Lois Cloarec Hart
It was an unprepossessing house, in a commonplace neighbourhood, in a middle-sized town that had nothing to differentiate it from thousands of others across the country. The For Sale sign on the front lawn was a tad shabby, as if it had been put in place with great confidence but time had worn down its optimism.
No one wanted to buy this house. Despite the realtor’s best efforts, few had even bothered to take a tour. Those that did left hurriedly, as if the placid interior exuded an unpleasant, if untraceable odour.
As month after month, then two years, passed without an offer, even the realtor’s inherent exuberance paled. The owner offered to double the commission for the sturdy single family dwelling with detached garage and large yard, but even continued effort elicited nary a nibble. It was only the hefty retainer from the absentee seller that kept the realtor’s sign on the lawn.
Tiffany Brenner did not appreciate lost causes. It was bad for her self-image, not to mention her bottom line. She decided to make one final stab at selling the Richards place, then wash her hands of it. With that in mind, she was coaxing the property holder to try something new.
“And so, Mr. Richards, I believe that if we put some money into upgrading the house, we would have a much better chance of selling.”
Tiffany inspected her nails as she listened to her client’s response. “No, Mr. Richards, I’m not speaking of major structural renovations, simply things like repainting the interior, installing crown mouldings and new hardwoods, finishing the basement, upgrading the kitchen and baths—that sort of thing.”
She rolled her eyes as her client protested. “Mr. Richards, I know you don’t want to put any money into the place, but I also know you’re desperate to be rid of your brother’s house. You must understand that the housing market is in a slump. There are more houses available than there are buyers, and you need to make your property stand out, particularly given its history. Fundamentally, it’s a solid house and should have sold long ago, but buyers aren’t standing in line. Unfortunately, other than the voyeuristic, there aren’t many who have even taken a cyber tour of the place. Quite honestly, other than the upgrades I’ve suggested, I can’t think of a single other thing we could do to market it more readily. In the end, you may have to accept that it would be best to tear down the house and offer the land for sale alone. You’ve already come down on the price to the point where you’re almost giving it away. The house just isn’t selling as is.”
Tiffany Brenner had no illusions as to why the house had not sold, and the silence on the line told her Mr. Owen Richards was well aware of the reason, too. Finally, her client gave his grudging consent.
“No sir, I promise I’ll avoid high priced contractors. In fact, I may have the very person for the job—an independent who works reasonably. Yes, sir, I’ll keep you informed of the progress. If all goes well, by spring we should be able to sell for a figure that will recoup this minor investment.”
Tiffany bade farewell to her disgruntled client and hung up. “Sure, and pigs might fly, too. I’ll be lucky if I can get even a fraction of the price we have on it already.”
The realtor sighed and leaned back in her chair. If all goes well…well, that is the sticking point, isn’t it? Not a damned thing’s gone right with this property since that horrible day two years ago.
With a shudder, she reached for her Blackberry. Tiffany preferred not to linger on the negative.
“So, I meet the realtor at the property like she tells me to, and then she won’t go in the house with me.”
Alana looked at her old friend in puzzlement. “What do you mean she won’t go in with you?”
Delanie shook her head. “I mean she won’t go inside with me. She walks me to the front door, opens the lock box, but won’t cross the threshold. I figure she wants me to go in first to sort of get an impression of the place without her commentary, so I go in. I’m looking at the living room and I turn to say something to her, and she’s not there. I go back out to the hall and there she is, standing outside, looking through the open door like she thinks something is going to fly out and bite her pretty nose.”
“Ah, so her nose was pretty, eh?” Alana chuckled as Delanie rolled her eyes.
“Get a grip, Alana.”
“I’m just saying…at least you’re back to noticing when a woman is pretty. I was beginning to think you’d declared permanent celibacy.”
“I didn’t declare it, it was forced upon me, but we’re getting off the topic. Ms Tiffany Brenner—”
“Yup, and she looks just like a Tiffany. Anyway, Ms Brenner out and out refused to join me, and it sure wasn’t because I hadn’t showered that morning.”
strange. So, are you taking the job,
and finished her beer. “Why not? I’m just about finished with the Pearson’s
“Well, it sounds
like a good opportunity,
“Oh no, I know where you’re headed. No way, Alana. I’m not doing it.”
“But you don’t even know—”
Delanie smiled at her friend affectionately. “Yes, I do. You’re going to try to talk me into taking on one of your delinquents, and I’m not doing it. I like working alone. And even if I didn’t, the last partner I’d want would be one of your juvenile felons.”
Alana sighed heavily. “You know, if I can’t even get my best friend to give one of these kids a break, how am I going to place any of them?”
“With your usual silver tongued charm.”
doesn’t work with you.
“And you think I’m the one to give it to him? Are you crazy? Hell, so-called ‘normal’ teens drive me crazy—between what they call music, metal poking out all over their faces, and pants they wear around their knees. The last thing I want is one of those brats around me all day, and any kid that’s landed in your domain is already bad news!”
Alana blew out an
exasperated breath. “These are good
“Fine, let some big corporation give them a chance where they can get lost in the crowd. I hear McDonalds is always looking to hire. I’m a one woman show and I like it that way.”
Alana frowned at
her friend. When they were young,
Not that there was
much chance of that. Daphne had fled
“Hey, did I tell you I finally got my iPod shuffle loaded?”
Stopping short of rolling her eyes at the obvious subject change, Alana smiled. Though there was nothing around a house that Delanie couldn’t fix or improve, when it came to computer technology, she was often a lost soul. “Glad to hear it, but you know I would’ve helped you.”
“I know, but I
wanted to figure it out myself.”
“Excuse me? You loaded what?”
“Lil Po—you know, my iPod shuffle.”
“Lil Po?” Alana was familiar with her friend’s habit of
naming inanimate objects.
Po.” Alana groaned aloud, but quietly
enjoyed the mischievous twinkle in Delanie’s eyes. For too long her friend’s eyes had been sad
and lifeless. It was wonderful to see
Delanie sat up and placed her empty bottle on the coffee table. “And on that note, I gotta go. I told Ms Brenner I’d get her the estimate in the morning. Not that it matters in the long run. I get the feeling I’m pretty much her last resort. It wouldn’t much matter what I charge for this job, it’s mine.”
Alana followed Delanie to the front door. “I meant to ask you to take a look at the dishwasher. It’s shutting off halfway through the drying cycle again.”
“Okay. I’ll come over on Saturday.”
“Thanks, Del. What would I do without you?”
“Hey, you’re the one who lets me store all my junk in your garage. What would I do without you?”
against the doorway, watching
Two gallons of paint in each hand, Delanie fumbled for the door. She was about to admit defeat and set the paint down when the door unexpectedly swung open.
Huh, must not have closed it properly when I left last night. Delanie stared at the open doorway in puzzlement, then at the lockbox into which she had just keyed the entry numbers. No, I’m sure I pulled it shut. I remember thinking I’d need to oil the hinges because they were sticking.
Despite the inner rebuke, Delanie stepped as quietly as she could, given the debris. She skirted around bits of drywall, wood, broken tiles, and scattered wires as she walked the length of the hallway checking bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets. As she hadn’t yet started work on that part of the house, all was tidy in the empty rooms.
Nothing. Told you so. Delanie shook her head at her foolishness and returned to the front door to retrieve the paint. She was looking forward to the day’s work. The past four weeks had been devoted to converting the small kitchen, dining and living room to one large space. Tearing out walls, dry walling, and installing new cupboards and cabinets had been noisy, tedious, tiring work, but well worth it. It had opened up and modernized the space dramatically.
Delanie patted the iPod shuffle clipped to her overalls. “And today it’ll finally be quiet enough to listen to some music.”
