Friday could not come soon enough. Alli spent both Wednesday and Thursday watching the clock and willing the time to move just a little faster. For the first time in her life, she was not making scrupulous notes in class, the blank lined paper gleamed up at her from her notebook, tantalising, teasing, but it was like her concentration was just out of reach. Her lack of focus had a negative effect on her control, and other people’s thoughts swept, unbidden, through her mind; flashes of images and emotions, a tangled web of memories and thoughts that made no real sense to her, nor could she determine their source because there were so many of them skipping through her brain like a parade. It was almost enough to drive her insane.
Meanwhile, Gran seemed to be avoiding her, perhaps to try and remove the temptation of delving into her head and obtaining the truth of what was going on. She kept herself very busy and wasn’t home both days when Alli got home from college. She came home just before Alli went to bed and spent the evening shut up in her bedroom instead of in the lounge where she would ordinarily be found, working on a new painting.
Since finishing the most recent piece on Tuesday, she had not even attempted to start another. This was further cause for alarm for Alli, who could not remember a time when Gran wasn’t working on her art. Until now of course. She wondered what could be so important that it put an artist off her passion, what could be so frightening that it visibly aged her grandma in the space of two days.
Alli excused herself from her last lesson of the day on Friday, claiming menstrual cramps; the only sure-fire way to get a quick dismissal from a male teacher. Martha eyed her suspiciously from the seat across from her as Alli packed up her things in a hurry and left the class half an hour early. She was too desperate to get home and speak to Gran and Martha had already intimated that she wanted to stop off at KFC and get a milkshake on their way home, which in girl world meant that she wanted to bitch and moan about her boyfriend and her broken heart, and today Alli just didn’t have it in her to be a considerate friend.
She had waited two days to hear what Grandma had to say, and now the day was here. She should be relived, but she wasn’t. She was petrified. Her whole body a tight knot of tension and rigid with a fearful expectancy.
Luke was waiting for her outside the front; he was sitting by the fountain where Alli and Martha often sat waiting for Gran to pick them up. He was leaning back with his eyes closed and his head cocked back as if to catch the sun. In the direct light, his skin was translucent and seemed to glow with an eerie white light, similar to that of the spirit orbs she often saw darting around unseen by all except her.
She pitied Luke for his fate, losing his life when he was only a year older than Alli was now. He had missed out on so much, and now he was trapped here in the world, unable to make any sort of contact with anyone besides Alli, and other ghosts of course. But in both their experiences, other ghosts were not always very inviting. She shuddered, glad for Luke’s presence.
He looked up at her as she approached and grinned, “Am I golden yet?” he asked her.
Despite her tension, Alli found herself laughing, “Nope, you’re still as white as a ghost.”
He shook his head dejectedly, “Your words wound me.”
Alli smirked, “Sorry, pal.”
Luke shrugged and jumped up to his feet, “You are quite forgiven.” He said. Standing, he was a head taller than Alli and lean, too.
She nibbled on her bottom lip, “Would you mind running ahead just to make sure she’s home?” Alli asked him. “I have a really bad feeling about today.” She admitted.
Luke frowned, “Put your headphones in.” He said. “You look like you’re talking to yourself.”
A lady walking two dogs was eyeing her from the path on the other side of the fountain, and Alli couldn’t blame her she must look very strange standing here apparently alone and talking to thin air. She dug in her coat pocket for her phone and earbuds and popped them in her ears, it was a trick she often used when she was out in public with Luke so she could pretend she was simply talking on the phone and not to a ghost. She had to try and not look directly at him when she talked too, which was easier said than done.
“That’s better.” Luke said, watching the dog-walker until she was out of sight. “Of course, I’ll run ahead.” He said, “but calm down, okay, you’re panicking over nothing, I bet it just turns out that Gran can’t buy you much for Christmas this year.”
Alli appreciated his trying to cheer her up, but somehow, she doubted that her Gran’s sudden diminished appearance and out of character behaviour was because of Christmas, which was still two months away.
“I’ll meet you there.” She said urgently, the sensation that she was running out of time was only getting stronger.
