Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
It all started when I got it into my head to redo the basement in my house. That's the real beginning, not once upon a time, not an introduction of the main characters, not the presentation of the conflict. But of course, that's the real beginning relative to me, which makes all but no sense to anybody else. So right at this moment, you don't know my name, what I do, where the house is – what species I am – don't worry, that's a joke. A sense of humour got packed away among the various other bits and pieces assigned to me when that whole birth experience thing happened. And if I don't tell you about any of those things, you'll be totally confused. Anyway, my name is Tegan, and I'm a university librarian, which is surprisingly non-boring work. Trust me on this one, it even surprises me.
The university is the crown jewel – according to those of us who love it here, at least – the crown jewel of the oldest part of the city, despite the weird abstract sculptures that look painfully like somebody didn't quite make it to the dump. What do you say to the artists who make this stuff when you don't want to hurt their feelings? Lie. Lie like a sidewalk. They always wind up going on to do amazing things that look like anything but a load for the landfill. Not far from the ugly duckling first works of promising artists, the just as ugly first works of promising scientists, and a big stadium cheerfully nicknamed The Pit, are the peculiar short streets that make up the unofficial varsity village. Walk quickly past the frat houses, especially the one with the accidental waterfall coming off the upper front deck, and past the sorority houses, and you get to the older, tall narrow homes usually rented by groups of from four to ten people. Ten can be squishy, but if your concept of personal space is more European than North American, I hear it's pretty cool and great for the budget.
My house is at one end of the mysterious eighty-sixth avenue, which you can find on a map but can't find using the map because it doesn't connect properly to anything. The avenue to the north is seventy-nine, and the avenue to the south is eighty-eight. The avenues numbered between seventy-nine and eighty-six do exist, they just don't actually reach here. Eighty-seventh avenue does not exist, however. At least, it doesn't anymore, but the explanation for that comes later. As luck would have it, there is one rather run down house that most people look at, go 'eeeeeek' and run away from. Loved it the moment I saw it, and bought it right when I finally banged into the front gate, all because there seemed no way to get onto eighty-sixth avenue. For all that time since it's been a gorgeous restoration job, lots of work of course, but that never bothered me. This isn't why nobody else wanted it – nobody else wanted it because it's considered haunted. If I was violently superstitious, that might have bothered me.
Being of good pagan Greek stock, which you may or may not gather from my name, which is Tegan, or my hair which is blonde, or even my eyes, which are brown, the folkways my mother and grandmother taught me seemed the best way of handling that. Not to say I believed in ghosts then, or that they did. Their point of view was, if you need to do a few rituals to settle your nerves, go for it. They'll help you get started on cleaning and make things smell better anyway. And if there happens to be real ghosts who will be appeased or soothed by them, well then, the bases are covered. So that's the course I followed. Never expecting to bump into real ghosts. The gently sorrowful Victorian era lady, who does her embroidery by moonlight in the front room on Sundays, the tipsy and cheerful gardener who patiently clips back nonexistent rosemary bushes on Thursday mornings, and the extreme athlete who sits at the bottom of the stairs each late Saturday evening, carefully wrapping a battered knee and rattling off his healed injuries, metal screws and the odd plate. They surprised me the first few times I saw them, but they aren't scary. Except for the Victorian lady, who seems to be waiting for someone, the other two just don't seem to quite understand they're dead yet. Maybe. Even if they did, I doubt they'd leave.
Besides the house, the science library at the university has been my domain, a great rickety testament to how badly some engineers learn their lessons. One elevator is unusable because the shaft is too narrow for it, and one wing has minimal equipment storage in it because somebody forgot to account for the fact that libraries have books in them, but I manage the place somehow. It has seven wings, and is so big and ridiculous that six architects tried to design for it, saw things partly realized, and quit. The seventh managed to tack it all together, with the end result that it has interesting office space, a museum, and a block of classrooms in it. Luckily, only the actual library bits ever had to do with me. Dealing with the library staff and the library books is quite enough by way of two hands full, although there is a certain satisfaction in throwing away the hopelessly out of date physics texts over the objections of the crotchety old professors who are fond of the texts they first taught with. Not because of the professors, but because the crabby person who carts the recyclables off has to carry them too. He's always complaining not enough recycling gets done.
