Being Social

As they walked back into the living room, Sarah was surprised to see another person in the room talking with Bailey. Even more unexpected, that person was Julia. She looked far more casual than the last time she’d seen her, before Jason had been killed. She had her hair tied back and was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Her demeanor was friendly. Sarah had no idea what to think.

Julia looked at her as she entered. “Hello, Sarah.” She was obviously ignoring Thomas. “Bailey and I were just having a little chat. Were you planning on inviting her to join the house?”

“What? No. I mean, it was raining outside and Bailey needed help . . .” Why would Julia jump to such a conclusion?

“Ah. Well, Bailey was just about to tell me how they met Rebecca.”

Oblivious to all of the strangeness regarding Julia, Bailey nodded. “My . . . uh . . . my teacher threw me out. It’s not much of a story, really. I was homeless, and Rebecca helped me out. Found me a place to live and gave me some advice. She was nice to me. Told me to come here if I ever needed any help.”

“And you need help now?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah. I . . . I lost my apartment. Times have been tough, and I . . . didn’t make rent. I really don’t want to be homeless again. I thought Rebecca might have some ideas. If I could just talk with her.”

Sarah sighed. “As I told you, Rebecca is busy with something important right now, and she’s not available.” She ignored the questioning look Julia gave her. Bailey appeared crestfallen. “However, I think we might be able to arrange for you to stay here for a little while. What do you think Julia?”

Julia appeared to consider the idea for a few moments. “I imagine I could find some space somewhere.”

With an outsider present, Sarah had to struggle to conceal her shock at Julia’s willingness to engage with house matters.

“More importantly, however, are we sure this is a good idea?” Julia looked back to Bailey. “I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but we have experienced more than one . . . misfortune recently. I’m not saying you would cause any trouble, but we need to be careful.”

“I can vouch for her.” Sarah had momentarily forgotten Thomas was present. She braced herself for Julia’s outburst, but it never came.

Instead, Julia remained focused on Bailey. “Bailey, do you know this man?”

The question was a trap, of course, but the newcomer had no way of knowing that. The implications for any answer were unpredictable, especially to someone unfamiliar with Julia and Thomas.

“No, I don’t.” Their uncertainty was palpable. “I know he told Sarah that he had seen me somehow.”

“Well, I won’t hold that against you.” Julia directed her attention to Sarah. “I don’t know. If it’s temporary, I’d say it’s your call. You run the house, after all. I can set something up with a few safeguards. It would be good to get Rebecca’s take.”

“Yes. I’m trying to get in touch with her. Can you give Bailey a room and access to the kitchen? I think the room next to David’s is free.”

Julia’s face grew dark, and Sarah quickly worked to tamp down her anger. “Not his. His room is yours. For as long as you want. I meant the room on the other side.”

Confusion abruptly replaced fury. “But that’s . . .”

“Yes. It is currently not being used. I think it would be perfect.” Sarah hoped Julia would pick up on her meaning and not pursue the conversation any more in front of Bailey. She still didn’t want their visitor to know Rebecca was gone.

“Okaayyy. So you want me to make sure the room is clear and put in a door to the kitchen?”

“If you would.”

“Alright. Just give me a few minutes.” Julia stood and gave Bailey a rare smile. “Don’t worry. It’s weird here. Just go with it.”

Sarah stared after her as she left and then turned to Thomas. “What do you make of that?”

Thomas was staring at the doorway through which Julia had recently left. “I don’t know. Maybe she has made peace with everything? She clearly still wants nothing to do with me, but perhaps . . .” He trailed off without finishing his thought.

Bailey took the opportunity to speak up. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes. It’s just that Julia is not usually so sociable,” Sarah answered. “She must like you.”

“How is she going to put in a door in just a few minutes?”

Sarah exchanged glances with Thomas. “If you know Rebecca, I assume you would know . . .”

“Oh. You mean magic? I just didn’t know it could make doors.”