Slipping the ear buds into place, Delanie began prepping the space. She had just completed taping the large front window when the music was abruptly interrupted by a child’s voice.
“What colour are you going to paint?”
Delanie spun around, her first thought that a child must have entered through the balky front door. There was no one standing behind her. “What the hell?”
“I like red best,
“Damn. Maybe Lil Po was picking up a nearby kid’s
baby monitor or something.” Ignoring the
prickle on the back of her neck,
“Blue is pretty, too. I like the blue carpet in my room.”
“What’s Si-enn-a Dawn?”
Delanie’s mouth was so dry she was sure she would choke. She could not have spoken to save her life.
The paint can was lowered to the floor and the one beside it tipped up. “Oh, I know this one. Snow White—like the princess!”
A childish giggle sounded in Delanie’s ears. She desperately wanted to pull the headphones from her ears, but was frozen in place.
The second can of paint resumed its place, and the third can moved. Delanie barely breathed as she watched the lid ripple but remain in place.
“How do you open this? I want to see what colour Si-enn-a Dawn is.”
There was an
audible sigh in
“Hey! Don’t do that!”
Galvanized, Delanie ripped the ear buds out and ran for the door, not stopping until she reached her truck. Turning, she stared at the house as she tried to catch her breath.
The bungalow, its front door ajar, appeared harmless. Delanie leaned against her truck and waited, never taking her eyes from the building, but nothing moved.
“Okay, what the hell happened?” Delanie thought back to the previous night. She’d had a few beers as usual, but she prided herself on never drinking too much before a work day. “So, I’m not hung over… Was I seeing things then?”
If it had been just the sight of her paint cans moving, Delanie might have been able to persuade herself that she was delusional. But the aural memory of the child’s voice was crystal clear. She knew she had not imagined the little girl’s questions, or her laughter.
Though the day was cold enough that snow was predicted for the afternoon, Delanie was sweating. She swiped a sleeve over her face, her mind racing as she tried to decide what to do. Part of her—a very large part—wanted to drive immediately to Ms. Brennan’s office and resign. But a more stubborn part of her refused to leave a job half done. In her line of work, reputation and word of mouth was integral to securing jobs. It would be bad for business to become known as a quitter.
There was an additional factor—one more powerful than her pride or financial bottom line. Since the debacle in her personal life, Delanie’s self image had become profoundly and solely vested in her work.
I may have slept alone for the last eight hundred and thirteen nights, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone or anything make a laughingstock out of me on the job.
With trembling fingers, Delanie hesitantly tucked the ear buds back in place. The sweet sounds of the Indigo Girls filled her ears. Drawing a deep breath, she marched on shaky legs back into the house.
The paint cans were as Delanie had left them—three upright, and one rolled on its side. She forced herself to pick up the overturned can and set it upright. After a quick glance around, she returned to her taping.
The music in her
ears flowed smoothly from the Indigo Girls to
Her first stroke was halted by a child’s timid question.
“Is that Si-enn-a Dawn?”
Delanie froze instantly. She knew it would be pointless to turn around and look for the source, but slowly she did so anyway.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make a mess. I won’t do it again. I promise.”
The child’s voice sounded as if she were near tears, and Delanie couldn’t help softening. She had never been able to bear a child in distress, and even though she could not see anything, she responded.
“It’s okay. Just be careful, all right? It would make an awful mess if the paint spilled.”
“I’ll be careful. Honest, I will.” The little girl’s voice was remorseful but eager. “So, is that Si-enn-a Dawn?”
“It looks like
for addressing the air, but impelled by the wistful tone of the child’s voice,
Delanie asked, “
“Daddy said I had to wear pink because I was his little girl.”
“Do you wear pink?”
Delanie couldn’t help a chuckle at the question. “Um, no, not really.”
There was a long silence as if the child was pondering. “But you’re a girl—aren’t you?”
There was uncertainty in the disembodied voice.
“Yup, I’m a girl.” Delanie patted her coveralls. “But in my line of work, it wouldn’t be very practical to wear pink.”
“I’ve been watching you. You work hard.”
A shiver rippled through Delanie’s body at that, but the child blithely continued.
“Daddy said girls should never play with tools. He was really mad at me when I took his hammer, but I only wanted to fix Mrs. Deaver’s birdhouse. Does your daddy get mad at you for using his tools, too?”
“Um, no. These are my tools, not his.”
“You have your own tools?”
Delanie grinned at the astonishment in the child’s voice. “Yup. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t have my tools.”
“But this is a boy’s job. Daddy says.”
Delanie rolled her eyes. She had encountered more than enough gender stereotyping in her life, but she never expected it from a...ghost? “I think your daddy is wrong. Girls can do anything they want.”
The music abruptly resumed and Delanie expelled a huge gust of air. What in God’s name was that? She slid down into a crouch, leaning against the wall as she considered the conversation. If it hadn’t been that the room was totally empty, she would have sworn she was talking to a real little girl.
Oddly, the fear
that had accompanied
She said she liked her blue carpet.
the beer Alana had automatically opened when she arrived. Sinking into the couch that felt more like
home than her own sparsely furnished apartment,
specifically told Alana she would be visiting that evening, but whatever it was
that smelled so delicious, Delanie knew there would be enough for her. There was always enough for two, even though
remembering Alana’s gentle proselytizing for a healthier lifestyle when she had
mentioned the fast food option.
Alana pushed the
rack back into the oven and set the timer as she sighed heavily. “
“Oh.” Delanie blinked. “Um… I’m sorry?”
Alana leaned over the counter and raised an eyebrow. “For what? Not listening when I tell you things, or us breaking up?”
“Both?” Delanie relaxed as she saw the familiar smile break over her friend’s face.
“Keisha and I were
long over with,
“Can’t say I blame her. You’re a pretty easy person to be around.” A thought occurred to Delanie. “Oh hell, did I get in the way? Damn it, I’m sorry, Alana. I come around way too much. I should go and get outta your hair.”
As Delanie rose from the couch, Alana came around the counter and firmly pushed her down.
“Don’t be silly, Del. I like it when you come over. Having you around is like...”
“Putting on an old pair of slippers?”
“Hmm, not a bad analogy.” Alana’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “You are kind of soft and well broken in, definitely very comfortable to come home to.”
“Yes, there is. Your heart. And thank God for that.”
Alana turned back
to the kitchen and Delanie stared after her in astonishment. Her oldest friend has spoken with complete
sincerity, but also with something in her voice that
Alana’s tone was
casual as she began to set the table. “You know,
“Me? I haven’t skied since...I don’t even remember the last time I went skiing.”
“I do. You were twenty three, you’d just met Daphne, and you brought her along on our first trip of the season.”
“Oh yeah, now I remember. She hated it.”
“I know. You gave it up for her.” Alana set the plates down without looking Delanie’s way. “You gave up a lot for her.”
“Maybe it’s time
to reclaim some of the things she took from you,
Delanie met Alana’s gaze, noting the warmth, concern and affection in her friend’s dark eyes. “You were about the only thing she didn’t take from me.”
“She tried, though.”
“Yeah, she did.” Delanie smiled weakly. “It’s the only time I dug in my heels and denied her something.”
“Which might explain why she loathed me.”
“She couldn’t stand me loving anyone else—”
The timer on the stove sounded. Alana smiled wryly and squeezed Delanie’s hand. “Sounds like supper is ready.”
Distracted by the feel of Alana’s hand and the look in her friend’s eyes, Delanie was almost through supper before she remembered the subject she had intended to raise.
“Hey, you know
that house on
“The one you’re doing all the renovations on? What about it?” Alana leaned forward with a smile. “You’ve changed your mind? You decided you could use some help there after all? Noah is still available. I could have him there tomorrow.”
