The locals called it the “Old House”, although it had been redecorated and modernized so often that it looked no different from the other mansions nearby. Once, people had said that strange things happened there, but no one could quite remember what, not anymore. In time, the stories faded to rumour, and rumour faded to nothing. One or two of the old folk said there’d been a time when there were ghost-sightings there, but no one had claimed to see a ghost at Whitechapel House for many years.
The only thing out of the ordinary was a bunch of men and women in black coats, who claimed to be from some Order or Department (no one could be sure). They took a look around, asked a few questions, and left as oddly and quietly as they’d come. The Bridge was closed, they decided, and it would not open. Some of their number even suggested putting an end to their Order completely.
The family that had lived in the house at the time moved after a year or two – they always did. To a new city, perhaps to a new country. But the neighborhood people saw the girl come back from time to time. Sometimes she’d just drive past Whitechapel, a few times she’d stop and ask the new owners if she could go inside. Some said yes, others said no. Eventually the local council bought the house and it became a public library. They’d considered tearing down the mansion and building a squat, stone, serious building, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to. It was a quiet library. No one minded when the girl asked if she could sit in the garden for a while. At first she came alone, but as the years passed she came with a young man, then with two babies, and, years later, two teenagers. As the decades wore on, she came alone again.
She was a painter, the neighborhood folk said. Quite famous, if you followed painters, and her work sold well. Maybe she visited the house for inspiration.
Margo went back to Whitechapel two years after the Bridge closed; one year after her family had moved again. She didn’t ask if she could, she didn’t need to – no one was home. Wearing a backpack containing a notepad, pencils (most with their ends chewed) and her earphones, sparing only one glance to make sure no one was watching, she climbed the fence and dropped down onto the piles of autumn leaves that always accumulated in the garden, despite the owners’ best raking.
She’d wondered what it would be like to be back. If she’d feel anything. She didn’t, not yet. No one did. Bale was gone, and if any other pernicious energy lingered at Whitechapel, it was too weak to be detected. It was like the superhero comics Margo had grown up with had said: HEROINE SAVES THE WORLD!
Did I though?
If this what it felt like to be a heroine, Margo didn’t see the point. She hadn’t told anyone about what she’d been through. Of course not, she would have ended up in a ward, she knew that. And she didn’t want to tell anyone, anyway. But secrets were heavy all the same, especially ones like hers. No one knew about the ghosts, or Below, or how close they’d come to dying. Sometimes, when Margo lay awake at night and listened to the winter winds doing their wolf impressions, even she doubted if it had really ever happened.
She explored. She walked through the trees, she looked inside the groundskeeper’s cabin (already full of the new family’s bikes and bats and racquets). She even went to the mausoleum, which looked exactly as it had the last time. These were all just points on her journey though. Her real destination was the flower-ringed patch of garden beside the park, where the old lamp was.
Through the leaves, the sunlight was golden and green. Margo didn’t know if had been like that on the day she’d moved in, but she tried to believe it was, because there was a little power in believing, wasn’t there?
She sat on the grass and took out her notepad. She didn’t write or draw. She sat and listened for at least an hour, not caring if the evidently-triathlon-loving family came home. She thought about changes, and Charlie, and peanut butter and reasons and living and the Bride and hurting and the ghost with the most infuriating eyes ever.
She didn’t know what she’d expected. Not a revelation, she wasn’t a child. But something. Something that might make all the pain, all the stupid damn hurting, worth it. Or at least okay.
She sat, alone, in the fading sunlight. It wasn’t a revelation. It wasn’t a Great Moment of Infinite Depth either.
“Hey, Quint. I don’t know if you’re there or, you know, but I hope you can hear me, at least. I used to think I was progressive enough to overlook the whole death thing in our friendship – because it was a friendship, wasn’t it? Even though I was way too cool for you and we argued a hell of a lot – but maybe it’s getting a little bit too much. I hope you’re okay. I - goddamn these feelings you cause me, Quint! Goddamn you and your amazing bone structure!”
She chuckled, then, a little.
“I’ve been accepted into Trenton. They’ve pretty much got the best fine arts program around. So, yeah. I’m leaving tomorrow, actually. Yay for early orientation. In case my sarcasm doesn’t travel inter-dimensionally, that was sarcasm. Haven’t met my roommate but we emailed a bit and, oh yeah, I just remembered. Her name is Rachel Wang and, I’m being serious now, Quint, her dad’s an urologist. Literally. You can’t make this stuff up.”
She paused for a while, and the silence came back. With the spirits gone, Whitechapel was quieter than ever.
“We saw some bad stuff, didn’t we?” Margo said, very softly. “I’m trying to hold it together, in a way, but it’s hard. It’s really hard. And you’re gone, aren’t you? I mean, really gone. I’ve accepted that, kind of. I think I know what that means for you, but what does that mean for me? The Lich only told me about my life with this house, but nothing about my future past that. The future scares me, Quint. I don’t know where I fit in it. But I’ve doing a lot of thinking. About what happened. I don’t know if I really saw Charlie that night, or if it was all just in my head, but I think there were things he was trying to tell me which are only starting to make sense now. Maybe they never will…” She stopped talking, because she didn’t know what to say. Then she remembered what she’d come here to show him. She reached into her backpack and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.
“This was what I attached to my application. It got me accepted. God knows my calculus grades didn’t it.”
It was the painting she’d started all those months ago on the porch, when Quint had interrupted her and christened her the Gorgeous Pouting Heroine It showed a setting sun, the kind that turned the sky purple, and, against it, raising an eyebrow, a smirk on his face, was Quint.
“Hope you like it, Quint, you old dick. You were right, by the way. About what you said. About why I wanted to find out more about the ghosts. It was just an elaborate way of flirting with you.”
She kissed the paint Quint on his cheek, leaving a faint tracing of lipstick.
A car hooting.
“Margo, come on.”
Her friends had arrived to pick her up.
She packed up her notepad and pencils, and almost packed the painting too, but instead she left it there between the flowers where they’d first argued so long before. At the very least, she thought, the gooey sentimentality of it would make Quint cringe.
As she walked, she felt – maybe – some little part of her that held onto the house and everything that had happened there ease a little bit. She thought of Quint, and with less heartache than she had in a long time. Maybe that wasn’t so bad. She was right: the future was hard and uncertain, but maybe the uncertainty was the good thing about it. And maybe the past - at least Whitechapel’s past - was better for her being in it. And maybe that was something.
Glancing one last time at the quickly shrinking house, Margo drove on, into the present.