Hiram Weary was worried about his grandson, Ogdred. The boy had developed an unhealthy fascination with death. An obsession, really. Death and dying was all the little lad seemed to want to talk about. When he spoke at all, of course. Ogdred had grown quiet and subdued.
Once upon a time, Ogred had been quite the chatterbox. He'd been full of questions. Why the sky was the color it was, what made the river run, why didn't worms have any feet. The usual interests of small boys. But now little Ogdred, barely five years old, wanted to know if it hurt to die. What, precisely, was meant by "forever." How quickly a person turned into a skeleton. If a person kept being himself after he died, or if there was only dark. If it was possible to come back again, if only for a little while.
Hiram didn't know what to say.
It had only been three months since Hiram's son and daughter-in-law had died. A freak carriage accident in the next town over. They'd been enjoying a day out together. Ogdred had stayed behind, kept to bed with a head cold. Secretly Hiram had never been so grateful for an illness to be visited on his grandson.
There was an emptiness in the house now. The days seemed slower. Hiram tried to keep to household routines, for his own comfort as much as the boy's. So tonight, as always after supper was over, Hiram and Ogdred sat in the small front room of the Weary house. The house was a narrow terraced affair right in the center of town, with a stone facade. It had been built by Hiram's own grandfather, back when the village was new. Since about that same time, the Wearys had been the village's odd-job men. Moving things about, pushing wheelbarrows, shoeing horses, putting new handles on the town crier's bell, all of that and more. Next door lived Hiram's daughter, who was so far happily unmarried and looked to remain so. The three of them were all that was left of the clan now.
Hiram, square-jawed and dark-haired and tall, never without his
favorite top hat, sat in his comfortable chair before the fire,
whittling away at a new piece. He wasn't quite sure what it was going
to be yet. A bird, perhaps. Hiram paused to cough the wet cough that
had been niggling him for a month.
Ogdred was playing on the floor with the set of wooden soldiers Hiram had whittled for him for Christmas last year. It was a mostly silent game, whatever it was. Every now and again Ogdred would mumble something to himself that Hiram couldn't quite catch. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, he caught a whispered, "That's it. That's it for all of them."
Putting his knife aside, Hiram looked at Odgred there on the rug near the fireplace. Ogdred took after his mother, small and fair-haired, with a very serious narrow little face. The nipper was a pip. Or, at least, would someday be so again, once he got over this fascination with mortality. Hiram watched as, with care, Ogdred laid each soldier down on its back, until they were all in a neat row on the rug.
"Duuuun-dun-dun," intoned Ogdred, as he pulled one of Hiram's old handkerchiefs over the row of toys. "Duuuuun-dun-dun. Dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun..."
Taps, Hiram recognized, and frowned deeply. Once the figures were completely covered in their new handkerchief shroud, Odgred sat back and hugged his knees to his chest. Every game the boy played lately had to do with death. "Funeral" was a favorite. The boy had buried everything from dead spiders to dead leaves in little holes in the garden. Some game.
Suddenly the air in the room became oppressive. Too close. Too sad.
"Come on," said Hiram suddenly, making up his mind as he spoke. He stood, cleared his throat. Ogdred looked up from the dead soldiers, wide-eyed. "Get on your coat, my boy, we're going for a walk."
"It's nighttime, Grampa."
"Doesn't matter. On with your coat!"
It didn't matter that it was past dark. Anything to get the lad out of here, away from this morbid game. Some fresh air would do them both good. Once they were hatted and coated, Hiram turned down the lamps, locked the door, and the two of them set out, hand in hand.
Hiram coughed wetly. He turned to spit what came up as discreetly as he could. The old lungs weren't what they used to be. Chill air made it worse. But still they soldiered on around the edge of the square. The town crier was on his evening break. At eleven on the nose he'd wake the entire village with an update. Hiram really did need to speak with the other village elders about that crier and his infernal bell. Damned nuisance. What sort of news happened at eleven at night?
Past the Van Dort mansion, dark tonight. Past the shuttered shops. When they reached the Everglot mansion on the far side of the square, they found it more lively than Hiram had ever seen it in all of his eighty-odd years.
"It's all lit up," said Ogdred, staring up at the grand house. Then, "Wouldn't it be awful if one of those big candles fell over? It would start a fire, and everyone would die."
"Ogdred," Hiram said wearily, "that's enough. Put that sort of thing out of your mind. Just enjoy how nice it looks, eh?"
