a gulp from the bottle of whiskey. Nina was quiet, but her sigh was visible in the slump of her shoulders.
George conceded first, and once George fell, the others followed. And thus, Jenga Nights at Honolulu Heights were born. The fact that it rhymed was just icing on the cake.
When Annie sets the box on the table in front of Tom and Hal, Tom looks up at her quizzically, having apparently never heard of the game. Hal sighs much like Nina did before him, though he’s less quiet about it, and after a moment he opens his mouth to protest.
Annie cuts in before Hal has a chance to speak. She cuts in, tells them about her discovery of the box upstairs, of the many resulting nights of laughter and bonding, cherished moments of light in this house before everything started to fall apart around her.
Hal closes his mouth, resigned to his fate. Annie tries to hide the satisfaction she feels in this victory.
“How do you play?” Tom asks, bright with anticipation at Annie’s talk of bonding and laughter. Tom is so desperate for this, for them, so desperate to belong. It both warms and breaks her heart.
“I am familiar with the basics of the game, but I admit I have never played either,” Hal says.
Annie grins at them and opens the box.
It starts out well. Tom’s excited and competitive. He goads Hal much like he does when they all sit down to watch Antiques Roadshow. Hal, however, is quiet. He watches the tower of blocks with concentration and as the game progresses, Hal becomes more and more focused, more tense.
It’s Tom’s turn and he’s careful as he pulls a block from the base of the tower, his tongue poking out from between his lips as he concentrates. He’s nearly got it when his fingers slip on the block. The tower sways and then falls, the blocks loud as they scatter across the table.
Hal stands fast and jumps back. His chair tips and falls to the floor.
“You idiot,” he snaps. “Look what you’ve done! You’ve ruined everything!”
Tom and Annie stare up at him, surprised by the force of his reaction.
Annie pulls together first, smiles and tries to smooth things over. “It’s all right. We’ll just set the tower up and start again.”
Tom’s eyebrows are tight when he turns toward Annie. Hal continues to glare at Tom, but after a moment his eyes soften and he looks to Annie too, and then he shakes his head.
“I’m sorry,” Hal says. His hands flutter at his sides, fingers bend and twitch. “I can’t – I have to go. I’m sorry.”
He disappears up the stairs, his feet uncharacteristically loud on the steps.
Tom leans back in his chair and shrugs.
“I guess Jenga ain’t such a good idea,” Tom says. “It’s a bit like the dominoes, innit?”
“Yes,” Annie agrees. She should have seen it right away. “Perhaps you’re right.”
And thus, Jenga Nights at Honolulu Heights come to their end.
“She won’t break,” Annie says and immediately regrets opening her mouth.
“I know,” Hal snaps. He shifts, awkward. He holds Eve out away from his core, balances her tiny body in the palms of his hands. She’ll start crying if Hal doesn’t relax a little, if Hal doesn’t pull her in, hold her closer. She’ll sense his discomfort and she’ll scream and then Annie will go to her, she’ll have to, and Hal will hand Eve over gladly. His look will be apologetic, but she’ll catch relief there too.
He holds her as though she’s a dangerous beast, as though she might attack him at a moment’s notice. Hal touches Eve as though she’s the one that might bite.
Beside Hal the television flickers. Hal glances at it, and then turns to Annie, accusation and offense clear on his face.
She smiles at him, tight and strained. Sometimes the televisions flicker these days. It has nothing to do with her. He shouldn’t interpret it as her passing judgment.
Annie finishes folding the last of Eve’s clothes and then moves on to the few things of Tom’s that somehow ended up mixed in with the wash. She watches Hal from the corner of her eye as he lifts Eve carefully, gingerly, pulls his arms in until she rests against his chest, her tiny cheek set to his shoulder.
Eve doesn’t cry and Annie doesn’t go to her rescue.
“What was it like?” Tom asks her shortly after Kirby has come and gone.
Tom sits at the table eating breakfast as Annie prepares their tea. The box of cereal is still open on the counter beside her, the warm yellow cardboard a constant reminder to Annie of times past.
She’s finished trying to mold Tom and Hal into George, Mitchell, and Nina. She’s given up on that. She doesn’t know why she ever thought it was a good idea at all. They watch Antiques Roadshow now instead of The Real Hustle. They stay far away from Jenga. They have a rota now; there’s an organization to the household that never existed before. Together they’re becoming something new, something different than what they were before.
And then she sees that cereal box on the counter and she almost believes that she’ll turn to find Mitchell sitting there at the table. He’ll smile when he sees her watching. His whole face will transform with it.
Annie wishes Tom would choose something different once in a while.
She pours hot water into three mugs. “What was what like?”
“You know,” Tom continues. “Disappearing like that and then coming back.”
She glances over her shoulder and, of course, it isn’t Mitchell that she finds, despite the yellow cereal box; it’s Tom and it’s Hal. Tom shovels a spoon full of cereal into his mouth.
“Keep your mouth closed when chewing, Tom,” Annie instructs.
Hal sets down his newspaper and glances over at Tom, eyes him with distaste.
“Sorry,” Tom says. He talks around his food and Hal stares, disgusted. Annie sighs, but when she turns back to the tea, she catches herself smiling just a little too.
When Annie told Tom that leftover birthday cake was an inappropriate choice for breakfast, he didn’t laugh in her face as George and Mitchell would have done. True, his face lit up when he suggested it and she almost gave in, but the house needs some restraint. They need rules, and so Annie put her foot down and convinced him to save the cake for a more appropriate hour. George and Mitchell would have brushed her off and had their cake for breakfast anyway. Tom merely shrugged and nodded, pulled at the hem of his shirt and smiled at Annie as she poured his cereal into a bowl.
It was nice, sometimes, feeling needed again.
“It is an interesting question,” Hal admits. He’s turned away from Tom and has returned to studying the morning’s news. “What happens when a ghost fades? I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who could answer that before now.”
Annie sets the three cups of tea on to her tray and carries them to the table. Hal reaches for the mug closest to him, looks up at Annie, his eyebrows raised for confirmation. She nods.
“Did you retain consciousness throughout the ordeal?” Hal presses.
“Yeah,” Tom agrees. “Could you hear us or, like, feel and that?”
She’s already told Hal that she could feel it when he and Tom returned, that it was part of the reason that she was able to pull herself together. She told Hal, but she hasn’t told Tom, and it strikes her now that it is something that Tom would want to know. It’s something that he needs to hear.
“I could feel you,” Annie says. “I could feel that you’d come back and I think – it helped to make me feel whole again. Having you here made me stronger.”
Tom smiles, wide and real, and he looks even younger than he usually does. He nods and looks down into his bowl of cereal.
It’s funny, she thinks, that it takes a ghost trying to tear them apart to really start to bring them together. You don’t know how you really feel about something until you’re forced to fight for it. That’s what Annie’s learned since she died, and it’s true, isn’t it? She’d been lucky; she’d never really had to fight for anything when she was alive.
Oh, of course she thought she had. There was Owen and Janey. There was the house. She thought she’d really had to fight for that house in Bristol, but that all seems like nothing compared to the things she’s fought for now. It seems like nothing compared to the things she’s lost.
Yes, Kirby nearly beat them. Yes, Tom ran and Hal was rejected and Annie faded, but they pulled back together in the end, didn’t they? They pulled back together for each other and for Eve.
Hal’s watching Tom again, and the disdain from earlier is gone from his face. He studies the top of Tom’s head for a moment, and then looks back up at Annie.
“But what about before that? Do you remember anything?”
She’d been so upset after Hal and Tom left, and then the things Kirby was saying, she just felt –
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s hard to describe. It was like when I rentaghost, but less focused and with no destination. It was – there were – I swear I heard – “ She lifts her hands to the sides of her head and sort of tries to pluck at the air. It was like a whispering, little snatches of sound that almost formed words. She still thinks about that sometimes. She wonders if it was other ghosts, other faded spirits. She wonders if that is all that is left of them, fragments of sound in a void. “It was lonely.”
“Good thing you came back then,” Tom concludes. “It’d be weird and lonely without you here, wouldn’t it, Hal.”
“Yes,” Hal obediently agrees. He says it quickly, automatically, but she thinks that, after everything that has happened, he might actually mean it.
Tom turns to look over his shoulder at the clock.