Delanie shook her head with a grin. “Sheesh, you just don’t give up. No, that’s not it at all. But I had the weirdest thing happen today. Maybe I’m going crazy, but I would swear there’s a ghost in that place and she spoke to me.”
Alana lowered her wine glass and stared at Delanie. “A ghost? Speaking to you? Are you serious?”
“I am. And not once, but twice. Oh, and she moved the paint cans, too.”
shrugged. “I dunno. It’s
Alana paled, and pushed back from the table. Grabbing her laptop from the counter where she’d left it after work, she quickly booted up. “Don’t tell me you don’t know about the Richards place? It was most sensationalistic story ever to hit this town. The national networks even sent reporters to cover it. How could you have missed it?”
Delanie frowned in confusion. “I don’t know. When did it happen?”
Busily tapping at her keyboard, Alana didn’t glance up. “Two years ago in July.” She abruptly stopped and looked up, her expression apologetic. “Oh, right. Sorry.”
Delanie nodded grimly. Her entire summer two years ago was lost in a haze of misery, despair, and alcohol. Daphne had robbed her and run off with her boss’ twenty-three-year-old daughter in mid-June. Everything from then until October, when Alana forced her to reclaim her life, was a blur.
Alana finished her search and turned the laptop so it faced Delanie. The lurid headlines of two year old news reports scrolled down, taking her breath away.
Mother Murdered; Father and Child Missing.
Fears Grow for Missing Child.
Massive Manhunt Underway.
Neighbours Had No Idea.
Delanie raised stricken eyes to her friend. “My God, Alana. What the hell happened in that house?”
happened.” Alana’s voice was grim. “We’ll never know for sure what went on
before, but one summer night he snapped.
He killed his wife, took his daughter and made a run for it. He managed to evade the police for eight
days, but was caught trying to cross the border in
“And his daughter? What happened to her?”
“No one knows. She wasn’t with Richards in the car when they caught him. He’d covered thousands of kilometres by then, so he could’ve dropped her anywhere.”
“God! Someone should’ve beat it out of him.”
Delanie gave a frustrated growl. “Too damned easy a death.”
“I won’t argue with that. Everyone agreed he was a complete control freak. Apparently his wife had taken her daughter and gone to a women’s shelter earlier that day, but they didn’t have space to take her in. So, lacking any other resources, she returned home. It was against the advice of the counsellors, but what else could she do until she and her daughter could get into the shelter? In any case, her body wasn’t found until a counsellor got worried when she missed an appointment and went to the house.”
screen showed a school picture. The
solemn little girl in the photo had eyes alight with intelligence and
“Her name was Jessie Ann. She was only seven. Her teachers said she was a very quiet little girl, never said much, but loved to draw. They said the only thing they’d really noticed was that she always wore pink or white long-sleeved dresses and leggings, no matter how hot it was. They just figured it was a religious thing or something.”
“No wonder she longs for colour.”
Alana looked at Delanie curiously. “Pardon?”
Delanie shook her head. “Never mind. Not important.”
“Did you really
hear a voice today,
“I really did, Alana.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go back there.”
Delanie was surprised at the fear in her friend’s voice. “I have to. I’ve got a job to finish.”
“Why? No one will ever buy that house. They should just tear it down. Whether it’s haunted by a real ghost or not, it’s definitely haunted by the evil that happened there. I hate the thought of you working in there day after day. What if you’re up on a ladder or something, and it just falls over? You could be badly hurt, even...”
Touched by Alana’s concern, Delanie tried to reassure her. “Nothing’s going to happen to me, hon. If it was Jessie Ann I heard today, she’s not evil. She’s just a little kid.”
across the computer to take Delanie’s hands, and
“It’s going to be all right. You’ll see, Alana.”
But Alana did not look at all convinced.
“I like this colour better.”
Delanie didn’t even flinch when the now familiar voice came through her ear buds. She turned to see the colour samples fanned wide. “Which one, Jessie Ann?”
“Ter-ra Cot-ta.” The young voice sounded out the words and Delanie grinned.
“Figures. It is kinda reddish, isn’t it?”
“Uh huh. I think you should paint the walls Terra
“You do, do you?” Delanie knew that anyone entering the room would think she was stark raving mad, but over the past several days she had grown accustomed to Jessie Ann dropping in on her. She set down her roller and went to look at the colour more closely.
“Not bad.” For reasons she preferred not to examine, Delanie wanted to make Jessie Ann happy. “How about if we use something like that for an accent? It might be pretty overwhelming if we did the whole room in it, eh?”
Delanie had grown adept at reading the child’s moods, but it didn’t take much to hear the disappointment in her voice. “Tell you what, why don’t you see what colours you might like for the bedrooms and bathrooms, okay? I’m not saying we’ll for sure go with your choices, but you’ve got a good eye.”
The sound of the
child’s laughter told Delanie she’d guessed right. Jessie Ann was obsessed with colour, the
brighter the better. So far
There was a knock at the door and a feminine voice called out, “Helloooooo? Are you there, Ms Marcus?”
Delanie recognized the realtor’s voice. “I’m in here. C’mon in.”
“Can you come out for a moment?”
“Nope, I’m right in the middle of something.” Delanie smiled to herself. Aside from having no intention of coddling the realtor’s fears, she was also curious as to how Jessie Ann would react to someone else in her house. She heard the slow, cautious sounds of high heels on the worn hardwoods behind her.
“Oh my, this is wonderful, Ms Marcus!”
Delanie turned to see the realtor looking around in amazement. “Thanks. I’m glad you like—”
Her words were cut off when a barrage of debris that Delanie had swept into a corner rocketed off the floor and flew across the room. Though the projectiles were nowhere close to her, the realtor shrieked and scurried for the front door.
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Delanie shook her head in exasperation and hurried to the door. She was in time to see Ms. Brennan hurling herself into a car and roaring off, her tires spinning on the icy road. “Jessie Ann! You stop that right now!”
Laughter sounded in her headphones. Delanie closed the door and turned back to the empty room. “Jessie Ann, why did you do that?”
“Daddy said we must never let strangers in the house.”
“You let me in.”
“You’re not a
Delanie sighed. Sometimes reasoning with a seven-year-old involved pretty convoluted logic. “But I was a stranger at first. Maybe you just have to get to know people, and then they won’t be strangers anymore.”
“I don’t like her.”
“She’s not the right one.”
Before Delanie could question the child’s meaning, the music resumed in her ears. Any further conversation would have to wait until Jessie Ann decided to return.
Or would it? Delanie resumed painting as she considered the strange turn her life had taken. An hour later, she finished for the day. As she cleaned up, she decided to try something.
“Jessie Ann? Jessie Ann? Please come talk to me?”
Delanie smiled. “Do you know any nursery rhymes?”
“Of course I do! I’m not a baby!” Clearly indignant, Jessie Ann started rattling off every nursery rhyme she could come up with.
As the child
“That was wonderful, Jessie Ann. You’ve got a good memory.”
Delanie tensed. It was the closest Jessie Ann had come to referring to the events of two years past. She waited to see if the child would say anything more. She knew Jessie Ann was still present, because the music had not resumed.
Deciding it might
be better to change the topic,
“Yes, my best friend. Her name is Alana.”
The voice grew wistful. “I have a best friend too. Her name is Mackenzie. We were in kindergarten and grade one together. We’re going to be in Mrs. Welland’s grade two class next year.”
Delanie analyzed the words. Jessie Ann spoke in the present tense, yet her tone indicated she was aware that her world had changed, that she and Mackenzie would never be in class together again.
carefully as she could,
“Is she going to work here, too?”
“No, sweetie. She has her own job, but tomorrow is Saturday and we both have the day off.