Luke nodded and vanished right before her eyes. He moved a lot quicker through the spirit world and would make it back home within minutes.
Alli set off down the street, it would take her about fifteen minutes to get home if she walked fast. And something in her gut was telling her to walk fast, run even. Of all her unusual talents, precognition had never been one of them, but right now she was certain that the dark fear coiled around her heart was a premonition and she just couldn’t shake the feeling. White hot panic was loitering just out of sight in the back of her mind, and it took a great deal of mental energy not to succumb to that feeling.
She jogged around the corner, seeing their apartment block just ahead of her across the road. That was when Luke appeared beside her, looking pale even for a ghost, “Alli, stop!” He grabbed her arm and pulled her to a halt.
“What?” She asked him, every nerve in her body alive with electric tension. The fact that he had come back to her instead of waiting at home meant something daunting. “Is Gran not home?”
He shook his head, lost for words, “I – She…”
Alli froze with terror; Luke’s face was crumpled with grief. “She’s okay, right?” Alli asked him softly. The panic was rising, cresting like a wave preparing to consume her, her whole body was thrumming with the coiled energy of it.
When Luke could not bring himself to reply, Alli jerked her arm out of his grip and sprinted across the road, almost getting run down by a ford, she ignored the honking driver shouting at her through the window and fumbled in her bag for her keys, she passed the security door with her fob and took the stairs at a run. Gideon was sitting calmly on the top step, his tail swinging lazily behind him.
Alli leapt over the cat and hit the front door; she jammed her key in the lock and threw it open.
Gran was lying on the floor amongst her painting things. She was on her side as though she had collapsed. Alli stared at her for a long minute before she could comprehend what she was seeing. Beside her Gran there was a stick of incense and a candle burning merrily on the coffee table, filling the air with a sickly-sweet scent that made Alli think of the humid summer.
Alli dropped to her knees next to Gran just as Luke popped in by the TV. He was crying, “Alli come away; let’s just call an ambulance, quick.” He said.
“Ambulance?” Alli mimicked, sounded distracted.
She rolled her Gran onto her back, marvelling at how peaceful the woman looked, her skin was pale and the dark moon crescents under her eyes told of how little sleep she had had of late. Her arms were thin, her whole body felt like glass under Alli’s hands, and she was afraid she might shatter if Alli wasn’t careful with her.
“Al, I saw her ghost…” Luke said his voice breaking.
Alli shook her head, “No.” she said, as if that would change the fact.
Luke fell to his knees beside her and took her hand delicately, “Call an ambulance.” He said. His cheeks were streaked with tears, and his eyes were glistening.
Alli looked back at the still form of her Gran on the floor beside her, and her own tears threatened. “No.” she said again, to no one in particular.
Luke was suddenly wrenched away from her and thrown across the room, he cried out and instead of slamming into the wall he went straight through it into Dorothy’s apartment. Alli gasped and looked up at the man that had thrown him, expecting to see another ghost, after all who else could see and touch Luke?
“That wasn’t the soul I’m looking for.” The newcomer said, rubbing his hands together as if to brush off dust.
He was tall, taller than Luke, with a pale, chiselled face and the blackest eyes Alli had ever seen, there was a faint familiarity about him that Alli couldn’t quite place. He wasn’t a ghost that was certain; he didn’t have that ethereal quality about him those ghosts do, he was as solid and present in the world as she. He was looking down at Alli, his expression one of intense curiosity, his black hair was shaggy, and his jaw bristled with at least a day’s growth. He was wearing a long dark leather coat over indigo jeans and a black silk shirt; heavy biker boots completed his look. There was something dangerous in his face, Alli knew instantly that this man could tear her face off and barely even blink.
Alli’s hand tightened protectively around her Gran’s wrist, “Did you kill Gran?” She asked him, trepidation and fury both growing equally within her.
The newcomer curled his lip as he considered the body on the floor, “She’s not dead.” He said.