“I’ve gotta get to the café,” he announces. He stands and is about to leave when he notices Annie and Hal’s matching pointed looks. He huffs a little, but he returns and carries his bowl and his mug to the sink just the same.
It’s nice, Annie thinks again. What they’re building here is structured and functional. It’s nice.
“Thank you,” Annie says.
“I’ll see you when your shift starts,” Tom says. He nods toward Hal as he turns.
“One o’clock,” Hal confirms.
Tom nods again and then he’s pushing through the doors and he’s gone.
Hal goes back to his newspaper. Annie stares at the cereal box on the counter.
If she asks, Tom will start eating a different type of cereal. If she tells him the reason for her asking, he’ll never crave Mitchell’s favorite again. Tom’s like that.
She’ll never ask it of him.
“How are you doing at the café?” Annie asks just as Hal starts in with “What you did to Kirby –“
Annie smiles, bites her lip and looks away. Hal lets out a small huff of breath, almost a laugh. When she turns back to look at him, he hasn’t turned away. He’s watching her, studying. His expression is quiet and neutral.
Hal opens his mouth to speak again, but he stops before he starts, shakes his head, another audible exhale.
“It wasn’t important –“ Hal starts.
“No, no, go ahead. What were you going to ask me?”
Hal takes a sip of his tea, swallows, nods.
“What you did to Kirby,” Hal repeats, “I’ve never seen a ghost do that before. Had you – how did you know what to do?”
“I didn’t,” Annie admits. “I felt so angry. I was overcome by fear and rage and – I just knew that if I could get my hands on him, I could – it was this possessive urge, you know?”
Hal is quiet as he thinks this over.
She thinks that urge is probably the wrong word. Need feels closer to the truth; fear and rage and a possessive need to destroy the threat to her family. Annie’s a little embarrassed to talk about it. She’s a little embarrassed by how much she loves to relive it, that feeling of power, of revenge, of hatred for Kirby and love for Eve. Her revenge on Owen gave her a small taste of this, but it isn’t the same, it isn’t the same at all. She’s never felt as alive as she did when she took it upon herself to destroy Kirby. It’s exhilarating and it’s terrifying and she thinks that if there’s anyone who can understand what she’s feeling, that person is probably Hal, but she can’t – he’s so Hal and she can’t open to him, not after she so recently shut him down.
“Well,” Hal says, breaking the silence between them again. “After seeing that, I’m glad to know that you’re on our side.”
Annie nods. He hasn’t wanted to talk about what happened between them. He hasn’t wanted to talk about Kirby or the attic or those cold moments of packing while Annie stood in the doorway to his room and watched, Eve held tight in her arms.
He wanted to open to her in the attic and she shut down on him, and then with Kirby – she’s still looking for ways to apologize that he’ll accept without brushing her off as though it was nothing. She knows it wasn’t nothing. She knows that she hurt him and she knows that it will take more than an awkward hug to make things right.
“I am, you know,” she says. She reaches out to set her hand on his, but he sees her intent and pulls away, folds his hands in his lap. She lets her hand fall to the table in front of him, presses her fingertips against the print of his paper. “I am on your side.”
Hal’s uncomfortable and he nods. He lifts his hand from his lap, just high enough to glance at the watch at his wrist, and then he nods toward the sink.
“I’ll wash up,” he offers.
He glances toward the door as soon as he says it, just for a moment before he pushes his chair from the table and reaches for her full mug.
She smiles and shakes her head. She takes the empty mug from his hand instead of handing him her own.
“Go on,” she says. “I know. Go do whatever you need to do upstairs.”
When Hal’s gone, Annie stands from the table and sets the mugs in the sink. She picks up the cereal box from the counter and slowly closes it before sliding it back into the cupboard.
She leaves the box out on purpose. She likes to look at it.
She likes the reminder.
Annie tells herself that he’s just uncomfortable with children. That’s all. He’s uncomfortable with everyone, why should children be any different?
She tells herself that he’s safe, that he’s trying, that Eve isn’t human, not really, and therefore Eve isn’t temptation.
She forces Hal onto her rota. She leaves Eve with him to play the piano and to learn French and to listen to poetry and even after everything, even after Kirby, she wonders if she’s a terrible mother, if she’s endangering her child. She wonders what Nina would say if she knew. Would Nina have trusted Mitchell with her child if Mitchell was here in Hal’s place?
Annie knows the answer. She knows what Nina would say, the fights that she and George would have had. No, Nina would not have felt comfortable leaving Mitchell alone with the baby. She wouldn’t have said so, at least not to Annie, but Annie knew Nina. She knew. Annie knew Mitchell too, and whatever else Mitchell was guilty of, Annie knows, can feel it in her ghost stomach and her ghost heart, that Mitchell would never hurt that baby. Mitchell would have loved that baby like it was his own.
Hal isn’t Mitchell. He has no history with Eve, no emotional tie. Hal isn’t anything like Mitchell, but nothing’s happened, not since that first night when Tom walked in on Hal leaning over Eve’s cot, and that had more to do with Leo and Pearl than it did with Eve, Annie’s sure. Nothing’s happened, though Hal’s been pushed and framed and accused. Nothing’s happened.
She should ask him straight out if Eve is a problem for him, if he’s a danger to her, but she doesn’t. She’s sure it’s all right. She’s sure he’s safe.
And if he isn’t, then she doesn’t really want to know.
Sometimes, when the house is quiet and she’s alone, she closes her eyes and she imagines how it might have been. She’s sitting on the train, headed to Paris on holiday, or to London to visit her sister. She has a book open in her lap and she’s just about to begin reading when the door to the train slides open, and he enters. It’s Mitchell, she’s sure of it, though she barely recognizes him.
His eyes are black and his teeth sharp. She knows, even through the blackness, that he’s looking right at her, coming for her.
Annie opens her eyes before he reaches her row, but she still hears herself scream.
“You know what’s funny about this whole War Child thing?” Tom asks. He’s been out running with Hal and he breathes heavily as he stands sweating before Annie in the attic. He looks down at her, his hands resting firmly on his hips.
“Quietly,” Annie says. She nods down to the baby in her arms. Eve’s only just fallen asleep. Annie doesn’t dare move from her chair, not yet, and if Tom isn’t careful –
Tom nods and his hand flies up toward his mouth before it falls back to his side.
“What’s funny about it?” Annie asks. She assumes that he means besides the creepy skin paper on the table downstairs, the constant fear, and the poor defenseless child caught in the middle of it all.
Tom crosses the room to collapse (quietly) on the sofa. He picks up one of Eve’s toys, a stuffed dog, and turns it in his hand. Annie has the radio on; the music is classical and quiet, something soothing for the baby.
“I spent all those years thinking ‘bout when I grew up, you know? About my pack, my family. I was gonna have kids and I was gonna be a great father, just like McNair.”
“You’re still going to do all of that,” Annie says immediately, like a reflex.
Tom shrugs and lets the stuffed dog fall back onto the cushion beside him. His foot bounces against the floor. “Yeah, maybe.”
Annie smiles. She looks down at Eve, asleep against her arm.
“I used to spend so much time imagining what it would be like,” Annie confesses. “I used to daydream about it. Me and Owen in that pink house in Bristol, the sound of our children running up and down the stairs and laughing. I’m – well, I’m dead now, of course, but you can still have that, Tom, if that’s what you want. You’re young. You have a whole life ahead of you.”
“That’s the thing though, innit?” Tom asks. “What George and Nina had, what if that isn’t normal for us? There ain’t no pack, I know that. But what if there ain’t really that either?”
Annie’s smile falters as she listens to Tom. She shakes her head. “I don’t understand.”
Of course there’s that. Tom idolized George and he loved Nina. Tom thought that what they had was perfect, but he forgets that Nina was human before she met George. He forgets that they had to make the most of their situation too. That’s how it works. You make due with what you’re given, you build something out of what’s left.
In a perfect world, George never would have scratched Nina. Nina would be here holding Eve and George and Mitchell would be downstairs watching The Real Hustle.
The world isn’t perfect. It’s full of vampires and nemeses (who, let’s face it, are probably vampires) and all you can do is make the most of what you have for the time you’re allowed to keep it. You take whatever scraps of love you can find and you hold on to them. When they slip through your fingers, you remember them. And –
Oh, Annie never used to seem this bleak.
