This story copyright 2002 by Julie Bihn. Please do not modify or distribute without permission.
(11/1/02) (1736 words) (cosmetic revisions 11/2/02, 11/15/02)
The floor was hard, even with the blanket on it. Andrew hadn't brought a pillow, and lying on his bony arm did little good. It was hot and humid, so he took off his shirt. But that didn't make much of a pillow either. Lying on his back, Andrew heard the scratches and even the squeaks coming from the rats in the walls. He vowed to himself that if a rat actually bit him, he'd get out of there, even if his dad would call him a sissy, and even if his mother's haunted house story would be ruined.
Oddly enough, ghosts were really the last things on Andrew's mind at the moment. He'd brought a camera--the panoramic kind, in case spirits or orbs of light attacked him from 180 degrees.
Andrew believed in ghosts. When he was six he had woke one night to see his grandmother in his bedroom, rummaging through his toy box. Grandma had fallen off the side of a ship on her way to Europe (she was deathly afraid of airplanes), and Mom still cried every time someone mentioned her. Mom couldn't stand the thought of the fish and the waves eating away at her mother's flesh. When Dad suggested that it was the same as having worms and maggots infest the body if it were buried in the ground, Mom didn't speak to him for two days. Now no one in the family even spoke their memories of Grandma, let alone about her death.
But Grandma's spirit hadn't been cruel or bitter at all, even though she had drowned and never been buried. Her ghost hadn't even seen Andrew at all. She had just looked through his toy box, pulled out a miniature sailboat, swept it across the room a few times, and then put it back before she vanished. She had looked younger than Andrew remembered her, but he knew her by sight, either from photographs, or from her soul. Mary thought he was either dreaming or insane. Maybe he was, but he'd never known his grandmother well, and he hadn't cried a bit at her memorial service. (But of course, he was only four at the time.) So why would he dream about her? Of course he didn't tell his parents.
Andrew had seen a few other ghosts--transparent people doing everyday tasks; no one he knew--and they all looked either shy or kind. None had taken the least bit of notice of him. So he feared the rats much more than any ghosts that might visit. Spirits were like television programs, but the rats could actually hurt him. If they were hungry enough to bite him.
But ghosts didn't come out when Andrew wanted them, any more than Andrew's angry thoughts could scare the rats away. So he had no expectations of seeing a ghost, even if he was sleeping in a so-called "haunted house." His mother told Andrew it was nearly a hundred years old, one of the oldest buildings left in the city. The building's gray stone had once been smooth and free of graffiti, with beautiful wooden balconies looking out towards the ocean. Andrew could almost picture it. Way back then, it had been a hotel. Andrew had seen that much when he came in the front door (it was actually a set of double doors, but one was boarded up). The floor was marble, and there was the remains of a reception desk near the back. There was no elevator, but curved staircases framed the room on either side. The chandelier had fallen long ago, and many of its crystals had shattered on the floor. The remaining ones were so dusty, Andrew's flashlight couldn't draw a sparkle, or even a reflection, from them. All the furniture was gone from the lobby. Just as well; the rats would have shredded it for bedding if it were still there. The masses of cobwebs at the room's corners, and all around the ceiling, might have been left over from the building's final tenants--a troupe of actors and technicians who turned the dilapidated building into a haunted house, about twenty years ago. They certainly hadn't left anything else behind, though, and Andrew suspected the group had even taken some of the more interesting fixtures from the building. All the wall-mounted lamps were missing, their old copper wires hanging uselessly from gaping holes ripped out of the wall. Andrew saw at least one furry creature's bright eyes fixed on him, peering out through one of those holes. And he mentally cursed whoever left the building like this.
Some people reported recently seeing a ghostly figure in the upper windows of the building. (The balconies had long since decayed, save one, and their doors boarded up, but there were a couple windows, without panes, which were visible from street level.) And, while somehow the foundation and floors were still sound, it wasn't quite considered a historical building, and was due to be torn down that fall. So Andrew's mother had sent him to investigate the house, to interview him later for a story. (Though she never said so, Andrew knew she was too afraid to do it herself--even though she always said she didn't believe in ghosts.)
If Mom had thought it was really dangerous, though, she wouldn't've insisted Andrew go. As it was, his father was stationed outside, determined to keep vagrants from coming in and killing his son (and also there in case Andrew was attacked by giant rats). Dad had gone with him through every room of the house, brandishing a 2x4, to make sure the "ghost" wasn't really just a bum who had borrowed the building. Even Dad didn't take his task very seriously--though he examined every closet and every corner of every room, he did it all with a smile, occasionally humming spooky music or whistling themes from monster TV shows. After such a thorough exploration, the hotel didn't seem at all spooky, or even exciting, not even when Andrew was left alone.
He'd spent his first few minutes looking around. Each of the dozen upstairs rooms was empty save a few pieces of garbage on each floor. One room had a broken doll head in the corner; another had two darts (but no dart board), and one had a broken glass. Nothing of value was left anywhere.
The room that seemed the most "haunted" was the one with the intact balcony. It was at the center of the hotel, right over the lobby. Andrew really couldn't imagine any ghosts even visiting such a run-down place--let alone staying there long enough to haunt it. But he didn't know much about ghosts; he'd only seen a few. At any rate, this was the largest room, and the least dusty. Plus, the balcony doorway let some light in. The balcony's door was still there, with its glass panes intact and dusty. The door's wooden frame was rotted off its hinges, but still set straight into the doorway at a 90 degree angle.
The floor was hard, worse than dirt, and Andrew couldn't sleep. After about twenty minutes, he got up and looked out the balcony doorway. He could hardly see the ocean--he could just make out a little bit of the sand of the beach. In the daylight, it would be a pretty sight, but right now, it just looked ordinary. Once his eyes adjusted, he could see a few stars. As he watched, they got brighter, and the streetlight seemed to fade a little. The sliver of moon in the sky reflected in the waves of the sea, and suddenly, all the outdoors seemed beautiful.
And Andrew saw people, dozens of them, on the boardwalk. They were all dressed in fancy clothes, and an awful lot of the men wore hats. They looked faint, or blurry, or something else unnatural. But before Andrew could figure out who they were, or where they came from, or where they were going, they vanished, so suddenly that Andrew thought it was a dream.
A dream, or a group of ghosts.
Andrew stared out the window again, onto an ocean that had suddenly become dark, and a sky that had lost all its stars. He had already decided how to tell his mother what he had seen--with a bemused smile, as if he knew it was a dream (even though in his heart he knew he had seen something). That would give her the story she wanted, and he wouldn't even have to lie.
He had decided this when he heard a noise in the hallway.
Somehow, it was a relief to know someone was there, even though it was dangerous. Andrew grabbed the flashlight and stood. Dad had the 2x4. Andrew picked up the garbage from the floor--this room had two marbles, and nothing else--and held them in his other hand. Maybe he could hit the intruder in the eyes, or make him trip and fall down the stairs.
Of course, Andrew knew he should call for his father. But then, maybe it was just a ghost (even though he'd never met a talking ghost). Or if it was a murderer, he probably had a gun, and would just kill Dad too.
Or maybe it was a rat.
At any rate, Andrew felt concerned, worried, but not really frightened. He didn't hear another noise, and no one came. Finally, he headed for the door.
He heard a faint thud coming from the room across the hall. Somehow the door had closed, even though he and Dad had left them all open. (Andrew figured that ghosts could travel through closed doors, but they left them open just in case.) So Andrew turned the knob and looked inside.
There was no one there. But as he swept the flashlight around, he saw a dart wedged into the wall, poked into the wallpaper. Another dart was on the floor. When he'd come into the room earlier, the darts had been in the corner.
"Hey," Andrew said suddenly, impulsively. "Wherever you are, come out."
"I'm not scared!" he added.
Still, no one came out. Andrew was both disappointed and relieved. He was hoping to see another ghost, to maybe talk to one--something he'd never managed before. But he listened for a minute and didn't hear a noise, so he knew at least there wasn't another living person in the hotel.
(11/2/02) (2015 words)
Andrew headed back into the hallway. Every door was closed. Andrew had to count the doors to figure out which of them led to the room he had taken as his own. When he had confirmed, twice, that he had found the center door, he opened it.
And the first thing he saw was a ghost, a half-transparent figure several inches shorter than himself, feet planted firmly on the ground. It was a stranger, a rather boyish-looking woman wearing a tight-fitting hat with straps that reached her shoulders. She wore an Egyptian-looking dress that reached slightly past her knees.
And she screamed as soon as she saw Andrew. The terrified creature fled to the balcony.
This was the first time Andrew had ever heard a ghost, but that's not exactly what his mind was on at the moment. He froze. "Hey! Calm down! I'm not gonna hurt you!"
The woman stepped back from the balcony, looking at Andrew oddly. "Why are you naked, then?"
Andrew suddenly turned red, wondering if somehow he had lost his clothes. But he was still wearing his pants and socks. He had taken off his shirt and his boots because it was so hot and he had been trying to sleep.
The woman suddenly laughed, a loud laugh that echoed through the room and the adjoining (gutted) bathroom. A laugh louder than her scream, but kind of endearing. "You're the wild man, aren't you? You gave me quite a fright!"
"Wild man?" Andrew asked incredulously. But the woman's laughter was contagious, and he found himself saying, "You bet! Watch out! I'm a cannibal, too, but only on Thursdays."
"Savage!" the woman cried, laughing. "What a wonderful act! But aren't you in the wrong room?"
Andrew's blanket and camera were on the floor. "It's my room," he said. He reached down for the camera. "I'm gonna take your picture."
The ghost didn't seem to have any fear of photographers. "Does it have a flash? This room is dark, you know." She started adjusting her hat, making sure it just sat right. (Andrew couldn't tell if this entailed making sure it was on perfectly straight, or perfectly crooked.)
"Does it have a flash? Of course! And automatic rewind and auto-focus and even a zoom! Only the best for a pretty woman like you!" Andrew shined the flashlight towards her, just to make sure the picture would come out. The flashlight shone on the woman's dress, but part of its light passed through to the wall behind her, leaving a faint glow.
Andrew raised the camera to his eye, with the strange feeling that if he pressed the button, the woman would disappear. "You sure you don't mind me taking your picture? You won't run away after I do?"
The woman laughed. "No, but wild man or not, I'd feel a bit more comfortable if you put on your undershirt, at least--if you're done working for the night," she added.
The flash worked fine. No one disappeared, but as Andrew went to get his shirt, the door opened (it had somehow swung shut after Andrew had come in the room).
"Are you all right?" Andrew's father was there, 2x4 in hand, and his eyes were wide with concern. "I heard a scream."
"Everything's fine, Dad," Andrew quietly said. The woman was still in the room, and she was staring at Andrew's father.
"The wild man's father!" she suddenly shrieked, laughing. "Carrying a club--how amusing! Do promise you won't hit me and drag me off to your cave," she added, yanking off her hat. From her silhouette, one might have guessed she had no hair at all, though a close look revealed light brown hair, very short, bound closely to her scalp. "But you'd have a devil of a time getting ahold of my hair!"
Andrew looked back at his father. One look told him that yes, his father could see and hear the ghost as well as he could. Or at least, he could see a person there. Dad didn't look frightened or amazed at all, just kind of angry.
"You just came up here to--to make out with one of your school friends!" Dad asked Andrew.
Andrew shook his head. "I never met her before! She's--" He cut himself off before he admitted she was a ghost. "What does she look like?" he suddenly asked.
His father just looked incredulous. "You have eyes, don't you, son?"
"Not the same as yours," Andrew said to himself. Louder, he said, "I don't know what happened, but she came in a couple minutes ago."
"I was guarding the only entrance," Andrew's father said with quickly dissipating patience.
"Well, that's what happened."
Andrew and his father both realized it at the same time.
"Where'd she go?"
The two men were the only ones left in the room. The woman had disappeared.
"Well," Dad said, "you've got enough of a story for your mother, don't you? Let's go home."
Andrew laughed. "What, are you scared this place really is haunted? Ghosts aren't scary, anyway!"
"You haven't seen enough movies," Dad said, smirking.
"Go home if you want," Andrew said. "I'm staying the rest of the night."
"Then I'll stay with you," Dad said.
"I don't want you meeting up with strange women by yourself."
Andrew sighed, rolling his T-shirt back up into a pillow. He knew once his father had made up his mind, there was no changing it.
And he guessed that, while his father was around, the ghosts would stay away. Even though the floor was hard, Andrew fell asleep in just a few minutes.
"So, did you see any ghosts?" Mary asked mockingly.
Andrew still regretted telling her about seeing Grandma. He'd just done it because Mary seemed so sad over her death, and he wanted to let her know Grandma was okay.
"You heathen!" she had said.
Andrew hadn't known what a heathen was at the time. To be fair, Mary had only a vague idea herself.
"When people die they go to heaven or hell," she said primly. "They don't come back to play with toys."
"But I saw her," Andrew said. And he wouldn't change his story, and even today, he still thought that when people died, they became ghosts. He'd never seen a single angel in his lifetime, and of course he'd never seen heaven. But he'd seen a few ghosts, none of them mean at all. Maybe bad people went to hell, or maybe when bad people died they turned into good ghosts. And maybe not even every good person who died turned into a ghost.
But he was sure some of them did, while he had never seen any dead person turned into an inhabitant of heaven.
Now when Mary asked Andrew about ghosts, he ignored her. Mary probably wasn't too bad in her way--if she was, she would have told Mom and Dad all about how he saw Grandma. But then, if she had really been a nice person, she might have been good enough to stop teasing him about something dear to his heart that he had told her, in confidence, twelve years ago.
"Well?" Mary repeated. "Did you see any ghosts?"
"Just you, if you don't shut up," Andrew said.
Mary grabbed his camera. "Oh, you took a picture of your ghosts!"
Andrew didn't bother reaching for the camera; he knew that was no use.
"What is it, a glowing aura? Give me a break. People'd see a firefly and think it was a ghost. There's absolutely no real scientific evidence that ghosts exist."
Andrew just waited until Mary tired of teasing him, then took his camera back. Even though there were only five shots on it--three of the hotel in daylight, one of the room where Andrew and his father had spent the night, and the one that might or might not come out at all--Mom said she'd have the prints back tomorrow. In the meantime, he told her an embellished story of the ghosts he had seen outside earlier in the evening.
"None of 'em was in the house, but one of them was dressed as a clown," he said. "I could've sworn I saw a kid flying a kite. Every one of the men was in a tuxedo, and the girls were all in evening gowns that trailed the ground, so long that the men were tripping over their women's dresses."
Mom ate the story up as just that--a story--and it was just as well, since it hardly resembled what Andrew had actually seen at all. He hadn't had enough time to see all that, so if any of the details were correct, it was just by coincidence.
"I wish you'd taken a picture of that," Mom said with a grin, and he knew she thought the reason he hadn't was because hadn't happened, not because it had all happened before Andrew could react, or even see it properly. When it came down to it, maybe that was the same thing as it not happening at all, if you couldn't tell anyone or even remember much of what had happened.
Andrew told his mother nothing about the woman he'd seen, but Dad told her plenty. Since the woman had left before they could ask questions, they just grounded him from TV for a week. There wasn't much on in the summer anyway, and Andrew hoped to have other things to do than watch TV, anyway.
After school he biked down to the oceanside again. He could see a lot more of the surroundings in the daytime than at night. His family almost never came to this part of the beach, preferring the cleaner sands a couple miles south. The beach here was strewn with litter now--more broken bottles than broken seashells. The pier had fallen into the sea several years ago, and never been replaced. The skeletons of a few shops were under the boardwalk, but they had long since been abandoned. One fenced lot a couple blocks over seemed to be the graveyard for a half-dozen neglected rides and attractions. There was rotting wood and steel tracks all in a pile, with a few broken-down bumper cars, a ride he couldn't doubted even his father would recognize, and a gaudy sign for some Midway Fun, almost every light bulb broken.
There was an old grocery store, which clearly hadn't been there as long as the building had; it didn't even have double doors in the front, but just one wooden door through which everyone had to go in or out. It was too small to allow for shopping carts; all they had were baskets. Most the people inside looked like they either couldn't afford enough food to warrant a shopping cart, or as though they'd love to use a shopping cart to store all their worldly possessions, so it was just as well. There was a restaurant that looked even worse than the grocery store, and, judging from the sign on the front door, kept very irregular hours. The only other store nearby was a small tourist shop, only a little larger than Andrew's bedroom, selling T-shirts, sunscreen, and anything else any visitors might want. Of course, there weren't many visitors, and, though the outside of the store looked like it was meant for tourists, the inside had all the features of a liquor store and convenience store rolled into one. It looked trapped in the 1970s, and it still seemed to be the only shop in the area which was remotely profitable.
The area was due to be re-zoned and rebuilt in the next few years. Not even the owners of the convenience store objected. The few people who lived in the area were going to be relocated, and didn't complain. Andrew imagined the condos and hotels that would be built, and knew the area would look a thousand times nicer that way. But he felt a sadness thinking about losing everything here, even the garbage in the junkyard lot. He didn't know why.
(11/3/02) (1455 words) (cosmetic revisions 11/4/02)
Andrew wished that somehow, the old hotel, at least, would be spared. It would take millions of dollars to restore it to its former glory, and probably tons of research (even the locals had long since forgotten the hotel's former name). it may need expanded to be profitable, but if it were rebuilt...
If it were rebuilt, Andrew would probably never make it inside again. At least, not past the lobby. It was far too expensive to stay in resort hotels. So maybe it was just as well that the hotel was a ruin (even if Andrew wished it wouldn't be destroyed).
The hotel actually looked scarier in the daytime than it had at night. The walls outside were covered in graffiti--he'd seen that the night before--but he could read the names and words in the daylight. The lobby was far too dark; it looked wrong. But the windows were boarded up, so it was almost as dark as it had been at night. But he saw more than he had the evening before. The remains of a long-dead plant trailed down from a hanging pot, looking like a skeleton. The lobby smelled funny, too, a little like citrus or chemicals. The floor was dirtier than he remembered, and the front desk counter was covered in a fine layer of ash. Something dark moved in the corner. Andrew dashed for the doorway, wanting to get into the safety of the light, until he realized it was just a cat. Of course, the cat was hunting the rats in the walls, which was a good thing, considering how many rodents he had seen last night. But it was still spooky.
A short wooden stick lay on the floor. Andrew shined his flashlight on it (the daylight wasn't quite bright enough). There was some white cotton candy on one end.
Andrew shuddered--there were some rat droppings next to the stick. But he was more curious about where the cotton candy had come from. Maybe the rats had found it in the dumpster outside the convenience store and brought it in.
There was a small door under one of the staircases, probably a closet. Andrew was sure it had been there last night, but they hadn't seen it in the dark. Doubtless, if Dad saw it, he'd assume that's where the strange girl had been hiding, so she could sneak upstairs and seduce Andrew once he was alone. Andrew just wondered if the closet led to something wonderful, terrible, or magical. Perhaps all three.
But when Andrew opened the door, he was greeted by daylight. The door simply opened into a short corridor, which led to an alley. Andrew found a brick and used it to prop the door open, then went into the hallway.
Andrew checked the corridor's walls, but there were no secret panels or passages. The alley was just an ordinary alley, with newer buildings (probably built fifty years ago, instead of a hundred) making up the far walls
Now Andrew was behind the hotel, at one of its corners. The back wall's outside bricks seemed small, and were very smooth. They didn't match the hotel's stone facade at all, and Andrew was amazed that an elite seaside hotel would be so cheaply built.