Sarah smiled, a little relieved. “Well, it depends on who is using it. I should tell you, there are a couple of conditions for you to stay here. Except for the kitchen, you won’t really have access to other parts of the house. And you won’t be able to leave your room unless you are with one of us. We’re not trying to keep you prisoner; you’re free to go any time you like, but you must be accompanied by one of us. I hope you understand.”

“That’s fine. I’m just happy to have some place to stay. Do you know when Rebecca might be available?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t. I hope it won’t be too long. If you accept the conditions I’ve laid out, I think I can show you your room now.”

“Thank you.”

An Unexpected Visitor

The house was well insulated against both the weather and noise from outside, but even so, the sound of rain was unmistakable in the foyer. The doorbell rang again. Sarah could not remember if she had ever heard it ring before. Both curious and cautious, she opened the front door.

The person standing on the front step of the brownstone was soaked. Their shoulder length hair, heavy with water, was plastered against their head. The small awning over the top step provided minimal protection from the seemingly endless downpour.

Half yelling to be heard over the sounds of the storm, the person asked, “Is Rebecca here?”

Sarah studied the visitor and tried to recall whether she had seen them before. They were young, early 20s probably, with soft features blurred by water droplets. Nothing stood out as familiar.

“Who are you?” Recent events had made her increasingly suspicious.

“Um, I’m a friend of hers? Well, she helped me out a few years back and gave me this address if I ever needed to find her. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Are you a member of her Family?” Would Peter or Marie have sent someone new after Rebecca, to bring her back? What sort of danger did this person represent?

“No. We’re not related. She was just . . . just helped me once.”

So either they really didn’t know about the cult, or they were prepared for the question. Sarah didn’t like feeling so paranoid, but it couldn’t be helped. Even telling someone that Rebecca had left the house might put her in danger.

“Unfortunately, Rebecca is not available at the moment. I will tell her you dropped by.” Sarah began to close the door.

“Wait!”

Sarah paused and looked at the visitor.

“My name is Bailey. Please. I .  . . I don’t have anywhere to go.” They seemed to be trying to hold back tears.

What should she do? it would be dangerous to let a stranger into the house, but turning them away felt wrong. Who would she be putting at risk, after all? Rebecca had left. Jason was dead. No one knew where Julia might be. Only she, David, and Thomas were left. Was the risk really worse than turning Bailey away?

Just as Sarah was resolving to take the risk, Thomas walked up behind her. “Who is it?”

Surprised, she looked back at him. “They say their name is Bailey.”

“Oh?” Thomas raised one eyebrow, appearing more interested than she had seen him in some time. “Let them in. It will be alright.”

That raised several more questions, but Sarah moved to let Bailey walk in. “Stay near me, or you will get lost. This place is bigger than it seems.” She led them to the living room. Thomas followed.

“My name is Sarah. Please, have a seat. Do you like tea? Or coffee? You look chilled to the bone.”

“Tea would be nice.”

“Okay, we’ll be back in just a moment. Whatever you do, don’t leave this room. Understand?”

Bailey nodded.

Sarah started heading for the kitchen and dragged Thomas along with her.

“You know them?”

“After a fashion.” He was as cryptic as ever.

“How?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Thomas, we’re not doing this again. What do you know?”

He gave a sigh that was heavy with resignation.”I saw Bailey’s arrival when I was observing the future. As far as I can tell, they aren’t the source of any trouble.”

“They said they know Rebecca.”

Thomas shrugged. “I cannot say. It was not something I saw.”

“But they don’t pose any danger?”

“Not that I could see.”

“Okay. Might as well become a halfway house.”

“That is not . . .”

“It was a joke, Thomas. If you think you can be appropriately social, you can join us for some tea.”

He nodded.

“Good. Let’s go see what we can find out about our new guest.”

Looking Back

Time is one of the most dangerous schools of magic to study. It requires discipline and self-control. One wrong move could lead to erasing yourself from existence or some other disaster. For that reason, among others, those who practice time magic are very careful in selecting their apprentices. Aptitude was not sufficient. A student must be able to resist temptation and be judicious in the application of power. Few have the requisite temperament. 