She can’t bear to say any of this, not to Tom. She can’t watch the way his face will fall. Let him keep his optimism while he can. Of course he can have whatever he wants from life. Of course, they all can. You can lose everything and you can still have this, a baby that sleeps peacefully in your arms, a broken house that is starting to realign itself into something that feels like a home.
“Why do you think she’s the first though?” Tom asks after a moment.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s the first baby two werewolves ever had, but that’s a little funny when you think about it, right? That's why she's so special and that. She’s on that skin downstairs and everything, but how can that be, huh? Wolves’ve been around for years. Centuries, I reckon. I don’t really know how long, but how is it that none of them ever had babies before? It don't make no sense.”
“I – well, I don’t know.” It’s a good question, one that Annie admits she’s never thought about all that seriously before now.
Tom shrugs again. He’s settling down now. His heartbeat is slowing after the run and he’s starting to relax a little. She wonders if he tried to talk about this with Hal when they were out.
“Maybe the parchment means nothing,” Annie offers.
The radio signal fades and static cuts and scratches through, mars the flow of the music. The sound is jarring and Eve shifts in Annie’s arms. Her tiny face screws up. Tom reaches out and hits the radio, moves it a bit across the table. The music returns. Eve’s tiny hand rubs at her face and then she settles back against Annie, her mouth hanging open in sleep. Annie watches her, peaceful and innocent, and then she continues, her voice low.
“Maybe the vampires are wrong and Eve isn’t special at all.”
Tom smiles for the first time since he’s come up to the attic. He’s been saying she’s just a baby right from the start. He’s always believed that, and she knows he’s glad to hear her say that it’s a possibility. She knows that he’d prefer to drop the talk of saviors, of war children and prophecies, entirely.
Sometimes Annie really wants to believe it too. Eve is just a baby. She’s just George and Nina’s daughter and she’ll grow up and she’ll have a normal life, a human life. She’ll live healthy and long and then she’ll die, old and fulfilled and surrounded by loved ones.
“You’ll have a family someday, Tom,” Annie says. “You’ll meet someone and you’ll – you’re young. You’ll see. It’ll all work out just the way that it’s supposed to.”
“Yeah,” Tom says. “Yeah, maybe.” He runs a hand over his head, scratches at his scalp, and then he turns to Annie and says, “It’s like you said before though. I sorta got that family now. And you sorta got your baby and your house.”
“Yeah,” Annie agrees. “Yeah, sort of. But you don’t have to – this doesn’t have to be it for you.”
“But if it is, then maybe that’s all right too.”
She forgets sometimes that Tom’s been through a lot too.
Before Tom and Hal and, more importantly, before Eve, Annie would sometimes leave the house while everyone else was asleep. She roamed the streets of Barry, walked through quiet residential neighborhoods and past loud pubs and closed up shops. Sometimes she followed drunk girls home late at night just to make sure they arrived safely at their doors. Sometimes she sat, alone on the beach, and listened to the crash of the waves.
Now she sits in the attic and listens to Eve breathe.
She rereads books that she’s read before, many of them more than once. She knows she should branch out, expand her horizons and read something new, but she finds comfort in the familiarity of the words. She used to anticipate the unknown, loved to discover what had yet to come. Now she likes to know the ending before it arrives. She likes to know that things turn out all right.
She paces the attic. She stares out the window into the dark. She lies on George’s bed, hers now, and stares up at the ceiling. Sometimes she thinks about how much she’d get done if she was human and didn’t need sleep. It’s better to think on that than it is to think about how much she misses it, how much of a relief it would be if she could just close her eyes and forget everything, just for a little while, a few hours, that’s all.
She sits with eyes closed, a book that she’s read four times open in her lap, and she wills herself to fall asleep though she knows that it’s not possible. Sleep won’t come; it never does. She isn’t tired, not really, but just resting her eyes helps pass the long hours of the night. Time seems to move quicker when her eyes are closed to the world.
She doesn’t sleep, not ever, but sometimes when her eyes are closed she can almost convince herself that she dreams. She dreams of their voices, of their laughter. She dreams of the good times she had and the good times she hopes to have again. She dreams of Mitchell as he was when they first met. He pulls her in toward him and kisses her mouth. She dreams of Eve with Nina’s eyes and George’s smile.
She tries not to imagine any train rides.
Downstairs a door opens; someone getting up to use the bathroom, she guesses. She waits a moment longer and when she hears footsteps on the stairs she stops her dreaming. She opens her eyes and sets her book on the table beside her.
She finds Hal standing in the living room, rearranging books on the shelf. She raises her eyebrows at him when he looks up at her. He stops what he’s doing and holds up the book in his hand.
“Is this all right?” he asks.
She waves a hand for him to continue. “Yeah,” she says as she takes a seat on one of the stools at the bar. “Of course, it’s your house too. Knock yourself out.”
He nods and turns back to the shelf.
“It’s four o’clock in the morning,” she notes conversationally.
“I know,” Hal says.
She watches as he pulls books from the shelf and slides them back into new positions. He studies the shelf, scratches absently at his side. He looks – well, he looks harmless, really. Young and unimposing. His hair is tousled with sleep and his shorts rest slightly crooked at his hips. The left edge of his shirt is caught beneath the elastic waist.
Even now, even more unkempt than she’s ever seen him before, his physical presence is so different than Mitchell’s, so unassuming. She’s seen Hal come so close to snapping, but here, rearranging a shelf of books in the middle of the night, he looks like he couldn’t hurt a fly. He looks – she doesn’t want to say weak or soft. Vulnerable. He looks vulnerable and she finds that she has to fight herself not to close the distance between them, not to wrap her arms around him and protect him from the world.
It’s all a lie. Of course, she knows that. She hasn’t forgotten. Appearances can be deceiving and Annie knows that the reason behind this late night endeavor, the catalyst for this burst of productivity, would most certainly horrify her.
“Bad night?” she guesses anyway.
“Mm,” Hal agrees, strained. He switches two books on the shelf.
He’s so different from Mitchell and yet she can’t help but look at his struggle and see Mitchell in it. She thinks he must be stronger than Mitchell to have lasted this long. Everything that Hal’s said suggests that Hal thinks that he’s much worse, but fifty years. It’s a long time. It means something.
She looks at him and she can’t help but see Mitchell, though if she’s honest, she sees Mitchell everywhere here and in truth there isn’t much that they share. Hal’s tight and controlled, short and sharp. Mitchell was wide and open and easy… until the end. Mitchell could light up a room with a smile if he wanted to. He was larger than life, he was – he was hiding. They’re both hiding. They just have different ways of going about it.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Annie asks.
“No,” Hal says.
Annie nods. It’s the answer she expects and the answer she hoped for. She’s trying. She’s trying to be there for him, to make up for that moment in the attic and all that came after it, but for all her trying, she spoke the truth then. She really would rather not know.
“Do you want me to leave you alone?”
He pauses what he’s doing, really seems to think about his answer.
“No,” he says. He takes a step toward her, hand out as though to stop her, and then he catches himself. He pulls himself back together, shrugs, and says, “Perhaps you could talk to me about something else.”
She smiles and nods.
“You aren’t going to believe what Eve did this afternoon,” she starts. “She’s brilliant, I’m telling you. She’s going to be brilliant.”
The changes come so slowly that at first it’s easy to convince herself that nothing has changed at all. It’s easy to forget how stiff they all were, how tense, how they tip-toed around each other.
Now Tom ties the laces tight on his worn old trainers. He likes it, he says, this new thing he has going with Hal. He doesn’t admit it to Annie in confidence, some secret that he isn’t ready for Hal to know. He says in openly, with Hal there beside him, anxiously checking his watch.
“Before I only ever ran if someone was chasing me,” Tom shrugs, a touch of wonder in his voice.
Hal smiles, mouth tight when he nods. Annie thinks that she knows Hal well enough now to guess what’s left unspoken here: There’s always something chasing Hal.
It’s different though. Hal doesn’t ever say it aloud, but she can tell that he’s enjoying Tom’s company. He no longer treats them like they’re constant intrusions, constant disruptions.
Hal scrubs the bathroom while Annie changes the sheets. He takes out the rubbish and does the recycling. He washes up after himself and after Tom. He complements her tea and he follows her rota (as long as she makes allowances so that he can still follow his as well).