Andrew was right next to another alley, which went straight to the street. But when he looked behind him, he saw the alley he had walked into--the one that ran parallel to the hotel's back wall--ended abruptly, blocked by a six-foot wall. From the looks of it, the wall was about where the hotel's lobby ended, like a continuation of the building. As Andrew came closer, he saw it was the remains of a fireplace. Its outside was cracked and bits of plaster still clung to it. The floor of the inside of the fireplace was black with soot, but when Andrew wiped a line away with his finger, he revealed a line of bright white marble underneath.
"A pity, isn't it?"
Andrew heard someone say those words, clear as a bell, but when he looked around, no one was there. He hurried back inside the hotel and ran upstairs, checking the far hotel rooms--each of the rooms that looked out onto the alley. But they were all empty.
The room nearest to the corner had its windows un-boarded, though. The wind whistled through (even though it had been still in the alley outside). There were no curtains or draperies to blow around, so Andrew could only tell it was windy by the sound, and the way the wind mussed his hair.
Andrew returned to the center front room, the one he had spent the night in. He swung his camera in wide circles, holding its strap.
The transparent woman was there. She was leaned back, kind of like someone was carrying her, but low to the ground. Before Andrew could think about this, she stood up.
"If it isn't the wild man! Well, not so wild anymore."
Andrew growled, running his fingers through his hair. "I'm wild enough!"
The woman laughed. "You still look it, even with your undershirt on. What curious trousers! Did you buy them from a miner?"
Before Andrew could answer, the woman told him to sit down. Andrew obliged, sitting cross-legged on the dirty floor.
"You can stop acting," the woman said, folding her arms. She bent down and rested, but there wasn't any chair there. If it was a trick, it was a very good one; she immediately crossed her legs, with only one leg resting on the ground. Was she on an invisible chair? Andrew stood and ran his foot all along the bottom of where the chair would be, feeling for legs, but there were none. He tried to tough where a chair's back and arm would be, but didn't feel anything.
"Us civilized folk call that a chair," the woman said, smirking. "Why don't you try one yourself?"
Andrew tried it on faith, slowly crouching, and then just dropping himself into where he guessed a chair was. And he fell flat on his back.
The woman laughed again, clapping her hands. "You really are a live wire!"
"I try my best," Andrew said sheepishly.
"Well, wild man, my name's Ruth," she said, still smiling.
"I'm Andrew." He leaned against the wall, rubbing his hair.
"Not Tarzan, or Ape-man?" Ruth sounded mildly disappointed.
"Well, you can call me Tarzan if you want," Andrew said. "Maybe King Kong?"
"Oh, you think you're royalty now?" Ruth asked.
"No, a giant monkey. You've never heard of King Kong?"
"I don't read the papers much," Ruth said, shrugging. "You're not giant, and you don't look like much of an ape." She paused. "Would His Majesty like some panther sweat?"
"Should I go see a man about a dog?" she asked, enunciating.
Andrew stared at her blankly.
"Aw, you're no king. Just a baby prince," Ruth said, standing. She snuck off into the bathroom, and came out holding two glasses. She offered one to Andrew. He tried to take it, but as soon as it left Ruth's hands, it disappeared. Ruth jumped back, appalled. "Apes are good at grabbing things, at least! Which is more than I can say for you! Next time maybe I should have given it to your feet."
"What are you talking about?" Andrew finally asked.
Ruth smirked, sitting back down. She took a sip from her glass. "Well, I guess you can't hold your liquor."
"How old are you?" Andrew asked.
Ruth cringed. "If you weren't a savage, I'd slap you," she said mildly.
"I'm sixteen," Andrew said.
Ruth just laughed.
"You must be a lot older than that," Andrew said, turning away.
Ruth's eyes widened. Before Andrew could react, she was up from her invisible chair, and her bare hand hit his cheek.
For a moment, Andrew thought he was dazzled by the pain. His cheek stung, but what he really noticed was that the boards disappeared from the window, the walls became papered in a bright yellow pattern, the floor grew carpet, and the balcony was repaired. The room had two velvet chairs and three or four love seats, all red, with lamps and tables throughout. But as soon as the sting left his cheek, the room returned to normal. Ruth looked pale. Andrew went over and touched the nearest wall. There was no wallpaper, just some flaking gray paint.
"Do you really think I look that old?" Ruth said, glowering.
"Old enough to drink," Andrew said, rubbing his cheek.
"Have you looked at my clothing?"
Andrew looked. Ruth was wearing a white short-sleeved blouse with a plaid skirt thing over it (Andrew didn't know it was called a jumper).
(11/4/02) (2183 words) (revisions 11/5/02, 11/8/02)
"You're...in school," Andrew said.
"And Sherlock Holmes solves another mystery," Ruth said, hand on her hip, her other hand raising her glass. She downed the rest in one go. "Good work. Shall I clap for you?"
"Well, your short hair makes you look older," Andrew said.
"You don't know when to dry up, do you?" Ruth asked.
"I guess it's too much to hope for ghosts that speak English," Andrew said.
"Oh, you're screwy," Ruth said. "You sure you haven't been drinking?"
"Why'd you tell me to dry up, if you didn't think I was drinking?"
Ruth just stared at him. "Shut your mouth, okay? 'Dry up.'"
"Oh," Andrew said, smirking. "Well, that's good advice. I always get in trouble talking too much."
"Most men do," Ruth said.
That pronouncement kind of killed the conversation. Ruth stared at her glass longingly. "If I have another, my parents will smell it on my breath," she said forlornly.
Andrew wasn't really in the mood to give advice on how to avoid getting in trouble, so they sat in silence. Andrew grew uncomfortable. He never really minded spending time alone, but to sit in a room with a ghost who could talk, but wouldn't, really freaked him out.
"Hey," he suddenly said. "How did you die?"
Ruth looked at him, turning white. "What do you mean?"
"I'm not trying to bring up any bad memories," Andrew said quickly, already sure he had made a mistake--but still hoping he might hear the answer. "I was just curious. I mean--"
"How did I die?" Ruth screamed. "I'm not--" She looked behind Andrew, at the doorway. "He's screwy! He's mad! Your wild man--he's insane! Lock him up!" Her voice shook, and even though she was transparent, her tears sparkled on her face. Blush traveled down her face like red mud washing down a hillside.
Andrew waited for invisible arms to drag him away, but nothing of the sort happened. Ruth suddenly walked backwards towards the bathroom, and closed the door. She shoved Andrew back a couple steps. The room turned interesting again, for just a moment, and Andrew found himself standing on broken glass and whiskey. A couple uniformed men came through the door, and then everything new--the whiskey, the posh surroundings, even the police officers--vanished again.
Ruth looked towards the doorway for quite a while, nervous, and then stepped on Andrew's toe, hard. He just stared blankly, while Ruth grew more and more frightened.
"He's just the wild man," she finally said. After a pause, she added, "No, he doesn't really know English." She blushed gracefully. "Y--yes, I know. I'll go home right away. Thank you, sirs." The door swung shut, and Ruth turned red, looking more dangerous than embarrassed.
"Why didn't you even talk to the officers? You might not mind getting pinched, but I do!"
Andrew tried pinching his arm, to see if that would help him see things more clearly, or perhaps wake him up, if he was dreaming. But all it did was give him a sore arm.
Ruth sighed. "I guess a wild man can't be too bright. We could have been arrested. Pinched."
"Oh," Andrew said, more soberly. He didn't want a criminal record, not even with ghost policemen.
"Level with me," Ruth said. "Where are you from? Another country?"
"I don't know anymore," Andrew said quietly.
"I have to go," Ruth added. "If they find any of the whiskey here we're all going to jail. I'll be back tomorrow. Will you?"
School was out, for Andrew anyway. "Sure. But aren't you angry with me?"
"Maybe," Ruth said. "But you're just a little bunny. I feel I ought to show you around."
Under her clothes, Ruth seemed to have a nice figure.
"Sure," Andrew repeated. "Of course I'll come."
Ruth smiled at him, then hurried out the door.
The pictures came out all right, but a bit hazy. It was too bad his shot of Ruth cut off her hat and most of her legs. He should have taken it long ways, even if it was a panoramic camera. Then the whole ceiling, and maybe his own feet, would have showed up in the shot, but it would've been a better picture.
Andrew's mother was more interested in the photographs of the hotel, which just about convinced her son that the picture of Ruth didn't look the least bit ghostly. Even Andrew didn't think Ruth looked like a ghost in the photograph. It was perfectly in focus, but grainy, like it was scratched or covered in brown dust. Even under the haze, the picture was toned brown. Since there was no furniture in the room (at least, not visible or touchable furniture), Ruth was against a stark black background. She didn't really look transparent, not even to Andrew. Andrew was a little disappointed, and he resolved to take a picture of Ruth in the daylight someday--if she wouldn't fade or melt while exposed to the sun.
Dad examined Ruth's picture for quite a while. "She doesn't look homeless, and she's not going to your school," he mused.
"There's lots of schools around here," Andrew said. "She probably lives near the hotel--that's a whole different district."
Dad didn't seem fully convinced, but then, Andrew wasn't sure he really wanted to convince him, either. Dad's mild doubt that the girl was just a regular person from the neighborhood might be the closest Andrew ever got to someone believing in his ghosts.
Well, all right, he could always go to the paranormal bookstore downtown. But even if Mary didn't tell his parents where he'd snuck off to, they'd probably guess he'd been downtown. And Andrew didn't believe in fortune-telling or tarot cards, so he'd probably be thrown out anyway, or at least laughed at.
"Tell me about your ghosts," Mary said.
Andrew knew she was just baiting him, but he took it, and poured out the whole story to her.
Mary studied his face carefully, then stretched. "I'll give you a B-minus," she said, yawning. "But I doubt you'll get a good part in the play. Maybe a speaking role."
"I'm not acting," Andrew said.
"Oh, good," Mary said, laughing. "I wouldn't call it acting either. To be honest, you're terrible."
"It's true!" Andrew yelled.
"Glad you can admit it," Mary said.
"Shut up!" Andrew said. "You know I believe what I told you!"
Mary smirked. "I thought I'd give you the chance to step out with a bit of self-respect before I laughed in your face."
"Good of you," Andrew said, taking the photographs back.
Mary then proceeded to laugh in Andrew's face.
"Even if ghosts existed, why in the world would one haunt that hotel?"
"Lots of people say they've seen ghosts in hotels. Lots of women's husbands abandon them in hotels, don't they? And then the women hang themselves or jump out the window."
"It's not too hard to live through a two-story fall," Mary said. "And any woman stupid enough to kill herself over being left deserves a broken leg or two."
Andrew rolled his eyes.
"Look," Mary said, "I'm saying, this girl's not from the hotel, is she? The hotel had fallen into ruin almost before she was even born."
"How do you know?"
"Well, her skirt's way too short for her to be from the 1910s," Mary reasoned.
Andrew looked at the picture again. "The bottom of her skirt's cut off," he said, pointing. "You can't tell where it ends."
Mary picked something out of her teeth. "Sorry. I meant, the low waist, the boyish look--that was in vogue in the '20s--no earlier, and no later."
"Oh, you think you're so smart," Andrew said sullenly. He grabbed the photos and stalked back to his room.
The door was closed before he realized that, somehow, Mary seemed to believe in this ghost.
Andrew's friend Silas looked like a mixture of every race, and if Andrew had been a woman, he'd have found him very handsome. He was also an artist, who owed Andrew a favor for helping him write his final paper. So he called it up.
Silas's apartment was run-down, smelled funny, and only had one room and a bathroom. There was a toaster oven in one corner, a broken radio on a broken shelf, and a futon strewn with dirty clothes. The carpet was stained. But it was Silas's own place, so Andrew admired him for it. There was a closet completely filled with pads of paper, and Andrew could hardly take a step without landing on a pen. (A couple were sharp quill pens or mechanical pencils, but Silas tiptoed fearlessly through the room in his bare feet. Andrew took that somehow as the mark of a true artist.)
"I hate drawing from photographs," Silas said, chewing on the end of his pencil.
"But it'll only take you a few minutes, right?"
"I guess," Silas said. He saw Andrew's serious expression, and sat down on the floor, cross-legged, with a sketchpad and the photograph. Andrew knew Silas hated being watched while he worked, so he lay on the couch against the far wall.
Silas the type who could keep up a conversation perfectly while he sketched or painted; his artistic side operated completely independently from his speaking skills. He made some small talk with Andrew, asking how school had gone last year, and if he'd got his license yet. Andrew was kind of embarrassed that he hadn't, but talking distracted him from the noises of cockroaches scuttling through the walls.
"You done yet?" Andrew asked when he tired of answering personal questions. (Silas didn't talk much about himself.)
"She's really hard to get," Silas said. "I can't quite figure out how to portray her, you know?"
"Do you think she's pretty?" Andrew asked, his cheeks turning hot.
"No," Silas said. He paused. "Is she your girlfriend?"
"No!" Andrew said, fluffing his pillow self-consciously.
"She's exotic," Silas said. "Not pretty, but striking."
"'Striking' is girl talk for 'ugly,'" Andrew said.
"Yeah," Silas said, "but there's some artists who prefer the striking to the beautiful. Like the Mona Lisa."
"I thought people had different ideas of what was pretty back then," Andrew said.
"That too. People's tastes change over time." Silas spoke between breaths, as though he was engaged in physical labor. "She's just...really hard...to draw."
"If I dry up, will you be able to concentrate better?" Andrew asked.
Silas turned to his guest, momentarily forgetting all about his art. He stared at Andrew for a moment before looking away, relieved. "Man! Don't scare me like that. From how you were talking, I thought you were crying."
"Your voice was steady. But why else would you need to dry up?"
Andrew realized what he had said. "I mean, if I shut up, will you have an easier time drawing?"
"Not really," Silas said. "Tell me about her."
"I'd rather not," Andrew said quietly.
"Come on. I'm not getting anywhere just looking at the picture."
Andrew pondered. "She likes to drink. She's probably about my age. She's still in school. She has short hair--under her hat, I mean. And she wears make-up."
"I can see that from the photograph," Silas said, scribbling.
"She calls me a wild man," Andrew added.
Silas's pencil tip broke, and he didn't reach for a sharpener. "Oh."
Andrew laughed. "Guess she thinks I'm pretty hot."
"Where'd you meet her?"
"In a hotel room," Andrew said, grinning.
"Tell me about that," Silas said, pulling out another pencil.
"The room?" Andrew's bravado disappeared. "It's in a crummy part of town. The building should probably be condemned."
Silas sketched again, silently.
"We didn't really do anything. Yet," Andrew amended. "I don't even know if we could."
"Oh, so she's frigid," Silas said.
"So you're afraid you'd get in trouble."
Silas nodded towards his dresser. "If you need some protection--"
"I've already got that covered!" Andrew paused, then shook his head. "That's not important. We're from two different worlds, all right?"
"That's a cliche," Silas replied.
Andrew looked at a green paint spot on the carpet. At least, he hoped it was paint, though he wouldn't be surprised to be eaten alive by mold.
"Turn on the radio, would you?" Silas asked.
The stereo looked broken, but it played. Out of one speaker. A weather report was on--it sounded like AM--but Silas seemed to enjoy it. So Andrew just sat back and listened. It was going to rain this afternoon, they said, especially by the ocean. He wondered if Ruth would get wet. If she came at all.
"You done yet?" Andrew asked. "I'll go over there and look over your shoulder if you're not."
"Done enough," Silas replied, putting his pencil behind his ear. Though Silas had used a large sketchpad, it was a small drawing, at the bottom right corner of the page. The rest of the page was failed sketches. To Andrew's surprise, the drawing wasn't a copy of the photograph at all, but a woman leaning over a balcony, wearing a different dress than Ruth had worn in the photograph.
(11/5/02) (492 words)
It was a one-piece black dress, kind of like an evening gown, low-wasted, baring Ruth's shoulders. The clothes and even the make-up and hairstyle were totally wrong. Andrew wasn't even sure Ruth owned a dress like that, and of course her hair wasn't shoulder-length. But Andrew knew right off that it was a drawing of Ruth, one which made her quite beautiful and very real. He couldn't tell if she was happy or angry; it seemed she could change moods in a flash. And that, too, seemed like Ruth.
"I'll leave you alone with your lady if you'd like," Silas said.
Andrew didn't take his eyes off the picture. "How'd you draw this?"
"With a pencil."
"You know what I mean! It's a perfect picture...but it's completely different from the photograph. How'd you do that?"
Silas shrugged, looking away. "An artist doesn't discuss where he gets his inspiration."
"Oh, come on! You don't want to show off?"
"Right, like an evil mastermind. I'll just tell you my whole plan, so you can escape and foil it!"
"What evil plan?" Andrew asked.
Silas smirked again. "All right. I don't have an evil plan. Yet."
Andrew sat back down on the couch, not speaking.
"I just drew who you described," Silas finally said. "You didn't say much, but I felt--almost like I was seeing another world."
"Isn't that a cliche?" Andrew asked sullenly.
"I guess it is. But I don't know any better way to describe it. I didn't see her at all--I usually get a clear image in my head before I start drawing--but I felt her. And then I drew what I felt, what my fingers wanted to show."
"What about the dress! You just made it up!"
"So I like girls in dresses," Silas said. "You like girls with short hair. You gonna complain about that too?"
"No. Why'd you give her a different dress?"
"What do you mean?" Silas motioned to the photograph. "She's wearing a pantsuit, isn't she?"
"No!" Andrew said. "She's wearing a dress! Right?"
Silas looked at the picture again. Andrew froze. If the picture looked different to Silas, there must be something supernatural about Ruth, right?
"Oh," Silas said. "My bad. I didn't look at the picture close enough. Man, what an ugly dress..."
Andrew was disappointed. "Yeah."
Silas ripped the drawing out of his sketchbook and handed it to Andrew. Andrew folded it into quarters. The drawing was in the lower right-hand corner, so it wasn't creased.
"Good luck with her," Silas said, grinning. "Now we're even, right?"
"Yeah," Andrew said. "See ya."
Andrew rode full-speed all the way to the beach, narrowly missing the rain which the weatherman had promised, and which the sky looked ready to deliver. He was out of breath by the time he was close enough to smell the ocean, and downright exhausted by the time he reached the bike rack at the convenience store.
"Oh! What a funny bicycle!"
(11/6/02) (2895 words)
Ruth was there, in her hat and a new ugly dress--turquoise, and vaguely Egyptian--smiling at Andrew. "Careful. You'll hit a child."
Andrew parked and used his chain and lock to secure the bike to the rack.
"What are you doing?" Ruth asked.
"Locking my bike. So no one steals it."
"No one would do that," Ruth said. "And you're not going to give me a ride?"
"I guess I will, if you want." Andrew turned the combination and freed his bicycle. He got back on, and patted the handlebars. "Come--"
Before he could even finish, Ruth jumped onto Andrew. He and his bike fell to the ground, Ruth's arm around his shoulders. Some feet flashed in front of his eyes, and when he looked up at the sky, it had turned a brilliant blue.
"Hey!" Andrew said. His elbow was bleeding. "Are you all right?"
Ruth laughed. "You wild oaf!"