It took a few years after being deposited in my dusty corner office, but the staff is solid and cohesive now, and they still work well together. The students who work the circulation and reference desks part time have had an amazing part in that. Most of the time, they're science students, believe it or not. Not library science majors. They know the place like the backs of their hands, and all the little spots desperate students tend to sequester high demand books when the reserve room system hasn't caught up with them. When some request defied even my twenty years knowledge of the place, one of the students on duty invariably knew, or knew someone who did. The full-time staff have nicknamed them the Hybrid-Mechanism, analogous to a hybrid of a search engine and the Borg from Star Trek. All the serious science students become assimilated to the Hybrid-Mechanism, because they pretty much live in the library at certain seasons.
Needless to say, my life was a quiet one, although not boring. Actually, it still is. Small, bookish, middle-aged women rarely do things like – oh, I don't know, the things people usually call exciting. But travel is one of my great loves, and I have managed to get surprisingly non-tacky and non-touristy pictures of all sorts of places. Sometimes even my rumpled self turns up in them. There's always somebody who thinks I simply must have at least one photo to prove that I had really been in the place. Well, honestly, who manages to get photos of a gecko right in the water with green water at the bottom of it if they weren't in the country and in the water? My great love of travel has led me to some surprising places.
One casual Friday – you know, the day you're supposed to be allowed to wear casual clothes to work but you aren't, really – after getting home and putting on some real casual clothes, I spent an hour or so beating myself near senseless on the Pickwick Papers for the last time. Charles Dickens, if you're listening, I gave it my best shot. Honest. Then it was time to figure out something else to do, which wasn't hard, after all, the house is a fix-it-upper, as I've already said. Off to the basement to pull something out of the freezer in the crooked cupboard under the stairs for dinner the next night.
The basement had two dim, bare lightbulbs with long strings attached to their switches. Heaven forbid you don't hang onto the string when you flick them on and off, or you will be sentenced to hours of fishing the string out of the damned rafters. The floor was far from level, and I would discover later, had been roughly covered with flat stones, then half heartedly evened with badly mixed concrete. That said, it was shamefully easy to knock the concrete bits loose. The unfinished walls had been carefully insulated with a combination of that pink stuff and old newspapers. A few boxes, broken appliances, and of course construction type stuff were down there. I cleared that stuff out that night, and went and got a dust mask and a small pick the next morning to do something about the floor. There were enough windows that the lights weren't too necessary during the day, so I could get started while waiting for my friend Tash to come by and evaluate the wiring.
So there I was, removing wheelbarrowfuls of rotten concrete from the basement floor, pushing them up the ramp through the back basement door, around the corner of the house, and up another ramp to deposit each one in the back of my pickup truck. After eight loads or so, it became clear that the floor had been roughly lined with large, flat stones that seemed far too thick and regular to be cobbles, and too solid and heavy to be those slabs people use in their gardens sometimes. The basement floor underneath all this was just packed dirt, and when the climate was wetter it must have been a bit soggy. Not a good thing. I'd have to round up my archaeology buddies to dig it out to bedrock or at least deep enough to put in a liner and lay a good floor. Then the concrete began to come neatly off those smooth slabs, leaving nothing but a thick coating of dust. Which was a job for the vacuum cleaner.
I vacuumed off the first one, and pulled a flashlight out of my pocket to look more closely. Previous renovation projects had taught me the value of a small flashlight kept in one pocket whenever wielding tools, and read this:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
Sarama 'Toby' Zerr
1878 - 1921
Justice sometimes sleeps.
Well, no wonder the damned house was haunted. Some jerkwad had raided a cemetery for gravestones to walk across in their soggy basement. There were twenty-seven of them, and after noting down everything on them and taking photographs, I headed to city hall. The person at the front desk stared at me incredulously when I told her about the tombstones.