When he enters a room where Annie and Tom are already settled, sometimes he chooses to sit directly beside them instead of as far away as he can get. Sometimes he sits close enough that his knee brushes Annie’s. She isn’t solid, not really, and she wonders if he even feels it. She wonders if he even notices. He still pulls all of his limbs in tight and close. He’s still compact and careful, but she thinks it means something, those momentary lapses, the slight touches, the shrinking space between them.
“You and Hal seem to be getting on now,” Annie notes when Tom arrives to take Eve at precisely three o’clock.
“Yeah,” Tom shrugs. “It’s nice. Didn’t guess we’d be friends when we met, did I? I expected I’d have had to stake him by now.”
“Tom,” Annie warns.
“I know, Annie. I know the rules,” Tom says. “No staking vampires in the house.”
Annie shoots Tom a look. Tom shrugs.
“No staking Hal at all,” Annie corrects.
“What if he starts killing the whole city?” Tom asks, immediately. He loves this. He loves finding loopholes, forcing Annie to amend her rules.
“Then yes,” Annie says, going along with only a bit of an eye roll. “If Hal starts killing all of Barry, yes, you may stake him.”
Tom nods. “I wouldn’t want to though. I quite like him, actually. He’s funny, really. Odd.”
It’s the first time that Tom’s said any of this out loud to her. It’s the first time he’s called Hal a friend. He’s right though.
Hal’s been their responsibility since he arrived, but now he’s their friend too. Now he’s theirs.
She can just see how it will happen. The scenarios play out in her head, each one worse than the last. Hal’s locked in his room again; Tom and Adam are fighting over Yvonne. She tries to talk to Tom, but he doesn’t hear her, brushes her aside. Tom and Adam fight and they bicker, Hal sleeps, and outside the world is threatening to close in around them. Annie clutches Eve to her chest and paces the attic. She glances out the window, down into the garden. They’re still out there, waiting.
Inside the journalist’s blank photograph is already forgotten by everyone but Annie, as though it’s nothing, not important at all. Annie knows better.
Journalists, detectives; they’re relentless. Once they think they know something they keep coming, keep prying, until there’s nothing left. No house, no friends, no family. If she doesn’t do something about it, they’ll push on the walls of the house until it implodes, and then who knows what she’ll be left with.
Journalists, detectives, and vampires. Sometimes she isn’t sure which is worst.
(Vampires are the worst. Of course, by now she knows that the answer to that question is always vampires.)
Still, she’s seen this before, she’s seen it with Mitchell. A photograph. It’s the first step, and then the Old Ones swoop in to clean up the mess, to leave a new mess in its place, a worse mess. The Old Ones are coming already, but why draw them sooner? Why risk it all getting out of hand? They’ll take the baby, they’ll kill Tom, maybe even Hal, and then what? What will be left? Nothing. There will be nothing. Everything, all of it, for nothing.
They have to protect the house. Tom and Adam and Yvonne are all useless to her. It’s up to her and it’s up to Hal. She knows that he’s refused to help and she understands his concerns, but what choice do they have?
She’s surprised when she goes to him the third time, rentaghosts past his barricade, and he agrees with her and gives in. She thought it would be harder. She thought she’d really have to fight to make him understand, to get him to see her side.
“Hemmington Hotel, he said. Room 906.”
“Right,” Hal says as he starts pulling his furniture back down off the pile.
Annie helps, takes a lamp when he hands it to her, sets it aside.
“I won’t let it go too far,” she promises. “I’ll stop you if it goes too far.”
“Right,” Hal says again. He doesn’t look at her. She isn’t sure if he’s even listening.
They’re quiet in the car. Annie watches Hal watching the road. His hands are tight on the steering wheel, his face is blank.
Annie sighs and shifts, uncomfortable in her seat. This journalist could have picked a closer hotel. The Hemmington is all the way across town. There are plenty of nearby hotels. Why couldn’t he have chosen the Barry Grand? They wouldn’t need the car at all.
She opens her mouth to say as much to Hal and then she changes her mind and closes it again.
“What is it?” Hal asks beside her.
“Nothing,” Annie says.
“We’re nearly there.”
Annie plucks at her leggings where they stretch over her knees.
“It’s like the house just attracts trouble,” Annie notes. Hal had to slip out the back door, jump the wall into the neighbor’s garden. She met him at the base of the hill and together they walked back up to his car, Hal with his head down and his hands in his pockets to avoid suspicion.
“In Bristol too,” Annie continues. “It’s like – is this how it was for you all those years in Southend?”
Hal is stiff beside her. He shakes his head.
Annie sighs and pushes her head back against the seat. “No, so it must be us then. It must be me. I’m just – I’m cursed or something.”
There’s a yellow star hanging from the mirror. It sways slightly with the movement of the car.
“It isn’t you,” Hal says. He pulls to the side of the street and stops the car. “It’s Mitchell.”
Annie turns at the mention of Mitchell’s name. “What?”
Hal presses his lips together. His brow furrows. “It’s vampires. You have to focus, cut yourself off entirely. You can’t do what we’re trying to do and keep ties with vampires. It won’t work. It will always end like – “
“Like this,” Annie finishes.
Hal’s look is apologetic. “Hemmington Hotel,” he says. “We’re here.”
Annie looks up through the windscreen at the front of the hotel. They’ll just threaten him, that’s all. Hal just has to push him up against a wall or two, get a little scary. They’ll steal his camera and then they’ll move on, move past all this. It’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.
Hal moves to open the door and Annie stops him, a hand on his arm.
“Are you sure you’re all right with – “
Hal glances toward the hotel, then back to Annie. They stare at each other for a long moment and then Hal says, “Yes. Let’s go.”
Annie watches as Hal fits another piece to the puzzle. It’s a gift from Tom; he found it in one of the boxes in the attic. Hal’s done every puzzle in the house by now, many of them more than once. Some of them were old, missing pieces. Hal finished those and then, frustrated, tossed them into the bin.
This puzzle is different, special, perfect for Hal. The pieces are white, entirely blank, a brand new challenge. Tom was so proud when he happened upon it in the bottom of a dusty old box. Tom loves foraging in the attic. Annie tries not to think on the fact that most of his enjoyment is a carry over of the time he spent foraging through skips with McNair. His bedroom has become a collection of miscellaneous worthless treasures that he’s found throughout the house, a mess of toys, trinkets, and books.
“I hope all the pieces are here,” Tom said when he showed the box to Annie. “Don’t want him finishing it just to get all mad and bin it.”
Annie looked at how Tom’s face was lit by his discovery, then down at the damaged cardboard box.
“You know, I think Hal might hold on to this one even if it is missing a piece or two,” she said.
“You think so?” Tom asked. He smiled down at the box. “Wicked.”
Despite Annie’s words, Tom is clearly still concerned about the completeness of his gift.
“You ain’t done yet?” he asks, hovering over Hal’s shoulder.
“I’ve only just begun,” Hal says, and there is a touch of exasperation in Hal’s voice, but when he looks up at Tom, he smiles and it looks strained but seems genuine nonetheless.
“All right,” he says. He holds up his hands and takes a step back. “Take your time.”
He stops hovering over Hal, lifts baby Eve from her pram and sprawls across the sofa with Eve settled against his arm.
Annie stares past Hal toward the television set. It’s been flickering all morning. The screen flashes black and then flickers with snow before the picture returns.
“Are you doing that?” Hal asks. He glances up from his work.
“I don’t think so,” Annie says. She’s just been sitting there taking it all in, this quiet domestic afternoon. She feels calm, happy even. They survived the journalist. Hal didn’t hurt anyone, she didn’t hurt anyone, Adam and Yvonne are together and gone and with any luck living happily ever after. Their front garden is empty and inside things feel, well, normal. Easy, almost.
Hal turns to glance out the window. The weather is mild, not even a strong wind. Annie shrugs.
“If it keeps going off like that, we’ll have to get a man in,” she says.
Hal sighs. He hates guests, hates the intrusion.
Tom shifts on the sofa, sniffs and then looks down at the baby.
“Does she need to be changed?” Annie asks. She starts to stand.
“I’ll do it,” Tom says and then he’s up and moving, gone up the stairs, Eve still cradled in his arm.
Annie props her hand in her chin, her elbow pressed to the table. She smiles after Tom, then turns back to Hal.
“Tom took to Eve right away,” Annie notes. “He’s so good with her.”