All of this precaution was to prevent the very thing Thomas was about to try. Viewing the past wasn’t dangerous in itself, but it raised the possibility of changing the past. The potential problems that could arise were innumerable, so even looking into the past was generally discouraged. However, his questions remained unanswered and demanded investigation. He could think of no other alternative. He prepared the incantations and sent his consciousness back.

Almost immediately, Thomas knew something was amiss. Despite the numerous items connected to Jason that he had gathered, the timeline was black. There appeared to be no moments where he could locate his friend. Jason had warned him once against trying to view him from other times, and Thomas had respected his wishes until now. With Jason’s death, the promise no longer held, or so he told himself. After searching for longer than should have been necessary, he finally found Jason in his lab a couple of days before his demise. Thomas drew closer to the time to see what he could learn.

As soon as he entered the lab, Jason turned toward his approximate location. “Thomas. I assume it’s you, otherwise this is embarrassing. I thought I asked you not to look in on me.”

Thomas was taken aback. Jason should not be aware of him.

“The nice thing is, whenever I talk to you, if you aren’t here, most people will think it’s just me being my usual nutty self. Maybe I am. But I like to turn off my crystal now and then and pretend you’ve come to visit. If you never see these moments, then there really isn’t any harm.”

So he was talking just in case Thomas were to look in on him? Maybe Jason was crazier than he realized. On the other hand, this time at least, he happened to be right.

“If you are here right now, I’m assuming I died. That feels like the only reason you would do this. If I’m not dead, then you’re an idiot for going to the past for no good reason.”

Jason bent down over the table he was standing next to and picked up a blue crystal that was giving off a dim light. “Now for my normal introductory lecture. This crystal is why you can’t usually find me. I know I explain this every time, but I never know which time you might visit, so I feel I have to do it. Anyway, this crystal prevents me from being observed by any magical means, even yours. I periodically turn it off and talk to you, in case you want to check in. I think the faint light means you’re watching. That’s what it’s supposed to mean, but I’ve never been able to check it.”

Putting down that crystal, he picked up another. This one shown with an intense white light. “If you ever do see one of these moments, could you please tell me so that I can’t quit explaining all of that?” Jason turned this new crystal over in hand a few times. “As I said, if you are here, I expect that I’m dead. And if you’ve come to this particular moment, it’s probably because of this.”

Thomas looked more closely at this crystal and recognized it.

“This is the crystal you asked me to make and give to David. I’m not going to. Just one of my feelings, but if I give it to him, I’m pretty sure something very bad will happen. I’d rather it didn’t. Maybe I die, but the alternative would be worse. Trust me on that.”

An urge to shake Jason rose up in him. The man could be so stubborn and foolish. He had intentionally kept the crystal? If he had just listened to Thomas, things would have worked out. In that moment, Thomas considered trying to change Jason’s mind.

“I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but since you’re still here, you must be thinking about it. Do not try to change the past. I’ve already made up my mind, so you’ll just make things worse. You know this better than anyone, so leave it alone.”

Jason put his hand on the blue crystal once more. “One last thing. Please don’t tell Julia you did this. And do not teach her how to do it. She’ll torture herself with it. Okay? Please. Anyway, go live your life. Quit looking back.”

The blue glow from the crystal intensified briefly before the timeline went black again. Thomas reviewed everything Jason had told him. He had no idea what would have happened if his friend had given the crystal to David like he was supposed to. And he never would; not unless he risked even greater danger.

Unsatisfied, but out of ideas, Thomas returned to his present. Jason had made his decision. The only thing he could do now was respect it. If going to the past wasn’t going to resolve his doubts, he would have to look to the future.

Hotel Dying

“Please wake up.”

Erik’s voice sounded far away. A dull ache pounded against the back of her head as Rebecca slowly regained consciousness. She hadn’t opened her eyes yet, but she knew she was sitting. Her hands were bound behind her back. Attempting to open her eyes, she shut them quickly when the bright light intensified her headache.