“I don’t like Saturdays. I like going to school better.”
There was an undercurrent of fear in the child’s voice that alarmed Delanie. What happened on weekends when you were home the whole time, Jessie Ann?
“If I’m nice to your best friend, you’ll come tomorrow?”
“That’s right, Jessie Ann. I’ll come tomorrow.”
“Okay. I promise I won’t throw anything.”
Delanie smiled. Now if she could just convince Alana.
“You want me to do what? Are you out of your frickin’ mind? You just told me that your little ghost friend threw a bunch of garbage at the realtor!”
Delanie sighed. This was not going as well as she had hoped. “Jessie Ann promised, Alana. She won’t try anything while you’re with me.”
Alana paced back
and forth in the kitchen, glaring at Delanie who sat at the table drinking
coffee. She stopped abruptly and put her
hands on her hips. “Why is this so
important to you,
Delanie studied the tablecloth for a long minute, and shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe because I need to know if someone else can hear her, too. Maybe I need to know I haven’t gone off the deep end.” She forced a laugh. “Hey, who knows what prolonged celibacy can do to a person? Please, Alana? I swear I won’t let anything happen to you. I’d never let anything happen to you.”
With a heavy sigh, Alana sat down again. “All right. But you’re holding my hand every second we’re in that house.”
Delanie grinned and nodded. “No problem. I swear I won’t let go of you.”
“And you’re taking me out for dinner tonight to make up for scaring the living daylights out of me. And I don’t mean one of your fast food places, either!”
“Also not a problem. I’ll even throw in dancing the night away at Leapin’ Liz’s.”
Alana’s surprise. She had been an
enthusiastic dancer in her youth, but Daphne didn’t enjoy dancing, so it was
another of her passions
Alana raised upturned hands. “Talking to a ghost, dining and dancing with my best friend.” She seesawed her hands with a wry smile and then let one fall. “I must be crazy.”
“Yes!” Delanie jumped to her feet. “I knew dancing was the key. You always loved dancing.” She turned to grab her coat and heard Alana mumble something behind her back. “Sorry, I didn’t hear that. What’d you say?”
“Nothing.” Alana rose to go and Delanie trailed her out, her eyes narrowed in thought. She was pretty sure she had heard Alana correctly, but wasn’t ready to make an issue of her friend’s words. Still, if she was right, if Alana had indeed said what she thought she heard, then they needed to have a talk soon.
As the women
walked down the path to Delanie’s truck,
No, I always loved you.
Delanie punched the entry code into the lock box and pushed open the door, wincing at how hard Alana gripped her free hand. “Hey, remember I’m going to need those fingers on Monday, okay?”
Alana loosened her grip a bit, but stayed so close she trod on Delanie’s heels as they entered the house.
Delanie murmured soothingly and spoke of mundane matters for a few minutes. She pointed out the work she had already done and chatted about what she still needed to do, until she felt Alana’s hand relax in her own.
Only then did Delanie pull out Lil Po, put on the headphones and turn it on. Instantly Jessie Ann’s excited voice was in her ears.
“Is this your best
Delanie glanced at Alana with a smile. “She is very pretty, isn’t she, Jessie Ann?”
Alana stared at her, her eyes wide with surprise as she mouthed, “I don’t hear anyone!”
Delanie nodded her understanding, but spoke again. “Would you like to talk to Alana, sweetie?”
Sliding her arm
around Alana to pull her close, Delanie took out one of the ear buds and gently
tucked it in her friend’s ear. They
stood with their heads almost touching as
“Jessie Ann, this is someone very special to me…like Mackenzie is special to you. Her name is Alana Erickson. Can you say hi?”
Alana clutched Delanie tightly, her voice wavering as she answered. “Um, hi, Jessie Ann. How are you?”
“I’m good. I’ve been helping
“That’s right, sweetie. And then we need to pick out colours for the other rooms, don’t we?”
Delanie knew she was getting a look of sheer disbelief from Alana, but she had grown accustomed to chatting with Jessie Ann about mundane matters and didn’t feel the least bit self-conscious.
“I paint with my colour box at school. Do you paint too, Alana?”
“She’s a good painter, isn’t she?”
“She’s good at many things, Jessie Ann, not just painting.”
“I know.” Jessie Ann’s voice was very matter-of-fact. “She made the kitchen and living room look way better. And she told me she’s going to fix the bathrooms, too. But she’s doesn’t like that part.”
Much to Delanie’s
surprise, Alana loosened her clenched hands and slid them around
“Did she tell you why, Jessie Ann?”
“Uh huh. Cuz she hates taking off the old tiles. She said it’s...it’s...she used a bad word, Alana.”
“Mmmm, she does that sometimes, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, ma’am. Does her daddy wash her mouth out with soap, too?”
“No, I don’t think he ever did that.”
“Maybe he should. I never say bad words anymore.”
Delanie snorted softly at the discussion of her vocabulary. You try keeping a civil tongue in your head when you’ve just smashed your knuckles to hamburger! It tickled her, though, that Alana and Jessie Ann were conversing comfortably.
“Jessie Ann, do
dropped open in surprise. But before she
could protest the unexpected turn of conversation, Alana, her eyes reflecting
The child’s voice
sounded uncertain. “I don’t know. I like it when it’s just
“Well, it’s like your friend—what did you say her name was?”
“Right. Well, when Mackenzie has a problem in school, you want her to get help, don’t you?”
“Uh huh. And when her big brother Connor stole her lunch, we told on him. That was helping her.”
“Exactly. I have a friend who would be really good at
“Like in the
“Just like that, exactly.”
Delanie could have
ended the conversation by turning off Lil Po, but she was enjoying the
closeness with her sweetly manipulative friend.
“No, no, Jessie Ann. Alana didn’t hurt me. Honest. She’s never hurt me; she never would hurt me.” Delanie’s eyes met Alana’s, whose voice softened noticeably.
“It’s true, Jessie
Ann. I would never, ever hurt
“Okay.” Jessie Ann sounded doubtful, so Delanie
hugged Alana and planted a kiss on her cheek.
Alana returned the hug, and it felt natural to
“So what do you
say, Jessie Ann? Would it be okay if
There was a moment of silence before Jessie Ann answered. “I guess so.”
“Not going to happen!” Delanie didn’t have to whisper loudly, given how close Alana’s ear was, but she knew by the look on her friend’s face that she had been heard—and ignored.
“Thank you, Jessie Ann. That’s awfully nice of you.” Alana smirked at Delanie, who shook her head in exasperation. “We have to leave now, but it was nice talking to you.”
“You can come again, Alana. I like talking to you.”
“Thank you, Jessie Ann. I like talking to you, too.”
Delanie piped up, “I’ll be back on Monday, sweetie.”
The music started
again and Delanie reluctantly released Alana.
Both women pulled out the ear buds, and
On the way out,
Delanie set the lock box before the women walked back to the truck. Unable to repress her curiosity,
Alana sighed and gave Delanie a tiny smile. “I think you have a little ghost friend. I guess that settles the question once and for all of whether Jessie Ann is still alive somewhere, not that we can tell anyone.”
“Yeah, I guess not. They’d think we’d both gone off the deep end.” Delanie bumped Alana with her shoulder. “But at least it’s nice to know I’m not alone in the deep end.”
“No, you’re not
alone. I definitely heard her.” Alana opened the passenger door as
“I know what you
“Yeah, that’s a good word for it—sparklier. Sort of like being surrounded by Christmas lights on a winter night.”
They were quiet on the drive back to Alana’s house. When Delanie pulled up in front, Alana turned to her. “Aren’t you coming in?”
“No, I’ve got some paperwork to do at home. But what time do you want me to pick you up tonight?”