“Yes,” Hal agrees. His focus has returned to the puzzle. He tries to work a piece into a spot where it doesn’t quite fit. He sets it aside, studies the pieces set out in front of him, and then selects another.
“He’ll make a wonderful father someday,” Annie notes.
“Yes,” Hal says again. She knows that he isn’t really listening to her. She keeps talking anyway.
“Can Tom be a father someday, Hal? Are we getting his hopes up by letting him believe that?”
Hal looks up at her, raises an eyebrow.
“What? Why would you think that?”
“It’s just something that Tom said to me a while back. He said it was funny, that werewolves have been around for centuries, and if that’s true, then how is it that Eve is the first child born of two werewolves?”
Hal frowns and shakes his head. “I don’t think that she is.”
“But Wyndham said – “
“Wyndham’s an idiot,” Hal says and then stops himself, sighs, sets down the puzzle piece he’s been turning in his fingers.
“You knew Wyndham?” Annie asks.
“Yes, I – I knew him,” Hal admits.
“Right,” she says. “Old One. Of course.”
Hal smiles at her and it looks pained.
She returns his smile and sits back in her chair. It makes her uncomfortable to think about his connection with the Old Ones. It scares her to think that Hal knew Wyndham and Daisy, and who knows how many others. Herrick, perhaps, or even Mitchell. She wants to ask; she’s thought to ask so many times, but she’s terrified to know. She tries to take comfort in the fact that he’s changed, in the fact that he’s chosen to stay here with Annie and with Tom instead of out there with them.
“Why haven’t the Old Ones ever heard of another child like Eve?”
“Because the Old Ones only concern themselves with werewolves when werewolves are brought to their attention,” Hal reasons. “We tend to think that if things don’t happen under our noses, if we haven’t seen them, then they haven’t happened at all. I’ve never met another child like Eve, that’s true, but I’ve heard enough stories and I’ve met enough werewolves to believe that Eve isn’t the first.”
“But then why is she so special?” Annie presses. “Maybe she isn’t this War Child after all.”
Hal looks across the room toward the parchment, still spread out across the card table.
“The prophecy isn’t just a child born of two werewolves,” Hal says. “The legend talks of a human child of the moon, born in a supernatural trinity. A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost. It isn’t just George and Nina that have fulfilled the War Child prophecy. It’s all of you.”
“Oh, I see,” Annie says, unsure what else there is to say. It’s all of them. They’ve all put Eve in danger.
The television flickers again, the sound of static loud in the room.
“Annie,” Hal starts. “If this is upsetting you, I –“
“No, I mean, yes, I am upset, but it isn’t your fault and – I really don’t think that’s me,” Annie says. She moves away from the table to stand in front of the television.
Hal turns in his chair to look with her.
“When it happened with Pearl she didn’t think it was her either,” Hal says gently. “She thought it was Eve.”
Annie shakes her head. “I’d know. I’d feel it. It must be the wiring, or – I don’t know. It’s an old house.”
Hal hums in agreement. He doesn’t sound convinced and Annie changes the subject.
“Well, that’s a relief anyway,” Annie concludes. She turns to Hal and smiles.
“About Tom, I mean. About the werewolves.” She sits back down at the table. She has a magazine open in front of her, though she hasn’t read more than two words since she first sat down. She turns the page now anyway. From the corner of her eye she sees Hal turn in his seat. She sees that he’s still frowning.
“Yes,” Hal agrees. “I suppose that is a relief, if it’s what Tom wants.”
Hal picks up another piece to the puzzle and returns to his work.
Sometimes she holds Eve to her chest and she closes her eyes and imagines that she can smell George and Nina there, though she hasn’t been able to smell anything in years, a year before George even came into her life. Now George is gone, Nina’s gone and Mitchell, and she’s still here sniffing a baby that she can’t actually smell.
Mitchell used to complain that George smelled of dog, but Annie watched the way Nina would stand behind George, wrap her arms around him, and press her nose to his back. Her eyes would fall shut and she’d breathe deep and just stand there, holding him. That’s what Annie remembers as she holds Eve close, as she leans in and kisses Eve’s cheek.
She thought for a time that losing her friends might destroy her. She lost a part of herself, and yet she feels stronger than she’s ever felt. She feels solid and strong. She’s scared and yet, sometimes she thinks that this is the safest she’s ever been.
She doesn’t understand it. She doesn’t know what it means. She doesn’t know if it’s something that’s changed within her, or if it’s all that has changed around her.
She misses her friends every single day. She misses her life with them. She misses their voices.
Sometimes, when the rest of the house is asleep, she imagines that her door appears, and she opens it and there they are: George and Nina and Mitchell. She walks through and joins them and doesn’t look back.
Tom and Hal stand before her as she sits on the bar stool. She’s pulled the telephone across the bar and it sits, ready, on the counter beside her. She didn’t expect it would be so difficult to convince them of this.
“Are me and Hal gonna have to pretend we’re, like, together again?” Tom asks. He’s careful not to look at Hal as he asks the question.
“No,” Hal says, immediately. Too quickly, really. Tom’s brow furrows slightly at the reaction.
Annie sets a hand on Tom’s arm, shoots Hal a look, and then says, “I don’t think that’s necessary, do you?”
“It wasn’t necessary the first time either,” Hal says, quiet, low.
Annie bites her tongue to keep herself from pointing out all of the reasons why it did, in fact, turn out to be necessary. And a very good plan, she might add. And when it came down to it, Hal played his role in it rather well. Annie was impressed, proud even.
“He’s just going to check the aerial, that’s all. He won’t care about the baby. He’ll sort out the television and then he’ll leave.”
“You just don’t want to have to wear that vest again,” Tom sniffs and nods toward Hal.
Hal folds his arms over his chest, but he nods too, raises his eyebrows and looks pointedly toward Annie. “You’re right about that.”
“It ain’t me at all, is it,” Tom concludes. He’s smiling now, having fun with it. “Ain’t nothing wrong with your arms though. Not if you ask me. You don’t have to be ashamed, mate.”
Hal opens his mouth, then shakes his head and his arms pull tighter around himself.
“I’m not ashamed, I – yes, thank you, Tom.” He rolls his eyes and then turns to Annie. “This is a waste of time.”
“Oh,” Annie says. “You have a better idea?” Hal still looks at the remote control as though it arrived in his hand direct from an alien planet. He’s hardly the expert on any sort of technology.
Annie lifts the phone and holds it out toward Hal. They’ve been on about this for at least five minutes now. Hal has yet to accept it from her.
“It isn’t a problem with the aerial on the roof. It isn’t merely the television. It’s the radio too. It can only be – “
He still thinks it’s her. He still thinks she’s doing this without realizing it. She’s out of control, isn’t that what he’s implying? There was Kirby, then the journalist, now this. Who knows what she’ll be capable of next?
“It can only be what, Hal?” Annie asks. She sets the phone back onto the bar and crosses her arms over her chest, her stance a mirror of Hal’s. She waits for his accusation.
Eventually Hal gives in. He sighs.
“All right,” he says and reaches for the telephone.
Things start smoothly enough. Tom and Hal are awkward and the installer that comes to the house is clearly confused by their behavior, but he shrugs it off, introduces himself as David, and follows Tom out into the back garden.
Hal stays indoors with Annie and Eve. Annie sits at the kitchen table, composed, and tries to engage Hal in a civilized conversation about that night’s supper.
“I’ve tried something new with the stew,” she explains. It simmers in the pot. She thought it would be nice to have it going when the man arrived. There’s nothing like the smell of a warm meal to make a house, especially one as strange as this, feel like a home. A normal home.
“Does it smell all right?” Annie asks. “It’s so hard to tell when you can’t, you know, smell or taste.”
“It smells fine,” Hal says. He paces the kitchen, periodically moves to the door to check on the progress outside.
Fine. Annie sighs. She’ll have to ask Tom when he comes back indoors. Tom will give her an honest answer.
It all goes smoothly enough until this David climbs back down off the roof and comes into the kitchen with Tom following on his heels.
“There’s nothing wrong with the aerial that I can find,” David announces.
Hal immediately turns toward Annie, eyebrows high and mouth tight.
Annie shrugs and nods Hal’s attention back toward David. David, for his part, is looking toward Annie now too and he frowns, confused, and then approaches the table and glances down into Eve’s pram. He gestures toward the baby and then looks to Tom.