Andrew lifted Ruth a bit, to see her face. "You knew I was clumsy ."
But as soon as Andrew touched her, Ruth's expression changed. Her eyes widened, and she gasped, her eyes wide with fear, so wide he could see the thin pink layer of eyelid between her eyeliner and her eye. Her body trembled, and she looked like a different woman. "Witch," she whispered fiercely. "Let me go!"
"Hey, you're the one who knocked me down!" Andrew said, keeping his hold.
Ruth squirmed and kicked until Andrew released her. Her hand was scraped up from the asphalt. "What have you done with the buildings?" She turned around in a full circle, her expression growing more fearful. "And the people! And the sky! And the beach! Change them back, you monster!"
Andrew sat up, wiping his bloody elbow. "Ruth, what's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" Ruth grabbed Andrew's collar, pulling him to his feet with a strength that surprised the both of them. "What's wrong? I just told you! The--the walls of the madhouse!" She gave a little scream and ran towards the old hotel. "It looks like a subway station!" She gingerly ran a finger over a dirty word scrawled onto the wall, then pushed on it harder, as though she was trying to wipe it away. "This is a trick, right? Please change it back. I'll do anything you like. Money, stock, gold...oh, dear God! What have you done to my parents? They're probably dead! Oh, please tell me you didn't hurt them! I know I speak ill of them, but--"
"You did not," Andrew said. "You never told me about them. But I didn't do anything at all. Calm down. You're going crazy, and I don't think any of the institutions nearby accept ghosts. So just calm down."
Ruth wiped her eyes. The eyeliner turned her fingers gray. "So everything looks right to you? The ocean, the madhouse, the Typhoon, the bumper cars--you see them, right?"
Andrew looked around helplessly. "What year is it to you?"
Ruth hugged Andrew. "1929," she said, breathing hard. Tears ran down her cheeks, and the rouge bled onto Andrew's shirt. "Tell me I'm not mad..."
"Does it matter?" Andrew asked softly. "As long as you don't hurt anyone, and as long as you're happy..."
(Andrew really didn't believe that just seeking one's own happiness was a good way to live one's life. But it seemed good advice to give to a ghost.)
Ruth sobbed for a while, but seemed much better after she'd had a good cry. She looked around a bit, just as the rain started to come down. Andrew wanted to wait it out under an overhang, but Ruth stayed out, and the rain soaked the both of them through. Through it all, Ruth laughed. "I see the Typhoon!"
Andrew looked to the sea, nervously. It was a little windy, but nothing like a hurricane, or even a bad storm.
"It's not in the ocean, you dolt," Ruth said, sniffing, but grinning. She grabbed his arm and pointed inland, past the old hotel.
And suddenly Andrew saw it, half-transparent, like Ruth. A tall wooden roller coaster, full of tight curves, with at least two drops. Even stranger was that a train full of passengers traveled its tracks, even as he watched, in the rain. And suddenly there were dozens of people around him, heedless of the rain. The men were all in wide-cuffed pants, usually with their hair slicked back, and most of the women wore dresses rather like Ruth's. Everyone was transparent. A few stopped to look at Andrew--the "wild man"--but most just took him for granted, as part of the scenery. Andrew never did decide if Ruth looked less ghostly than the other figures.
Andrew was shocked to see the old hotel. It was still old, no question. Far from being restored to its former glory, it actually looked worse. The stone walls were intact, not purposely defaced, but all the trim (stone or not) was painted turquoise and red, and a giant board sign read, in yellow and red letters, "Sherman's Mad House of Amusements." The result was worse than the graffiti-covered mess it had been five minutes ago. But Ruth seemed much happier to have it this way.
He could even see ghostly bumper cars, a block away, and a line for them ten feet long. There was a swing ride and a carousel, and a few cheaply-built rides rather like he'd seen at the fair.
Strangest of all was that everything was half-transparent. He could still see trash on the beach, clearer than the people lounging there. The framework for the roller coaster was built right over--no, into--the pile of garbage he had seen just the day before. The riders of the "Jitterbug" didn't seem to mind traveling right through an abandoned 1960s car that was parked on top of it.
"Is this what you see all the time?" Andrew asked blankly.
Ruth just laughed again. Her hand was still on his arm, and she grabbed his hand with her other one. "Poor wild man. They wouldn't let the little bunny out of his cage. How do you like it in the real world?"
Andrew could still see the rain coming down, but none of the ghosts were getting wet at all. He suddenly got scared, and looked down at himself, but he wasn't transparent like Ruth and everyone else. He wasn't getting as wet as he had been earlier, though. But he was solid.
"Come, now," Ruth said, dragging Andrew away from the beach. "We'll go ride the Typhoon." Before Andrew could even protest, they were in front of the roller coaster. Andrew didn't care much for thrill rides, and he'd certainly never been this close to a wooden roller coaster. The wood wasn't even weathered, and the track shone. Andrew reasoned that owner must take great pride in it.
"You like roller coasters, right?" Ruth asked.
"I've never ridden one," Andrew said, looking at the ground.
"Oh, of course," Ruth said, hugging Andrew. You haven't done a lot of things. They never let you out to play. How'd you even get today off?"
Andrew squeezed Ruth's hand. It was completely solid, and softer than flower petals. Her nails were smooth and cold. And her neck smelled of perfume (he didn't know which brand, but it was completely different from his mother's, and not like the stuff Mary wore on dates, either).
"Well?" Ruth asked.
Andrew had forgotten the question, and Ruth had to repeat it. "It's summer vacation," he said, shrugging.
"Only a fool would let his fun house acts have a vacation in the summer season," Ruth said, laughing. "But that's Mr. Sherman all over!"
"Yeah," Andrew said softly.
They had to wait in line for twenty minutes, under a transparent cloth canopy. Andrew hardly got wet at all. There were no puddles underneath his feet, and Ruth and the other ghosts stayed dry. Ruth even commented, more than once, on what a fine day it was.
Andrew didn't care how hard it was raining, how bizarre this all was. He was next to a cute girl, holding her hand, and he was completely happy.
Until he and Ruth were herded into a roller coaster car. Looking ahead, Andrew saw that the track rose almost immediately after the loading station, and his stomach sank.
Ruth squeezed his hand, smiling. "Buck up, will you? It's scary, but you'll love it, I promise."
Andrew just turned more pale. Ruth fastened the cloth lap belt around their hips, then took Andrew's hand again. When she touched him, the world Andrew remembered grew fainter, even though the roller coaster didn't become any more solid. Andrew suddenly got a terrible feeling, that a latching seat belt wasn't anywhere near enough to keep him safe in a ghost roller coaster car. But the cars started moving and ratcheted up the huge hill. It was a bumpy, creaky ride, nothing like the fair rides he'd been on before, but nothing like the only wooden roller coaster he had been on (a tiny one built for children, that he'd ridden with Mary when he was four). Ruth screamed even before they went careening downwards at incredible scream. Andrew remained silent, half-praying, but mostly just petrified. Before they reached the end of the drop, Andrew's hand slipped out of Ruth's. Ruth screamed again, a very different scream from just a moment earlier. And Andrew felt himself flying through the air, through the car, through the track itself, always downwards, towards the ground. But almost before he could realize how much pain he was in, everything turned black.
Andrew felt a darkness over his body and mind, for a hundred hours, or just one; he couldn't tell. It was like a horrible dream, one where he couldn't wake, and one where nothing happened except for a throbbing pain in his head and face, and a tightening in his chest.
"Hello, wild man."
Andrew tried to open his eyes, or even his mouth, but they were glued shut. At least, that's what it felt like. He felt a soft finger on the top of his hand and fingertips. He couldn't react; he felt it was all he could do to keep breathing.
"Wild man. Andrew. Wake up, please. I don't know how you were stupid enough to fall out of a roller coaster car. You really are an oaf." Andrew heard a sniff. "But I forgive you. Just wake up, all right? Open your eyes!" A pause. "Fool. Can't even ride a roller coaster properly..."
He knew it was Ruth's voice, but nothing else. He heard her whimper, and wanted to reach out to her, but his limbs were frozen.
"You'll...you'll think I'm mad...I hope I am...but...I feel... I feel as though this is my fault. That you wouldn't have been hurt, if--if you'd never met me." She paused again. "Well, that's true. Ah...do you mind terribly? Do you wish we'd never met?"
Andrew couldn't respond anyway.
Ruth exhaled. "I'll take you home," she said quietly. "I'll be your nurse. You will wake up someday, right?"
Somehow, Andrew managed to pull his chin down into a nod. Or half a nod; he couldn't pull it back up again.
Ruth let go of Andrew's hand, and was quiet so long, Andrew thought she'd left. But he suddenly felt a gentle hand on his forehead, pushing his head back onto the pillow, and then moving his bangs aside. He felt a springy smooth pressure on his forehead a moment later--from Ruth's lips (Andrew guessed, a warm feeling replacing the pain in his chest). But a few moments later, a door closed, and the darkness pressed down on Andrew's body and brain again. The pain almost erased the very memory of Ruth's voice and touch. And Andrew descended into another deep, but completely unfulfilling, sleep.
Andrew hardly even knew who he was when he could finally open his eyes--let alone where he was, or what was happening around him. His face felt stuff, and stung terribly. His head still hurt, and his arms and legs ached too. The room he was in was sunny, done in wood panels--not like a hospital at all, and not even like a bedroom, really. A heavy down comforter was draped over his whole body. Andrew was hot, but he doubted he could lift it off, or even move his own body out from under it. He briefly wondered if Ruth had forgotten about him, found a new person to amuse herself with. He was probably just a toy, and now that he was broken, there was no point in keeping him around.
A woman swung the door open. "Oh! You're awake!"
A grin broke out on Andrew's face, but it stung like acid. And when he looked closer, he saw the woman had darkish skin, and was in a very dark, long-sleeved dress, with a tight collar. She looked more like Silas than like Ruth.
Andrew opened his mouth--that hurt his chin, even more than smiling had hurt his face. But the woman just walked over and forced him back down. "You just rest. You've had an awful time, haven't you?"
"Kind of," Andrew said, hardly moving his jaw. Even his lips hurt.
"You just rest. I'll bring you something to eat right away." Before Andrew could say a word, the woman was gone.
Andrew knew he was nowhere near home. But none of his surroundings looked the least bit insubstantial or ghostly. There were some old-looking bookshelves in the room, even a World Book encyclopedia. He was in a four-poster bed, and looking over its high edge almost made him dizzy. Of course, he figured that was just the concussion talking.
And then it hit him.
The roller coaster had probably been going fifty miles an hour, and he'd fallen right out. Of course he was dead. And now he was a ghost, living in a ghost world.
This thought didn't particularly scare Andrew, nor did it cheer him. It was just what had happened. It was a little bit of a relief to finally understand what was going on, when he had been so confused just a short while ago. (Or was it days, or years, ago, when he met Ruth? Maybe that didn't matter anymore.) He reached towards his pocket to see if Silas's drawing was still there, but he was wearing flannel pajamas. They were a bit itchy, and a little too small.
The woman came back with a tray of steaming food--chicken soup and crackers, from the looks of it, with a mug of milk. Andrew had a hard time convincing her he could eat the food without help, but the woman finally settled for standing nearby, watching protectively. The bed was so high, she was actually a bit below Andrew's head as she stood next to it.
"How is it?" the woman asked anxiously.
"Very good," Andrew said, though the milk was warm, and almost curdled. "What happened?"
"Near as we can figure, you fell out of the roller coaster. Don't know how; the seat belt was latched when Ruth got back to the station. She'll be so happy to know you're all right. She'd sleep in your room, if we'd let her."
"Are you her mom?" Andrew asked, blowing on his soup. Before he even looked up at the woman, he figured he'd said the wrong thing; she seemed awfully young. But luckily, he'd guessed right.
"Yes," she said. "When she brought you home she promised she'd take care of you, but I'd not have her missing school."
"What month is it?"
"Beginning of June. You did have an awful fall, didn't you? Well, thank God, you were only a few yards off the ground. But you just kept going once you fell out. Skipped across the pavement and the dirt like a stone, they said. Be careful when you look at yourself in the mirror. You may faint with fright."
"Do you think I'll have scars?" Andrew asked softly.
"You sound like a woman!" Ruth's mother said, laughing. She had a laugh much like Ruth's, but not quite so loud. "I'm sorry. I'm Mrs. Alcott. Your name's Andrew, right?"
"Andrew Holmes," he said quietly, slurping the noodles.
"The wild man at Sherman's Mad House?"
"Close enough," Andrew said. "How long did it take you to get used to this?"
Mrs. Alcott looked at Andrew questioningly. "How do you mean?"
Andrew hesitated to call it "being dead," remembering Ruth's reaction when he asked her when she had died. "When you first came here--to this world--it must have been quite a shock. I don't know where you came from before then, if you even remember it. But how long was it before you got comfortable?"
Mrs. Alcott looked at Andrew for a moment, then left the room. Andrew wondered how long it would take for her to come back, if she came at all. He grew lonely, and had nothing to think about except how his face and arms felt--both were raw and scraped, he realized. But Mrs. Alcott came back a couple minutes later with a wet washcloth. She took the food off the bed and forced Andrew down, then felt his forehead and put the cloth on it. "Go back to sleep, little bunny," she said softly.
"Don't leave," Andrew said quickly.
(11/8/02) (2884 words)
Mrs. Alcott looked at him. Her eyes were blue, but her hair was dark and wavy, pulled back into a bun at the back of her neck. Her skin was really quite dark, darker than Silas's.
"Everything feels heavy when I'm alone," Andrew said. He almost added, "Dark and black," but stopped himself in time.
Mrs. Alcott leaned against the side of Andrew's bed. "I know how that is," she said quietly. "Felt that way when Ruth was born."
"She's not really your daughter, though. I mean, she's not African-American, is she?"
Mrs. Alcott looked at Andrew sternly. "Don't tell me it would matter to you if she was, or even where she came from?"
"Oh, no," Andrew said quickly. But he meant it. "One of my friends is black." After saying that, Andrew thought that would get him in trouble too--the idea that having one token black friend proved he wasn't racist--but Mrs. Alcott actually seemed to relax. Maybe things were different in the world of the dead.
"My mama's white," the woman said. "I don't know a thing about my pa. But I wasn't gonna be a thing like my mama--I know who Ruth's pa is."
Andrew looked at Mrs. Alcott, and her expression grew fiery. Even so, he couldn't see any resemblance to Ruth. Mrs. Alcott's eyes were much paler, especially in her dark face, and even the slant of her chin was different.
"I've never known a man except my husband!" she yelled, so loudly Andrew was rather embarrassed. He had no idea why Mrs. Alcott was so angry.
"Didn't you have any brothers?" Andrew asked.
"What did you say?" Mrs. Alcott was so angry, Andrew actually expected her to slap him, and cringed accordingly. But Mrs. Alcott only raised her voice, not her hand.
"Your--your brothers, people in school," Andrew said quickly. "You ought to have made friends with at least one man besides your husband." He felt he was digging himself into an ever-deeper hole.
Mrs. Alcott stared at him. "You are a little bunny--or such a fox you wouldn't know the polite name for something if it ran over you with its motorcar." Her face darkened, an ashamed look in her eyes. "You haven't been to church? Abraham knew his wife, and begat Isaac?"
"Oh!" Andrew said. "You mean--" And he didn't manage to cut himself off before he used a rather colorful word for the act.
Mrs. Alcott blushed again. "Were you born in the jungle?"
Andrew could hardly believe what he'd just said. "Uh...my head aches," he said, sinking back onto his pillow.
Mrs. Alcott's face lost its flush. "I told you you should rest. You'll feel better in a couple days."
Andrew closed his eyes. "Yeah, I'm not feeling good. My brain feels funny." While that was true, Andrew really said that as a cover for his question, which he asked in a weak voice, half-pretending to be delirious. "Ruth...she's really your daughter? You really gave birth to her?"
The bedsprings shifted as Mrs. Alcott rested more of her weight on the bed. "I gave birth to that little girl. She was light as her Pa when she came out, and she was the only child born at the hospital that day. I recognized her when the doctor brought her back to me." Andrew chanced a glance up at Mrs. Alcott. Her elbows were on the bed, her chin resting in her hands. She was looking out the window, not at Andrew. "It was the first time in my life I was perfectly happy to be a Negro. If I'd been white and Ruth had been born black, Clarence would've thought I'd had another lover. But I'm dark, and Ruth's just like her Pa. I would've accused Clarence of having a mistress, but that wouldn't've resulted in me giving birth to a light-skinned baby."
"No," Andrew said.
Mrs. Alcott stood up, a smile on her face (though it was a bit too wide to be convincing). "Just a mystery. I've always wondered, and Clarence fancies Ruth might be a child sent from God. Whoever gave her to us, I'm madly in love with her, and she's been a joy to have in our house. And I'm grateful for her. We never did have another child." Her face flushed. "And not for lack of trying, believe me." Mrs. Alcott looked towards Andrew, but just for a moment before she cringed and shifted her gaze down.
"Do I look that bad?" Andrew asked.
"Yes," Mrs. Alcott said. "But you'll heal up in a few weeks." She was headed for the door, but she stopped. "Would you like a book? Or I'll bring the radio in here for you."
"No," Andrew said. "I think I'd just like the quiet for now."
Andrew knew he should do some thinking, even if he half-dreaded it.
"I'll send Ruth in when she gets home," Mrs. Alcott said.
"Hey, where are my clothes?" Andrew asked.
Mrs. Alcott smiled. "Oh, you'll look even wilder if you wear them now. They're torn and bloody, as if you'd been in a train wreck! Which I suppose you kind of were. I washed them, but I'm afraid they're really beyond repair, and the blood stains wouldn't come out."
"Oh. There wasn't a drawing in one of the pockets, was there?"
Mrs. Alcott looked down, then back up at Andrew, smiling hopefully. "Who drew it? An artist on the boardwalk?"
"No. My friend did." He felt he should clarify, "My black friend."
Mrs. Alcott smiled wider. "It's beautiful...my Ruth, all grown up."
"You recognized her?"
"I'm her mother!" Mrs. Alcott said sharply. She took a deep breath, a softer expression on her face. "Is there any way...perhaps...I might buy that drawing from you?"
"The image of Ruth is perfect, but I get a strange sensation looking at it. I feel a bit fearful, but mostly excited, as I do when I'm watching a crime movie. You know that feeling?"
"No," Andrew said slowly.
"Well," Mrs. Alcott said, "I'd gladly pay two dollars for it."
"And fifty cents, then. Please?"
Obviously, Mrs. Alcott didn't think this a bad deal at all. But maybe she figured Andrew owed her the picture anyway, for giving him free room and board, and taking care of him while he was unconscious.
Still, that picture was somehow precious to Andrew, and not just because it was all he really had left of the living world. "I can't," he said, knowing he couldn't explain all of his feelings towards the drawing. "It's...kind of the only thing I have to remember Ruth by."
"Oh, with luck you'll have more than that in a couple years' time," Mrs. Alcott said. She was smiling, but had a soberness or sadness behind it.
"You really think so?" Andrew's face flushed. Even that hurt his cuts and scrapes.
"You are only her first love. But then, Clarence was mine." Mrs. Alcott rested her hand on the doorknob. "Could I at least meet the artist who drew that picture?" she asked. "I've a feeling I'd like very much to talk with him."