"I'm afraid so. Is there any way to trace where the stones came from and put them back?" Play the trump card. "That's my pick up truck outside. I'm willing to help out."
The other woman goggled. Seems a woman barely more than five feet tall in possession of a honking pickup truck surprised her. "Oh. Wait." A moment later a rather bewildered looking man appeared, his fliptop hair flapping on one side of his head. Poor guy. Some folks have a hard time when they lose their hair.
"Tombstones, in your basement?" I explained the whole thing again, and showed him my notes and photographs. The moment he heard my address, his demeanour switched from bewildered and breathless to intent and determined. "Follow me."
Up to the archives, and he rapidly pulled out a set of records. "Ms. Hristopoulous, have you heard anything about eighty-seventh avenue?"
"Besides the fact it doesn't exist? No."
"It used to exist. That wooded park across from your place was formerly a big mansion. It was hit by lightning one summer only a year or so after it was built and burnt until not a thing was left. It's been left alone over a hundred years, so those trees got to grow up. Always was considered a cursed place, that mansion, because the man who built it had a cemetery ploughed under to build it. Tore out the headstones and scattered them around. Wasn't a big burial ground, obviously, only about, oh, a hundred fifty people or so in it. Huge scandal, the whole thing. And now you've found at least twenty-seven of them in the floor of your basement. Quite something. Oh – haven't explained about the avenue yet. In time the trees took over the road too, as it was never paved and nobody would use it. There's probably still a sign marked eighty-seventh avenue in there somewhere." He pulled out a fair sized box. "There are five more like these, if you'd like to know about the people from the cemetery. I'll have to get hold of the families of course, see if they would like the stones. The city can help defray the costs removing them will incur."
"I'd appreciate that." I replied. Just some basic, dull paperwork after that, and with the five boxes of records temporarily in my possession, my home was soon festooned in dusty papers. The extreme sports guy was definitely not part of this group, but the other ghosts could be. Weirdly, the first material I bumped into was the records on Sarama Zerr. This on opening a box at random. A yellow newspaper clipping, in all its cliched glory fell out of her folder. Apparently the ploughing under of the cemetery had been a big enough deal to cause a real investigation.
'Lusko, B.C., Early last night this town lost one of its finest citizens, our local hero Captain Saramas Zerr, whose fearless signal work by wireless, light, and semaphore helped save so many ships during the war. If there was anyone who felt that the farmers' struggle on the prairies did not matter to us, this must convince them otherwise. Captain Zerr may have been one of our most unconventional citizens, but she was also one of our best citizens, and will be sorely missed.
Mr. Leo Brown, late of Pierce Lake, Saskatchewan has been in a long running struggle with the bank to prevent foreclosure on his family's farm, a victim of poor weather and worse pricing. Three nights ago, he parked his oldest and largest tractor across the road in order to blockade it, and so prevent the bank from serving papers on him. The place he chose to blockade is notorious for windgusts and the sharply rolling hills that can make navigation treacherous. It was while driving this road that Captain Zerr, on her way back from work on a project for the Prairie Sand Oil Company collided with the barricade, dying of her injuries before anyone found her.
Her body will be returned to Lusko via the local train line, and a public wake will be held on this coming Sunday, the 9th of August. Mr. Brown has been arraigned on charges of manslaughter, and his farm has been seized by the bank. Pending the...' The rest of the article was gone after that. What an awful way to go. Especially after surviving a war.
My archaeologist buddies came over on the next three weekends to help me clean out the basement. We were all soon horrified to discover that those twenty-seven tombstones were no more than a top layer. There were six more layers, each with a layer of dirt thrown on top. Apparently the layer of cement had been meant to finish the job of hiding them. After cataloguing things, it turned out that fifty-three of the head stones were missing. My phone rang almost constantly for days, blaring with voices more often furious with me for finding them and bringing the 'whole thing up again' than thankful that they could at least set up a decent memorial to their loved ones again. A bit surreal, and very wearing. So you can imagine that the night I noticed a stocky woman sitting in one corner of the basement, it seemed that since the ghosts never turned up there that I had dozed off. Lucid dreams are neat rather than disturbing for me, so instead of calling out or anything, I rustled the papers in my lap.
