The paramedics hoisted the bed up into the ambulance and urged Alli to climb in with her Gran. She cast one last look up at the apartment building before climbing inside, wondering where on earth Luke had gotten off to. After being thrown through the wall by the black-eyed man she was worried now if he was hurt in some way. She had never heard of a ghost getting hurt before, but then again, she wasn’t an expert on all things paranormal just because she had a few abilities.
She was quickly reminded of the black-eyed man’s words, “Elise told you nothing of your heritage?” and was forced to wonder what her grandmother had been keeping from her all these years. What could he have meant by her heritage? Her powers, she wondered, or something else.
If Gran really had performed a spell to take her soul out of her body, as he had claimed, then that would be her first clue that Gran knew more about Alli’s abilities than she had let on over the years. Or perhaps the black-eyed man had been trying to make her doubt Elise. If that was the case she had to wonder why, and what he could have had against her Gran. This brought her back around to wondering what he was doing there in the first place, and how he had managed to not only see Luke but touch him too.
She sent up a silent prayer that Luke was alright and climbed into the ambulance to sit beside her Gran on their way to the hospital. She had to put all thoughts of the black-eyed man aside for now and focus on Gran.
It took the ambulance nineteen minutes to get to the hospital and wheel Gran in through the double doors. Alli hurried behind them but was denied access to the room where Gran was taken and instead led into a small waiting room off to the left of the ward. The nurse was short and rounded with a kind smile and a soft touch. She squeezed Alli’s shoulders encouragingly and offered to fetch a drink for her, an offer that Alli respectfully declined.
Soon she was left alone in the waiting room, which was nothing more than a box room where the walls were lined with chairs. In the middle of the room was a small round coffee table on which there was a stack of out-dated magazines.
Alli sat nervously on the edge of one of the chairs and her gaze found the clock above the open door. It was exactly three thirty, she realised that Martha would be leaving the college now and making her way home. For a moment she was sorely tempted to phone Martha and tell her to come to the hospital, but she didn’t think she could handle the hysterics that were sure to come. Martha was very needy when she was emotional and Alli doubted she would be much of a comfort right now when she actually needed comforting herself.
Instead, she closed her eyes and tried to call out to Luke through the spirit world, she had no idea if he would hear her or not, but she needed to do something. She needed to know if he was okay, it wasn’t like him to abandon her like this – especially like this. After ten long minutes of waiting and shouting his name in her head, she peeled open one eye and he still wasn’t here.
Dejected and alone, she took to watching the clock again, hoping that someone would come and tell her that Gran had only had a fall, that she was awake and smiling.
She vaguely remembered the only time in her life when she had spent an extended amount of time in hospital; just after the fire twelve years ago. She was being treated for smoke inhalation and a broken ankle. The staff were all tiptoeing around her at first, keeping her parents’ death from her for a short while. She had known anyway. In pain, confused and lonely, her childish walls that she had erected between her mind and the minds of others had crumbled to dust and she could hear every last regretful and pity filled thought of all who came near her. The nurses had smiled at her brightly, with eyes shimmering with tears of sympathy for the orphan that she had become. Their thoughts had been a tirade of hot balmy compassion but not one of them had the guts to tell her that her parents were dead.
She sat there now, quivering with loneliness and abject fear. She was all alone. Her whole future was pinned on that frail old woman in the ward across the hall from where Alli sat. Gran had been her parent for almost as long as she could remember; her mother and father as well as the doting grandma, Elise was everything.
With the back of her hand, Alli dashed away the stray tear that had escaped her lid. She chastised herself for thinking about her Gran in the past tense, it was as though she had already accepted that Elise was dead, but no, she mustn’t think that way! Gran would be fine, even the black-eyed man had said she wasn’t dead…
The clock seemed to be hardly moving now, each second taking an age to pass, and each minute an eternity. She had been sat here alone with no news of her Gran for nearly half an hour. Strange, it felt like it had been longer. Her fingers, clawed in a tight grip over her own knees, were numb and ice cold. That raw panic had subsided to a deep ache in her chest; her heart rate was only slightly elevated now as opposed to half an hour ago when the thunder of her rushing blood in her ears was a cacophony.