Alli looked back at her Gran, shocked. She pressed her two fingers to Gran’s throat and instantly found a strong throbbing heartbeat. But if she wasn’t dead… “Luke said he saw her ghost.” She said almost to herself.
“Yes, he probably did.” He sounded almost… amused.
Alli looked up at the black-eyed man, “But she isn’t dead!” she exclaimed. “She can’t have a ghost if she isn’t dead.”
The newcomer narrowed his eyes, staring at her intently, “For all your so-called power, you seem to have little understanding of the magical world.” He said.
“I’m sorry, Magic?” Alli asked, bewildered.
His eyes widened, “Elise told you nothing of your heritage?”
Alli only stared at him, her heart racing. Gran was alive, that was all that mattered and whoever this man was could wait, she would find out how he managed to see and touch Luke later for now she needed and ambulance for her grandmother. She scrabbled to her feet and reached for the phone sitting in its cradle on the wall. Just as her fingers were about to close around it the phone leapt off the wall, seemingly on its own accord and shot through the air toward the strange man. He caught it nimbly, still watching Alli with disbelief.
She was furious now, “Give me the phone!” She cried. “Gran needs medical attention.”
The black-eyed man glanced down at Gran’s limp form on the floor as though he had forgotten all about her, “Oh don’t worry she’s fine.” He said, “At least physically. You could call it a coma I suppose.” He was still watching Alli with that a dark interest that under different circumstances would have made her squirm.
“A coma?” Alli’s heart stuttered. “Why?”
His eyes flashed, “Your grandmother seems to have vacated her body for a while; you see she has separated her soul and fled in an attempt to thwart me.”
“So, you did do this?” Alli asked him, starting to feel uneasy, and not understanding this man in the slightest.
He chuckled softly, “Sweetheart, if I had been the one to do this your Gran’s entrails would be splattered up the walls.” He said almost casually. “No, this was a spell. Your Gran has performed some dark magic to try and skip out on our agreement.” His gaze was full of fury as he looked down upon Elise Bonhomme’s still body.
Alli took advantage of his distraction and used her own telekinesis to wrench the phone from his grasp. It soared towards her, and she snatched it out of the air, already dialling 999 when she felt it tugged away from her again by an invisible force.
Angry now, she directed her power at the black-eyed man and threw him against the wall in the same manner he had done to Luke, snatching the phone back just as the operator asked what service she needed.
She caught a flash of surprise cross the black-eyed man’s face as he was pinned to the wall by Alli’s powers – he didn’t fall straight through it as Luke had done which was further proof that he wasn’t a ghost. The next second though, he vanished entirely without a sound.
“I need an ambulance.” She explained to the operator, her eyes wide and alert for the black-eyed man should he reappear. “I came home from school and found my Gran collapsed on the floor. She’s not conscious…”
Luke fell through the wall and into Dorothy’s apartment. Dorothy was home today, it seemed, and was sitting on her couch wrapped up in a plum-coloured blanket and watching a repeat of an old movie. She didn’t even notice as Luke stumbled through her wall and landed sprawled on the rug just between her and the TV. She shuddered, like most people did when a ghost was nearby, and pulled the blanket up around her chest, still captivated by her film.
Luke got to his feet, wondering who on earth had managed to throw him through a wall. Surely it couldn’t have been another ghost; he would have sensed their presence. When another ghost was around, he always got the chills down his spine. That same feeling he was getting now, in Dorothy’s apartment.
He spun on his heel and was dismayed to see Gran’s ghost sitting on the edge of Dorothy’s sofa, smiling sadly.
“Gran!” Luke cried.
“Hush, hush!” She snapped quickly, casting her gaze towards the wall fearfully. “We can’t let that man in there find me here.”
Luke glanced back at the wall he had fallen through as if he might be able to see through it, “Is Alli safe in there with him?” He asked.
Gran nodded, “Quite safe. He would sooner kill himself than harm one hair on her head.” She sounded so certain that Luke couldn’t help but believe her. She stood and eyed him up and down, “So you are Luke?” She asked him and he nodded numbly, realising this was the first time Alli’s Gran had seen him. She reached out her arms and embraced him tightly, both shocking and pleasing him. It had been such a long time since his own lifetime when he had been embraced by his mother that he had almost forgotten what it felt like to be shown any kind of maternal affection.