Andrew couldn't just say no. "Maybe," he finally said. "It'd probably be pretty hard to arrange. But I guess maybe." That sounded a bit too harsh, so he added, truthfully, "If I ever see him again, I'll try to get the two of you together."
Mrs. Alcott nodded, still looking downcast. "Get some rest now, all right?" She left the room and shut the door as quietly as she would have had Andrew been a sleeping newborn.
With Mrs. Alcott gone, the room should have been quiet. But every couple minutes, a loud engine--presumably attached to a car--would pass by the window. Sometimes a couple girls would walk by, gossiping. But lying sick in bed always creates a kind of quietness, regardless of the surroundings, and Andrew let his mind wander.
Actually, he was rather disappointed that, for his first few hours of being dead, he was stuck in bed. But he was too dizzy, too tired, and in too much pain to get up. Besides, he might have been dead for days already, and spent who knows how long unconscious. And dead people don't get old, so he had no reason to hurry. He'd have plenty of time to be dead later.
Andrew has meant to ask Mrs. Alcott about being dead, but it was too late now. Besides, he was pretty sure she didn't think of herself as dead, just as Ruth didn't.
Luckily, before Andrew was able to think too hard, Ruth came in, still wearing her school uniform. She ran to Andrew's bedside and grabbed his hand. "Oh, Andrew! I thought you'd never wake! You were asleep for three whole days!"
"I still feel tired," Andrew said.
"We tried to contact your relatives," Ruth said. She paused. "Mr. Sherman says he never hired you, and he's never seen you before. Not even as a customer, let alone a wild man."
"You don't have to talk about this now!" Ruth said quickly. "It will keep 'til you're strong again. But once you are--"
"No, I'm all right now," Andrew said. "Right enough, anyway."
Ruth looked at Andrew, wide-eyed. "So why did you lie to me? You really are just a vagrant, aren't you?" She let go of Andrew's hand.
"I'm not a vagrant," Andrew said.
"Then what are you?" Ruth looked up at him. It was the first time he'd looked into her eyes in daylight, while she was solid. To his surprise, they weren't blue at all, but a deep hazel-brown color.
Andrew wanted to tell Ruth the truth, and told her that. "But you won't like what I have to say. You'll probably just think I'm insane, like you did last time, and throw me in the looney bin."
"Probably," Ruth said, resting her head and chest on Andrew's tall bed. "But Father has a big car; you'll fit, even if you're kicking and screaming. And besides, the bank's closed 'til you explain."
"I don't want your money," Andrew said.
Ruth smirked. "Not money." She drew her face close to Andrew's cheek, and he was more than willing to suffer the pain of being touched there for the pleasure of a kiss. But when she was just an inch or two from his face, Ruth drew back. "Not a bit of that 'til you tell me who you are."
"You won't even hold my hand?" Andrew asked.
Ruth shook her head. "Got it?"
"Yeah," Andrew said. "A cheap shot to take, really..." But there wasn't much point in not telling her, if she'd hardly even speak to him until he did. "My name's Andrew Holmes. I'm just an ordinary person. Or I used to be, pretty much, until you made me ride that roller coaster."
Ruth cringed. "I'm sorry. I guess I shouldn't have encouraged you, but I had no idea it was so dangerous."
Andrew very much enjoyed being apologized to, but he just said, "It wasn't your fault, really." And he figured that was true.
"Well," Ruth said, "go on."
"Uh..." Andrew looked rather uncomfortable. "I sometimes see--or saw--ghosts."
"Oh, you're a psychic," Ruth said.
"No...not really. It's not like I control it."
Andrew suddenly, inconveniently, realized his grandmother's body had never been found. What if only people who weren't properly buried would turn into ghosts? What if once someone was found and put in a graveyard or an urn, he just went to heaven or to hell, or even just turned to dust? What kind of horrible things had happened to Ruth and Mrs. Alcott, then, that their bodies were still lost? What had happened to his own body? How would his parents feel, not even being able to bury their missing son? Mom was probably mad with grief by now.
But even so, if the only way he could stay here was to let his parents suffer with his mysterious disappearance, then Andrew hoped--even prayed--that his body would never be found. He'd have driven his own corpse to the desert and buried it if he could have.
Ruth was watching Andrew; not being able to read his thoughts, she seemed rather bored. Andrew had forgotten what he'd meant to tell her, and made her say something.
"You're not a wild man?" Ruth asked, sounding a bit disappointed. "But if you see ghosts, why haven't I seen your show? You should have set up a business somewhere; you'd have made lots of money."
"I'm not from here," Andrew said. "And I guess I won't be seeing any ghosts from now on. Or else, only ghosts."
"I told you I'd probably scare you if I explained."
"You're scaring me, but you haven't explained anything yet!"
Andrew clasped his hands, then ran a finger over the scraped palm of the other hand. "I was born in another world. All the time I've known you, almost, you've been in my world. Or at least, that's how it looked to me. You saw my father. We're all wild men and women where I come from. I don't dress funny or keep my hair longer than most men. But you--I just saw this faint image of you, but we could touch and talk and look at each other, even if you couldn't see my world, and I couldn't see yours. You looked like--you were--a ghost."
"Oh, stop it!" Ruth said.
"You were! And then suddenly I could see your world and mine both, and you took me on that roller coaster, and--I don't know, but I was drawn between your world and mine, I'll bet. I was close enough to yours that I was going 50 miles an hour on the track. But I was close enough to my world that the car didn't hold me in, so I went flying."
"And that knocked you unconscious," Ruth said quietly.
"No," Andrew said.
"But--you were asleep for--"
"Maybe it knocked me unconscious," Andrew said. "But only for a few days."
"And you woke up."
"I woke up in your world. I can't see mine at all."
"Good," Ruth said softly.
"I know," Andrew said. "But I don't think you understand. I woke up dead, Ruth."
Ruth's expression instantly turned fierce, like a housecat sprayed with water. "There you go again!"
"It's true! You're from 1929. I was born--what, 50 years later! You're dead, Ruth!"
Ruth looked so shock, so pale, so frightened, that Andrew feared he'd killed her again, broken whatever spell held her to this ghost world. He tried to apologize, to undo it, but his mouth was dry, and he couldn't talk. But Ruth didn't fade; she just stood with that awful terrified expression frozen on her face. It was minutes later before she managed to speak. Her body trembled, and her expression changed a bit. Now Andrew couldn't be sure if she was more scared or angry.
"So you're...from the future?" she asked weakly.
"That's not the point. I'm from the living world. You were too, if you remember. But now we're both ghosts--dead people--living in a world that can't change, where nothing can happen."
"Time passes here, Andrew! And things happen! You came! I was born 17 years ago, and I grew bigger, and went to school, and I'll graduate in a month! I'm not a ghost!"
Andrew looked at Ruth steadily.
"Just lay down," Ruth said shortly. "You'll be more reasonable in the morning."
Andrew didn't know what time the sun went down in the ghost world, but the room was getting dark. Ruth stood on her toes and pressed her lips to Andrew's forehead--the only part of his face that didn't sting when touched. She bent her face close to his, her eyebrows--they were plucked--arched in concern.
"I'm worried about you! And you scare me, with your bizarre ideas. I wish you'd put them in a book, instead of bothering the rest of us with them." She ran her head over his hair. "Are you going to be all right?"
"Yeah," Andrew said. "As long as I can stay here, I'll be fine. More than fine. Happy."
"But if you're dead," Ruth asked, "how can you not be sad?"
"How could I be sad? I'm with you."
Ruth shook her head, not flattered in the least. "This isn't heaven. It's not a bad place. It's a hundred times nicer than your world, if that awful raining place was where you came from. But it's still not heaven."
"You really believe heaven's where you go when you die?" Andrew asked, almost condescendingly.
Ruth looked towards the ceiling, eyes wide. When it didn't come crashing down on Andrew, she looked back at him. "You watch your mouth. If God doesn't strike you dead, Father or Mother might."
Andrew looked at the ceiling. It actually looked like it had a new crack in it.
"Andrew, God saved you from dying--the doctors thought it was a miracle you didn't break any bones."
'Dead people can't have broken bones,' Andrew thought to himself. Like most people, Andrew didn't like to be preached to. Not even by a pretty girl. So he just closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. He stayed that way until he really did fall asleep.
(11/9/02) (3155 words) (cosmetic revisions 11/10/02)
When Andrew woke up again, it was light out, and his face was starting to feel a bit better. Mrs. Alcott was sitting in a chair next to Andrew's bed, knitting. People were arguing somewhere; it sounded like a room nearby. But when the voices were interrupted by an advertisement for Buicks, he realized it was a television, or, as he finally guessed, a radio.
"Good morning," Mrs. Alcott said, setting her knitting on the floor beside her. "Can I get anything for you? I'll go make breakfast." Before Andrew could protest (though it's doubtful he would have--he was hungry), Mrs. Alcott was gone.
When the door opened again, a few minutes later, a man came in. He was very thin, balding, and pale, wearing a suit without the jacket. He nearly walked into the bed, then went around it to pull a book from the shelf. He paused, then looked back at the bed.
"Oh, good morning. I'm Mr. Alcott. You're Andrew, correct? That young man Ruth is so fond of? And so irritated with?"
Andrew just nodded.
Mr. Alcott nodded back. "I'm sorry I haven't been in to see you sooner. I didn't even know Ginny had moved the four-poster in here, but it makes more sense than having a sick man sleep in the attic. Anyway, I was away on business. Couldn't be helped, though I felt terrible to hear what trouble the ladies got into without me around." He chuckled. "But you're looking well, all things considered. Ruth says you're a heathen. Is that true? But you seem to be a nice enough fella, heathen or not. A few trips to church and you'll be fixed up good."
Mr. Alcott paused to thumb through his book, and Andrew thought he might have a chance to protest. "I don't think--"
"It's the wrong one!" Mr. Alcott said. He went back to the shelf. "I wanted a novel, not a history lesson!" He pulled out a paperback book. "Eyes aren't so good anymore. Fingers aren't, either. My brain's not too bad, but it would rather have a good story than learn anything else. Not so much point in learning something when you'll not have so many years to use it, is there? Enough about me, though. Can I get anything for you, son?"
"Well, just let me know. Sure I can't at least lend you a book? No? Well, maybe you're too tired for that. I will be soon enough, myself, but I don't like to think about that. But Ginny can read to me, or there's the radio, or maybe even something better, like films at home." Mr. Alcott's face lit up with the thought. "Anyway, the radio's here for you to listen to. Have Ginny change the station if you'd like. Otherwise, you just rest and you'll be back to winning prizes for Ruth at the boardwalk in no time! So take care until then, son."
Mr. Alcott almost ran into Mrs. Alcott on his way out. Mr. Alcott took Mrs. Alcott's wrist--she was carrying an overloaded tray of food--and swiftly kissed her on the neck before he left. Mrs. Alcott came inside, looking sidewise at Andrew, blushing.
"He's a good man," she said.
"He talks a lot, doesn't he?"
"He'll listen to Ruth and me," Mrs. Alcott said, her face still flushed. "But he likes you. I'm glad. I was worried for Ruth, and you, too. Ruth's never had a beau before, so we were afraid he might go a bit crazy and chase you out of the house."
"Would he have?" Andrew asked.
"I doubt it," Mrs. Alcott said. She set the tray, full of breakfast foods, in front of Andrew. "But you never know how a father will defend his daughter. He might have been afraid to lose her, you know."
Mrs. Alcott watched Andrew eat for a while. When she thought he'd had enough to keep from starving, she started talking again. "Why'd you tell that story to Ruth?"
"About you being from another world. About her being dead."
"We're all dead," Andrew said. "Aren't we?"
Mrs. Alcott looked at Andrew, unflinchingly, searchingly. She felt his forehead for a fever, then looked at one of the bookshelves. "I don't know much of anything about the afterlife," she said softly. "We'll get new bodies--someday. We'll still be able to touch, and be touched, and perhaps even keep our scars from this world. But we won't be able to marry, nor can we die again, once we're in heaven."
"How do you know?"
"It's in the Bible," Mrs. Alcott said, as though that settled it. "I know I've placed my faith in Jesus so the Lord's forgiven my sins. So I'll go to heaven when I die. How could we hope for heaven, if we were already dead? And how could we watch our friends and relatives die?"
"People die in this world, when their bodies are discovered and buried in my world. Then maybe you'll go to heaven or wherever."
"Andrew, you're not a scientist, are you?" Mrs. Alcott asked.
"No, not really."
"Have you been to college?"
"Not yet." Andrew didn't think the fact that he probably wouldn't make it to college was relevant to the conversation.
"Do you ever read much?"
"And how long have you been in our world?"
Andrew didn't answer.
"Four days!" Mrs. Alcott's eyes flashed. "I'm not going to listen to a stranger who just comes in out of nowhere and insists we've had the wrong idea of what our world is for two thousand years! You may insist you're dead if you like, Andrew, but don't try to tell my family that they are."
Andrew was quiet, and Mrs. Alcott and he only made small talk for the rest of the day.
When Ruth got back home, the whole Alcott family had a long conversation in Andrew's room. He was feeling well enough to get up, but the women insisted he stay in bed at least until tomorrow, and Andrew didn't see any point in objecting. This was a family conversation, anyway.
The Alcotts talked close together, in quiet voices. Andrew wasn't sure if they were excluding him purposely or not. But they were definitely talking about something they felt was very important, and changed glances back at Andrew periodically. Mr. Alcott let his wife and father speak freely; in fact, he didn't speak much at all, but when he did, his family listened. Finally, they were silent for a long while. Mr. Alcott said one final sentence, and then they all gathered around Andrew's bed.
Mr. Alcott spoke to Andrew. "The boundaries between your world and ours have been fluid this far--or, at least, for the last week or so. I'm not sure that's changed. You're welcome, as a friend of Ruth's, to stay with us as long as you like, and as long as you are able. I suspect that will be somewhat shorter than an eternity, though you seem to disagree with me on that point. I do not believe any of us are dead, nor are we relatively immortal. I'm certain we are not unchanging. But if we are all currently deceased, that's no reason to alter our behavior, and no reason to panic. We're surely not in the Biblical hell, at least, as we can do things to alter our condition for the better, even as tragedies befall us. And good things happen to us as well. So if we are, indeed, dead, there's not even any sense in calling it that. We exist, and that's good enough for me.
"But as I said, I suspect we are very much alive. Further, I suspect this is, in fact, the same world as yours. In a sense, perhaps it is a ghost world to you, since Ginny and I are long dead in your world, and our Ruth a very old lady. But to call us dead in the present is as foolish as you returning to your own time and telling your father he is dead, simply because, a hundred years hence, he will be. No, son; I think you've simply stepped into the past of the very same city in which you met Ruth a week ago."
It was a good (though lengthy) argument, but somehow Andrew didn't like it. "But then why would I wake up here, after I died?"
"Perhaps you are dead in your own time, as we must now call it, since we're all agreed you're not from a different world. If you truly believe you're dead, I'll take your word for it. But you'll have to demonstrate some evidence if you want to convince me that you're dead here, let alone that my family and I are.
"Of course, I have no evidence that my own theory is right (though I find it hard to believe that a whole world full of living, breathing, warm people is, as you call them, ghosts). But if you'll bear with me, perhaps I can convince you. Do you know much about history?"
Andrew didn't reply for a while--not because he was hesitant, but because he hadn't expected Mr. Alcott to ever ask him to speak.
"You at least know of the World War? What year did that end in your world?"
"I dunno," Andrew said. "The '40s?"
Mr. Alcott glanced back at his family. Ruth shrugged helplessly.
"You aren't familiar with the war that took place in the 1910s?"
"Oh, World War I," Andrew said. "Yeah. But World War II's the one we cover in school."
Mrs. Alcott's dark face turned almost as pale as Ruth's. Mr. Alcott quickly laughed, though it sounded forced. "You don't know what you're talking about, son. Everyone knows the war is over. Now tell me this--what year was America founded?"
"I think the 1500s," Andrew guessed.
Ruth and Mrs. Alcott sighed, relaxing a bit, but Mr. Alcott stayed stern. "What day is Independence Day, then?"
"July 4th," Andrew said immediately.
"And when did Columbus land?"
"1492," Andrew said, just as quickly.
Ruth grabbed her mother's hand, tears in her eyes. Mrs. Alcott held her daughter close.
"We've had those same events in our world, as you call it," Mr. Alcott said. He leaned against the bookshelf. "Do you have any idea what the next decade holds for us?"
"Clarence, no!" Mrs. Alcott grabbed her husband's shoulder. "Don't you dare! I don't want to know!"
Mr. Alcott looked at Andrew for about thirty seconds, then back at Ruth. She'd sunk down into Mrs. Alcott's chair, weeping.
"Don't tell them, then," Mr. Alcott said. "And don't tell me. I can't keep a secret. Just keep your meager knowledge of the future to yourself. The Alcotts have never frequented fortune-tellers, and we'll not start now."
Mr. Alcott was very quiet for a while. Mrs. Alcott knelt next to Ruth and stroked her hair. Andrew didn't dare speak, afraid to make Ruth cry again.
"I think you'll return to your time," Mr. Alcott said. "Hopefully you can still see Ruth, but you'll go back soon enough. I think you only came here because you were so close to Ruth, and maybe because you were hurt. When Ruth saw your world, you touched her, and her hand was bleeding. I think it must be something to do with all of that. So perhaps when you're healed, you can go back home. And when you do, I want you to go to the library." Mr. Alcott went to the bookshelf, still talking. "Name a famous book from our era."
Andrew was a bit better at literature than history. "The Great Gatsby."
"That's by Fitzgerald, isn't it? Don't have it yet. But I do have This Side of Paradise. Will that do? I'll donate a copy to the Main Library, with a plate in it with my name. Clarence Alcott. You can just go down to the library and find it when you get back to your time. I know, it might go missing or wear out or maybe the library will burn down, but it's worth a try, isn't it?" He slapped Andrew on the shoulder.
"But I'm not going back to my world," Andrew said.
Ruth's tears had dried. "He's staying with us."
"Maybe he is, in which case, it doesn't really matter where he came from or if he thinks he's dead, now, does it?" Mr. Alcott nodded. "But I don't think this is all over, by a long shot, and I think I want to know what's going on even more than our guest does. You understand, Andrew? If what I can do now--if I can leave something behind in this world and it'll be in yours when you get back there--will you believe this is just the past?"
"Maybe," said Andrew, murmuring something about alternate universes. The others didn't seem to hear--or if they did, didn't mention it.
Mrs. Alcott had to hurry and fix supper. They were going to bring trays and chairs into the study and all eat as a family, but Andrew insisted he was well enough to sit at the table. He wanted to see as much of Ruth's house as he could. He was still a bit dizzy, and standing made it ten times worse, but that was an excuse to lean on Ruth, so Andrew didn't mind so much. He was still in his pajamas.
Since Mrs. Alcott had work to do, Mr. Alcott was his tour guide, speaking too long and too quickly to allow for questions. "You've been in the study for the past week or so. I know it seems a bit silly, since we had a bed in the attic--that's what we call it, anyway; it's just the storage room across from Ruth's bedroom. But it's dusty in there, and it would take hours to get everything put away. The girls thought it would be easier to bring the bed down here in pieces, than to carry you up the stairs. And besides, the old bed doesn't mind if it's banged against a wall or dropped on the floor, but they felt you might not enjoy it so much."