"This'll be quite a deep basement, at the rate you and your badger friends are going," the woman commented, digging her fingers through her dark, half neck length hair before jamming a grumpy baseball cap on top of it. "Be a fine cold store, though, if you go for that sort of thing." She turned, fixing unnaturally bright eyes on me. They struck me particularly, because they had no colour. "You gonna sit there all day? Not gonna talk?"
"Well..." clearing my throat. "Sure I will. It's just, usually the opportunity doesn't come up."
"Hmmph. The others are stuck up, that's all. That twit athlete's so full of himself he hasn't figured out nobody's interested in all the stupid things he's done to himself – what's a snowboard? And the other two won't speak to unconventional types, as if they're too good for it." The woman was wearing dungarees and a rough work shirt with what looked suspiciously like army boots. "How'd you get such weird, stuck up roommates anyway? That woman acts as if it's still Queen Victoria's day."
"Ummmm. – what?" as lucid dreams went, this was very strange.
"Anyway, was hoping you could help me out. I need to call my family, and this busted arm here strongly suggests the need for a doctor. My name's Toby, by the way."
"Toby – Toby Zerr?" Okay, now I understood what was up with this dream.
"Course, I haven't the foggiest idea how I got down here – but that's because of this big lump on my head, I think." Toby pointed out a nasty goose egg on the right side of her forehead.
"I'm sure you're right." my voice was fairly faint. Hauling my dusty butt upright, I walked hesitantly over to her, and grasped one of her wrists – the one not attached to her broken arm, of course. And was absolutely stunned when it turned out to be solid.
Two hours later, we were sitting at my kitchen table after my autopilot function successfully applied first aid to Toby's injuries. "What is going on?" I muttered, glaring into a mug of tea. "This can't be real." It had taken almost twenty minutes for me to get the sling right. Then it had taken over an hour to convince Toby that two of my gel coated red and yellow pain relieving tablets really were okay, and if she took them her pain would lessen.
"What can't be real?" Toby asked, carefully maneuvering sugar into her own mug with what seemed to be her non-dominant hand.
"This whole situation!" I burst out. "I must be asleep." More quietly, dropping my head into my hands.
"Hey, you think this is bad for you – one minute I was driving my pick up back from a job, next..." Toby's voice took on a strange, strained pitch. "...hit something." We were interrupted in our mutual disorientation by Tash, who stuck her head in the back door and tallyhoed us. She isn't English or anything, she just likes doing stuff like that.
"Hey Tegan. Who's your friend?" Thankfully, in the kitchen light Toby's eyes looked pale grey rather than freaky white and glowing as they had in the basement. Tash yanked out a chair, flipped it backwards, and sat down on it, then stood up to hitch up the pantlegs of her baggy coveralls a bit and sat down again.
"Oh," She could see Toby? But if other people could see her – "This is Toby – she had a bit of an accident."
"Wow, so that's where those war wounds come from, huh? Nice to meet you, Toby. I'm Tash, as our rude friend forgot to mention." she stuck out a hand and Toby took it in one of her surprisingly big ones, being as she wasn't much taller than me, and shook it decisively.
"Nice to meet you, Tash." Toby eyed my friend's buzzcut, dyed fire engine red. "That is amazing hair."
Tash beamed. "Thanks!" Most people didn't say anything on first meeting her, then eventually blurted out something to the effect of whyever she had done that to herself. "So, what happened?"
"Did a number on my truck." she threw a quick glance at me. "Been towed away already." We had discussed what to tell people, because it was clear to us both that something odd was going on.
"That's too bad. What kind of truck was it?" Somehow those two managed to talk trucks for over two hours. Turns out Tash is big on old models. The really old ones, from when there was pretty much nothing in North America but Fords. After she left, Toby and I stared at each other.