It was not long after four pm that someone finally entered the waiting room with Alli. It was a familiar someone, tall and statuesque with thick brunette hair wound tightly in a knot on the back of her head. She was wearing a grey pantsuit with a delicate silver cross on a chain around her neck. She appraised Alli with the eye of a disapproving teacher, a look that was almost a sneer, and one that made Alli want to sit up straight and smooth her wayward hair nervously. It was a face that Alli recognised, although different than she remembered; older. The woman before her had fine lines in the corners of her eyes and around her mouth; her blue eyes were sharp and her lips tight.
Alli would have recognised this woman anywhere. It was her aunt, her mother’s twin.
Harriett Augustine, as far as Alli knew, lived in France with her husband and two daughters. Gran and her daughter had been estranged ever since Alli’s parents died although Gran had never offered more details as to why. There had always been Christmas and birthday cards, with a five- or ten-pound note tucked away inside for Alli and the same vice versa. Although Alli had never met her cousins in person, in recent years she had made contact with them online just out of curiosity. Faye was the elder of the two at twenty-one years old; she was the most pleasant to Alli once Alli had sent them both a message stating who she was. Eliza was the same age as Alli, to the day it turned out. Alli had been surprised to learn that Eliza and she shared the same birthday and wondered why Gran had never mentioned such an interesting yet trivial fact.
“Allison?” Her aunt asked her voice as sharp as her eye. She had a rich French accent that gave Alli a pang and made her think of Gran.
Alli nodded, dumbfounded.
“I am Harriet, doubtless you know of me?” She inquired, raising one brow in question.
Alli nodded again, “Y-yes.” She stammered. “I’ve seen pictures. Faye-”
“Ah,” She inclined her head, “You have been in contact with my daughters, I am aware of that. We shall dismiss formalities then. What news of my mother?” Her eyes flashed.
Alli swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. This really was like being in the presence of a strict head teacher, “No news yet.” She said and unwittingly her eyes filled up.
Harriet’s gaze glided smoothly over Allie, taking in her grief and tears with an expression of barely concealed disdain, “I will speak with the nurses.” She said and exited as swiftly as she had entered, leaving Alli in more of an emotional mess than she had been before.
Alli got to her feet and peered out into the hallway, not quite daring to follow her aunt, but restless now. She longed to know what was happening with Gran, and she was curious as to her aunt’s sudden unexpected appearance. Gran had not spoken of Harriet or the girls in three months or more, it was eerie for Harriet to turn up on this very day when Gran appeared to have fallen or hurt herself… Or slipped out of her body to run from the black-eyed man. Alli shuddered. There was something deeper happening here, and this was the first time she properly allowed herself to consider the black-eyed man’s statement as fact.
Harriet thanked the nurse and glanced back at the waiting room where Alli was lurking in the doorway expectantly. Alli smiled nervously, expecting her aunt to bring her news. But instead, Harriet waited for the nurse to finish up something on the computer before following her down to the ward where Gran was taken and leaving Allie gaping down the empty corridor.
The longer she stood waiting, the more convinced she became that something was definitely not right with this picture. Why would the estranged aunt Harriet be here today of all days? Alli rocked backwards and forwards on her heels, silently debating with herself whether she should follow Harriet and the nurse or whether she should stay here and wait.
Impatience got the better of her and she shot off down the corridor, and quietly pushed open the door Harriet had disappeared through. The room was small, it appeared even more so from the amount of people crowded around the single bed in the centre. Harriet had her back to Alli, and distantly Alli noted that there wasn’t a single crease on the suit trousers or on the matching grey blazer she wore. Nor was there a single hair out of place in her knot. She was nodding politely as the doctor beside her was explaining Gran’s condition. On the other side of the bed a nurse was injecting some clear substance into a tube. Allie’s gaze was irrevocably drawn down the length of the fluid filled tube where it burrowed into the back of the pale wrinkled flesh of a delicate and familiar hand. Alli’s throat grew tight looking at the limp hand and suddenly the only sound she was aware of was a rushing, like the beat of a thousand wings in the air but was probably just the sound of her own racing blood.