Ruth smiled at Andrew.
They went out the door. The stairs were right to the left of the doorway. They were carpeted, and made of a deeply stained wood. "Up ahead's front door. You went through it, but your eyes were closed, and I don't think you remember it. To the right is our parlor. Used to have a fireplace in it, but when we moved in, we had central heating put in, so we had it bricked up. I thought that a shame, but Ginny didn't want to deal with the drafts." The parlor was a nice, formal room, without a speck of dust. They didn't look at it for long. "The whole house is made of brick. It's snug in the winter, and not too bad in the summer. If we were further from the coast, we'd be terribly hot right now, but we're really not that far from the ocean." He motioned to a door. "Here's the dining room, but you'll see that soon enough. And past that's the kitchen, but we'd better not go in there while Ginny's working. She never bothers me at the office, so I'm not to interrupt her at her job. It seems fair to me. Here's the downstairs w/c. It's a touch smaller than the one upstairs, but a little fancier. There's no bath here, though. And that's the end of the tour. There's only bedrooms and the 'attic' upstairs, and you're not up to making the climb."
"I think I could," Andrew ventured.
"No doubt you think that," Mr. Alcott said, smiling. "You're a spirited chap. Well, give it a try if you'd like. Ruth and I will come behind, to make sure you don't fall. You'll have to grip the handrail; there's not room for two to walk abreast up the stairs. No matter how close they hold each other."
Andrew didn't look back, but he thought--and hoped--Mr. Alcott was smiling. Ruth helped Andrew to the stairs, but he almost fell as he grabbed the handrail. He braced his legs, locked his knees, and held himself up. It was a struggle, but after about five or ten minutes, he made it up the stairs. It felt good to exercise, really. Once they were in the corridor, Ruth grabbed Andrew, and he gladly let her hold him up. He could see rooftops out the window; they were up pretty high.
The corridor was oddly-shaped, with four doorways. Mr. Alcott pointed to each in turn. "This is our bedroom. You can't go in there; Ginny doesn't think it proper for a man to see a woman's boudoir. I tell her I close my eyes whenever I pass through her dressing room to get to the bedroom, but I doubt she believes me. That's our 'attic,' but it's no place for an infirm young man. Too cluttered, and you'd likely fall and break your head open on something sharp. The girls keep the rest of the house so neat, I can't fault them for leaving one room for the clutter. The bath's past there; like I said, not nearly as nice as the one downstairs. You can see Ruth's room, though, if she lets you, and as long as I'm here to chaperone." Ruth nodded, and Mr. Alcott opened the door for them.
It was a very clean room, with a couple teddy bears on the bed, and a stuffed toy cat. She had a desk, strewn with books and papers. The floor was polished, made of wood, and cool to Andrew's bare feet. There were flowered curtains on the window, to match the bedspread. The dresser in the corner was bare except for a pitcher of water on a doily, a teacup, and a small vase with a few flowers. There was a lamp on the bedside table, but no alarm clock.
"It's nice," Andrew said.
Ruth hugged Andrew, and helped him out of the room. As they approached the stairs, the world in front of Andrew's eyes wavered. He grabbed Ruth hard, with both arms.
"Andrew! You're hurting me!"
Mr. Alcott grabbed Andrew, pulling his arms off Ruth, and Andrew tried to break free. He could see through the walls and the floor, all the way to the dirt and grass underneath the house. The unending sky was outside the upper-story windows and walls. He could see through Ruth, and even Mr. Alcott's strong hands. The walls were nearly invisible.
Andrew struggled out of Mr. Alcott's grip and ran down the stairs. He tripped a few steps down, and tumbled the rest of the way. When he hit the ground floor, he ached all over, and couldn't tell if any bones were broken or not.
(11/10/02) (2665 words) (cosmetic revisions 11/20/02)
Ruth and Mr. Alcott rain down the stairs after Andrew. Ruth knelt by his side. Her pantyhose (they were really stockings, but Andrew didn't know that) had a lacy pattern, which made her look a bit older in her uniform.
"I knew you should have stayed in bed!"
Andrew could see his own world through the house, through Ruth, but barely, the same way he could see a hint of Ruth's skin through the lace pattern of her stockings. He couldn't quite see how far the house was off the ground. "We're on the ground floor, right?" he asked quickly.
"Of course," Ruth said, helping to turn Andrew onto his back. "Why?"
"My world's starting to come back," Andrew said. "And if I was on the second story--it doesn't look like this building is still here in my time."
Ruth looked at Andrew blankly, ready to take him to bed.
But Mr. Alcott just nodded. "And if that's true, you'd have a long fall. That's some good thinking." He smiled a bit. "But I thought you weren't going back to your own place. Did you change your mind?"
Mrs. Alcott came in, asking what was the matter. She would have come earlier, but she thought the rolls would burn. She checked Andrew but he didn't seem to have any broken bones, and he wasn't bleeding. None of his stitches had ripped out.
"Clarence, help him up. Ruth, set the table. Supper will be ready in a few minutes." The woman hurried off, followed by her daughter.
Mr. Alcott was a small, light man, but strong for his size. He brought the chair out from the study, and helped Andrew into it.
"No sense in you standing around when you're not feeling well," he reasoned. "Sure this house wasn't dynamited in your time? Then you'd have a terribly big pit to fall into when you went back home."
It might be because the house was getting darker, but Mr. Alcott already looked a bit fainter. "No," Andrew said. "It just wasn't there. I don't know what happened to it."
Mr. Alcott leaned against the wall. "Andrew, tell me...do you know any good stocks to buy?"
"No," Andrew said quickly. If he had known a bit more about history, he'd have known why he'd said no in such a hurry. But as it was, he just said it.
Mr. Alcott chuckled. "I know, I told you not to tell me anything. Just testing you. Good job."
Mrs. Alcott came in to tell them dinner was ready. Andrew could see the walls of their ghost house through Mrs. Alcott's skin, and the darkness of a vacant lot through the ghost walls.
Mr. Alcott helped Andrew to the dinner table. There was a tablecloth over it, and stylish silverware with angular line designs on it. The plates were white with turquoise borders, and the napkins were cloth. Mrs. Alcott had baked a chicken, and there were mashed potatoes and some corn, and an apple pie. Everyone had water to drink. They bowed their heads and held hands as Mr. Alcott prayed over the food. It was a good meal, but Andrew was sad and tired; he was sure everything was growing fainter. The food only seemed to half-nourish him, no matter how good it tasted. He tried to hold Ruth's hand after the prayer, but the Alcotts all gave him severe looks for trying: Ruth's parents, because it was poor manners, and Ruth herself because she could hardly eat and hold hands at once, and she was hungry. So all Andrew could do was watch as everything slowly faded, and wonder until it all vanished entirely. A hundred times worse than anything else was how transparent Ruth was, fainter than even when he had first met her. Andrew feared he may never see her again.
He didn't speak much during dinner, content to listen and watch a scene he may never see again. But since he was sick, everyone thought it quite an accomplishment that Andrew could sit up and feed himself. If Andrew had been in a better mood, he might have enjoyed the attention, and even hearing about what Ruth learned about school, family finances, and what Mrs. Alcott had read during the day--even though he didn't really understand much of any of it. But he was too sad to really have a good time; he was just trying to memorize the family picture in front of him.
After supper the Alcotts helped Andrew back to the study and tucked him into bed. The sheets were too tight, but Andrew found he could move his arms and leg straight through them, if he wished. The Alcotts didn't seem to notice, and Andrew was too tired to care much.
Mr. Alcott listened to a newscast on the radio, while silently reading the newspaper by lamplight. Mrs. Alcott worked on her knitting, her eyes on Andrew. Ruth lay back at the foot of Andrew's bed, like she was looking at clouds.
She suddenly sat up, eyes on Andrew. "Are you all right? You don't look well."
Andrew didn't answer. Ruth scooted over next to him (but on top of the blankets) and put her arms around him. Mrs. Alcott didn't protest, and Mr. Alcott didn't look up from his reading.
Ruth's touch calmed Andrew, and he saw the study more clearly (though he could still see through everyone, including Ruth herself).
"I want to stay here forever," Andrew whispered.
"Me too," Ruth replied.
"Be quiet!" Mrs. Alcott said sharply. They were listening to a radio drama now, and it was a dramatic part; the music gave that away.
"Sorry, Mother," Ruth said. But she kept talking, in a lower voice. "I want to stay here forever, not fully grown, but close enough. With my parents, and with you. I know it all can't happen, but maybe we can grow up together."
Andrew leaned against Ruth. "I wish we could."
"Why can't we?" Ruth asked, running her hand through Andrew's hair.
"You're fading," Andrew whispered.
"Sssh!" Mrs. Alcott and Ruth both hushed him at once.
Ruth pushed Andrew back down into bed. "Stop saying that." She kept her hands on Andrew's shoulders, as if she thought he'd get up and out of bed if she let go. "You're going to stay with me forever, even if I have to marry you."
"Marry?" Andrew whispered, turning so pale Ruth almost thought he was fading.
Ruth sighed, pulling away from Andrew. "I...I..." She shook her head. "I want to stay with you," she whispered. Belatedly, Ruth and Andrew both looked to see how angry Mrs. Alcott was for their interruption of her radio drama. But she was just watching the two of them. Ruth blushed.
"Oh, don't mind me," Mrs. Alcott said, laughing. "You're better than the radio any day."
Ruth laughed back, her face still red. Andrew suddenly saw she wasn't wearing make-up. But she was still pretty. "You taught me not to eavesdrop, Mother!"
Mrs. Alcott just smiled, turning back to the radio. "I also taught you not to jump into bed with any man until you were married, didn't I?"
Ruth looked down, her legs hanging off the bed. "Yes, Mother," she said meekly.
"They can't do too much, with the both of us in here," Mr. Alcott said. "Let them have their time."
"No," Ruth said. "I must go up and work on my schoolwork."
Andrew grabbed Ruth's hand. "Don't. This might be our last night together. Can't you just stay up here?"
"I can't." Ruth glanced back. Her mother was about six inches from the radio speaker, watching the box as if that would help her see the characters. Andrew suspected Mrs. Alcott was just trying to give them a bit of privacy, though. Ruth's father was still reading the newspaper. So Ruth pressed her lips to Andrew's, squeezing his hand. It only lasted a moment, but in that time, Ruth's face and everything in the room behind it flashed a brilliant color, a thousand times brighter than a flood-lit Disneyland, and a million times more brilliant than the Alcotts' fading house had appeared at night, or even in the daytime. When Ruth drew away, a heaviness filled Andrew's heart, and a nostalgia for things he knew couldn't be, things that would end soon. But he also knew his memories of that moment would stay with him as long as he lived.
Ruth leaned next to Andrew's ear, her lips tickling, and her breath warm on his cheek. "I'll come see you in the morning. Shall I wake you?"
"Yes," Andrew said, knowing it didn't matter. He was getting tired, and he could hardly see Ruth as she slid off the bed and to the ground.
Ruth waved to him, and left. Andrew closed his eyes, not caring what happened. An hour or so later, Mr. and Mrs. Alcott switched off the lights and the radio. Andrew felt a head on his forehead before he heard the door closed. The moment the Alcotts were all gone, Andrew grabbed his pillows and blankets and slid to the floor. He was sure the house would vanish entirely before dawn, and didn't want to fall off that tall bed when it disappeared. But there was nothing else he could do, so he just closed his eyes and eventually went to sleep.
The sun woke Andrew. That, and the chill. He was on a patch of itchy grass, his blankets and pillow gone. It wasn't cold out, exactly, but it was cool enough to wake him.
Andrew groaned. His face still hurt. But there was no sense in staying where he was, when he didn't really know where he was anyway, so he got up. At least he wasn't dizzy anymore. He was in a vacant lot, overgrown with tall grasses. For a moment, he thought it was sheer luck that he'd landed where there was only trodden-down grass, until he noticed that he'd been the one who'd flattened it, when he'd been dropped onto it. But he had stayed asleep through the whole night, so either he had fallen gently, or he had been too tired to wake. Or maybe he had woke but quickly gone back to sleep, before he could remember it. Andrew didn't know, and he was too downcast to care.
"Ruth!" he called out, not caring who might hear him. "Ruth! Mrs. Alcott! Mr. Alcott! Can you hear me?"
Nothing happened. The wind didn't even stir the grasses. In the distance, a car alarm suddenly sounded. Andrew gasped, but it was too far away for him to have caused it.
The sun had just risen. In its pink-orange light, Andrew saw buildings all around, old buildings, with residents inside (though he couldn't see them). The roads were all asphalt, with concrete sidewalks. Almost every house had one or two cars parked in front of it. Most were old, but none were from the '20s, and a few were from the current year. Andrew knew he was home, and he didn't like it.
Since the sun rose in the east, the ocean would be in the opposite direction. Of course, that didn't do much good, when Andrew didn't know if Ruth's house was north or south of his own. He decided to just head towards the ocean until he came across someone who could give him directions.
The moment Andrew started walking, he realized he was barefoot. Almost as bad, he was still in those old-person pajamas. He wasn't sure how long he could walk on asphalt, even though the sun hadn't yet warmed it to a painful temperature. He stepped carefully, avoiding the rocks on the sidewalk. He stepped around a broken beer bottle, but didn't see one of its shards before it pierced his foot. "Ow!"
Andrew sat down on the curb to pick the glass out. A dog barked from behind a fence. Andrew's stomach hurt, and he'd never felt more alone. He wished for Ruth, for someone, to come along and take care of him, or at least to help him, to say it would be all right. Andrew didn't cry, but he wanted to. He looked back at the lot that used to be Ruth's house. He had hardly walked any distance at all, but it looked miles away. No amount of wishing would make Ruth appear.
Andrew gave up on walking; his foot was bleeding, and the blood would mix with dirt if he stepped on it. There was a car nearby that had all its windows smashed in. It was a bad neighborhood, as bad as Channel Beach, where he'd met Ruth, and maybe worse. But he couldn't get out without help. The sun was up, so hopefully no one would assault him.
A car engine sounded in the distance, and stopped a few yards away from him. "Andrew!" A familiar voice called his name. Andrew looked around eagerly, but he saw it was just Mary. It only took Andrew a couple seconds to appreciate that even Mary's presence was better than being alone.
Mary was fully dressed, but her hair was unbrushed, and she wasn't wearing any make-up. "Andrew!" She sat down on the curb next to him. "What happened to you? Oh, Andrew..." She hugged him, for the first time Andrew could remember.
And Andrew hugged back. "I thought I couldn't get home..."
Mary murmured something, but Andrew was too busy to notice; it was all he could do to keep from crying. Mary started to stand, but she saw Andrew's expression, and sat back down. "Tell me what happened."
Andrew shook his head.
"No. Just take me home."
"Andrew, you'll have to tell Mom and Dad. You might as well get your story straight with me first."
Andrew considered, but he was too tired to make up a story, and couldn't stand the thought of her laughing at him again. "I don't care. I want to go home."
"It had to do with that ghost girl you saw, didn't it?"
"It wasn't a ghost," Andrew said softly.
Mary's eyes widened. "You don't believe in ghosts anymore?"
"No," Andrew whispered. He touched the bleeding spot on the bottom of his foot.
"Stop that," Mary said, pulling Andrew's hand back. "So you admit you were crazy? That you were just making it up?"
"I'm not crazy," Andrew said. He pressed his finger into his foot, and gasped at the pain. "They aren't ghosts, but they're real."
Mary sighed in disappointment. "You're still crazy."
"They're people," Andrew replied. "People from the past. They're not really ghosts. I just traveled through time. I guess I can kind of see through time."
"Oh, Andrew," Mary said, sighing again. "You must have had a dreadful experience. I'll drive you to the hospital and they'll take care of your foot and see if your face is all right. You just lie in the back seat and rest."
"I'm tired of this!" Andrew stood up, dripping blood onto the sidewalk. "The Alcotts thought I was crazy and now you do. Fine. Think what you want. If you aren't going to believe me, then there's no point in me telling what I think. You can just come up with a better theory if you want. Which way's home?"
Mary pointed, and Andrew limped off in that direction. Mary grabbed him; he was weak, and it wasn't too hard to hold him back. "Let me take you to the hospital," she said, "and then I'll listen to your story. Whether it's true or not, I won't interrupt you. I promise."
Andrew's foot hurt so much, he finally agreed. Mary helped him hop to the car.
"I'm going to call Mom when we get to the hospital, though. We've hardly had any sleep in the past week."
Andrew nodded, wondering if the Alcotts were as worried at his disappearance as his own family had been.
(11/11/02) (1806 words)
But he actually fell asleep on the way to the hospital.
When the doctor asked about Andrew's face, he told her he'd fallen off a roller coaster. She seemed to believe him, and told Andrew to come back in a week to get the stitches removed. She washed Andrew's foot (it was a bloody brown color by now) and sewed up the wound, then gave him a tetanus shot.
Mom and Dad insisted on hearing Andrew's voice on the phone; Mary's word wasn't enough for them. They made him promise to come straight home, but Mary said he could tell her his story first. Andrew asked her to drive him to Channel Beach, but that was too much. The best she could do was promise she wouldn't start the car until Andrew had finished talking.
So Andrew told her everything, starting with when he first met Ruth in the old hotel. It was obviously extremely difficult for Mary to keep from interrupting at first; she wanted to point out inconsistencies about every thirty seconds, and occasionally got a few words out before she stopped herself. But a few minutes into the story, Mary grew quieter and more intent. This encouraged Andrew to continue, and the more interested Mary became, the more convincing he sounded. He wound up telling the whole story, leaving very little out (mostly, his feelings for Ruth).
When Andrew had finished, Mary didn't move for a few seconds. Then she silently turned the key and started the car. She didn't say a word until they were on the freeway.
"Tell them you got banged up on a roller coaster," she said. "Probably Six Flags or Knotts; if it was Disneyland, it would've made the news. Tell them you were with Ruth if you like, or at least that you were with someone. You can say you had a concussion--that's probably true anyway--but then you'll have to go to the doctor to get checked out. No matter how hurt you got, you'll probably get grounded for at least a week or two. They were most upset that you didn't call, and even if Ruth was a nurse and took care of you without notifying the hospital or the police, you should have at least found a phone."
"Do you really think a phone from the 1920s would get through to Mom and Dad?"
"Probably not," Mary said. "If you want to tell them the truth, go ahead. Then you'll get thrown in the nuthouse instead of grounded."
Andrew punched the car door.
"Careful," Mary said. "That lock's no good, and the door might fly open. Although that would explain your injuries." She shook her head, looking forward. "I'm not so sure you'll see Ruth again, whether you get back to Channel Beach or not."
"You do think I'm crazy," Andrew said. For a minute, he'd thought Mary believed him, so it kind of hurt to find she didn't.
"We'll see," Mary said quickly. "I'll check out Mr. Alcott's evidence tomorrow. Check out! Library! Get it?" Mary laughed. Andrew didn't think the joke worth the pain of smiling.
"If the book's in the Main Library, you'll believe me?"
"Oh, no," Mary said. "If it's in the Main Library, you did some amazing research to trick me into believing your story. But there's half a dozen branches in the area, all of which probably got some books from the Main Library. If it's in a different library, then maybe you're on to something."
That sounded like too much of a long-shot, and Andrew knew he had made a mistake in telling Mary his secret.