Delanie’s expression fell and Alana smiled. “No, you’re not getting out of it. I’m definitely calling in my marker soon. I just have some things I have to do, too, okay?”
“Sure. Any time you want is good with me.”
and for a split second Delanie was certain her friend was going to lean over
and claim a kiss. Instead, Alana smiled
and climbed out of the truck. Walking up
to house, she turned and waved goodbye.
“Hmmph. Wonder what she’s got up her sleeve? How much you want to bet it’ll be something she gets me involved in?”
The idea made her smile.
Alana motioned the young man following her to a halt. “Give me a minute, Noah. I just hope I got these numbers in the right order.” She punched in a sequence of numbers and sighed in relief when the lock box opened. “Wait here a bit, okay? I’ll be right back.”
She slipped into
the house, and closed the door behind her.
Entering the living area, Alana turned on her iPod Nano. She wasn’t sure if it would work as
“Jessie Ann? Jessie Ann, it’s Alana Erickson. Are you here?” Alana turned down the volume on her
iPod. She was partial to boisterous
Latin music to accompany her runs, and didn’t want to overpower any ghostly
voices. But the music continued
unabated. Damn! “Jessie Ann, I brought
Noah here. He’s going to work on getting
the tiles off for
Alana thought she
felt the air change about her, but there was still no voice. “He’s a really good boy, Jessie Ann, so don’t
make things difficult for him, okay? He
just wants to work and make
Crossing her fingers, Alana returned to the front door. Noah stood outside, a hammer, chisel, and pry bar in his hands. He looked at her curiously.
“Everything okay, Ms. Erickson?”
“Everything is fine, Noah. Come on in and I’ll get you started.”
Alana to the master bathroom. It was
almost entirely covered with old, and, in Alana’s opinion, horrendously ugly
As she wandered, Alana occasionally spoke softly to Jessie Ann, hoping the child would hear her and be reassured that her and Noah’s presence was a good thing.
The only time Alana was absolutely certain she felt Jessie Ann’s presence was when she opened the door to the basement stairs. She felt a wave of fear wash over her, and when Alana tried to walk down the steps, she was overwhelmed with nausea.
Breathing deeply as she tried to regain control, Alana retreated, closing the basement door behind her. Just at that moment, Noah poked his head out of the bathroom and called to her.
“Ms Erickson, what do you want me to do with—” The teen stopped abruptly and stared at her. “Are you okay? You look terrible.”
“Just not feeling well for a moment there, Noah. I’m all right now, though.” Alana had no doubt she was pale and sweating, but she forced a smile to reassure her protégé. “Don’t worry about it. What did you want to ask me?”
“Um, I just wondered what I should do with the old tiles.”
for a moment. “Why don’t you stack them
in one corner, and
Noah didn’t retreat immediately. Alana, who had been working with the young man for 18 months, read his expression easily. “What is it, Noah? What has you concerned?”
“You know I trust you, right?”
It had been desperately hard to gain Noah’s trust, and Alana was deeply grateful for this expression of her victory. “I do, Noah.”
“And I’m really grateful for this chance, too. You know I don’t mind hard work.”
No, you don’t. You just can’t stand a male boss, and with good reason. Alana nodded encouragingly.
“Well, it’s pretty clear that your friend doesn’t want me around. Are you sure this is a good idea? Going behind her back, I mean? I don’t want to make her mad or anything.”
Alana walked down
the hallway and stopped in front of Noah.
He stiffened momentarily, then relaxed.
“Noah, you’ll find Delanie is one of the fairest people you’ll ever
meet. Though she won’t readily admit it,
she’s got a huge soft spot for kids.
Most importantly, there is a tremendous amount she could teach you. I want you to have the best opportunity to
Noah looked at her doubtfully. “But she doesn’t want to, right? You said she was ‘resistant’ to the idea of taking me on. I know what that means. She wants no part of me.”
“Which is why we
need to show her what she’s missing.
She’s not getting any younger, and she needs an assistant to take on
some of the grunt work. You’re perfect
for the job. You let me worry about
Noah nodded and
went back into the bathroom. Alana
listened to the sounds of him working, and then went to the kitchen. She hopped up on the new island and sat
If only I can persuade
Alana laughed wryly. Guess we’ll see tomorrow.
Delanie had only
been at work for ten minutes when she heard a knock and the front door
opened. Sparing a quick thought for her
invisible companion, who hadn’t made herself known yet that morning,
Delanie scowled. Damn it, Alana. I said no. Before she could say anything, Alana held up one hand.
“Before you start
Delanie shot Alana a confused look. “The master— What the hell are you talking about?”
“Just go take a look, okay?”
Delanie stalked by the duo, glaring at the boy as she passed. She couldn’t help a reluctant appreciation when he met her scowl calmly and evenly. Huh. Kid doesn’t scare easily, anyway.
When Delanie reached the door of the bathroom, she gave a whistle of amazement. Every bit of tile had been removed and was stacked carefully in one corner of the room. The workspace had been tidied, and the floors swept up.
Alana’s voice came
over her shoulder. “Noah did this
Delanie turned to face her friend with a frown. “How’d he get in?”
him. I used the code I saw you put in on
Saturday. I stayed with him,
“Huh. Doesn’t mean we’d get along.” Delanie studied Alana’s hopeful expression and sighed. “Is this so damned important to you?”
“Jesus, I’m such a wuss. All right, if Jessie Ann is okay with it, then I guess I’ll give him a try. But one screw-up and he’s out on his ass, got that?”
A huge grin on her face, Alana nodded. “Got it. But he won’t screw up, Del. I promise!”
“Don’t make promises you’ve no part of keeping.”
smiled, leaned forward and gave Delanie a quick kiss. Shocked,
Delanie could hear
Alana talking to Noah in the living room.
She delicately touched her lips, not wanting to disturb the lingering
sensation. Hell, if she’d done that at the beginning, I might’ve caved in long
ago. With a bemused expression,
“So...how’d it go,
Delanie smiled lazily. “All right.”
“All right? That’s all?”
With a chuckle, Delanie took a long, slow drink of beer while Alana contemplated throwing something heavy at her uncommunicative friend.
Alana suppressed a smile. She had briefed Noah well before his first day of work. He had removed the studs from his nose, ears and eyebrows, and belted his jeans at waist level. He had also worn his customary long-sleeved shirt. The only thing he’d put his foot down about was getting a haircut, and Alana hadn’t pushed him on the issue.
“Well, since you conned me into taking this kid on as a sort of apprentice, and we’ll probably be working together for a while...”
Alana regarded her fidgeting friend curiously. “Uh huh?”
Delanie took a deep breath, and looked at Alana with worried eyes. “Is there anything I should know—I mean, are there triggers I should avoid with Noah?”
immediately alarmed. What happened today? “Why do you ask,
“The kid was helping me bring in lumber. His sleeves slid up in the process. I couldn’t help seeing the scars.”
Relieved to see
that Delanie was merely concerned, not accusatory or angry, Alana considered
her answer carefully. “You know there
are things I can’t tell you, right,
“I know. I’m not asking for his history. I just want to know if there are minefields I need to avoid. Is there something specific I shouldn’t do around him?”
“Don’t change genders.” Alana responded to Delanie’s startled expression with a wry smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be flip. It’s just that Noah has...issues with older males in authority over him.”
“I don’t think you
need to worry,
“Okay. Well, there shouldn’t be a problem, then. I’m pretty set on staying a woman, even if Jessie Ann thinks I should wear pink and stop playing with tools.”
Alana was grateful for the change of topic. “Does she really?”