Her gaze followed the line of that limp hand and arm up to the face of her Gran. Elise lay as if sleeping, her eyes sunken and bruised looking and her skin as pale as milk. Her white hair lay about the pillow, devoid of its usual life and lustre. Distantly Alli could hear the steady beep-beep of the machinery that surely meant Gran’s heart was still beating. But looking upon her now, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that Gran’s body was empty, whether dead or alive, it was clear to Alli now that wherever the essence of her Gran truly was, it was not here inside her body where she belonged.
Alli was considering the existence of souls and how one might go about detaching one’s soul from their body without dying when an iron grip suddenly circled her wrist on the door. She looked up and met the icy cold depths of Aunt Harriet’s eyes, and in them she read a plain hatred and anger that she could not fathom.
“You should wait down the hall, dear niece.” She said coldly with no affection behind the endearment. “This is no place for a child.”
Alli was nudged back out of the room by that iron grip and left staring at the closed door, with the memory of those dark, pitiless eyes emblazoned in her mind. She stared at the closed door, confused and upset. Alli drew in her brows and reached across the distance between herself and her aunt, through the door, and touched Harriet’s mind. What she found only served to heighten Alli’s fear and bewilderment. Her probing mind slammed directly into the toughest mind block that she had ever seen or felt. It was like a sheet of steel protected Harriet’s innermost thoughts and privacy, and when Alli brushed up against it, like a novice, she felt Harriet’s mind bend towards her. The image of her fathomless piercing blue eyes floated to the front of Alli’s mind, placed there by Harriet. Harriet swatted Alli away like a fly and she came back to her own body, reeling.
Alli staggered backwards a step, physically as well as mentally thrown by her aunt’s own power to not only block mind invasion, but to swat it away as though it were no more than a nuisance. She had never come across anything like it in her whole life; she had always been able to see in people’s minds, always been able to peel back the layers of the richest minds and burrow beneath no matter how blocked they were.
She made her way back to the waiting room, her mind whirring. Why had Gran never mentioned that her aunt had the same, and apparently stronger, abilities than her own? And what on earth did it mean? She pined for her Gran now more than ever; she had never had more questions or need of Elise. And never had Elise been so far away.
A long time passed before Harriet re-joined Alli in the waiting room, or perhaps it was not longer than twenty minutes. Time had lost all meaning to Allie in her grief and confusion, and she paced the small square room with her agitation.
Harriet was suddenly standing in the doorway as Alli rounded the table for probably the hundredth time in her pacing. She jumped at the woman’s sudden presence and her cold stare only served to ignite Alli’s temper.
Nothing but air lay between the two of them, but that air was thick with tension. A million and one questions skittered through Alli’s mind, she asked the only one that mattered right now, “How is Gran?” She was proud of her voice which did not shake or crack with emotion as before. She tried to mimic Harriet’s cool and composed look, probably spoiling it with her obvious agitation.
Harriet inclined her head, “Not very well I am sorry to say.”
“What happened to her?” Alli asked her heart racing beneath her bosom.
Harriet’s eyes flashed cold fire and she took another step into the room, she pitched her voice low so as not to alarm any unwanted listeners, “I had hoped you would have the answer to that question.”
Alli blinked, “I only found her as she was.” She said, “I didn’t see what happened.”
Harriet closed the distance between them and looked down at Alli, her eyes blazing icy fire, “Where did my mother go?” She asked in a hissing tone.
Alli forced herself not to shy back away from the anger or the accusing tone; she raised her chin defiantly, and said “She’s there, in the other room.”
Anger flitted across Harriet’s lined features before she smoothed it away and replaced it with a calculated look of amusement, “You play dumb, dear niece.” She smiled mockingly, “I think we both know what being raised by Elise Bonhomme entails, do we not, little demon hunter?”
Alli’s breath caught in her throat, she could not disguise the genuine shock that befell her, “What did you call me?” She breathed.
Harriet studied Alli with a mixture of shock and dawning realisation, “Mon dieu!” She muttered. “You really know nothing of the life, do you?” She asked with surprise.
Alli shook her head, “No, but I think I’m starting to.”
Harriet backed away from Alli and slid down into a chair, staring at her in horror, “Oh mamman,” she whispered. “What changed?” She appraised Alli again as before, only this time she did not pre-judge her with disdain, but rather with a mixture of pity and awe.