"Cheer up," Mary said, without offering any reasons as to why Andrew should take her advice. The roads were growing familiar; they were nearly home. "Remind me to call Silas when we get home."
"Why'd you tell him I was missing?"
Mary shrugged. "Good thing I did, though. He--well, actually, he suggested I check Channel Beach first."
"I told him I was going there."
"Oh, of course," Mary said, laughing weakly. "You think I thought he had some kind of intuition or something? Please." She paused. "But then he called back and told us to check the neighborhood a couple miles northeast of the pier. I thought he was crazy but Mom and Dad said it was worth a try. We all wanted you back..." Mary swallowed, and stopped talking. Andrew felt a quick pain in his chest, a twinge of guilt, for leaving everyone like he had (even though he hadn't exactly done it on purpose).
Mary took the long way home; Andrew suspected she was trying to compose herself, but Mary said she was just trying to keep Andrew out of trouble for a few more minutes.
Maybe Mary was telling the truth. Though Mom and Dad both hugged Andrew for several minutes, they also insisted he find his tennis shoes (they were over $100--Andrew didn't expect to ever see them again). And they grounded him for a month, even while they examined his face, hugged him, and didn't listen to a word of what he was trying to tell them. Andrew thought it a bit of a pity; he had come up with a really good falling-out-of-a-moving-automobile story for his parents. Before he'd even tired of trying to tell his parents what had happened, they just sent Andrew to bed, though he wasn't a bit tired. Andrew wouldn't have minded being grounded from watching TV or playing video games or using the computer, but he could hardly bear the thought of staying away from Channel Beach for a month. Of course, he didn't know if Ruth would ever return there, either, or if he'd be able to see her at the hotel, or anywhere else. He was pretty sure their own house had been wilderness in the 1920s, and the school hadn't been built, either, so the odds of him finding her in his regular haunts were about none.
Andrew stayed in his room, looking at the walls, too tired and sad to even try to amuse himself. Mary took a shower and then drove off to the library. For the first time since he was very small, Andrew wished he could go with her.
Mary didn't get back until well past ten, when Andrew thought all the libraries would be long closed. Of course, Mom and Dad always let Mary stay out as late as she wanted. (And in return, Mary had never fallen off any roller coasters, or spent the night with a strange member of the opposite sex.) Andrew was downstairs by then; even his parents didn't expect him to stay in bed for twelve straight hours. He was halfheartedly watching a documentary with his mother. (She'd felt a bit bad for being so hard on Andrew, and thought letting him at least watch television while he was grounded would cheer him up.) Andrew wasn't so surprised that Mary came home so late, but he could hardly believe it when she came back downstairs and motioned for Andrew to come upstairs with her.
There were all sorts of books and photocopies strewn across Mary's bed, desk, and dresser. She tossed Andrew a novel, This Side of Paradise. There was no bookplate, but on the front inside cover, right above an old slip where they used to stamp the due dates, someone had handwritten, "This book donated to the Main Library by Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Alcott. June 23, 1929."
"So that convinced you?" Andrew asked.
"No. I figured it was still some kind of trick, so I looked up if these people--Clarence and Ginny and Ruth--really existed, if they owned a house...I found records of Clarence and Virginia Alcott marrying, of a Ruth Alcott born to them in 1912, of a house they bought in 1917..." Mary closed her lips tight and looked down at one of the photocopies.
"I told you!" Andrew said.
"I believe these people existed," Mary said softly. "But still, the rest of your story sounded far-fetched. I mean, maybe you stole the names off a book, maybe you even looked up to see if they had any kids, and made up a big story for them. You usually don't have that much patience, but maybe someone helped you do it."
"No!" Andrew said.
"Hear me out. So I went to Channel Beach."
Andrew held his breath.
"No, I didn't see your ghost people or past people or whatever you're calling them." Mary ran the fingers along a bare spot on her desk. "But it rained the day you disappeared."
Andrew touched one of the scratches on his face. "And?"
"There were prints in the mud, as if someone had fallen face first and slid a few yards. There was even an imprint of someone's face. It looked enough like you."
Andrew looked out the window. "What are you going to do, then?"
Mary sat down on her bed, sliding a couple papers over to make room. "Are you going to change the past?" she asked quietly.
Mary looked up. "The past! If you try to meet Ruth again, you might change the past. Change the past too much, and maybe we'll have never been born! You could change the whole world! You might wind up killing hundreds of thousands of people!"
Andrew didn't speak.
Mary smiled. "But if you want to try it, I'm up for it."
"What harm could I do seeing Ruth sometimes?" Andrew asked.
"Probably none," Mary said, laying down on a couple books. "But maybe a lot. Never mind. I've got some work to do, all right? Get out."
Andrew just stared at her, puzzled.
"Go down and call Silas," Mary said. "I forgot."
Andrew got a glimpse of Mary's photocopies. A couple were of newspaper articles. They were laid out with the headlines hidden, but a few paragraphs were circled. Andrew drew nearer to see them, but Mary pushed him away. "I said, get out. I'm trying to work!" She'd shoved him out of her room before he could stop her.
Silas picked up on the first ring. "Andrew! What happened to you?"
"Fell out of a car," Andrew murmured. "But I'm all right," he said quickly.
"Good," Silas said in a subdued voice. "That's...not what happened, though, is it?"
"What do you mean? How else would I get hurt?"
"You're hurt? Can you come over?"
"No," Andrew said. "I'm grounded."
"Then I'll come see you tomorrow," Silas said quickly.
"You'll get in trouble!"
"Right," Silas said. "Hey, where were you?"
"Where was I?"
"Yeah. Where'd your parents find you? Where'd you wake up?"
"Oh. Mary found me outside Channel Beach...right where you said I'd be..."
Silas was quiet for a while. "I'll be over tomorrow." And he hung up before Andrew could reply.
(11/12/02) (1810 words)
That night, Andrew saw Ruth standing on the beach, in an old-time swimsuit, the kind that looked like a tank top and shorts. It was bright blue. There were other men and women on the beach, but their swimsuits were black, and their bodies faint. The sun was just starting to set.
Andrew was still in his pajamas--or, more correctly, Mr. Alcott's pajamas.
Ruth laughed at him, and pulled him into the water. The saltwater cooled his cut foot. The ocean splashed up to his knees, weighing his pajama pantlegs down.
"This is dangerous," Andrew said, trying to pull Ruth back onto the beach.
The ocean sparkled. There weren't many people swimming, and the waves splashed up in inviting white peaks.
"Ruth, come back with me!" Andrew said. Ruth's arm was wet with seawater, and felt cold.
Ruth pulled Andrew's hand off her own. "I can't." She looked out at the sunset over the water. The ocean turned orange. "It's so beautiful. There's nothing worth seeing back there."
"That's not true! You saw the--the--" Andrew's thoughts dissolved like a message written in the sand, yielding to the surf.
Ruth put her wet, cold arms around Andrew. "You have to choose. You can go back, or you can stay with me. You can't have both, you know."
Andrew's arms wrapped around Ruth. He shivered with cold, but Ruth seemed happier. His clothes were soaked through, and the waves kept coming higher. Soon even his hair was wet. There was something very, very wrong.
And Andrew didn't care.
He woke up in a cold sweat, his skin clammy, and his scalp dripping. His eyelashes were wet, maybe with sweat, or maybe with tears. Maybe with ocean water. It didn't much matter. He got out of bed. He was wearing his own dry pajamas. Mom had washed and folded Mr. Alcott's; they were on the dresser. Andrew got dressed and picked up the pajamas, then went downstairs.
He wanted to go to Channel Beach, but his bicycle was gone. He kicked the wall. The vibrations knocked a picture down, but it didn't break, and no one woke up.
Andrew half-considered sneaking up and stealing Mary's keys to drive to the beach, but there was a soft (though not timid) knock at the door. Andrew opened it without checking to see who it was.
It was Silas. He just looked at Andrew for a few seconds. "Need a ride?" he asked.
Andrew snuck out, still holding Mr. Alcott's pajamas. He didn't smile, but he was so happy, even his stitches didn't hurt anymore.
Silas's car barely ran, of course--he had picked it up for free, promising to soup it up for a demolition derby, and had driven it back home that night. He played around with it every other weekend to keep it running.
Andrew didn't care that the shocks hardly worked; he would have ridden strapped to the roof to get to Channel Beach.
"She won't be there," Silas said softly, getting into the car.
"How do you know?" Andrew asked. He paused. "'She' who?"
"Ruth. Your girlfriend."
"She's not..." Andrew stopped. "What do you know about her?"
"Do you want to see her, or not?" Silas asked. He hadn't shaved, probably in a couple days, and his shirt was stained. Of course, Silas probably only owned a couple clean shirts anyway.
"We can find her school," Silas said. "But you won't see her. I don't know what we can do, unless we just go back to her house and wait. What used to be her house," he finished soberly.
Andrew didn't get into the car. He limped back upstairs (the pain had returned to his body when Silas suggested they might not see Ruth after all) and carefully opened Mary's door. She was sound asleep, her hand--and head--on a pile of photocopies. Andrew only dared take a few things from the dresser, which was right next to the door. He grabbed a couple copies and a book and hurried back downstairs.
"Man, hurry up," Silas said. "Your parents'll wake up as soon as I start this thing."
Andrew climbed in and buckled his seat belt. Silas turned the key, and the car made a horrible noise for a few seconds before it calmed down and ran quietly enough to allow conversation. Silas sped off, but it was nowhere near as fast (or scary) as the roller coaster ride. Andrew had no trouble reading Mary's papers as Silas drove.
"What are those?" Silas asked.
"A history of California," Andrew said. "Useless. And--"
The photocopies were from the local newspaper, an article from October 29, 1929. "Experts Say $14,000,000,000 Lost in Stock Market."
Andrew folded the copy in half, words inside, and looked back out the window, just wondering at his own stupidity, for not remembering that sooner.
"What was it?" Silas asked.
Andrew put the copy into the history book. "1929? Black Tuesday?"
"So? Almost everyone who lived through the Depression's dead now."
"Not Ruth," Andrew said quietly. "Not Mr. and Mrs. Alcott. I have to warn them!"
Silas watched the road, steering too often, overcompensating. His eyes were sunken.
Andrew grabbed the History of California with both hands. Something cut him, right between his forefinger and thumb, just where it hurts the most. There was a slip of paper marking a place in the book (besides the photocopy he slipped between the pages). The intentional bookmark pointed to a half-page map of Andrew's city and the neighboring areas, including Channel Beach. Of course, he could have found a better rendition in any road map, but Mary never marked pages without cause. The road map was brown with darker brown words and lines.
It was an old map.
Andrew studied it, though Silas's driving grew a bit distracting.
"Any schools within walking distance of the pier?" Silas asked.
Andrew wasn't sure if Silas knew more than he'd told him, or if he was just piecing together the obvious. "Looks like it," Andrew said, telling him the cross-streets.
"That's a grocery store now," Silas said. "And a rough part of town, besides."
"How do you know?"
"It's my 'hood, man." Andrew thought Silas was joking, perhaps playing up how he looked a little wild, like a gangster. But Silas had a strange expression. "Why do you think I live there?" he asked quietly.
"Because you're poor," he said without thinking.
"You don't think I could do a little better than a roach-infested studio apartment in a neighborhood where you might get beat up if you go out after dark?"
Actually, that's exactly what Andrew thought.
"I could at least afford one or the other," Silas mumbled. "A place without roaches, or someplace safe."
"Oh," Andrew said.
Silas stopped at a red light, and looked over at Andrew. "I just feel different in my neighborhood. And ever since you came by and I drew your not-quite girlfriend, I've been having weird dreams and drawing weird things." Silas suddenly made a U-turn. Andrew grabbed the console, afraid of flying out--if the door of Mary's car didn't always stay shut, then Silas's door must be liable to fall off entirely. Silas drove a bit like a demolition derby star, in fact, but when you had a car as old as his, that seemed natural. Even if it was a little scary.
"Where are you going?" Andrew asked, his hands still shaking.
"Don't worry so much. It's daytime. You rode your bike to my place; that's worse than riding in a car with some company, isn't it?"
"I'm a little less likely to get my head cracked open if I'm riding my bike," Andrew said, smirking.
"But you probably can't outrun a couple guys with baseball bats on your bike."
"You really think the thugs here can afford bats?" Andrew deadpanned.
Silas finally smiled. "I'm glad someone finds my predicament amusing."
Silas adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. "Dry up, Andrew."
Andrew blinked. "What?"
"Shut up, I said!"
Andrew knew he'd heard something different.
When Silas opened his apartment door, Andrew half-expected the room inside to have transformed into something different, maybe something like a room in the Alcotts' house. But it was the same dirty apartment, the same miniature refrigerator serving as a table next to the same lumpy futon, and the same cockroaches (or at least their relatives) scuttling inside the walls.
But there were dozens of sketches all around the room. The nearest one was of Ruth, a quite concerned look on her pretty face. Her lips were nearly invisible; she wasn't wearing make-up. There was a color sketch next to it, with Ruth half-kneeling, laying over the foot of a bed. Her shoulders were up, and Andrew thought he could almost hear her weeping.
Further in the room were more pictures, different ones. There were sketches of the ocean--Channel Beach, in its better days, Andrew could tell in an instant. There were sketches of boardwalks and crowds and the roller coaster and the Dodge 'Em cars and even the madhouse.
"You copied that from a book, didn't you?" Andrew asked, already guessing the truth.
Silas looked at Andrew steadily.
"You were looking at a photograph?" Andrew asked. He put his hands in his pockets. "Fine. Where'd you see it?"
"My dreams," Silas said. "I guess I see things too."
"What do you mean? Who else sees things?"
"You do," Silas said.
"I never told you that!"
"Mary did. Over the phone, when you were lost. She said you saw ghosts sometimes. And..."
Andrew didn't hear the rest of what Silas was saying. There was a drawing of a man and a woman, posed like a formal portrait. They were in their younger years, but wearing old-style clothes. The woman might be wearing a corset. Her skin was dark, and the man was thin. It was the perfect image of a photograph Andrew had seen in Ruth's house.
"Did you see them?" Andrew asked quickly.
"Just their picture," Silas said.
The drawing was much more detailed than Silas's other ones. The couple's teeth were all placed perfectly (even Mr. Alcott's chipped canine tooth was drawn crooked), and the folds of their clothes looked like a photograph. Silas's pictures of Ruth were all unmistakably Ruth, but this drawing looked more like Mr. and Mrs. Alcott than they had looked in person. Silas had signed the sketch.
"Who are they?" Silas asked, looking over Andrew's shoulder.
"Ruth's parents," Andrew said quietly. "Didn't you know that?"
"I saw...some things in my dreams." Silas started pacing his small apartment, taking care not to step on any sketches or pencils. "Lots of Ruth, and I saw you with her. And that picture. Those people...Ruth's parents..." He looked up at Andrew. "Can I meet them? Take me to meet them."
"Why? Mrs. Alcott's married, you know.
(11/13/02) (2140 words) (cosmetic revisions 11/14/02)
And she's a lot older now. Well, not now; she's probably dead
"Don't say that," Silas said, his blue eyes turning cold.
Andrew imagined Mrs. Alcott lying dead--not an old woman, but a young one, dead of some unknown trauma. "Sorry," he said in a subdued voice. He sat down.
Silas stopped pacing, near the window. "What are their names?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Alcott. Ginny, and...Clarence. Yeah."
"I'm not in love with Mrs. Alcott," Silas said, opening the curtain. The sunlight just revealed the yellowing wallpaper, the cracks in the walls, and how dirty everything was. "I could never fall in love with Mrs. Alcott, any more than I could fall in love with Ruth. And not just because she's married. But if I did feel that strongly about her, why would I care how old she is? Remember Hannah? She was 20."
"That's not much of a difference. You're 18, right?"
"17," Silas said. "She could've gone to jail."
Silas graduated last year. "You're 17?"
"I skipped a couple grades. I'm smart." Silas rested his forehead on the window glass. "I would've studied all night, every night, not even sleeping, if it'd get me out of that house." He closed his eyes for so long Andrew imagined he'd fallen asleep.
Silas finally straightened. "Find them for me. Mr. and Mrs. Alcott."
"I can't just find them," Andrew said. "What do you think I am, a wizard?"
"If you saw people who aren't real, you've either got magic powers, or you're crazy."
"But they're real! Just from a different time!"
"I'll believe that when you show them to me," Silas said. "Wizard." He pulled out his keys. "Come on. I'll drive you wherever you want. Come on. We'll find them. And Ruth too."
"Come on. You have that old map. Don't you want to see her again? If not, you've gotten in a mess of trouble with your parents for nothing."
Andrew went out in a daze, knowing he wouldn't be any good in performing his duties as navigator. Silas was studying the map in the history book. "All this lists is schools and hospitals," he said, handing the book back to Andrew. "And graveyards."
Andrew got in the car. "They wouldn't be there," he said quickly. "In a graveyard, I mean."
"There's one between the main strip of Channel Beach and the school Ruth probably went to."
Somehow Andrew knew that's exactly where Ruth was, even though it was a school day. He'd never been afraid of graveyards before, but the thought of going to an old one--probably filled with bodies of people he had seen as young beachgoers less than a week ago--almost paralyzed him with fear.
But he knew that's where Ruth was. She probably wasn't in any danger, but if there was a chance he might see her, he should go.
"All right," Andrew finally said. "We can go to the graveyard."
"Dude, we're already halfway there," Silas said.
"What are you so happy about?"
"Meeting them," Silas said quietly.
"You think Ruth's parents will be there?" Andrew asked, raising his eyebrows.
"I'll meet them," Silas said, squinting. "The sign's faded, but I think this is it."
There was a big parking lot in front of the graveyard; it was so old, there weren't roads leading to the gravesides. Its exterior walls were overgrown with ivy--half of it dead. The ground of the graveyard was the same way; half the dirt was covered with unmowed wild grass, some of which reached up past the young men's knees. The other half was dirt and sand. There were tall monuments instead of flat stone plates set into the ground. The gravestones were almost all crooked, though, and almost half had toppled or split. Some were intact but hidden under the tall grass.
"It must've been real pretty here," Silas murmured.
Andrew just shuddered. "It's a graveyard. Full of dead people." He pictured one particular grave, which he had a horrible feeling was here. More than anything, he hoped he wouldn't accidentally find it. He had no idea what would happen if he did.
"Well?" Silas asked. He bowed to a gravestone, then stood on it to get a better view. "Sorry, Mr. Carlson. Now, Andrew. Find Ruth for me."
Andrew's stomach churned. "How could I do that? Most the names are worn away anyway."
Silas's eyes flashed. He leapt off the gravestone with more grace than Andrew remembered him having. "I thought we were on a quest to find your girlfriend," he said.
Right. Her living body might be here too. "She's not my girlfriend."
"Fine," Silas said, turning away. "We don't have to find her. I'll just drive us both home."
Silas sounded serious, but Andrew had seen a look of fear in his eyes before he turned away.
"Why do you care so much?" Andrew asked.
"Just find her," Silas said, kicking at the dirt.