Tom smiles and ducks his head. “Nah,” he says.
“You’re the father then, eh?” David guesses, addressing the second question to Hal. Annie raises her eyebrows. This is exactly the sort of thing they were trying to avoid. She and Eve should have stayed upstairs and out of sight. He didn’t even have to know that there was a baby here at all.
Hal pauses. He looks at Tom, and then to Annie. Annie nods. Just say yes. That’ll be it. The man will have you sign his papers and then he’ll leave. Just say yes, Hal. Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.
“Hal,” Annie says, his name emerging from her mouth as a low puff of breath.
“Yeah,” Tom cuts in. “Yeah, Hal’s the father.”
“My daughter’s two,” David offers. “Runs all over the house. You’re in for a treat. They’re real gifts, ain’t they? Real blessings.”
“Yeah,” Tom says, and he sounds a bit wistful, a bit too in love for someone who just denied any relation to the baby.
Hal merely smiles, his mouth tight.
“Ask him about the television,” Annie prompts. She has a smile plastered across her face, as though she’s visible, as though she needs to uphold the act as well.
“I’ll just have a look at the connection to the telly then,” David says as though he’s read her mind, though of course, he’s here to do a job, not to make small talk. He points toward the doors. “This way?”
Hal clears his throat. “Yes,” Hal says and they all file from the kitchen, though the dining room toward the front of the house. Annie abandons her seat at the kitchen table and follows after them.
“My wife will hardly let Iris – that’s my daughter – out of her sight,” David notes as he leans back behind the television set. “Is your wife like that?”
“I’m not married,” Hal says immediately, his words clipped, short.
“No?” David asks. He looks up at Hal, then over toward Tom as though the pieces are starting to slot into place.
“Oh,” Annie says, realizing where it’s all going. Tom and Hal appear to realize at the same time and Hal shifts, uncomfortable. Tom glances at Hal. He takes a step closer to Hal’s side, but Hal shakes his head and moves away before Tom can touch him. He glances back toward the kitchen, and when he does he catches Annie’s eye. Annie’s mouth is pinched and she raises her eyebrows, urges him to say something. Do something. He doesn’t have to answer the question, just change the subject. The man is here about the television. He’s making conversation. He doesn’t actually care.
“The television,” Annie hisses.
“I’m not married,” Hal says again, stumbles over the words. He turns back toward David. “The baby’s mother is my, uh, my girlfriend.”
“Annie,” Tom jumps in. “Yeah, Annie’s her name.”
Hal and Annie glare toward Tom at the same time, but Tom’s off now, oblivious.
“She’s real good at it too. Being a mother, I mean. Annie’s the best, ain’t she, Hal?”
“Yes,” Hal agrees. Everything about his person screams his discomfort, just as it did with Tom and the doctor, but he nods, swallows, and continues. “Yes, she’s very good at – at raising our child.”
“Oh,” Annie says to dismiss the complement. She’s trying to hold back a smile now, knows that if she was alive she’d be blushing like mad. She can almost feel the heat in her cheeks and she looks down, embarrassed by the praise. She shakes her head, “I’m not that good at it.”
“Okay,” David says with a nod. He turns on the television, stares at the picture. “Hand me the remote control, will you?”
“Erm,” Tom says, glancing around for it. It’s on the bar and Annie reaches for it, grabs it quickly and tosses it toward Tom before David turns. Tom catches it. “Here you are.”
“Thanks,” David says. He works through the channels, pausing on a few of them before moving on. Finally he shrugs and turns the television off.
“Everything’s working great from what I can tell,” he admits.
Hal smiles and nods. “It must have been some sort of fluke. Perhaps a change in the weather or a bird on the roof. Thank you for your time.”
Even Tom is quick to usher the aerial installer back out the front door.
Once he’s gone, once his ladder is loaded and his truck has pulled away from the house, the three of them sigh in unison and move away from where they all stand at the window, peering out through the blinds.
“Well,” Annie says. “I think that went rather well, don’t you?”
Annie is coming down the stairs from the attic when she hears talking on the ground floor. It’s the early hours of the morning and she pauses, panicked, sure that it’s a burglar, or worse. There’s a stake downstairs on the shelf behind the bar. Tom thinks he’s hidden it from her, but she found it right away, left it, and is suddenly glad that she did.
She steps quietly into the corridor, careful not to make a sound. She should wake Hal and Tom, rally the – Hal’s bedroom door stands open. Annie pauses and then slowly comes to the realization that the sound she’s hearing is not a group of vampires standing downstairs plotting Eve’s demise, but merely the sound of the television.
She finds Hal there, sitting on the sofa. His limbs are pulled in, compact, and he has the remote control clutched tightly in his hand.
”I didn’t hear you get up,” Annie says. She doesn’t mention that moments ago she was making plans for her attack.
Hal starts at the sound of her voice, reaches up to touch the sleeve of his shirt, to tug at it with his fingers.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he says. He presses a button on the remote and changes the channel.
“You aren’t disturbing me.” She sits beside him on the sofa, close, just far enough that she isn’t in danger of accidentally touching him.
They stare at the television in silence. Hal’s set it to a program on the geology of famous cliffs in England and Annie wonders if he actually finds it interesting or if it’s just background noise, distraction.
She comments on something the narrator says and Hal merely hums in response. She takes it as her cue to keep quiet.
She hopes she’s helping. She hopes that by sitting here with Hal, she’s providing some sort of comfort. Usually Annie provides support through touch: a warm hand rubbing circles over a back, a tight hug, a gentle nudge.
She’s tried that with Hal and he never welcomes it, never initiates it. She tells herself that it will come with time. She saw Hal with Leo and with Pearl. They touched him and he didn’t flinch. They hugged him and he held them back, held them tight. She hopes that, perhaps, he will grow comfortable with Annie and Tom in the same way. She hopes that with time, he’ll allow them closer. And until then she’ll sit by him, close and careful not to touch. She sits by and she hopes that it’s enough.
“The television and the radio,” Hal says after a moment. “It isn’t a technological problem.”
Annie sighs. “But how can it be me?” she asks. “How can I not know? It isn’t – the last time I was so angry, I could feel it radiating out from me.”
“I don’t think it’s you,” Hal says.
“Leo said that he heard a voice, an angel, that told him to come here,” Hal says. He stares at the television, doesn’t look toward her at all. “He heard a voice that came through the radio, and here we are.”
“Have you been hearing voices?” Annie asks. “Leo’s angel?”
Hal shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”
“No,” Annie agrees, but he has her thinking now too. “When I was in purgatory I was able to talk to George and to Mitchell. I was able to connect with them through the television. I don’t know how I did it, I never understood how it worked, but it did.”
“You think the nemesis is a ghost?” Annie guesses.
“I don’t know,” Hal admits. He turns toward Annie and for a second she thinks he might reach out and take her hands in his, but he doesn’t. He holds back and then he continues. “Kirby didn’t have a burn on his arm, but he claimed that he was sent by someone.”
“Nina,” Annie supplies.
“Yes,” Hal says. “He said Nina.”
“It wasn’t Nina,” Annie says. “Nina never would have trusted someone like Kirby.”
“No,” Hal agrees. “But perhaps it was Leo’s angel.”
“Maybe,” Annie says. She doesn’t like what he’s suggesting. She doesn’t like the implication that they might have been brought together by someone trying to harm them. She doesn’t want to believe that. “Or maybe Leo’s angel is someone else. Maybe she really is – well, not an angel, but someone trying to help us, to warn us, or you know, guide us or something.”
Hal lets out a slight puff of breath beside her, almost a laugh, but not quite.
Annie turns back toward the television. She stares at the screen and the picture holds steady, doesn’t flicker once. She tries to imagine the scenario that Hal suggests. She imagines someone in those rooms that she remembers so vividly, someone watching them. She remembers Lia in her childhood bedroom. She remembers sticks and rope and endless corridors, door after door after door. She imagines that she can look past the picture, look through the open door and see everything. She imagines figures in shadow, sinister, watching, waiting and plotting.
She remembers the way it felt to press her hands to the sides of Kirby’s head. She remembers that power, that release and that rage. She feels it, ready to boil within her. It scares her. It scares her just as much as the thought that someone might be watching them, trying to tear them down.
