Margo didn’t know the boy waltzing around her garden was a ghost.
She hadn’t known him at all in fact until a few minutes before, when he’d stuck his head over the kitchen door. Margo’s dad had been unpacking boxes, and the boy had introduced himself as a local and offered to help. Margo had watched from her bedroom window as the boy helped her dad carry furniture in from the truck. He glanced at her once – his eyes were green, and there was a permanent smirk in them. As if there was something very funny about her that only he could see. Despite how much she tried not to, she liked that look.
In response, she stayed in her room and didn’t speak to the boy.
From downstairs she could hear the old fight.
(“We haven’t been here for a day and you’re already complaining about the house.”)
(“My problem’s not with the house, it’s with the city. Where’ll I find a job here?”)
(“You know I can’t work anywhere else!”)
(“When did your dream job become more important than mine?”)
(“Yesterday you weren’t sure if you still wanted to be a chef, and now it’s your dream job?”)
Divorce, that little storm cloud, hung heavy. Margo’s parents seemed to have thought moving would disperse it, but the cloud was as Damoclean as ever.
Her parents stopped shouting when Margo walked into the lounge. They glanced at each other, then resumed unpacking. It seemed lately that Margo’s parents split their time between fighting and pretending they weren’t fighting.
“There’s food in the microwave,” Margo’s mom said, putting a trophy (Art Award 2012 – Margo Comeau) on the mantel.
“We’ll be back by eleven,” Margo’s dad said.
Margo half listened, half looked around for the boy. He was gone.
Half an hour later, after the sounds of showering and whispered bickering, her parents were gone too.
Margo didn’t really care that she was spending the first night at the new house alone. She was in the lounge, Ghoul Harvest III playing on the TV, and she was painting. The easel quickly turned acid green, night sky black, full of snarls and slashes of colour. Margo painted with acrylic and anger. She painted the gate to her new home, as she saw it through the window, and she filled the painting with all her worry, all her pissed-offness, all her I-don’t-want-to-be-here. She painted faster and faster, not really thinking, and without knowing it had begun to paint the outline of a man standing in her garden, a man who wasn’t there.
Then there was a knock on the door.
She checked it. It was the boy.
“What do you want?” Margo said.
The boy looked bored, but he smiled at her. The smile was half interested, half mocking. Margo believed smiles could tell a lot about a person. This one told her that he was vain, obnoxious, and self-centered. It was sexy as hell.
“The words you’re looking for are ‘Hello, would you like to come in?’” said the boy.
Margo folded her arms. “No, I think I meant what I said.”
“I’m here to babysit you.”
“Your dad asked me to swing by and check on you,” shrugged the boy. “Didn’t want you to be alone all night or whatever.”
“C’mon. I’m going for a walk. It would actually be criminal for you to miss a nighttime walk around this house.”
“I don’t know you. You could be a serial killer.”
The boy chuckled. “My name’s Quint. I’m seventeen. I have a birthmark shaped like Mickey Mouse on my right shoulder blade. I secretly cried when I read Wuthering Heights. There. Now you know me. And you are?”
“Margo. And I’ve watched enough horror movies to know this the part where the Gorgeous Pouting Heroine gets lured by the Villain to a Grisly Demise.”
“The only part about that you got right is the you-being-gorgeous part.” Seeing her expression, Quint added, “I’m pretty forward. You’re gonna have to get used to it.” He gestured at the open door. “So. You coming or not, Gorgeous Pouting Heroine?”
Margo stared at him for a moment.
They walked under the trees.
There was a bitter wind out, but it didn’t seem to dampen Quint’s mood. He practically skipped.
“So Margo,” he said, “tell me your story.”
“I don’t know.”
“’Course you do.”
Margo shivered, pulling her coat righter around her. The garden of her new house was big and dark; full of drooping trees as old as the forest that had once stood there. She could see why her dad had worried she’d wouldn’t want to stay home alone.
“I guess I’ll have to coax out your biography,” said Quint, “Ever played the Question Game?”
“A virgin! Basically, how the Question Game works is we take turns asking each other questions. The first person to refuse to answer a question loses. I’ll start.” He thought for a second. “You like horror movies. Why?”
“They teach you to deal with being scared. Why do you like nighttime walks in the middle of the night in the middle of winter. In London?” Her teeth chattered between words.
“Because no one else does. Are you happy to be living
“Not at all. My parents don’t care though. Didn’t even ask my opinion on the whole ‘relocating to another freaking country’ thing. Who’s your favourite fictional character?”
“Captain Nemo. I was him in another life. Do you believe in reincarnation?”
“I’d like to, but it’s mathematically impossible,” said Margo. “Think about it. They’re more people alive right now than ever before, right? So there aren’t enough dead people for the living people to have been reincarnated from. Unless our souls get divided. Like we’re only a part of a person reincarnated. But that’s kinda sad, isn’t it?”
“Is that your question?”
“No. Um. Trying to think of a hard one. Have you ever been in love?”
A pause. “I guess. What are you scared of most?”
“Honestly? Something happening to my parents. What’s the biggest trouble you’ve ever been in?”
“Someone tried to kill me once,” said Quint. They’d reached an old patch of the garden lit by an even older-looking lamp. “Does it look like someone’s been through here to you?”