So Andrew walked around the graveyard for a few minutes. He knew it would take at least an hour to check everywhere. It wouldn't be so hard if it weren't for the tall grasses everywhere, and the fact that Ruth might be hiding not just behind them, but literally in them. He stepped onto a stone bench--climbing on a gravestone seemed mean--and shielded his eyes from the sun, squinting and looking around. He didn't see anyone, not even Ruth. But he could feel that she was near, which was even more frustrating--he wasn't sure if she was just out of sight, or if she might be just a foot away, with an unbridgeable 70 years separating them.
Finally, he saw something move. He'd thought it was a toppled grave marker, but he could see through it, and its shoulders were shaking.
"Ruth!" he yelled, not caring if Silas thought he was crazy. "Ruth!"
The figure froze, then slowly got to its feet. Andrew just barely heard a female voice, as faint as the ghostly figure. But by then she was running towards him.
"Do you see her?" Andrew asked. He stepped down from the bench, but worried Ruth wouldn't be able to find him, so he climbed back up. Ruth had dropped out of sight by then, but he could hear noises in the grass. And in just a couple minutes, Ruth had leapt onto the bench and thrown her arms around Andrew, nearly knocking him over.
"I thought you'd left forever," Ruth said. Her rouge was streaked with tears again.
"I only disappeared yesterday," Andrew said. "Right?"
"Yeah," Ruth said. "Is that your friend?"
Andrew followed Ruth's gaze. Silas was right; the graveyard had been pretty. The grass was all neatly trimmed, now that Ruth was near. The monuments were polished, and most of them were adorned with flowers. The place smelled nice, and was utterly beautiful, even though the weather had turned cloudy.
"I'm Ruth," she said in response to Andrew's inattentiveness. "Pleased to meet you," she added, extending his hand towards Silas.
Silas hesitantly reached out and touched Ruth's hand. When he found it was solid, he drew it close to his face and kissed it, like a knight admiring a lady on high. "It's my pleasure," he said softly.
Ruth laughed, stepping off the bench. "What a nice man you are!"
But Silas wasn't listening. He was looking around the graveyard, obviously seeing it in its restored beauty. Ruth had dropped Andrew's hand, so he was back in the old, worn-down graveyard. He sat down and watched Silas and Ruth talk. Silas was looking around in amazement, as if he was in a royal palace, not a place where dead people were rotting under his feet.
"I'll have to take you to Channel Beach," Ruth said, leaning on Silas's arm. "If you think this old place is pretty--"
"We'd better be going," Andrew said coldly, standing up.
Ruth just laughed. "Don't cast a kitten, Andrew. You're my sheik, my fella, and always will be, if I have anything to say about it." To console Andrew (and before he could ponder the meaning of her words), Ruth let go of Silas's hand and mussed Andrew's hair. "Just let me show him around."
Andrew wasn't really convinced, but Ruth led Silas through the graveyard, and they both admired the plants and the markers. Ruth apparently knew the story behind several of the people buried there. But before they had passed out of sight, Silas and Ruth both stopped walking. It looked like their hands were still touching. "Andrew! What happened?" Silas asked, looking around.
Ruth looked back towards Andrew and asked a similar question.
"What do you mean, what happened?" Andrew took a couple steps towards them, and Ruth grabbed Silas's hand again. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Silas said. "You just disappeared for a minute--"
"No, you did!" Ruth looked back at Andrew. "Oh, honestly, are you so jealous you'll magic Silas away when you think we're too close?" She paused, and her brownish eyes sparkled. "Oh, let me guess. You don't think white girls should date Negroes?"
"That's not it!" Andrew said. "I just don't think you should date anyone but me!"
Ruth's expression sparkled, though her eyes kept their sparkle. She was pretty. "You're my beau. Now get over here." She held out her other hand and Andrew took it. The graveyard wasn't scary at all when it was young and when Andrew could feel the warmth of Ruth's hand.
"What were you doing here, anyway?" Andrew asked.
Ruth looked him square in the face. "Not in front of Silas." She looked forward, and suddenly jumped. "Andrew! What happened?"
"Yeah!" Silas said. "What, did you break her?"
The graveyard was old again. Ruth looked more startled and puzzled than outright horrified, at least, until she saw the grave in front of them.
Andrew dropped Ruth's hand. "Don't look. Don't read the name. Let's get out of here."
"Yes, yes," Ruth said quickly. "Come on, you two. Get a wiggle on! Move it!" She walked towards the entrance, still holding Silas's hand. The two of them walked right through the blades of grass and even fallen gravestones, but Andrew had to climb over them. He was out of breath by the time they reached Silas's car. Silas looked a bit confused; he couldn't see the car at all.
"Let me have Ruth for a minute," Andrew said. "I want to do a couple experiments touching her."
"Oh," Silas said. "Sure. There's a blanket in the trunk, if you think you two can fit in the backseat okay. Or you can go to the graveyard again, but that's probably bad luck--"
Ruth slapped Silas, and looked at Andrew fiercely. "What are you trying to do?"
"Nothing like that!" Andrew said. "Not that I'd mind...but I just wanted to find out why--how--this is all working." He took Ruth's hand. "When I take your hand, you see my world--"
Ruth grabbed Andrew by the collar, trembling. "They built a car racing track around the graveyard?"
Now that Ruth brought it up, Andrew heard cars zooming by behind him, pretty near the graveyard.
Ruth looked so scared, Andrew let her go. "And when you touch me, I see your world. I guess it doesn't work that way with Silas, though; he took your hand and nothing happened. Right?"
"The graveyard probably turned beautiful when I took your hand," Silas said, rubbing his flushed cheek. "But I didn't notice until later."
"You didn't explain anything to him, did you?" Ruth asked.
Andrew shrugged, putting his hands in his pockets. "I guess I could." And he told Silas the same thing he had told Mary, the whole story. Silas didn't doubt a word of it, though he looked rather jealous.
"It's all about you," Silas said sullenly. "I could try for a hundred years to get a glimpse of this world--to meet Mr. and Mrs. Alcott--and I'd never make it. But you just stumble across it."
Ruth smirked, leaning against Andrew. "Now who's jealous?"
Silas glared. "You don't understand. I need them..." He looked so downcast, Andrew was a bit frightened, and Ruth instantly pitied him.
"What's the matter?" she asked quietly.
Andrew just got a dark feeling inside. "This won't last," he mumbled.
The others ignored him. Silas looked up at Ruth, then shook his head. "It's nothing. Hey, Andrew, maybe we can show Ruth our world's not so bad?"
"She likes thrill rides, right? Amusement parks? Give her a little hope of good things to come, after depressions and wars and everything?"
"Dry up," Andrew said, his voice low.
Ruth grabbed Andrew's arm and looked at his wristwatch. "Look at the numbers!" she cried.
"It's digital," Andrew said.
Ruth just marveled at it. "But how do you... It's...2:30...right? I need to go home soon."
(11/14/02) (1795 words) (revisions 11/15/02)
Andrew could hardly believe it was that late. His parents would ground him--ground him into sausage meat.
"Good!" Silas said, interrupting Andrew's despondent thoughts. "I'll drive you."
"You have a car?" Ruth's face lit up, and she massaged her cheeks, spreading the rouge out more evenly. "Where is it?"
"Your hands' on it," Silas said. "Kinda through it."
Andrew reached for Ruth's hand, but Silas grabbed him back. "Think about it, man!"
It took Andrew half a minute to realize that if he grabbed Ruth's hand, she might materialize with her arm through the hood of the car. He didn't know what would happen, and he was a little curious, but would never risk Ruth's safety to find out.
"Step to the right a couple feet," Silas said.
Ruth did so, and Andrew took her hand.
"Oh!" Ruth dragged Andrew all around the car. "It looks so fast! But how old is it? It looks like it's been in a hundred accidents."
"Hey, at least I have a car," Silas said.
"I'll get one next year," Ruth replied.
Andrew was pretty sure that wasn't true, no matter what her parents had promised, but he didn't speak.
"Let's take her home," Andrew said.
"Wait." Silas frowned.
Ruth smiled. "I'll give you money for the gasoline."
"That's not it," Silas said. "Didn't Andrew almost get killed, traveling in a moving vehicle?"
Ruth stood closer to Andrew. "I wasn't strong enough to hold him, but surely Andrew can hold me close enough to keep me safe."
"How far's your house?" Silas asked.
Ruth shrugged. "Just a few miles. Nothing I can't handle, though I may be limping at the end, with these shoes."
"My foot still hurts, from the broken glass," Andrew said. "Come on. Just drive carefully and we'll be fine."
Silas shook his head.
"Do you want to her parents or not? I can't walk there, Silas."
That got him. Silas got in the driver's seat, and Andrew held Ruth close in the back seat. Ruth seemed to enjoy it, and rested her hands on Andrew's lap, her head on his shoulder. "Just don't start necking," she murmured, "or I might neck back, and then we might both fall out of the car."
"Don't start necking or I'll pull over," Silas said, smirking. He looked back towards the road, cursing. "Don't tell me it's broken again."
"What is it?"
"Won't go over 30," Silas said, cursing again.
"How fast does it usually go?" Ruth asked.
"It'll do over 60 downhill."
"Miles per hour?" Ruth asked, snuggling closer to Andrew. "Hold me tighter."
Andrew did so.
"It's probably your fault, Ruth," Silas said, glancing back. "Cars back in the '20s didn't go as fast as they do today, probably. Once you're out of here it'll run fine."
"Oh," Ruth said.
They were all quiet for a while. Silas's radio didn't work. "Where are we going?" he finally asked.
"Turn left on Ira," Ruth answered, "and in a couple miles, turn right on Syracuse. I guess none of us'll see it--if it's really been torn down now--but maybe Andrew can show you where it is." Ruth clenched her fists; she didn't look particularly alarmed or angry, but it was an effort for her to keep from consciously touching Andrew back. "His car's so quiet."
Compared to cars from Ruth's time, it probably was.
"In our time, my car's considered a piece of garbage," Silas said.
"What mean people!" Ruth cried. "I guess it's an old car here, but it runs, better than most I've seen! Right?"
"Yeah," Silas said, smirking. "Brakes only went out once."
"Well, I'll have a better car than this one soon," Ruth said. "Then I'll take you out, Andrew."
"You can't do that!" Andrew said. "If you let go of me while you were driving, I'd fall right through the car!"
"Oh, sure; you'll let me risk my life riding in a car from someone else's world, but you're scared to do it yourself!"
"You couldn't drive and hold my hand at the same time, could you?" Andrew asked.
"What if she got an automatic?" Silas volunteered.
"A what?" Ruth asked.
"Oh," Silas said.
"You're right, Andrew," Ruth said. "But we can have all sorts of fun without driving, can't we?" She ran her finger along the hem of Andrew's shorts. "Even in the car." And she kissed his cheek.
"I see that!" Silas said.
"Sorry," Ruth mumbled.
Silas slammed on the brakes. If Andrew's fingers hadn't been locked, keeping his arms firmly around Ruth, she might have gone flying. Silas looked out the window. "This is the place, right?"
Ruth looked too. "I don't know. The house next door looks a bit like our neighbor's, but it's the wrong color."
"They might've painted in 70 years," Silas said.
Andrew didn't let Ruth go until Silas took the keys out of the ignition. Once Ruth was free of Andrew and out of the car, she sighed. "There it is. I was hoping perhaps it hadn't been destroyed, but there you go."
Silas got out. "Lock your doors, will you?"
While Andrew was locking the two passenger-side doors, Silas held his hand out to Ruth. "Come on. I need to see your house. Your parents are home, right?"
"My mother probably is. My father's working, but I'm sure you two can stay to dinner."
Ruth and Silas walked forward. "Wait for me!" Andrew said. "And take my hand, Ruth! I can't climb air!"
"There's no steps to our front door," Ruth said cheerfully. "A lady in a wheelchair lived here before we bought it. So there's nowhere to fall." She opened an invisible door, and led Silas forward.
Andrew followed them. "I'm not halfway through the floor, am I?"
"No," Ruth and Silas both said at once. "Right on top of it, like you should be," Silas added.
That eased Andrew's mind a bit, and he relaxed. As he did, he could see a little of Ruth's house. It was just the outlines of walls, and he could walk right through them if he wanted (he didn't dare try, but when he tried it with his left little finger, it sunk in like the wall was a hologram). But he could see Ruth clear as day, and he could see Mrs. Alcott in the kitchen, even though that was several yards away, through two or three walls.
Ruth took Silas into the kitchen and introduced him to her mother. Mrs. Alcott smiled politely, though a bit nervously.
"I told you, Mother, Andrew's my beau."
Mrs. Alcott grew visibly calmer. "Well, then, welcome! Where did you meet Ruth?"
"He's one of Andrew's friends," Ruth said.
Silas just stared blankly, at a loss for words. "Mrs. Alcott, it's very nice to meet you," he finally managed.
"You too," Mrs. Alcott said, bowing slightly. "You will stay to dinner, right?"
"Yeah," Silas said, swallowing.
Mrs. Alcott smiled warmly at Silas, squeezing his shoulder. "Calm down. Even if you really do mean to court my Ruth, you look friendly enough. I guess she could do a touch worse, and she might be hard-pressed to do much better, given her...heritage...." Mrs. Alcott bit her lip.
"Hush, Mother," Ruth said. "Come on, Silas. I'll show you the house."
The house wasn't real enough for Andrew to sit down in, so he had to sit in the grass which he could vaguely tell was the living room floor. They had moved the radio back out from the study, but everything else looked just as Andrew remembered it. Except more faint, of course. He could hear Silas asking Ruth questions, almost all of which were about her parents, not the house. The two of them went upstairs. Andrew could see through the second story, all the way through the roof and to the sky. He could see up Ruth's skirt, and watched until Mrs. Alcott came into the room.
"You may turn on the radio if you'd like," she said, smiling. "Might be more fun than staring at the ceiling."
"Not really," Andrew said. But he looked down, his face flushed. "Sorry."
"And those chairs are for sitting, not for looking at."
"I can't sit on them," Andrew said. He passed his hand right through one of their wooden legs.
Mrs. Alcott gasped. She touched the top of the chair, gingerly, as though she expected her fingers to sink into it. But they did nothing of the sort.
"This is your world," Andrew said, "where you belong. But I don't. I'm like a ghost here."
Mrs. Alcott shuddered. "So it's really true. The world is in for more war."
"Haven't there always been wars?" Andrew asked. "I don't know any history, but even I know that."
Mrs. Alcott smiled bravely. "You're right, Andrew. We'll have war until the end of the world. And while I look forward to Christ's triumphant return, it does warm my heart to know that the world will still be around long enough for Ruth to have her children. When it comes down to it, I'm not so afraid to die, but I hate the thought that the world might just come to an end, that people will never again marry, or have children... I can't help but feel some affection for the world and all its quirks, and I suppose war is part and parcel with that."
Mrs. Alcott really did have a pretty voice, softer than Ruth's, but without the faint note of self-doubt that Ruth usually hid with volume.
"Yeah," Andrew said. "We haven't blown ourselves up yet."
Mrs. Alcott's smile faded, but she just stood up. "Please, don't tell me any more. I'd best get back to the kitchen anyway; the bread will burn."
Andrew could almost smell it, and he could nearly feel the plush carpet under his hands. He didn't feel prickly grass, anyway.
Mrs. Alcott headed to the door. "I'm sure Ruth and Silas will be down soon."
Andrew looked to the ceiling again, but Ruth and Silas were downstairs, in the study. (The bed was still there.) He limped over to see them. Andrew was trying to explain to Ruth why he so desperately wanted to meet Mr. and Mrs. Alcott. But he didn't seem to have a clear idea of his reasons, himself, so he couldn't make Ruth see what he was talking about.
Ruth dropped Silas's hand and hugged Andrew when he came through (literally, through) the wooden door. Silas looked a bit dazed when Ruth let him go--Andrew knew he was shocked to find himself in a vacant lot--but he quickly laughed. "I'm not that bad of company, am I?"
Ruth smiled back at Silas. "You're a kind and handsome man, but I've already made up my mind."
(11/15/02) (966 words)
"Good," Silas said. "I don't feel that way about you, either."
Ruth looked a bit dejected. "Oh. But I'm pretty, right?"
That was a touchy question, of course. But Silas just smiled. "You know what? I didn't see it at first, but you really are. If you'd wear less-ugly clothes..."
"These came straight from New York!" Ruth said fiercely. "Well. It doesn't matter what you think. Andrew?"
"They actually look good on you," Andrew said. "I can hardly picture you without them."
"But I'll bet he tries every night," Silas added.
Andrew blushed a bit. "Silas!"
Ruth just smiled. "I'm sure he does. And that's as close as he'll come for a bit yet." And she kissed him on the cheek.
Silas wasn't listening. He was looking towards the front door (even though a few walls blocked the view). Of course, since Silas wasn't touching Ruth, her house had vanished for him. He ran through what he felt was thin air, though to Ruth and Andrew both, it looked like he ran through a bookcase. They followed Silas, using the doorways.
Silas was standing near the front door, even though he couldn't see it (or anything else of note). He waited, expecting something that no one saw.
"Calm down," Ruth said softly.
But Silas suddenly gasped, and almost walked through the door itself, before Andrew grabbed his shirt to hold him back. In just a moment, the front door opened, and Mr. Alcott came in.
"Mr. Alcott!" Silas shouted. He looked very odd next to the older man. Silas was six inches taller than him, built much stronger, and, of course, darker-skinned. Silas held out his hand. "I'm Silas Brook. I've wanted to meet you ever since I first saw you. You'll think I'm silly, but--"
Mr. Alcott didn't shake Silas's hand. Instead, he looked the young man up and down, then threw his arms around him. "Silas...it's so good to meet you."
Ruth and Andrew glanced at each other. Without speaking, Ruth clearly told him that this wasn't normal behavior for her father, and Andrew's eyes said the same thing about Silas.
Silas hugged back. His arms were shaking. "You too..." The men embraced for nearly a minute before finally letting go at once, as if by silent agreement.
Silas dropped his gaze from Mr. Alcott. "I want to ask--but I don't know--"
"Ask me anything, son," Mr. Alcott said cheerfully.
Silas's countenance brightened. "Why--why did you--why were you so happy to meet me?"
A quieter man wouldn't have explained at all, but Mr. Alcott spilled his feelings as though Silas were his brother. "I don't rightly know. I just wanted to. When I first saw Andrew, I knew just who he was--a man very dear to Ruth, and, by extension, someone important to me. Of course, he was unconscious, so that may have helped. But you--when I saw that look in your face..." Mr. Alcott shook his head, evidently frustrated at being unable to articulate. "I doubt I can explain it any better than you can, son."
Silas was grinning like a schoolboy. "You really think I'm your son?"
Mr. Alcott laughed without looking closely at Silas. "That's what I call all young men I like. Isn't that right, son?" he asked, nodding towards Andrew.
"Yes," Andrew said quietly.
Silas looked down a bit. "All right."
Mr. Alcott smiled at Silas, and squeezed his shoulder. "Come on, son. Cheer up a bit."
Ruth dropped Andrew's hand, and nudged Silas. "You're the first person I've seen him hug--besides family, I mean."
Silas's eyes twitched, and he made a funny face, kind of sad.
"Let's go sit down for supper," Mr. Alcott said, smiling. "Doesn't it smell wonderful?"
Since Ruth wasn't touching them, neither Andrew nor Silas could smell anything except the faint smell of barbecue coming from quite a distance. "How are we going to eat?" Andrew asked quietly.