“Nah, she actually thinks it’s pretty cool what I do, how I dress, and that I have my own tools. It’s just that her father put some odd ideas in her head. But she’s a smart kid. I can almost see her learning and adapting, and putting aside some of her father’s bullshit.”
“She’s very real
to you, isn’t she,
Delanie nodded. “I missed her today. She didn’t come around when Noah was working with me, but then we were being noisy, so maybe when things quiet down again.”
Alana wasn’t sure how to respond. She accepted the reality of Jessie Ann’s presence in the house, but was nowhere near as blasé about it all as Delanie was. Having spoken to Jessie Ann, she did not believe there was any danger in the young spirit, but it still took some mental perambulations to accept that her best friend spoke so freely to something so other-worldly.
“That last one was a good cut, Noah. You’re really getting the hang of this. You know, a lot of people never do grasp how to put up crown mouldings properly.”
Noah beamed at Delanie and she gave him a nod of approval.
“Okay, I think it’s about quitting time. Sweep up the sawdust and we’ll pick up here tomorrow.”
Noah grabbed the
broom leaning against the wall and set to work.
“I’ve got an appointment at four. I, uh, can’t miss it.”
Alana had already briefed Delanie about Noah’s standing appointment with his therapist every second Friday. “No problem. I was going to shut us down early tomorrow anyway.”
Noah knelt to use the dustpan. “Got a hot date, boss?”
Delanie smiled to herself as she unplugged the mitre saw and coiled the power cord. “You could say that. I owe Ms Erickson dinner, and she’s calling in her marker.”
Dumping the sawdust in the industrial size garbage bag, Noah set the broom back. Delanie saw him chew his lip, but he didn’t meet her eyes.
“Spit it out, kid. What’s on your mind?”
“Um, are you two...like, um, dating, or something? I mean…I don’t care or anything. It’s okay with me— Not that it’s any of my business. She’s a real nice lady. You’re nice, too... Oh crap, forget I asked.”
Delanie grinned at her flustered apprentice. “Don’t sweat it, Noah. And to answer your question, it’s not really a date, just two good friends having dinner and doing some dancing.” Slow dancing, with any luck. “And thanks for not being a ’phobe.”
This time Noah met
her eyes, his gaze serious. “I’m tryin’
real hard never to judge anyone else,
In two weeks of working with Noah, Delanie had come to respect the young man’s attitude and determination to overcome his past. His words reinforced her admiration, but also her sadness. You were judged early and judged hard, weren’t you, my young friend? Without a word, she held out her hand, and Noah shook it firmly.
“See you tomorrow, Noah. Have a good night.”
“If you hustle, you’ll catch the five o’clock bus.”
Noah glanced at his watch, and, grabbing his jacket, took off running. He waved as he dashed out the front door and Delanie chuckled to herself. The seventeen-year-old was dying to get his own truck, but for now he was stuck riding the bus to and from his group home.
Delanie finished putting away her gear, but instead of locking up and leaving, she took a seat on the floor, her back against the wall. She pulled Lil Po out of her pocket and put on the headphones. Turning on the music, she called, “Hey, Jessie Ann.”
“Hi, sweetie. It’s been a while since we talked.”
“It’s been too noisy.”
“Yeah, sorry ’bout that. I’m afraid it’ll get even noisier, too. We’ve got a lot of mouldings to cut.”
“Noah did a good
job of painting them, eh,
“Yes, he did. He’s a good worker.”
“I know. I’ve been watching him.
“Noah is very sad. Sometimes he’s angry, but mostly he’s sad.”
Delanie was quiet as she turned that over in her mind.
“But sometimes he’s happy, too, Del. He’s glad he’s working here. He thinks you’re a good boss.”
“Do you read minds, Jessie Ann?” For a moment Delanie thought she’d lost contact, but there was only silence on the headphones. “Jessie Ann?”
“Uh huh. She likes you an awful lot,
“She does, eh?” Delanie smiled. “Well, I like her an awful lot, too.”
“I know. Are you two going to live here when you’re finished?”
It was Delanie’s turn to be silent. “I...hadn’t really considered it. We both have homes, Jessie Ann.”
“Are they nice like here?”
Delanie’s gaze swept around the room she’d been working on. It was shaping up beautifully, though there was still much work to do. “Not as nice, no. But I thought you didn’t want anyone else living here.”
“You and Alana could. I’d like that.”
I can just imagine what Alana would say if I proposed the two of us living here with Jessie Ann. Delanie chuckled at the thought. “I’m not sure there’s enough closet space in this house for Alana, Jessie Ann. She’s got a lot of clothes and shoes.”
To assuage the disappointment in the child’s voice, Delanie added hastily, “But I suppose I could build extra closets in the basement.”
Instantly several tools, along with the broom and dustpan, rose sharply into the air. Delanie was stunned at the fear evinced in that one, short word. “Hey, hey! Jessie Ann—settle down. It’s okay. It’s okay. Calm down, sweetie. I was just thinking out loud. If you don’t want me building in the basement, I won’t. I promise.”
“It’s a bad place.” Even over the headphones, Jessie Ann’s voice was a strained whisper. “I don’t like it down there.”
“Shhhh, sweetie. It’s all right. Nothing can hurt you down there, now. Not ever again.”
Abruptly the music
returned in Delanie’s ears, the tools and broom dropped to the floor, and
Jessie Ann was gone. What the hell was that all about?
immediate impulse was to go inspect the basement for something she might’ve
missed, but a second, stronger instinct kept her in place. From her spot near the front windows,
She jumped to her feet and bolted out the door. Delanie was halfway home before she realized she had left her coat behind.
“You’ve been very quiet tonight, Del.”
across the table at Alana. “Mmm.
“With Noah? Is everything all right?”
“Oh yeah, he’s great.” Delanie smiled reassuringly. “In fact, I owe you a much overdue thanks. I don’t know how I got along without him. He works his ass off and soaks up instruction like a sponge. I’m not saying he never makes mistakes, but I’ve yet to see him make the same one twice.”
“Oh, Del, that’s wonderful. I just knew you two were a match made in heaven.”
“You did, eh? And here I thought we—” Delanie stopped abruptly, covering her confusion by turning her attention to the dance floor. “Um, would you like to dance?”
“I’d love to.”
Grateful for Alana’s discretion, Delanie led her friend out on the floor. She had not been dancing at Leaping Liz’s for decades, but the club hadn’t altered much. The music might have changed over the years, but the floor was still crowded with women happily dancing out of step with the mainstream. Even after all her time away, Delanie felt completely at home.
After a few fast
numbers, the music slowed, and Delanie looked at her partner
questioningly. Alana just smiled and
moved close, wrapping her arms around
The feel of
Alana’s slender body against her own suddenly scared Delanie. It felt so bewilderingly right that she couldn’t
“It’s just me,
Alana’s soft whisper recalled Delanie to sanity and she gave a shaky laugh. “Just you looking like a million dollars. I think everyone’s eyes popped out when you strolled in wearing that red dress. If it were cut any lower, I’d have had to bring a club to beat off your admirers. Hell, I bet every woman in here tonight is jealous of me.”
Alana chuckled and leaned back in Delanie’s arms. “Well, that’s foolish of them, then. They should be jealous of me. I’m dancing with the kindest, most considerate, handsomest woman around. And if any bimbette attempts to cut in, I’ll be showing her the door, tout de suite.”
Delanie laughed aloud and relaxed. “Sweet talker.”
Alana shook her head and tweaked the collar of Delanie’s crisp white shirt. “Just telling the truth.”
“As you see it,” Delanie teased, feeling back on solid ground.
“As I know it, love.”
The solid ground suddenly felt alarmingly
unstable again, but Alana only smiled and melted back against
After several long moments of worrying, Delanie gave a mental shrug. What the hell? This is Alana. I’d trust her with my life. Let’s see where she wants to go.