Alli sat in the chair beside her aunt, she wanted to shrivel under the weight of her stare but instead she summoned a courage from within herself, “Will you tell me what Gran was keeping from me?” She asked.
Harriet eyed her warily, “I do not know if I should,” she said quietly. “Perhaps you are better off not knowing.”
Alli stamped down her frustration and forced herself to be calm, “Then tell me what is wrong with Gran.”
Harriet folded her hands together in her lap neatly, in tune with her character, “Mamman is in a coma, they say.”
Alli stared hard at her aunt, willing her to be truthful, “And what is it really?”
Harriet sighed, “Mamman has fallen into a coma,” She turned her sharp eye to Alli, “Comme par magie.” She finished.
“As if by magic…” Alli muttered. She well remembered the black-eyed man telling her so, and now she was beginning to believe him. “Why would Gran do this?” She asked her aunt.
Harriet shook her head, “Do not ask me, I would not know. Mamman and I have not spoken in many years.”
Alli had a whole fresh load of questions about the estrangement pop into her head like light bulbs, but she shoved them to one side for now, more determined than ever to get to the bottom of this mystery. “You asked me where she is; you mean to say that she did leave her body willingly.”
Harriet nodded, still regarding Allie, “Oui.”
Alli’s mind whirred with possibilities, “Can you get her back?” She asked eagerly, “With another spell, more magic?”
“Il n’y a pas de remède miracle.” Harriet said simply, her tongue lilting with her native accent.
“There must be something we can do.” Alli said quietly.
Harriet took Alli’s hand in her own, the action felt somewhat forced and Harriet’s hand was stiff and her touch unloving, “Only Mamman can choose if and when to return. That is the nature of the spell.”
Alli thought again of the black-eyed man, she remembered his rough, whiskered and darkly handsome face, she remembered the way he had looked down at Gran as if she were no more than a rag doll. Was that who Gran was hiding from, she wondered.
Another daunting realisation hit Alli, and she felt cold inside all of a sudden, “If Gran doesn’t wake up… what will happen to me?” She asked, not expecting a reply. Memories of her years in social care leapt across her vision unbidden and a dark dread began in the pit of her stomach. She was not eighteen yet, would she be forced back into the system until her birthday?
Harriet smiled, somewhat relieving her pinched features, “I will stay with you for now and act as temporary guardian.”
Alli swallowed, “Thank you.” She said.
Harriet brushed away the thanks, “If Mamman does not wake, then you may have to come back home with me.”
“Oui. Unless you have other family in England you could stay with?”
Alli shook her head, “My father had no family to speak of, as far as I’m aware.”
“Let us put the issue to one side for now. One day at a time, how does that sound?”
Alli forced a smile at her aunt; she could not help but distrust the woman who had changed her attitude towards Alli so quickly. This Harriet was a completely different woman to the Harriet that had first walked into the hospital and it alarmed Alli, made her cautious.
“The doctor advised me to take you home for now.” Harriet was saying. “I will telephone the hospital later this evening for an update on Mamman. I should also like to telephone Eliza and tell her I have arrived safely.”
Harriet rose from the chair, she moved with all the grace of royalty.
“Why are you here?” Alli asked her softly.
Harriet froze for a millisecond before turning to Alli with a solemn expression, “Mamman summoned me to England several weeks ago. She was very clear that I should arrive by today and no later.”
“I thought you and Gran hadn’t spoken in years?”
She nodded, “That is correct until I received this letter from Mamman we had not spoken at all in ten years. I thought it odd, and desperate. I admit I only came here out of curiosity. Obviously Mamman had this planned all along.”
“But why ask you to come here?”
“To be your guardian, I should think. For whatever reason Mamman has decided to do this magic, but it seems she was loathe to leave you unguarded.” She grimaced as if she’d suddenly experienced a bad taste. “You should feel privileged, cher, in my youth Mamman was not so considerate.”
With that Harriet took her leave, clearly expecting Alli to follow her. Feeling more confused and upset than ever, Allie complied, wanting nothing more than to climb into bed next to Gran and hold her until she woke.
© Emma Stead