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All In A Night's Work

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"I don't like messes. Never have. And there's nothing messier than the dead interfering with the living, now is there?"

Regina Peters
5.0 1 review
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Short Story

It was the dog’s fault, of course. Jane Brighton cursed her silently as she hoisted herself over the cemetery’s iron fence. That was not an easy job at the best of times, but especially not in a nightdress and bathrobe. If she had been wearing nylons, they most certainly would have ripped by now. Thank God for small mercies.

“Molly?” she called. “Molly, where are you?”

A rustle and a moonlit gleam of fur was her only response.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake … please don’t tell me it’s another false alarm. I’m getting too old for this. Molly?”

Her voice came out strangely muffled, as if the humid night air were too thick for sound to travel. She shuffled forward, crunching the gravel along the path under her shoes. The only light came from the moon, the electric lamps from the road behind her, and the flashlight she carried in one hand. Its beam glanced off the corners of gravestones, the twisted silhouette of a dead tree, the gleam of the marble mausoleums in the center of the cemetery. The shards of a broken bottle sparkled near Jane’s feet. Even now, she spared a moment of irritation for whatever fools would desecrate a place like this. It would never do to insult the spirits of the dead. Few people knew this better than she did.

Speak of the devil, she thought. She could smell the danger now, just as Molly had; it cut through the rain-soaked grass and flowers, the freshly turned earth and the hint of exhaust fumes from the road as lightning cuts through clouds. The air seemed to crackle. Something, or someone, chuckled in the distance. She swept her flashlight in a wide arc, glanced over her shoulder, turned around.

A few barks from Molly, followed by a girl’s squeal and a young man’s annoyed curse, pointed Jane in the right direction. She marched toward it, cutting across the lawn and even the flowerbeds, and did not stop until she found what she was looking for: an iron bench, romantically placed between a blooming rosebush and a sheltering apple tree, on which a teenage boy and a girl were huddled together, both staring at Molly as if the big golden retriever were about to eat them. Molly glared back, growling low in her throat, eager for the hunt. Jane knew exactly how she felt.

“Well done, Molly,” she whispered, patting her assistant’s head. “I’ll take it from here.”

“Evening, Miss B,” said the boy on the bench, greeting her with a smirk and a lazy salute. “Nice bathrobe, by the way. What’re you doing here this time of night?”

“I could say the same for you, Jimmy,” said Jane, unconsciously pulling her robe a bit tighter around her. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to the lady?”

“We’re awfully sorry,” said the girl, shading her eyes from the flashlight with one white-gloved hand. “I got lost coming home from a party, you see, and it rather frightened me. This gentleman was about to walk me home.”

“Of course he was,” said Jane, raising an eyebrow. Jimmy glowered back at her in silence, no doubt embarrassed by the interruption of his date.

She took them both in at a glance: the boy was decked out in a leather jacket and scuffed jeans like something straight out of a gangster film. Even his black hair was slick with grease, except for one cowlick artfully arranged to fall into his forehead. He might have cut quite the dashing figure if it weren’t for the pale, almost greenish cast to his face.

At first, she had taken him to be drunk – but she knew her neighbor’s son better than that. Jimmy Dodge might play at being a rebel, but he respected his parents far too much to give them any serious trouble. There could only be one other explanation.

The girl, on the other hand, appeared to be in perfect health. She was a living china doll, with a cluster of butter-yellow curls peeking out from under her blue hat. The cameo brooch she wore, the shimmery fabric of her hobble-skirted dress (blue, of course, to match the hat) and her elegant little voice clearly indicated wealth. Jane had not set eyes on an outfit like that since her grandparents’ day.

Of course, this “party” might have been a costume party … but no costume could excuse the fact of the girl having no shadow.

“My dear,” said Jane, kindly but firmly, in the voice she used for misbehaving third-graders. “Don’t you think it would be best if you went home? It’s not safe here. You might get taken advantage of in a state like this.”