There were a few handsome carriages out front. Hiram recognized a couple, including William Van Dort's and Sir Robert Glottberg's. The Van Dorts' driver, Mayhew, was lingering by the carriage, puffing at his pipe. He gave Hiram a little wave when he caught his eye, which Hiram returned.
"I do wonder what all the fuss is," Hiram said, lowering his arm and looking back up at the house.
"A party?" suggested Ogdred. He pointed to one of the big front windows, where several shadows passed back and forth. Hiram looked again at the line of carriages.
It looked like a party. But the Everglots never threw parties. Everyone knew that, apart from not being the types to enjoy fun, the Everglots were completely broke. What sort of party could they throw? All of their guests would probably have to share one bottle of table wine and half an old teacake. And Lady Everglot couldn't abide music. Trust the Everglots to throw party with no actual festivity whatever. Sad as it was, it would certainly suit the overall mood of the village, and of its reigning family.
"A quiet party," added Ogdred, as if reading Hiram's thoughts.
"Hello, Mr. Weary. Hello, Ogdred," said a voice from the shadows near the front stairs. Hiram and Ogdred both gasped, startled. The gasp set Hiram off on a coughing fit bad enough that he doubled at the waist. He had to struggle to get his breath back.
"Are you all right, Grampa?" asked Ogdred in his tiny voice. "Please don't choke!" Hiram just set a hand on the boy's shoulder in a reassuring way. He was still coughing too hard to say anything.
"I'm sorry!" cried the same voice. "Sorry, sorry! So sorry to startle you."
A figure stepped out of the shadows by the stairs. It was Victor Van Dort, the fish merchant's son. Dressed to the nines and looking supremely uncomfortable with it. The young man's hair was even pomaded.
"Evening, Master Van Dort," Hiram said as he straightened up. He wheezed uncomfortably.
"Are you all right, sir?" asked Victor, looking worried. He was twisting at his elaborately knotted ascot.
"Grampa?" asked Ogdred, who was a shade paler than milk. Hiram looked into his grandson's face and what he saw there made his heart fall. Someone so tiny shouldn't have such dark circles under their eyes. Or that look of profound fear and worry. Hiram carefully cleared his throat. The danger appeared to have passed. So he smiled, bent, and swooped Ogdred into a hug.
"Right as rain, lad," he said, hoping the boy didn't hear how guttural his voice sounded. He set a relieved Ogdred back on the ground.
"Oh, good news," said Victor. He had a wistful kind of smile on his face as he looked back and forth between Hiram and Ogdred.
"Why were you hiding in the dark?" Ogdred asked Victor, curious but polite. Immediately Victor looked embarrassed, and twisted at his ascot again.
"I..er, wasn't hiding," he explained. "I...well, you see..."
Just then the door of the Van Dort carriage flew open, startling Mayhew so that his lit pipe nearly tumbled from his mouth. Nell Van Dort, bedecked in very tight evening finery and a truly impressive hat, squeezed herself from the carriage with such force that it rocked on its wheels once she'd alighted.
"Victor, what have you been doing? Where have you been?" demanded Mrs. Van Dort as she barreled toward her now cringing son. She straightened the boy's ascot and smoothed his hair back. The pomade was no match for Victor's hairline, it seemed. "You were supposed to be charming an invitation out of them!"
"I'm sorry, Mother, it didn't work," Victor told her. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a sheaf of paper money, which he held out to his mother. "The butler wouldn't take the bribe, either."
Mrs. Van Dort snatched the bills and stuffed them into her drawstring handbag. She was muttering to herself. From what Hiram could catch, mostly about how her family was the wealthiest in town, her son was eligible, and so forth. Victor just stood there awkwardly beside her, his posture hunched and his expression both tired and embarrassed.
"Of all the insulting, ridiculous-" Mrs. Van Dort broke off her muttering when she finally noticed Hiram. He nodded to her. He wasn't surprised when she didn't nod back. She'd not openly acknowledged him or the rest of his family for at least a decade now. Very eager to forget her humble beginnings as well as her old neighborhood, was Nell Van Dort.
"How do you do?" she sniffed to Hiram, tossing her head and putting a hand on her hip. Without waiting for a reply, she made for the carriage again, where Mayhew stood holding the door open. To Victor, she said, "Never mind! Just forget all about it, Victor. I'll tell you what, we'll have Mayhew take us out to the depot town, I hear some mill owner's daughter is coming out tonight, too. They'll let us in, I'm certain of it!"
Mrs. Van Dort kept talking, but was by now inside the carriage. Hiram caught Victor's eye just as he stepped in behind his mother. The lad's eyes had a hunted look in them.