“Are you sure you want to go…” she gestured with her head, “…there?” Delanie looked worriedly at Alana as she unlocked her door and turned on the hall light.
Alana turned to
Delanie shifted her weight from foot to foot. Part of her wanted nothing more than to follow Alana into the house, and shut the door behind them until the morning. But part of her was definitely not sure she was ready.
I don’t know if this is such a good idea. This is Alana. She’s known me for thirty years. She reads me inside and out. Hell, she’s seen me at my absolute worst, and she’s saved me from the wreckage that was my life. This could get very weird, very fast.
and before Delanie could even voice her concerns, Alana leaned forward and
kissed her. Then she laughed softly and
Alana closed the door quietly, leaving Delanie to her solitary walk back to her truck. Once inside, she delayed starting the ignition as she thought over the evening’s events. Finally, she slapped the steering wheel and shook her head in disgust. “I’m an idiot.” Del looked at Alana’s house, but the lights had gone off, except for the one in Alana’s bedroom. She briefly considered returning to knock on the door, but abandoned the impulse. What would I say? ‘I’m an ass, but may I join you in bed anyway?’ Yeah, right. That’s real smooth, ya jerk.
With a sigh,
Delanie started her truck and drove away.
There would be other nights…she hoped.
At least Alana didn’t appear to be fazed by
Gonna be a long, sleepless night, though. And so not in a good way.
Delanie and Noah stood in the arched entrance to the living room and kitchen, surveying the results of their work with pride.
“Sure looks good, boss.”
“Damn right, Noah. You’d never know this house was sixty years old, eh?”
“Not unless you looked at the rest of the place.”
Delanie chuckled and affectionately punched Noah’s shoulder. “Then I guess we’d best get working on the bathrooms next.”
“Okay. Where do we start?”
“We’re going to pull out the old fixtures. Go downstairs and turn off the water main, will you? It’s the red tap under the window by the laundry tub.”
Noah headed off to
carry out his instructions, while Delanie allowed herself a few more moments to
appreciate the renovated rooms. “So,
Jessie Ann, what do you think? Do you
Noah’s voice floated up from downstairs.
“Can you come down here?”
Delanie frowned. Her apprentice’s voice sounded odd, uncertain. She quickly crossed to the stairwell and headed down.
“What’s the matter? You can’t find the shut off?” As soon as she said it, Delanie saw Noah standing by the water main, his hands tucked under his armpits. There was a disturbed look on his face.
Aw, Jessie Ann, are you messing with the kid? Delanie felt an absurd disappointment in her ghostly pal.
“No, I turned off
the water.” Noah pointed at a small door
just down the wall from the laundry area.
“What’s in there,
“That? It’s just the old wood cellar. When this house was built, it had a furnace that fed on wood or coal. My grandmother had one just like it. Once or twice a year she’d get a shipment of wood dumped outside the house, and us grandkids had to toss the wood down the chute into the cellar. Once she got a gas furnace, she turned the wood cellar into a pantry. Why? What’s the problem?”
“I think there’s something in there. I heard noises.”
“Huh, maybe a rat or a squirrel got in somehow. Let me check it out. Run up and get me a flashlight, will you?”
Noah hastened up
the stairs while Delanie eased open the door to the wood cellar. The small, windowless room smelled musty and
earthy. And there was definitely a small
animal rustling within. Spying a string
dangling from the ceiling,
Noah bounded down the stairs, wide-eyed and worried. “What happened?”
“Aww, it was just some mice. I’ll get some traps tonight and we’ll take care of our little intruders.”
“Man, I thought the ghost had you or something.” Shaky, Noah handed over the flashlight.
Delanie accepted the flashlight and shone it into the dark corners of the wood cellar. “Damn. Looks like they were nesting, too. Get me a broom and a garbage bag, Noah. Last thing we need is a bunch of baby mice running around making a mess.”
While Noah went back upstairs, Delanie entered the cellar to take a closer look. It was a simple concrete sided room, with an old plank floor that was broken in spots. The former wood chute had been bricked up, and there were no windows.
Delanie stepped gingerly as she made her way to the corner where the nest was. Kneeling, she examined the nest.
“What the hell?”
The shredded material appeared to be old burlap and bits of dirty pink cotton. Standing, Delanie looked around. The single, low watt ceiling bulb threw little light, but her powerful flashlight illuminated every corner of the room. It didn’t take long to find the source of the mice’s building material. Frayed pink material was visible just below the edge of a broken plank.
crossed to the broken plank. Pulling her
hammer out of her tool belt, she pulled up the splintered board. Now the material could be clearly seen
protruding from the ground. Using the
“Oh, my God!”
Noah appeared in the doorway with broom in hand. “What’s the matter, Del? The ghost get you?’’
“Now, Noah! Go!” Delanie bolted from the room, hard on the heels of her confused apprentice as they ran up the stairs.
When they reached
the main floor, Noah turned, but before he could erupt with questions, Delanie
shook her head. “Hold on, kid. I gotta make a call.” Pulling out her cell, she punched in
9-1-1. When the operator answered,
An hour later, Delanie and Noah sat on the tailgate of the truck, watching the swarm of police and news vehicles.
“Times like this, I wish I never quit smoking.”
Noah glanced at
Delanie gave him a light cuff. “Don’t even consider it, kid. I’m not giving you ten minutes off every hour so you can go feed your habit.”
They looked at each other, then back at the hectic scene around 619 Gill Street. Noah shifted, moving almost imperceptibly closer to Delanie.
Another hour went by and Delanie could feel Noah shivering from the cold.
“Why don’t you take off, kid? I can handle talking to the detective again. No point in both of us sitting out here freezing our asses off.”
“Looks like we both get a few days off at least. I’ll let you know when, or if, we’ll be back to work as soon as I know, okay?”
Noah nodded, then stopped as two men emerged from the house carrying a small body bag. “Fuck.”
“Yeah.” Delanie gave a heartfelt nod as her eyes filled with tears. She had long accepted that Jessie Ann had died two years earlier, but knowing and actually seeing the evidence of Paul Richard’s murderous frenzy were two different things. She leaned over and gave Noah a quick hug. “Get going, kid. You don’t need to see this.”
Noah shot her a
grateful look and loped off towards the bus stop, easily dodging a handful of
reporters who stepped into his path.
“I think we’ve got all we need from you for the moment. I’ve got your contact information, and if we need anything further, I’ll give you a call.”
“Okay, thanks.” Delanie watched as the men carefully loaded the body bag in the back of the coroner’s van. “You know, right now I wish Paul Richards had survived, just so I could kill him all over again.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve been working this case from day one. We were all pretty sure the little girl was dead, but finding her here is a real shock.”
“About that—why wasn’t the house searched more carefully when it happened?”
“Because we had two eye witnesses that swore they saw Richards with his daughter leaving town in a god awful hurry, and another eye witness that was dead certain they saw the pair two hundred kilometres from here, heading east.” The detective spat in disgust. “The little girl’s room—”
The detective nodded. “Jessie Ann’s room showed evidence of hasty packing, like her father had grabbed clothes and toys at random to take with them. Then when he was cornered, and the police were trying to talk him into giving up and telling them Jessie Ann’s location, he just laughed. Told them she was under twenty feet of water, then he gunned his car right at the nearest officers. They had no choice but to shoot. We all figured he’d decided Jessie Ann was a liability on the run, so he killed her and dumped her in a lake somewhere between here and that border crossing.”
“That he was. Hopefully he’s rotting in hell for what he did to that little girl and her mama.” The detective extended his hand. “Thanks for clearing up this mystery, Ms Marcus. At least now Jessie Ann can be properly buried with her mother.”