“You have been a good friend to my Alli.” She said tearfully. “And I hope I can rely on you to continue being so?”
“Of course.” He said, “So, you are dead?”
She shook her head, “Not yet.” She said, “My body lives, I have had to vacate it for now.”
“But why?” Luke asked, confused. “Is it because of that man?”
She nodded sombrely, “Twelve years ago, I sold my soul to the devil to save Alli’s life. That man in there is a demon, and he has come to collect me.”
Luke shook his head desperately trying to understand, “You mean the fire? When Alli’s parents died?”
She nodded and eyed the wall tentatively, “Keep your voice down, if he catches me here then Alli will be doomed.” She met Luke’s eyes sadly, “I should have told her everything, from the first day. But I wanted only for her to be happy, to live like a normal child. I didn’t want her to dread this coming day her whole life and hate me for having to leave her.” Tears spilled down her pale cheeks and Luke took her hand gently, urging her to continue. “The fire was no accident.” She said darkly. “It was another demon, trying to kill Alli. I found out only a day before from my spirit guide, but I was in France there was no way I could have made it back to Rose’s home to save them.”
“You couldn’t call Alli’s mum and explain about this… demon?” He asked, a little incredulous.
Elise’s grief flashed across her face, so profound that it brought a tear to Luke’s eye, “I tried. Rose did not believe me, despite everything I taught her. She hung up on me, her accusations were dreadful.” She sniffed. “She told me to stay away from her and her daughter from now on, oh she broke my heart that day to be sure.”
Luke swallowed back his sympathy, “So you made a deal with the devil to save them?” He jumped with a sudden realisation and pointed at the wall, “Is that Lucifer in there?”
“No Luke that is not Lucifer,” She reassured him. “He is the demon with whom I made the deal. The Devil himself does not dally with petty human deals; he only reaps the rewards when the souls are collected.”
“If you made a deal why did Alli’s parents die?” He asked her.
She looked away from him, her expression of tortured grief, “’A life for a life’ was all he would offer me. It was Alli the fire was meant for, Alli who was so young.” She bowed her head. “The hardest decision I have ever made was to let my daughter die and save my granddaughter instead.” She whispered.
“Gran…” Luke muttered.
She looked up at him, her eyes blazing, “Don’t pity me, Luke. I knew what I was doing at the time, and I know what I am doing now.” She cupped his cheek. “I must go into hiding, he will be watching Alli to see if I make contact with her, and it will be too dangerous for me to be nearby. I need you to tell her that I love her, and that I will come back to her as soon as I can.”
Luke nodded. He couldn’t speak even if he tried.
“Tell her that Harriett is not to be trusted.” She said firmly. “Make sure she is safe, Luke. You have always been with her when I could not be.” She kissed his nose tenderly. “Thank you.”
From behind them came a most unwelcome voice, “How touching.” Said the black-eyed man.
Elise’s eyes widened and, in an instant, she vanished into the spirit world, leaving Luke alone with the demon. He was tempted to follow Elise and try to make a run for it, but a fierce protectiveness rose within him; he would delay this demon for now and give Elise a chance to hide.
“Where did she go?” The black-eyed man asked him, there was a lazy anger exuding from him.
Luke shrugged, “Egypt.” He said randomly. “Gran has always been a history buff; she especially loved those mummies.”
The black-eyed man crossed his arms over his chest, he was standing directly in front of Dorothy, and she barely even flinched, which meant that she could not see him. “I am not amused.” He said in a low voice.
“I can tell.” Luke retorted before he could stop himself.
“Come with me, ghost.” The demon said with a frightening grin. “You and I are going to have a little chat.”
And before Luke could even think to run or jump up into the spirit world, he was sucked into a black void.
© Emma Stead
Merely Mortal, Chapter Three … https://emmaswritingthings.wordpress.com/2022/04/14/merely-mortal-chapter-three/