"You'll sit down and put the fork in your right hand, unless you're cutting your steak." Ruth smirked. "Napkin in your lap, Silas." Andrew started to object, but Ruth cut him off. "Mother and Father were impressed that you managed to use utensils last time. They still half-see you as a sideshow act, so you can eat with your fingers and grunt if you want. Eat your napkin for all I care."
Andrew glared. "We won't see any fork or napkin or table or food unless you're touching us."
"Oh," Ruth said. "Hey, Silas, punch Andrew!"
"What?!" Andrew asked.
"All right," Silas said, cracking his knuckles.
"Hear me out," Ruth said. "If you're in pain, you get stuck in our world, right?"
Andrew almost said something, but paused. "I guess you're right," he said, cringing. "Go ahead."
Silas grabbed Andrew's arm and gave it a vicious twist. Andrew gritted his teeth. But Ruth's house materialized, and Ruth wasn't transparent anymore. Even though it hurt, Andrew felt better inside, to see Ruth so clearly again.
Ruth took Silas's hand. "So now I'll just eat one-handed. Aren't you glad your girl's so smart, Andrew?"
Andrew rubbed his arm, glancing at Silas. "Can I hit you back?"
Silas laughed. "If you think you can."
Ruth laughed too, and that set Andrew off. He suddenly punched at Silas. Silas just caught Andrew's fist, and Andrew couldn't get his hand free. Thinking fast, he stomped on Silas's foot. Silas stared.
"Do it again!" he said quickly. "Let me go, Ruth. Andrew, on the toes this time!"
Andrew gladly obliged.
"It works," Silas said, cringing. "Even for me. If I'm in pain, I see everything fine." He smirked. "But then, you can't give me a good enough Indian burn to last for long. So Ruth'll just have to hold my hand, right?"
Andrew's arm started to feel better.
(11/17/02) (3672 words) (cosmetic revisions 11/18/02)
He pinched himself, just to make sure he wouldn't get separated
from the others. His stitches still hurt, too, so he could always
try poking those if he had to. But he and Silas both got through
dinner without disappearing, and without having to hit each other.
The food was a bit faint (to Andrew, anyway) and the silverware
felt as light as plastic forks, no matter how much food they carried.
Silas ate four helpings of everything, maybe because he was hungry,
or maybe because the food was so insubstantial. Mr. Alcott spoke
business to Silas, who seemed to understand. Mrs. Alcott continually
offered Silas more to eat, until there was hardly anything left.
She smiled every time Silas finished another helping; watching
him eat was a joy to her. Ruth and Andrew could hardly find breaks
in the conversation to come in during, but neither minded much.
Being together was enough.
It was Friday, so Ruth didn't have any homework to do after dinner. Mr. Alcott insisted they all sit in the backyard and talk. Silas and Andrew felt vaguely uncomfortable doing this, a little afraid of what the modern-day neighbors might think to see and hear two trespassers talking to no one in an abandoned lot. (Or just as bad, if they saw Andrew and Silas as real people talking to ghosts.) But they didn't want to leave Ruth's world yet, and hit each other before heading outside, to make sure.
Mrs. Alcott stayed outside politely for a short time before she excused herself, saying the night air was bad for her, and she had some more baking to do.
Mr. Alcott lit his pipe. "Do you smoke, son?"
"No," Andrew said.
"Not anymore," Silas replied.
"You know it's bad for you, right?" Silas asked. "The doctors are wrong. You'll get lung cancer and probably be dead before you're 70."
"70?" Mr. Alcott inhaled, and blew smoke out through his nose. "Ruth'll be long since grown by then, and I'll have plenty of time to see her children, besides. What more could I ask for?"
"Ruth'll miss you," Andrew said.
"Not so badly, once she has her own family," Mr. Alcott said. "Do you have any idea how old I'll be when I die, Andrew?"
"Not at all," Andrew said.
Silas shook his head, grimacing. "You shouldn't think about that."
"I don't know that I really want to know," Mr. Alcott said, "but it'd be nice to tell everyone goodbye."
"They already know how much you love them," Andrew said.
Silas shrugged. "I don't care if you smoke; it doesn't kill you that quick. I used to, but I can't afford it anymore. I'd take it up again if I could."
"I'll teach you how to smoke a pipe," Mr. Alcott said.
Silas's eyes lit up, but only for a moment. "No. It'll be that much harder to stop again when I get back home." He looked at Mr. Alcott with wide, desperate eyes, and Andrew suddenly felt out of place.
"Let's go back inside," he whispered. Ruth followed him.
"Hey!" Silas yelled.
Andrew looked out through the back door. Mr. Alcott and Silas were both standing in the dark, looking dazed.
"When you left, he disappeared," Silas said. "Mr. Alcott, the whole house--everything."
"I saw Silas vanish when you went inside," Mr. Alcott said.
"It was probably because Ruth left," Andrew said.
"No," Mr. Alcott said softly. "I don't think so. Anyway, if Silas wants to talk with me, you two had better both come out here, just in case. I'm sure you two can amuse yourselves."
There was a wooden bench in the backyard, so Andrew and Ruth sat down, holding hands. Even though Ruth occupied herself by running her hand over Andrew's shoulder, arm, and back, both of them couldn't help but hear everything.
Silas leaned against the house wall, not minding the splinters.
"You seem lonely," Mr. Alcott said quietly. "It's my experience that when things start to go badly, they continue that way for some time, but then when things get better, that lasts for quite a while as well."
"How's 17 years of bad stuff?" Silas asked, pinching his arm.
"That sounds like a lie," Mr. Alcott said without pausing. "You're not so skinny; you eat well enough. You've had some good things happen to you."
Silas was silent.
"You might understand," Silas said slowly. "When I was born--my parents--or, at least, my mom and the man she's married to--they're both white."
"And you're part Negro," Mr. Alcott said.
"My skin's dark. I don't know what I am. But my father figured I couldn't be his." Silas sat down on the concrete outside the back door that wasn't quite a porch. "I guess he's right; it wouldn't make any sense for a white couple to have a dark-skinned kid. But when I heard Ruth was you and your wife's daughter--and she's so fair-skinned--I thought maybe..." He turned his back towards the back door, away from everyone. "It doesn't matter anymore, anyway. Even if my father did suddenly accept me... Besides, I could have a thousand examples and my father would still think Mom cheated on him."
"You mean, known another man?" Mr. Alcott slowly sat on the concrete next to Silas, his joints cracking. "My Ginny had the same kind of worries, even though I didn't care, so long as our child was healthy." He frowned. "I don't know what I would have done if I had been in your father's shoes, but I hope I would have at least done my duty as a man and provided for my family. And I hope I would have loved my wife's child, just the same."
"You would have," Silas managed to say. Andrew looked away when he realized Silas was crying, but he couldn't plug his ears. Ruth's touch didn't even distract Andrew from hearing. Besides, her caresses became less persistent; she seemed to be listening too.
Mr. Alcott hugged Silas, silently.
"My parents both hated me," Silas said softly. "My father, my mother, her boyfriends after the divorce, they all--hated me. Hated me with a closed fist," He added. "They'd call me dirty names, say how stupid I was, and... But I didn't want to leave, because once in a while Mom would hug me, and they were the only family I had."
Ruth shuddered, holding Andrew tighter. He stroked her hair and neck absently.
Mr. Alcott's voice had a quiet, helpless fury in it. "Those people were monsters," he said. "Lower than animals."
"It doesn't matter," Silas said in a flat voice. "As soon as I graduated I got a job and my own place. I guess I'm doing all right for myself."
"What do you do, son?"
Silas sniffed, wiping his eyes. "Just a stocker at the grocery store, but I'll be a cashier soon. Sometimes in the summer I'll go to the beach and draw chalk pictures on the sidewalk for tourists."
Mr. Alcott's tone changed in an instant. "You're an artist? I always dreamt of being one, myself, but I've not a bit of talent, you see. Hey, did you draw that sketch of Ruth that Andrew left us?"
Andrew suddenly remembered Mr. Alcott's pajamas, which he left in the car. He hoped to exchange them for his own clothes he'd left there, and maybe the drawing of Ruth. He hadn't meant to give it to the Alcotts.
Before Silas could answer Mr. Alcott's question, the older man just plowed straight ahead. "That's a beautiful picture. Do you think you could draw one of the whole family? We'll pose if you'd like, and pay whatever you think is fair."
Silas got to his feet. "If you want me to." There was a spark in his eyes; he liked nothing better than to draw. He helped Mr. Alcott up.
"Come on, you lovebirds," Mr. Alcott said, smiling at Ruth and Andrew. "We can't have a portrait without you."
When Mrs. Alcott heard Silas had drawn Ruth's image, she hugged him and praised his work until Silas asked her to stop, three times. There wasn't any large paper in the house, but Silas cheerfully worked with what they had. He took his own pencil from his shirt pocket, though. He didn't need the Alcotts to pose; he could draw them from the dream memories that persisted in his mind. But he checked his work against the real Alcotts as they sat around the radio, laughing at a melodramatic production. Mr. Alcott wasn't listening as intently as his family, or even Andrew, though. He was looking at Mrs. Alcott and Silas in turns, occasionally glancing back at Ruth.
Silas finished the picture quickly, and held it up. It was beautifully shaded, and signed with a flourish that Silas rarely used. Ruth was in front, smiling, and looked like she was about to laugh. Mr. and Mrs. Alcott were behind her. Mr. Alcott had a hand on Ruth's shoulder, and Mrs. Alcott's arm was around her husband. They both wore patient smiles. All three of them were in fine clothes.
"That's my favorite dress," Mrs. Alcott said softly. "How did you know?"
Silas paused. "Ruth took me into your bedroom, and I looked through your closet."
It was impossible to tell if he was lying or not. Ruth didn't react either. But Mr. Alcott just smiled. "If that's what he needed for inspiration, so be it. It's a wonderful portrait; I've never seen better."
"I wish I could've colored it," Silas said.
"That doesn't matter. It's a hundred times better than a photograph. Thank you, son." He said this with emphasis on the last word, though only Andrew and Silas caught that. "Silas, I want to see you alone, or with Ginny."
"Can we?" Silas asked breathlessly.
"Let's try," Mr. Alcott said. "Ruth, darling, will you go upstairs?"
"Why don't I go for a walk with Andrew? I'll go get ready." Ruth ran off before they could stop her.
"I'll go wait," Andrew said, stomping on his own toe to make everything a bit more solid. He waited by the door, not daring to lean against the wall.
Ruth came down a couple minutes later. "Are you ready?"
"Andrew! Don't leave!"
Andrew looked towards the study. Silas came stumbling through the wall. "We need you around--I can't see him without you nearby."
"What happened to your arm?" Ruth squeaked.
There was a deep, jagged dash all along Silas's arm, and the blood ran down, dripping onto the wooden floor. His keys were in his right hand, and a closer inspection revealed a strip of red stuff hanging off the key Silas held the tightest.
"What did you do that for?" Andrew asked.
Silas just shook his head. "Didn't work. Please. I want to talk to them. Come on."
"I'll get the bandages," Ruth said quietly.
"Sit down," Andrew said. "You're bleeding!"
Silas sat on the floor, what had been grass to him just a few moments before. Andrew still saw the house as well, even though Ruth had gone, and even though his pain was fading.
Silas was quiet for a long time. "I thought--I thought if I was really hurt--I'd be able to see them," he murmured.
Andrew's stomach hurt. "You want to talk to them that badly?"
Ruth came back in. She knelt next to Silas and wrapped his arm. "You're a fool," she said. "Even Andrew would never be such an idiot."
Andrew wasn't sure about that. He didn't like Mr. and Mrs. Alcott enough to cut himself for them, but if the only way he could be near Ruth was to bleed and suffer, he'd probably give it a try.
"I want Andrew to come in with me to see your parents," Silas said. "You can come if you want, too, Ruth."
"No," Ruth said. "Father didn't want me to come. I saw that. I'll just read a book upstairs. Come see me when you're done, Andrew, if you can, or at least tell me you're leaving. All right?"
Andrew nodded, and led Silas back into the study.
Mrs. Alcott looked up, shocked. "Silas! Where did you go?"
"He vanished," Mr. Alcott said simply. "When Andrew got too far away, Silas just disappeared." He had a vague, sad expression on his face.
"And your arm!" Mrs. Alcott exclaimed, grabbing Silas's hand. Blood was already staining the bandages. "What happened?"
"Nothing much," Mr. Alcott said quickly, nodding to Silas. "Just an accident. Don't worry about him."
Andrew picked up a book and sat on the bed that was still in the study. But he still heard everything.
Silas sat down next to Mr. Alcott. "What did you want to talk about?" he asked in a quiet voice.
Mr. Alcott seemed at a loss for words, and spent half a minute arranging his thoughts. "You seem to be--that is--you're..." He shook his head. "Silas, you might be our son."
Mrs. Alcott gasped, and Andrew stared at his book. Silas's eyes shone for a moment, before he turned away. "Mr. Alcott, are you teasing me?"
"No," Mr. Alcott said softly. "Listen to me. Your parents were light-skinned, just like Ruth. Your skin and eyes look just like Ginny's. And your friend Andrew is connected to the both of you."
Silas had a funny blush on his face, as though Mr. Alcott was voicing his secret hopes. "I'd give anything to be your son," he said softly, "but--but I can't be. Your theory doesn't make any sense."
"When's your birthday?" Mr. Alcott asked.
Mrs. Alcott gasped again, and Mr. Alcott half-smiled.
"Still," Silas said softly. "What about Ruth?"
"Ginny gave birth to her, and I love her. Whatever weird stuff we might discover, I'll never let it take my daughter away from me. She's my little girl, and always will be." He smiled. "But I wouldn't mind having another child."
Silas wiped his eyes fiercely. Mrs. Alcott put her arms around him. "Sssh. Clarence doesn't know what he's talking about."
Silas's shoulders shook.
"What's wrong?" Mrs. Alcott asked. She laid Silas's head on her shoulder. "Come on. Talk about it."
Silas's voice was quiet. "My parents hate me. Do you have any idea how bad it was for me growing up without anyone who loved me?"
"Oh, you poor little bunny," Mrs. Alcott said softly. "I can't say I agree with Clarence's silly explanation, but I'll be your long-lost aunt if you like."
Mr. Alcott cleared his throat. "Aren't you Ruth's age? 17, right?"
Mrs. Alcott drew near to Silas and fingered the stain on his shirt. "How long are you planning to stay here?" she asked.
"As long as I can," Silas said, "but Andrew probably has to get home. And besides, to keep a clear head here, I have to keep hurting myself."
"Silas!" Mrs. Alcott shook him. "You can't do that!"
"But I want to stay," he said softly.
Mr. Alcott just looked at Silas steadily. "I'll see if I can find a way. We're traveling in parallel with your time, aren't we? What day is it for you?"
"Friday, right? It's as though a link was created when you and Ruth were born, a link that's persisted, day by day, until now. I'm not sure why Andrew has to be here to bring us all together--no offense, son!" he said louder. "But believe me, I'll look into it, Silas."
"But what are we supposed to do until then?" Silas asked.
Mr. Alcott smiled. "Do as Ginny suggested. We'll be your rich aunt and uncle. I know you need love, as much as you need money--maybe more. So we'll try to provide you with some of each."
Mrs. Alcott had left without Andrew noticing. She returned with a gold locket and a pair of diamond earrings. "Here. Take these, and sell them when you get back home."
"I'm not poor," Silas said, blushing.
Mrs. Alcott looked back at Andrew, who shrugged, although of course he knew Silas was pretty badly-off. So Mrs. Alcott took Silas's hand, pressing the jewelry into it.
"Please. You're so thin, I can't help but think you're not eating enough. Humor your old aunt and uncle and take them, in exchange for drawing that picture."
That was enough for Silas. He closed his hand around the necklace and earrings. "It's really too much," he mumbled, still looking ashamed, even more than embarrassed.
Mrs. Alcott just smiled at him. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Silas said, even though he knew he was the one who should be doing the thanking. "It's really late. We'd better leave, right, Andrew?"
"Yeah," Andrew said softly. He didn't want to get in any more trouble than he was already in. Andrew hoped his parents would be sleeping when he got back home, but he doubted he'd be that lucky, even if he stayed out 'til dawn. So he might as well get back early, when his parents might be a bit less tired, and less cranky.
"I'll come back tomorrow," Silas said quickly. "If I can," he added, looking back towards Andrew, or where he would have been, if he hadn't left the room.
Andrew faintly heard Silas's words as he headed towards the stairs. It took a lot of confidence (and a few pinches) to go up the mostly-transparent steps. He tried to knock on Ruth's door, but his knuckles would hardly touch it, let alone make a loud enough noise for Ruth to hear. But Ruth saw his hand pass through the door, and hurried over, opening it.
"Ready for our walk?" she asked softly.
Andrew looked down for a moment, but he could see the floor below, where Silas and Mr. and Mrs. Alcott were still waiting. He grabbed Ruth's arms, afraid of falling. The ground started to disappear entirely, but, just in time, Ruth pulled herself free of Andrew, and they both fell to Ruth's floor, not the story below.
"You can't touch me up here," Ruth said softly. "Or you'll fall!"
Andrew breathed hard, his arms trembling. "Right."
Ruth helped Andrew up, rubbing his hands. "It's all right."
"It's not," Andrew said softly. "I--don't know when I'll see you again. I'm in trouble at home. My parents won't let me leave the house. I only made it here today because I left while they were sleeping. When I come home tonight, they'll probably lock me in the house all summer."
"Then don't go home," Ruth said. "Stay here with me. You can sleep in the study."
"I'll just wake up back in my world," Andrew said. "Remember?"
Ruth sighed, running her finger gently down Andrew's neck. "I know. I just wish..." She sighed. "I have your clothes." Andrew's jeans and shirt were neatly folded on Ruth's dresser, his tennis shoes on top.
"Thanks," Andrew said, taking the clothes. "Let's go downstairs. I have your dad's pajamas in Silas's car."
"Good." Ruth grabbed Andrew's hand and led him down the stairs. Andrew was relieved; the house was perfectly solid when she touched him, and he felt completely safe.
Silas was waiting outside, but Andrew couldn't see the car he was sitting in--just Silas, and the pajamas laying in the back seat. He kept one hand in Ruth's, and reached right through the car door to get the pajamas. "here."
"Please come back, Andrew. You'll be able to, so do."
"I'll try," Andrew said miserably.
"I'll help him," Silas said. "If you don't mind me coming over too."
Ruth smiled. "You can come over a hundred times, if you bring Andrew. Oh! Andrew, that drawing of me is in the pocket of those pants we washed for you."
"Let me see it," Silas said. He ripped off one side of the paper, not tearing the pencil marks at all, and scribbled a couple things down.
"What are you doing?" Ruth asked.
Silas handed her the scrap of paper. "My address, and Andrew's. Maybe you can find us, even if one of us is going to be locked in his room for the next six months."
Ruth stooped down and hugged Silas, right through the invisible car. "You're brilliant!"
Silas smiled. Ruth gave Andrew a quick kiss and wished him goodbye for now, and luck in dealing with his parents. Andrew knew, and suggested Ruth knew, that this might somehow be the last time they see each other. But neither could bear to voice that concern. So Ruth just watched the peculiar sight of Silas and Andrew riding off in an invisible car, as she and Andrew waved at each other until they were out of sight.
On to Rift part 2
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