Delanie shook his hand. “It was a pure accident we found her, but I’m glad, too.” Weary, she heaved herself off the tailgate. Was it an accident? Guess I’ll never know.
Halfway home, with the truck finally warmed up, Delanie suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to put Lil Po on so she pulled over to the curb. When she turned on the machine, the first sound she heard was Jessie Ann’s voice.
“You could’ve just told me from the start, Jessie Ann.”
“Not until the time was right, Del.”
Delanie thought about that for a long moment. “Noah?”
“You were waiting for me to get over being stubborn and take him on as an apprentice.”
Jessie Ann laughed softly. “Alana was right, you know. You needed each other. Now you can both move on—together.”
“Cuz he needed someone to see him. Alana does, but he needs you, too.”
Delanie shook her head in puzzlement, but before she could question Jessie Ann further, the voice in her ears spoke again, sadly this time.
“It was my fault,
“What was, sweetie?”
“I told my father
Tears ran down Delanie’s face as she listened to the narrative of Jessie Ann’s last minutes. Her voice barely audible, she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I don’t hurt anymore,
“I’ll do my best for him, Jessie Ann. I promise.”
“I know. And for Alana too, right,
Delanie nodded, a thick lump in her throat.
“You’re the right
The soft sad sounds of Martina McBride’s Concrete Angel came from Lil Po, and Delanie cried with abandon, knowing she had just spoken to Jessie Ann for the last time.
Flanked by Alana and Noah, Delanie stood in the softly falling snow, watching as Jessie Ann’s coffin was lowered to rest next to her mother’s. The child’s funeral had drawn a big crowd, though few could claim to have known her in life.
When people began leaving, Delanie noticed Noah’s eyes were fixed on a thin, haggard looking woman standing close to the grave’s edge. When the woman looked up and saw Noah, she averted her eyes and stumbled away.
Unsure if she should ask, Delanie decided to take a chance. “Who was that, Noah?”
His voice was angry and sorrowful when he answered. “My mom. Guess she figured she should make an appearance with the family.”
“Jessie Ann’s family.” Noah looked up at Delanie. “My mom and Jessie Ann’s mom were sisters.”
Delanie blinked in
surprise. “Jessie Ann was your
cousin?” She looked at Alana. “
Alana shook her head, her expression equally startled. “No, I didn’t.”
Noah shrugged. “I was only nine when I saw Jessie Ann for the first and last time, and she was only a few weeks old. Her dad thought my mother was a bad influence because she had so many ‘boyfriends’, so he forbade Aunt Molly from seeing her sister. Can’t say I’d disagree with him on that, even though he turned out to be a fuckin’ murderer.”
Noah fell silent, staring at the open grave. Delanie and Alana’s eyes met over his bowed head.
“Hey, kid, how ’bout since we’re already all dressed up, I take you and Ms Erickson out for a nice dinner.”
Later, when Noah was devouring his steak like he hadn’t eaten in a year, Delanie asked a question that had been on her mind since the day they had found Jessie Ann.
“Noah, back in the house you said something about ‘the ghost’ getting me.”
Noah mumbled acknowledgement around a full mouth.
“You didn’t say ‘a’ ghost. What’d you mean by that?”
He swallowed with difficulty and Delanie saw Alana smother a smile.
“Well, I didn’t think there was more than one ghost in the house.”
Delanie raised an eyebrow in surprise. “So Jessie Ann talked to you, too?”
Noah regarded her quizzically. “She talked to you?”
“Yup, all the time. On Lil Po.”
“Huh.” Noah leaned back and stared at Delanie. “I never heard no voices or anything. I could just...I dunno, feel something, you know? Like someone was watching me, even if you were outside.”
Both women nodded and Noah leaned forward, growing excitement on his face. “You could really hear her, boss? No shit?”
“No shit, Noah. Ms Erickson heard her, too.”
“Loud and clear,” Alana confirmed.
“Wow! That is unfuckinbelievable!” Noah gaped at his dinner companions. “And you’re sure it was Jessie Ann?”
“Yeah, I am.
“Hell, no. It’s not like we showed up there for Sunday dinner or anything. It was just an ordinary old house to me, at least until that day—” Noah sobered, and Delanie knew he was remembering the small body bag. “Do you think she’ll still come around, boss?”
Delanie shook her head. “No, I suspect she accomplished what she set out to.”
Alana looked at her inquiringly. “What she set out to? What do you think Jessie Ann was trying to do?”
Unwilling to disclose all that Jessie Ann had told her, Delanie equivocated. “Well, I think she wanted her body found, of course. And I think maybe she was looking for the right person to live in the house. The last thing she told me was that I was the right one.”
“You’re going to buy the house?”
Delanie smiled at Alana’s surprise. “I’m thinking about it. We got the okay to return to work next Monday, so the house will be completely upgraded by spring. I suspect they won’t get many offers on it now that everyone knows there was a body in the basement for over two years.”
“You’d be okay living there, boss?”
“I think so, Noah. Jessie Ann never scared me.” Delanie stopped and looked sheepish. “Well, except for the first time she spoke to me. Damn near messed my pants that time!”
Alana and Noah greeted her confession with laughter, and Delanie had to join them. The mood lighter, they soon finished their dinner and left. Delanie and Alana dropped Noah off and drove towards Alana’s house.
“I’ve been thinking...”
“Well, not to sound pretentious, but I guess—sort of the nature of evil. I mean, when you think of horror, you tend to think of things like vampires or werewolves or zombies.”
“Or headless horsemen or monkey’s paw or screaming skulls—yes, I understand what you mean. The storybook kind of evil.”
“Right. And what happened to Jessie Ann and her mom was a horror, too. But it was all too human, and all too common. No one saw anything. No one noticed what was going on. No one helped them, until it was way too late. Thinking about that keeps me awake at night, you know?”
“I do know, Del. I think that’s why Jessie Ann came to you in the first place— because you’re the kind of person who would see, who would try and do something.”
“Would I? Look how long I resisted taking on Noah. The kid told me the other day that for the first time he believed in his own future. And he thanked me. Hell, he should be thanking you, not me.”
“Jessie Ann—the last thing she told me was that I could ‘see.’” Delanie glanced over at Alana who was watching her intensely. “I want to live up to that, best I can. So I was thinking—Noah’s been talking about eventually going to a technical college and getting his papers, like I did. Maybe when he does...well, maybe you know of another Noah that could use my help.”
“God, I love you.”
Startled, Delanie swerved, then pulled over to the curb. She turned to face Alana who was smiling at her with tear-filled eyes. Gathering her courage, Delanie answered from the heart. “I love you too, Alana. I don’t know what the hell I’d have done without you these last couple of years. I only wish I’d had the good sense to walk away from Daphne twenty six years ago. Who knows what might’ve happened between you and me, eh? Hell, we might’ve had grandkids by now.”
her belt and slid across the bench seat.
With gentle hands she cupped Delanie’s face. “Might-have-beens don’t matter, my sweet
Delanie stared into the eyes that so visibly cherished her. Her heart pounding, she whispered, “About that rain check—”
Alana’s answer was delivered with a long, lingering kiss that sent shivers through Delanie. When they finally pulled apart, Alana whispered, “Let’s go cash it in, love.”
Delanie claimed one more searing kiss before throwing the truck in drive and hitting the gas pedal.
And on the other side of town, an old house sat quietly, yellow tape still over the doorway though the police cars and news vans were long gone. Where it had once housed horror, it would soon house hope.
The winter wind that stirred the snowdrifts carried the echo of a child’s delighted laugh. For a woman had crossed a dark threshold, opened her ears, opened her heart—and made a difference.
© Lois Cloarec Hart