“Erik? What happened?”

“Oh good. You’re awake.” His relief was obvious.

Squinting hard to keep out most of the painful light, she could just make out the desk clerk crouching in front of her. “What happened?” she repeated.

“Shh. Not so loud. You don’t want to draw attention.”

“Why am I tied up?”

“Be quiet.” He sounded . . . scared?

“Why? Are you going to kill me too?”

“What?” Confusion replaced fear.

Her eyes were starting to adjust and she could make out another blurry figure enter the room. An unfamiliar voice spoke. “You should have stayed in your room.” It was deep, masculine, and full of threat.

“Who are you?”

“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be alive long enough to bother explaining everything to you.”

“Don’t kill her!” That was Erik again. He was standing, facing the new person.

“What are you two doing?” 

“Two? I must have hit you harder than I thought.” The man seemed confused.

Erik turned to his head towards her. “I’m not doing anything. He attacked me, too!”

“There’s only me. Unless you’re counting the corpse you’ll be joining.”

Finally able to see clearly enough to get a good look at Erik, Rebecca understood.

“Erik, can you help me out?”

“I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to do anything to the ropes.”

“Don’t worry about them. Just face him and start screaming and waving your arms.”

“What? How will that help?”

In spite of herself, she sighed. “I’ll explain later. For now, trust me.” It would take too long to help him come to terms with the transition. And the man was approaching her.

“I am going to enjoy this.”

“Now, Erik!”

Rebecca muttered a couple of short incantations as Erik began making noise and gesturing wildly. The murderer, who was standing right in front of him, yelped in surprise and stumbled backwards. He tripped over the body on the floor behind him and fell, smacking his head on the cement floor. He did not move again.

“That worked? How did that work?”

As Erik looked in disbelief at the man he had frightened, possibly to death, Rebecca felt the handle of a knife pressed into her hands. With it, she was able to make quick work of the rope that bound her. After she was free, she rubbed feeling back into her wrists and thought her thanks to the bear.

“Seriously, why did he seem startled to see me? I’d been here all along.”

Rebecca looked up at the translucent figure before her. “Erik, I’m sorry. You are dead.”

“What? No I’m not. We’re talking to one another right now.”

She nodded. “Yes, we are. I can see and talk to ghosts.”

“I don’t feel dead.”

“I know. Look at the other body on the floor. The one he tripped over.”

Erik bent down and looked at the face. Shock caused him to fall into a sitting position. He stared. “That’s me.”

“Yes, it is. I’m sorry.”

“I’m dead.”

She didn’t say anything. He needed to come to grips with this himself.

After a few minutes, he looked at her. “So what do I do now?”

“That’s something you have to figure out. You could stay here and haunt the hotel. Some spirits seem to enjoy that. Or you could move on.”

“To what?”

“I don’t know. The living aren’t allowed to know.”

“But you said you can talk to ghosts.”

“The ones I can talk to haven’t moved on.”

“Oh.”

Rebecca got to her feet slowly.

“Wait. What about him?”

She didn’t even glance at the second body. “He’s dead. That blow to the head was very hard.”

“Won’t he haunt this place?”

“No. After I made you visible to him, I made sure to trap his spirit. He’s stuck with his body.”

She waited until he said something.

“I don’t know what I should do.”

She really did feel for him. He didn’t deserve to die; few people do. He would get used to his new situation, but it would take time.”

“You will figure it out, I’m sure. And there are others like me you can talk to.”

He nodded, unconvinced. “Okay, Ms. Jones.”

“Erik, you can call me Rebecca.”

“Oh. Okay.”

*     *     *

The next night, she walked back into the lobby and was greeted by a new desk clerk whose name she had yet to learn.

Erik also stood behind the desk. “Hello, Ms. Jones.”

“Erik,” she thought at him, so as not to arouse suspicion from the other person.

“Sorry. Good evening, Rebecca.”

She smiled. “Better.”