As the carriage rolled away out toward the gates, Hiram couldn't help smiling to himself. So that would be the cause of the relative hullabaloo. Springtime was debutante time. Miss Victoria Everglot was in society now. The village hadn't had a proper debut since...must have been Lady Everglot, when she was just a young lady herself. Of course this was all hearsay from his daughter and the crier's endless intrusive society news. Men like Hiram, village fixtures or not, didn't much get invited to balls.
"My," said Ogdred, slipping his little hand back into Hiram's. That seemed to be all there was to say. So they started walking again, nearly finished with their lap around the square. Hiram set a leisurely pace. He attempted to keep his breathing shallow. Every time he breathed too deep he felt the warning tickle of another wet coughing fit deep in his lungs. He'd be happy to be home in front of the warm fire again. Dearly he hoped it hadn't burned down too low. He couldn't remember if he'd thought to bank it before they'd left.
"Ooh, look," whispered Ogdred suddenly, stopping in his tracks. "It's a ghost."
Hiram looked where the boy was pointing. There was indeed a figure off in the shadows to the side of the mansion. But it wasn't a ghost.
It was Miss Everglot, standing against one of the columns of the portico as if embracing it for support. Or like a shipwreck survivor desperately clinging to a bit of wreckage. Once Hiram got a closer look at her gown, he saw it was no wonder that Ogdred had mistaken her for a ghost. Miss Everglot's elaborate dress was the whitest white he'd ever seen, with a train at least ten feet long. It was cut low, too, and only had the merest little gauzy sleeves over her shoulders. Otherwise her arms were bare. What little light came through the French doors, combined with the moonlight, seemed to make her glow. She drew herself up a little as Hiram and Ogdred approached, and nodded to them.
"Good evening," she said, her voice so quiet as to nearly be a whisper. "Mr...Weary, isn't it?"
"Good evening, Miss Everglot," he replied, flattered that she knew his name. Usually the baron's family never bothered learning the names of the more humble villagers. Emboldened by the personal greeting he tipped his hat and then gestured at the house. "You seem to be missing your own party."
Miss Victoria leaned against the column again, her cheek nearly touching it. "I simply needed some air," she said. She sounded a bit sad. Odd. Didn't girls live for this sort of thing? Parties, dresses, dancing. Unable to think of anything to say, Hiram simply nodded.
"Oh!" Miss Victoria said, straightening up. "Forgive me, I didn't see you there. How do you do?" She was looking at Ogdred. A small smile finally lit up her face. She was much prettier when she smiled. Hiram grinned, something he normally wouldn't do in the presence of a young lady. Big horsey teeth and all that. He was a touch self-conscious about them. But now, in the half-light and with the baron's daughter so sweetly speaking to his grandson, Hiram let himself grin as big as he was able.
Gently Hiram nudged Ogdred, who was shyly tracing shapes on the cobbles with the toe of his shoe. "H'lo," said Ogdred in the tiniest of tiny voices. Miss Victoria took a few steps closer, holding her skirt out of her way with one hand.
Before Hiram had to worry about coming up with more to say to a baron's daughter, the portico doors swung open. Out strode Sir Robert Glottberg, the mill owner. Hiram hauled away woodchips and other debris from the mill and work-sites from time to time. Sir Robert only had eyes for Miss Victoria, however.
"Taking a bit of air, eh?" he asked her. "Lady Everglot is wondering where you've gone. Shall we?" He offered his arm and she reluctantly took it. When she looked back at him and met his eye, Hiram thought he saw the same sort of hunted expression in her eyes as he'd seen in Victor Van Dort's moments before.
"She looked sad," Ogdred observed. Frowning, he slipped his hand into Hiram's.
As they walked away, Hiram couldn't help thinking it was too bad Master Van Dort hadn't been let in. Miss Everglot most likely could have used some quiet company of her own age. Perhaps she wouldn't have been so sad, then.
By the time they reached the front door, Hiram was having more trouble than usual getting his breath. Hacking and wheezing and trying not to alarm Ogdred, he collapsed into his armchair before the dead fire. In a blink Ogdred was beside him, eyes wide and scared. Hiram tried to get a breath to reassure him, but the breath wouldn't go all the way into his lungs.
"Grampa?" asked Ogdred, close to tears. Hiram could just barely summon the strength to put a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Go fetch your auntie," Hiram managed, feeling his throat close, drowning from the inside.