“Evil is like traveling first class. Once you try it, you never go back.”
“What?” Hal asks. He looks up, alarmed, and she instantly feels, well, stupid. Inconsiderate, really. Tactless.
“Oh, Hal, no. I didn’t mean you. I meant – I’m – it’s something that Kirby said to me,” she admits.
Hal stares at her for a moment and then he sighs, seems to deflate a little and relax. He shakes his head and leans back against the cushions of the sofa.
“Annie, killing Kirby wasn’t evil. You enjoyed it, it was thrilling, you can’t stop thinking about it. All of that is understandable. You saved Eve’s life and there was no evil in that.”
“And the journalist?” Annie asks.
“We went to that hotel prepared to hurt that journalist, yes, but you aren’t – I know evil. I’ve known evil for centuries and you – you – “
“What?” Annie asks.
“You simply aren’t it,” Hal shrugs.
“It doesn’t go away though, does it?” Annie asks. “It stays with you.”
“No,” Hal agrees. “It doesn’t go away. But it will fade. For you, it will fade.”
“And for you?”
“I’ll manage it,” Hal says. “I’m managing it.”
Sometimes she stops, catches herself, and realizes that days have passed and she hasn’t once thought of Mitchell. She hasn’t teared up at the thought of George or Nina. She hasn’t shut her eyes and imagined the sounds of their voices filling the house.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, of course. In the beginning it’s constant, every moment of every day, but time keeps moving and life continues, and… she guesses she thought, being that she isn’t alive and all, that it would be different, somehow.
It isn’t different. The fact that she’s dead too doesn’t change anything. Life marches on without them. She marches on, and when Eve smiles up at her, Annie’s heart doesn’t break at the sight of it. Instead Eve smiles and Annie’s heart swells.
Downstairs Hal and Tom bicker and somehow the sound of it comforts her. She guesses, based on the volume of their voices, that they’re standing in the hall in front of the door to Tom’s room. Tom’s going on about something, and when Hal comes back with a retort, she can hear that he’s trying not to smile. She can hear the affection there now, like a current running beneath their words.
She thinks it’s all too soon, but she has Eve and she has Tom and Hal and they’ve all needed her. They’ve all needed her to move on with them. And so she goes days without thinking about what came before this. She doesn’t think about why they’re here, why Annie’s holding George and Nina’s daughter instead of George and Nina. It’ll fade, Hal said. He wasn’t talking about this, but it doesn’t matter. It applies. And Annie isn’t ready. She isn’t ready for them to fade.
Eve makes a noise and then reaches out her tiny hand toward Annie.
Annie leans in and kisses Eve’s palm and Eve rewards his with another toothless little grin.
“You have your daddy’s smile,” Annie says. “Did you know that?”
Eve laughs at Annie’s tone, reaches up and touches Annie’s chin. Annie tips her head and blows a raspberry into Eve’s hand. Eve laughs again.
“Can you feel that?” Annie asks. Eve squeals a little, her fingers trying to grip at Annie’s face.
She hears feet bounding up the stairs and then Tom bursts into the room.
Annie looks up from her seat on the sofa. Her chin is out of reach now, but Eve makes due, pinches at her neck instead.
“Do you think she can feel this?” Annie asks.
“’Course she can,” Tom says. He crosses the room and collapses on the sofa beside Annie. He’s close, the length of his body just touching hers.
It’s so hard for her to tell what’s real at times. Annie’s learned, or she thinks she’s learned, that most of what she thinks she feels as a ghost is actually memory. Annie can feel the pinch of Eve’s fingers because she remembers feeling similar sensations before she died. She felt Mitchell’s kiss through the kisses of her boyfriends who came before him and – that was when she stopped thinking about how and what she could feel entirely. It's complicated and confusing and Annie isn’t sure she’ll ever understand it, but she pulls her head away from Eve’s pinching fingers anyway.
Eve’s still laughing. Annie smiles down at her.
“What’re you doing hiding out up here anyway?” Tom asks.
“Oh, nothing,” Annie says. “I wasn’t hiding, just entertaining Eve.”
Tom nods. He looks over Annie’s shoulder at the baby. “Can I take her?” he asks.
“Of course,” Annie says. She lets Tom lean over her, lets him pull Eve up from her arms, hold her close against his chest as he settles back down beside Annie.
For a moment Eve looks like she might cry at the change, but Tom sees it coming and he greets her, his voice high and a little silly. It works and Eve rewards him with a smile.
Annie folds her hands in her lap, not sure what to do with them now that they’re empty. She leans a little closer toward Tom.
“Everything all right with you and Hal?”
Tom shrugs. “Yeah,” he says. “I got a cramp in my calf and he said I ruined his run. Said I wasn’t stretching properly. We worked it out. Next time I’m gonna ride that bicycle I found and he’s gonna try to keep up.”
“That sounds… nice?” Annie asks.
“Yeah,” Tom says and shrugs again.
“Have you asked Hal about Eve?” Annie asks. “Did he tell you that he doesn’t think she’s the first baby born to werewolves at all?”
“Nah,” Tom says. He looks over to Annie. “He said that?”
She nods and he smiles.
“That’s good, then, innit?” Tom thinks about this a moment longer and then adds, “If he’s right, anyway. He don’t know owt about a lot of things though, does he?”
“I think he’s probably right about this.”
“What do ya think, huh?” Tom asks Eve. “Do ya think Uncle Hal is as brilliant as Uncle Hal thinks he is? Do ya?” Eve just grins up at him.
“Look at that smile,” Annie says.
“Yeah,” Tom agrees. “She smiles just like her mum, don’t she.”
He’s wrong. That’s definitely George’s smile. Nina’s eyes, yes, but George’s smile. She opens her mouth to correct Tom, just as Tom lifts Eve and presses loud kisses to her belly. Eve laughs and then shrieks, high and joyful, and Annie lets it go.
“Yeah,” Annie agrees. “Yeah, she does.”
Hal rinses a plate and sets it in the rack. Annie places the mug she’s holding into the cupboard and then reaches for the plate, a tea towel at the ready. They’ve got the rhythm of this down, this shared task. It’s been quiet between them for a while, and Hal hums to himself, quietly, as though he’s forgotten that Annie is even there. He’s so much more relaxed around them than he was when he arrived and Annie smiles, enjoying the comfort of their domestic routine.
Tom’s box of cereal is still sitting out on the counter. Annie glances at it as she dries the plate in her hand.
“I’m going out!” Tom yells from the front of the house.
Annie looks to Hal and when Hal shrugs, Annie moves toward the double doors and calls out. “Where are you going?”
There’s no answer from Tom, only the sound of the door shutting after him.
“Where is he going?” Annie asks Hal.
“I don’t know,” Hal says. “Perhaps he has a shift at the café that I’ve forgotten. Maybe Tony called.” He pauses at the sink, then turns to her and shakes his head.
“Yeah,” Annie agrees. “Yeah, maybe.”
She turns back into the kitchen and her eyes catch on the cereal box. She thinks again that she should just ask Tom to eat a different brand, but she wonders what she would do if one morning she came into the kitchen to find that Mitchell’s cereal wasn’t there. She isn’t ready to let them go, not yet, not completely.
She’s isn’t watching where she’s going, misjudges her position within the room, and her hip hits the edge of the counter. She stumbles forward and drops the plate she’d been drying. It hits the floor and splits in two with a loud crack.
Annie curses and crouches to retrieve the pieces, just as Hal moves away from the sink to do the same. He knocks her shoulder and for a moment she thinks she might lose her balance and fall back, end up sprawled gracelessly across the kitchen floor. She reaches out for him, grabs on to him to steady herself, just as he moves to grip her arm with his wet marigold-encased hand. He pulls her forward as she tries to steady herself. When she finds her balance and turns to thank him, she finds that he’s closer, closer than she expected, and his mouth brushes against her cheek.
He doesn’t move, doesn’t pull away from her, but his head turns and his mouth slides across her skin and she thinks –
Like kissing someone who has just come in from the cold, he told her once.
Hal’s arm is still holding hers, her hand is still grips his as the elbow. She pauses and then, without really thinking about what she’s doing, she closes her eyes and she turns into his touch, turns into it until his mouth is no longer at her cheek, but sliding across her lips instead.
She’s learned that ghost feels through memory, and through memory she feels his lips on hers. They’re chapped, just a little, warm, soft.