"I looked outside. That truck of yours ain't no Ford, its a cheverlet. – what the hell is that? What's going on here, is this some kind of game?" she sprang out of her chair, catching herself when this made her dizzy and pacing violently up and down the kitchen.
"No – no – maybe you better look at this." Pushing over the yellowed newspaper article. She glared at it. Examining the date, the apparent age of the paper. And probably other things that would never have occurred to me, in the same situation. Over time I learned that Toby had an exceptional eye for details.
"I'm dead?!" She furiously shook the article under my nose. "Dead? If I'm dead, how can I be here, talking to you?" Without warning she headed outside, shouting. Momentarily stunned, I hurled myself out of my seat to catch her, realizing only after listening for a few seconds that Toby was trying to call for a paperboy. Of course there were no paperboys. Just the dingbats who leave piles of elastic banded bundles of useless flyers whether you want them to or not, and today wasn't a drop off day.
"Toby, wait!" There was no need for me to tell her. After a few shouts, the bewildered woman had stopped short in the middle of my weedy front lawn, staring at a neighbourhood that must have been only vaguely familiar looking.
"Trees," she choked out when I got to her. "What's happened to the trees?" By a yet another of those quirks that were ruling all things at the moment, Toby was facing the new subdivision that had eaten up the formerly beautiful wooded park to the southeast, now a wasteland of awful houses and worse parks full of dead grass. "What's going on?!" There was no way to explain. She sat down with a thump, staring at the article. "This can't be real."
"Saskatchewan has rotten roads, you know. But I've seen far worse out in the bush with these maniac scientist types who've got loose from their offices to scatter equipment around, so you get used to it. You could haul off the road and sleep in the truck bed in the summer then, if you had a good sleeping bag and a bit of insurance. Had a service revolver for that. Wasn't really necessary out in the back end of Saskatchewan, but it came in handy in B.C. when a black bear paid me a visit. Anyway –
It had stormed for most of the day. Lots of rain and fair sized hail – marble sized, like the regular ones though, not shooters. Falling in weird, twisting patterns you could still see in the splashes on the road. Out of the blue, after no rain most of the summer and that fall. Everything was brown or yellow for miles around, and I remember feeling sick for the mountains as that awful sky rolled over me. Just sky and flat prairie. Awful how that just goes on and on, and your sense of distance goes out the window, and if you get dopey behind the wheel you begin to feel none too sure if you've driven ten or a thousand miles. It's all the same, leastaways, it is to me. Except at this one spot, with a little wooden pole set up by one the government surveys marking the middle of the continent, but that thing is in Manitoba. If it was in Saskatchewan, it still wouldn't help. The rain had cleared up, and the clouds were breaking, so you'd get shafts of bright light in the distance. The heat was gone for the moment too, noticed that because those false wet patches you see ahead in the pounding Sun were gone.
Started working my truck up a fair hill, not really steep, but long on that side. Coming down, it's sharp and steep, fools your eyes. So I had to put the brakes on as I came down the other side, and caught sight of a red tractor up ahead. You know, one of them cherry red ones with the mason jar on the front pipe ahead of the steering wheel. Then there was another hill to climb, and a steeper than usual downward slope, I guess. Came out, and there was the damned tractor, far closer than I expected, and the road was mud and melting hail. Hitting the brakes didn't work, and there was no room left to swerve by then, even if they had. Funny, I still remember the glimpse of the road beyond the tractor – trick of the clouds and the light, looked like the road went up again, but up into the sky. You know how the road gets paler looking with distance ahead of you – it was like that, and there was another bit of a hill, but instead of coming to a top like you'd expect, the road just went on into the sky. Stupid thing to notice, I guess."
Toby ran her thumb over the rough outer finish of her ceramic mug, staring into it. I did that sometimes too, watching my murky, distorted reflection in the bottom, shutting one eye, than the other. Buying time. My mug was still partly full or I would have been doing that now, after hearing Toby's story.