A pile of dead leaves lead from the lawn to a little bank – too small to call a hill. It was dark, but as Margo got closer she realized Quint was right. There was a path cutting through the leaves, as if someone had moved through them. And then tried to cover it up.
“Yeah,” Margo said. “It’s weird, that bank looks like a burial mound. Like, from Arthurian legend.”
Quint looked at her. “There’s nothing sexier than a girl who knows her Arthurian mythology. And yes. It does look like a burial mound. Because it is one.”
Margo laughed. Quint didn’t.
Seeing this, Margo said, “What, you’re not serious? Then who’s buried there?”
“Someone who’s been dead for a long time. Maybe even a Roman. Judging by the tracks, looks like someone was very interested in getting something from him.”
“Getting what?” Margo wasn’t sure if he was joking.
“His memories, I imagine. Lots of secrets in dead men’s memories. Whose turn is it to ask a question?”
Margo stared at the burial mound – if that was what it was – not sure how to feel.
“Do you think I’m weird?’ Quint said, and the tension drained from between them.
“Yes,” Margo said. “Can you dance?”
“Margo,” Quint said with deathly seriousness, “I’m the male Anna Pavlova.”
Quint’s back straightened, he held out his arms, and began to waltz. He was poised, and fleet, as if he’d been trained in the Russian royal court.
“Still think I’m the Villain luring you to a Grisly Demise?”
He took Margo’s hands, and together they waltzed in the lamplight as a cold wind rippled through the leaves.
“You’re going to have ask much harder questions if you want to beat me,” Quint said, with his finest, most piratical smirk.
“Oh yeah?” Margo said, not noticing how cold Quint was, not yet. “Hmm. Okay. What’s one thing you would never tell me, under normal circumstances?”
Quint’s expression hardened for a moment, just a little. He looked at Margo for a long time, then looked away.
“I’m dead,” he said.
Margo punched Quint’s shoulder. “Don’t tease me.”
Quint didn’t smile. “I’m not.”
“Wha - ? Be serious, please. What wouldn’t you tell me? For real? Or am I gonna win the game?”
Normally Margo would have laughed, or gotten frustrated. But there was something too sad about Quint’s voice.
“What – what are you saying?”
“I’m a ghost.”
Margo had expected an excuse, expected him to back down. But instead, Quint’s body began leeching of colour.
“Oh my god.”
In a moment, he became transparent.
Margo staggered back. Quint looked almost angry now. He moved to the side, and his body passed through a tree.
Margo felt her legs wobble beneath her.
Quint knew this part well. He’d seen it with every new person that moved into the house. Denial. Fear. They started screaming next, and running. Or trying to exorcise him – usually with guns or knives, sometimes holy water. As if that would work.
“Are you scared?” Quint said.
Margo thought: Yes. God yes.
“No,” she said softly. She reached out a hand to him, and asked him something no living person had asked him in decades. “Are you ok?”
They sat together, under the lamp. Quint had become solid again. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking he was alive.
“I can’t believe this,” Margo said, “I mean, this is wonderful. But it raises so many philosophical questions, y’know?”
Quint watched her, with just the hint of a smile. “So you’re not terrified of me?”
“Not terrified. Kinda scared, yeah. And excited.”
“You’re very weird, Margo, you know that?”
“I’ve always been fascinated with the macabre and stuff,” she said. “I’ve always thought the idea of ghosts was sort of beautiful, you know? I could never understand when the other kids got scared watching ghost movies. Haunting a place you love after you die? Being able to see your family? That’s great. Being worm food, that’s the real scary thing.”
Margo was speaking at light speed, her words tumbling over each other. Shock, probably.
“So are you the only ghost here?”
“God no,” Quint said. “There’re dozens of others. And not all of them are quite so charming as me.”
“Why? Are there ghosts everywhere? Do they only reveal themselves to a handful of people? Are there animal ghosts too? Like of lost pets?”
“No spectral Rovers or Puddy Tats that I know of,” said Quint. “But yeah. Everyone who dies at this house comes back.”
“I’ve been trying to figure that out for a long time. Are you going to be alright, Margo?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure.” She was shaking a little though. “So,” she said, “Why did you ask me about reincarnation then? If you knew you were a ghost?”
Quint shrugged. “For a laugh.”
“Are you sure I’m not dreaming?”
“Maybe I’m having a seizure or something and this is all just a delusion,” said Margo. “Maybe you aren’t even here. Maybe you’re just a figment of my imagination.”
“I think I’m pretty real,” said Quint. “I think therefore I am and whatever.”
They sat in silence for a long time.
“You should get back inside. You’ll catch a cold,” Quint said, getting to his feet. Together, they made their way back to the house.
Margo wasn’t sure what to say. She felt as if the last seventeen years of her life had suddenly been crossed out with a black marker. It was exhilarating, and it was terrifying.
“Haven’t finished the Question Game,” Quint said, as they stopped outside the front door. Just to fill the silence.
“Can we talk about this again? Some time? That’s my question.” Margo said.
Quint nodded and turned to go, but then looked back at her. “Margo?”
“Thank you.” He leaned forward and gave her a gentle, out-of-nowhere kiss on the cheek. And then he walked off into the night, and was gone.
She would remember that as the last good moment before all the chaos and pain began.