And then he’s gone, and without him to lean on, Annie stumbles forward, catches herself with a hand against the floor.
Hal is standing, his fingers, hidden within his marigolds, twitch and dance at his sides.
Annie pushes to her feet. Her own hands flutter toward him and then pull back and in, up toward her mouth.
“Why did you do that?” Hal asks.
“I thought – you – it seemed like you were – “
“No,” Hal says immediately. He shakes his head. “I wasn’t – no –“
“Oh,” Annie says. Of course he wasn’t turning into it. He was trying to turn away. Of course. How – how sad of her, how embarrassing. He must think –
She scoffs, overcompensates, and it only seems to make it all worse. “Oh, yeah, no. Me neither. I don’t know what I was – no, of course.”
Hal is frowning at her, his brow furrowed and Annie forces a smile. She feels her nose scrunch up with it and she tries to pull back, smooth it out so it doesn’t seem like she’s trying as hard as she is.
Oh, she needs to get out of here. She needs an escape plan. She needs for Tom to return. She needs Eve to start crying. She cocks her head.
“Did you hear that? I think that’s Eve.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Hal says, immediately, too quickly. It feels like an accusation.
Annie ignores him and continues. “Yes, I’m sure that’s her,” Annie insists. “Ghosts have excellent hearing, did you know that?”
Hal is frowning. “So do vampires.”
“Yes,” Annie says. How hard would it be for Hal just to play along? Is it so much to ask? Couldn’t he spare here a little of this embarrassment? “Well, not as excellent as ghosts, it seems. I’d better –“ she gestures toward the door.
Hal nods, still frowning, and Annie backs her way out of the kitchen. She leaves the broken plate on the floor, leaves the dishes that still need to be dried. She pushes through the doors until they swing shut with her on the other side. She concentrates until she disappears from the room, reappears in the attic beside Eve’s crib.
Eve, of course, is sound asleep, not crying at all.
It’s nearly midnight when Hal’s bedroom door finally opens and he comes carefully down the corridor to stand in the open door to her room. Tom is asleep. Annie assumed that Hal was too. She has Eve in her pram beside her on the bed. She thought she could use the company.
“I think we need to…talk,” Hal says, quietly. Annie shifts, turns to look at him. He stands there in the door, his arms stiff at his sides.
“Yes,” Annie agrees. She looks at him standing there and she isn’t sure how to begin. He isn’t easy to talk to, not really. She opens her mouth to say something, just plunge right in with her apology, but what comes out is something else entirely, evasion, inconsequential small talk. “Do you think that Eve is behind other children? I worry that – “
“I didn’t mean about Eve,” Hal cuts in.
“I know,” Annie agrees with a sigh. “I think – I think we’re good on that, don’t you? Can I apologize and then we just, you know, ignore it and pretend it never happened?” She never thought she’d say it, but she misses that about George and Mitchell.
“Annie – “
“Yeah,” she concedes. “We should probably talk about it.”
Hal nods and when Annie shifts again, moves over and pats the edge of the mattress, Hal takes a step into the room. He’s hesitant, but finally he sits on the edge of her bed.
“I can’t replace Mitchell,” Hal says, wasting no words.
“I wouldn’t want you to,” Annie says, immediately. “That’s the last thing that I want.”
“That’s really what you think this is about?” Annie asks.
Annie sighs. “I don’t know. I think – yes. But it isn’t just Mitchell. It’s George and Nina and – It’s that obvious, isn’t it?”
“We’re all mourning someone.”
Annie looks up at that, surprised. It’s true, of course, and at the start she remembered that, but somewhere along the way, she forgot, and she started to feel that she was alone in this.
“Yeah,” she agrees. “Yeah, we are.”
They sit there, frozen together, Eve asleep between them.
After Hal shut himself in his room, Annie went back downstairs to find that he’d cleaned up the broken plate, finished washing up, and tidied up the counter. The box of cereal was hidden safely in the cupboard. She thinks how it must have looked. She thinks how it would have looked if Tom had walked in as it was happening. The two of them crouched together on the floor, Hal trying to stop Annie from falling, then realizing he was too close and straining, trying to turn his face away from her. His eyes were probably shut in discomfort. She pictures how tight his mouth must have been, the curve of his frown. And then she just – turned into it. She just kissed him.
She can’t help it. She starts to laugh.
Hal stares at her, blank for a moment, and then his brow furrows.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just – you thought that hug a few weeks back – “ She presses her lips together, tries to swallow her laughter. “You thought that was awkward. I can only imagine – “
Hal clears his throat. “Yes,” he agrees carefully. “This is decidedly worse.”
She snorts a little, and then she brings a hand up to cover her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “It isn’t funny.”
Hal nods, and then he smiles too. He turns away from her in an attempt to hide it, but she catches it pulling at the sides of his mouth. He works to suppress it, and when he succeeds, he turns back to her, nods, and starts to stand.
She reaches out, her hand on his to stop him from leaving.
“Did you ever meet him?”
“Mitchell?” Hal guesses.
“Yes, Mitchell. Did you know him?” He knew Regus. He knew Wyndham and Daisy Hannigan-Spiteri. Maybe –
Hal thinks about his answer and then he says, “I didn’t know him well.”
“But you’d met him?” Annie asks, filling in the blanks.
“Yes, I’d met him.”
“Why didn’t you ever say?”
Hal opens his mouth, then shuts it and shakes his head. “We were different people then.”
She thinks she knows what Hal is being careful not to say. She’s seen their potential. Sometimes when she thinks of Mitchell, even now, she can’t help but picture him in that train carriage. She can’t help but imagine the horrible things –
She sometimes wonders what would have happened if she had met Mitchell when she was still alive, still human. Would she have ended up like Lauren or like Lia? Those were her choices, weren’t they? That’s all there was.
She thinks of that train carriage, and she imagines Hal there in Mitchell’s place. She thinks of him, locked in a monastery for months. She thinks of the dead monk whose body he used as a shield, and she knows that it was centuries ago, but it’s only one story. How many others does he have just like it? How many of them are echoes of that train carriage? She doesn’t want to know. She doesn’t want to add those stories to the things she thinks on late at night while the rest of the house sleeps.
She’s seen the evil that they’re capable of, but she’s seen the good too. She saw Mitchell waiting for her in that corridor in purgatory. She felt his arms wrapped tight around her. She saw his face when he found out that Nina was pregnant. She saw Hal’s heart break when Leo died and then she saw him turn his back on his past and stand with Annie and Tom, fight to protect them. She sees how he's started to enjoy their company, how he looks forward to their new routines, their domestic rituals. She sees how he’s been charmed by Tom and she’s even caught him, once or twice, smiling at Eve when he thinks that no one is watching.
“Hal, we’re – I think we’re settling well together, don’t you?”
Hal is quiet beside her and Annie continues.
“Of course Tom and I can never be Leo or Pearl and we can never replace McNair for Tom and you aren’t – but we’re friends, aren’t we? We're family. Or, at least, we’re getting there?”
Baby Eve, her ghost mum, and her vampire and werewolf uncles. What was it that Tom said? They've got it all.
“Yes,” Hal says. “I think we’re doing fine. I think we’ll be okay.”
When Hal stands to leave, his hand slips out from beneath hers and they both pause, only just realizing that she was still touching him at all.
Sometimes, when it’s Hal’s turn on the rota, she stands outside the door and she listens. She isn’t sure why she does it. At first she told herself it was just to make sure – just to make sure they were safe together, just to make sure they were okay. She feels sure now that Eve is safe with Hal, that they’re all safe with Hal, but she still stands and listens.
He reads her Keats or Shelley or some other poet – they all sound the same to Annie – and his voice is low and precise, but melodic and soothing too. She used to stand there, just for a few minutes, and then leave, her presence undetected, her spying unknown.
She doesn’t leave now. Instead Annie turns and peaks her head around the door and his voice falters a little as he looks up. She smiles at him and he smiles back, raises his eyebrows and waits for her to state the reason for the interruption.
“Nothing,” she whispers. She waves her hand at him. “Keep going. Ignore me.”
Hal’s smile slips a little, but he nods. He looks back down at his book and continues.
Eve is asleep against his arm, her face turned in against the skin of his elbow.
She won’t break, Annie said to him once, but they all know that that’s a lie. They all know that she might.