“Oh, I do assure you,” said the girl, with a laugh like the chime of an old music box. “I’m quite safe.”

“I wasn’t talking to you, missy,” said Jane.

She put down her flashlight on a nearby headstone, pulled a cut-glass atomizer bottle out of the pocket of her bathrobe, grabbed the pump and gave it one good, solid spray.

The shadowless girl shrieked. Wherever the bottle’s contents touched her, her skin began to crack and crumble; where before she had resembled a china doll, she now looked like one which had been sharply dropped to the ground. Hollow spaces appeared on her face and body. One could see through her to the back of her dress.

“Jesus!” Jimmy jumped to his feet, took three stumbling steps backward, and stared at his companion and Jane in horrified disgust. “What did you do?!

“Molly, stay with him!” Jane ordered.

The retriever hurled herself in front of Jimmy, teeth bared, all the fur standing up on the back of her neck. She growled in the girl’s direction, not letting the minor detail of her enemy’s noncorporeal nature get in the way of a good threat.

“It’s just holy water,” Jane snapped, more hurt by the look of terror on Jimmy’s face than she would admit. “From your father’s church, if you must know. Completely harmless--to the living, anyway.”

“The--the living? You mean … ” Jimmy’s eyes rolled up into his head. He did what any other normal human being (with very few exceptions) would do upon realizing he’d been flirting with the dead: he fainted.

“How dare you interfere?” The girl’s voice, no longer elegant, was ragged with pain and rage. “I almost had him! Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting? How hungry I am?”

“Fortunately not,” Jane retorted. “In my day, it wasn’t proper for young girls to overindulge – especially not on the souls of innocent boys. Now, are you going to pass on to the next world where you belong, or do I have to send you there?”

She shook the bottle, showing just how much holy water she had left. The girl flinched, sending further hairline cracks along her sides and shoulders, but she met Jane’s eyes with a defiant glare.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Moving too fast for Jane to use her atomizer or even see what was coming, she swirled toward Jane like an icy blizzard and closed transparent fingers around her throat.

It was like being blind, deaf, unable to touch or smell. The graveyard, Jimmy, even Molly, all dropped away as if they had never existed. All she could feel was a formless, colorless despair, as if both she and the girl were trapped beneath heavy layers of lead.

He’s never coming back, wailed a distant voice. Jane could not tell whether it was her enemy’s or her own.

I love him, but he’s never coming back. I don’t even know whether he’s alive or dead. How could he leave me? How could he throw his life away?

For the first time in what could be seconds or decades, she could see again: blurred figures, as if through a haze of alcohol or memory, layered over each other like two versions of the same drawing.

She saw the clouds of steam from a train station, a boy in khaki embracing a curly-haired blonde in a blue dress. She saw herself ten years ago, her Walter’s snub-nosed, freckled face looking so silly in his uniform. Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll have the Huns licked by Christmas, just you wait.

The black-and-white newsreels in the cinema, showing muddy trenches and explosions; the letters with half their words blacked out by the sensors; the hollow faces of the men who came home on leave; the telegram with its brusque, impersonal line of “Missing In Action”.

I will wait, said the voice. I’ll wait here forever if that it’s what it takes.

Thinking of the graveyard, and the bench where two young lovers had made a promise forty years ago, Jane Brighton finally remembered who and where she was. She fought against the coldness dragging her down, just as she had fought on the day her own telegram came. She would not allow this self-absorbed, melodramatic snippet of a ghost to take her soul.

“We all—lost—someone--in the Great Wars,” she gasped, fighting for breath inside the ghost’s trap. “We’ve all--suffered. It’s not an excuse!”