No time seemed to pass at all before Hiram opened his eyes again. When he did he found himself sitting in an armchair by a fireplace. A pewter mug filled with a fizzing purple liquid had been shoved into his hand. He wasn't home, that he knew immediately. There wasn't a dart board by the fireplace at home. Or a billiard table in the corner. The colors weren't so bright. It wasn't so loud.
Long-dead neighbors didn't walk around at home. Hiram stared, too frozen and confused to return the nods of those who offered them as they walked by or noticed him from the bar. There went Van Dort's old delivery boy. Captain Alfred Wadleigh, mustache intact but fleshless, smoking with a remarkably well-preserved William Van Dort Senior. Bernie Gwynn there at the bar, fellow odd-job man and gardener, a vine growing out of his eye socket.
Hiram looked down at himself to see he was wearing his good suit. A touch confirmed he was wearing his top hat, too. Most alarming was his skin. He looked like a piece of Bristol glassware. So strange to panic and not feel one's heart race. The panic was just an idea. So not entirely worth it, he decided.
And on the floor before the hearth two children played. Hiram took a closer look. They were little skeletons. Their faces were fleshless and without features, but he recognized their clothes, and the pretty yellow plaits on the girl. Underneath all the evidence of his senses was a deep certainty. The certainty that came with his current state of affairs.
"Adam and Evelyn?" Hiram asked, though it wasn't really a question. The last time he'd seen them had been nearly twenty years ago, when he'd found their lifeless little bodies in the river while out hauling stones one day. Both of them had been caught on a half-submerged branch by the bank. Hiram hadn't thought about that day in years. Especially not since Ogdred had been born.
The children, hearing him, looked up from their game. Between them on the floor lay a few piles of bones. Hiram looked away when he noticed a little skull which still had some fur attached.
"Hello, Mr. Weary," said Evelyn, echoed by her younger brother. "Welcome to being dead!"
Evelyn said it so cheerily. As if she was welcoming him into her mother's house for tea. Adam chimed in, "We can get you another drink if you want. We didn't know what you'd like so we asked Miss Plum to pick. Down here you don't have to wait to finish your first one if you don't want to."
Hiram looked at the mug, then at the children, then back and forth again a few more times. He let himself think the full phrase: I am dead. Why didn't he feel dead? Though, he reasoned, who knew what death was supposed to feel like, anyway? He didn't even feel sad. He felt comfortable. He could breathe easier. He felt a distinct lack of worry.
If this was being dead, it wasn't half-bad.
"What are you two up to?" asked Hiram, settling back with his drink. Even without the ability to taste, drinking was enjoyable. He could count on one hand the times in life he'd been properly able to sit with a pint.
"We're working a puzzle!" said Adam happily. Hiram watched the children has they fitted together the pile of bones, saving the head for last. It was impossible to know precisely what was holding the bones together. Hiram decided not to think about it too much. The children sat back as their creation leapt to its feet.
"Mew," said the tiny skeleton. Evelyn cooed at it and petted its rotting head.
"I think her legs are mixed up," she remarked, watching as the little skeleton cat walked in an awkward circle. The kitten didn't seem bothered. The fuzzy ear it had left twitched, and its little green eyeballs looked curiously about the room. Adam picked the cat up, hugged it, and then plopped it into Hiram's lap. Giggling, the pair of them scampered off, as children did. Even dead ones.
Ogdred, Hiram thought, seeing his grandson's face clearly in his mind. For the first time he felt uneasy, empty, worried. What would happen to the little nipper now? Everyone was dying on the boy. Hiram remembered all the times he'd promised his grandson that he wasn't going anywhere. That he'd be around for a good long time.
"I'm a liar," he told the purring dead kitten, who had curled up into an awkward skeletal ball.
At least now Hiram knew the answers to all of Ogdred's questions. It doesn't hurt to die. Yes, you're still yourself. There's food and drink, if you want it. Friends. Pets. Games to play. Nothing hurts. Everything feels right. There's nothing scary about it.
Do you get to come back again? Even for a little while?
Hiram slowly lowered his mug from his lips. He didn't know how it worked. Hiram still didn't know the answer to that one, the most important question of all. In life he never would have thought so. But now, sitting before a fire with children at his feet, a cat in his lap, and a drink in his hand, Hiram wasn't so sure. Nothing much seemed unlikely or impossible.
What he wouldn't give to see little Ogdred again. Even for just one more hug. And to tell him all the answers he'd learned. To tell him you still love people, even when you're dead. Death doesn't change love.
At that thought, Hiram just sat and stared into his nearly-empty mug for a very, very long time.