She ransacked her brain for the strongest, brightest memories she could find, memories that would make her spirit too hot to handle: Walter teaching her the fox-trot on her sixteenth birthday party; stolen cigarettes and kisses in the back of his car; her mother clapping her hands with pride over their first ration-compliant apple pie; the golden fountain pen presented to her by the first class of schoolchildren she’d taught; Molly as a puppy, all paws and ears; even the tearful smile of poor old Mr. Henderson, the first ghost she had sent into the world beyond.

She glowed with remembered happiness; she burned with it. It was the strongest weapon at her disposal, stronger than holy water, and no dark spirit--not even one as hungry as this one--could tolerate it for long. With one final scream, the ghost of what had once been a heartbroken young woman shattered into fragments.

Jane opened her eyes.

The first thing she noticed was being soaked to the skin. While she was … away, the electric tension in the air had released itself into a full-blown thunderstorm, with fat raindrops making the roses dance and lightning bolts illuminating the clouds. One bolt lit up the grave where Jane’s flashlight still lay: GLADYS LOGAN, it read. 1901-1918.

Slowly, Jane picked up the flashlight and bent down to search for the atomizer she had dropped. Once she had it safely in her pocket, she crouched next to Jimmy, ignoring the mud in order to take his pulse and wait for him to regain consciousness. Thankfully, he had fallen on the soft grass; except for possibly a concussion, there was no harm done. Molly whined and nudged his cheek with her nose. Jane patted her gently in response.

A small moan alerted them both; Jane’s sigh of relief was almost identical to the retriever’s. Jimmy’s eyes fluttered open, then squeezed shut as the raindrops fell on his face. He shivered.

“What … what happened?” He dragged himself to a sitting position, staring wildly around him. “Where’d she go?”

“Easy!” Jane’s arm went around his shoulders as she helped him to stand. “Take it easy, Jimmy. You’ve had a shock. Can you remember what happened?”

“She … she wasn’t real,” he muttered. “She went to pieces … where did she go?”

“To find her fiançé, if she’s lucky. If not … well, in any case, she won’t come after you again.”

“What was she?”

“A ghost, of course. They consume the souls of the living. If I’d gotten here a moment later, it might have been too late.”

“Of course,” he repeated, rolling his eyes. “A ghost. What else could it be?”

This shadow of his normal attitude was such a relief to her that it almost made her want to cry.

“God, Miss Brighton. That was … do you do this every night?”

“Not if I can help it.”

She ruffled his styled hair, just as she had done when he’d crashed his bicycle as a child, and was glad when he did not flinch away.

“Now, I must ask you not to tell anyone,” she said. “It’s very important. Not the other kids, not your mother and especially not the Reverend, understood? The last thing I need is for people to think of me as some kind of witch. I’m just a … caretaker, that’s all.”

“A caretaker?”

“That’s right.” She spoke in the calmest, most reasonable teacher’s voice she could muster, to comfort herself as much as him. “I don’t like messes. Never have, even as a child. And there’s nothing messier than the dead interfering with the living, now is there? We Brightons--my mother and I, her great-aunt before that, and so on--have been keeping this town in order ever since our ancestors came over from England. It’s not easy, but it’s what we’ve got to do. So, will you promise not tell?”

He nodded.

“If anyone asks,” with a tired echo of his signature smirk, “I was out with a girl. My Dad won’t like it, but … ”

“But he’d like it even less if Miss Logan had finished you off.”

“Uh-huh. Oh, and Miss Brighton?”



She did not ask him what for; they both knew.

“Well, then!” She took a deep breath, smoothed her inappropriate attire, and pulled her plump, aging body to its feet. “Before we both get any wetter, I think it’s time to be heading home.”

“I’ll walk you home, Miss,” said Jimmy, gallantly offering his arm. She took it with a smile, happy to let him think that she was the one in need of assistance. It was a pretense that suited them both. Molly trotted alongside them as they made their way toward the gate, neither one speaking, lost in their own thoughts.

You and I might have had a son like this, Jane thought to Walter.

But with the ease of long practice, she banished that ghostly thought from her mind.

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