"No, not stupid. Your brain does funny things sometimes, when situations get out of control, picks up on stuff like that." Please note, that this Hristopoulous is miserable at those twitchy, sensitive sort of talks.
A tiny smile answered me. "Not too experienced in these sort of conversations, are you?" Pushing her mug away. "But then, how many people have managed to speak so sensibly to a ghost that just happens to be solid? After finding their tombstone buried in their basement?" Toby looked up at me. "Makes me sick at heart, Tegan, to think that this stupid bastard ploughed under my bones. I'm no churchgoer, but it's a discomforting thought, that maybe I'm still here because my bones are gone."
"I don't know about that, Toby. I don't know at all." Glancing at my watch, a fancy digital gizmo Toby simply could not believe was possible, especially when a push of a button made it glow blue so you could read it in the dark, I realized it was deep in the night. "Well, look, let's put the problem aside for now and hit the sack. Maybe things will make more sense in the morning. Or something." More sense in the morning. Now that was lame. The only way things would make more sense, was if I suddenly woke up, and this all proved to be a dream, like a lame soap opera episode.
"Hit the sack?" Toby repeated blankly.
"Go to bed."
There are a few spare rooms in the house – what can I say, having a library in the place struck me as really cool so I knocked some walls out – and one of them had a fine bed in it, covered in the crocheted blankets my great aunt had loved to make and kitted out with flannel sheets. The colours were bright, and the yellowish shade over the electric light made it seem cozy and afternoonish with the curtains shut. Even the hardwood floor seemed warmer, its finish nice and reddish brown and broken up by a few throw rugs. My own room was just across the hall. Toby hesitantly climbed out of her battered shirt and dungarees while I was there, digging around for something that would fit her and not go against the style of clothing she was willing to wear. After all, the poor woman had already had more than her share of stress. Comforting little things would help.
When I returned to Toby's room, she was standing by the window, peeking outside, in what looked suspiciously like a man's undershirt and boxer shorts. "Hey." I called gently. She turned to face me, eyes glowing eerily now that she had switched on a small lamp and shut off the bigger light.
"You live in a strange, strange, world, Tegan." She glanced down at herself. "No, these ain't men's boxers – I have – had a seamstress friend." I winced.
"I don't worry much about things like that – but if my knowledge of the time you're from serves, people could be pretty crazy about that stuff. Gender correctness and all that." Thankfully Toby chose not to ask me to explain what 'gender correctness' meant just then. My search for suitable clothes had yielded a slightly tattered t-shirt and a pair of flannel boxers. It just so happened that for nightwear, I found them quite nice. Setting them on the bed, I continued, "My room is right across the hall. If anything comes up, just come over and knock or something."
Half way through the night, Toby walked a bit shamefacedly into my room, where I was just as sleepless as she had been, it seemed. She paused, glancing at the untidy shelves of books and crookedly hung posters. The nice fireplace and the scattering of incense burners and the like. "Fancy." her eerie eyes dropped. "Look – if you're, up to it – do you think I could just sleep on the floor in here tonight?" Simultaneously, we looked down at the hardwood floor with a few rugs, just like across the hall.
"You're kidding me – Toby, you can't sleep on that! Listen, this is a king sized bed," Long story how a tiny woman like me wound up with such a huge bed, don't ask. "there's plenty of room for us both to sleep, being as neither of us are gigantic people." She tried really hard to make like she was shy and coy, but even if Toby was those things normally, discomfort overcame all that. After practically diving into the bed and momentarily disappearing completely under the covers, she settled in. It made a big difference for us both. I don't remember falling asleep, only being weirdly relieved that this mysterious woman was there, re-proving that this wasn't all a figment of my imagination, and wondering at myself, that I could be so comfortable with the whole thing.
The morning began with a furious pounding on my front door, accompanied by the sort of screaming that somehow did not seem appropriate for – a glance at my beside clock revealed – five in the morning. Giving my still sleep muzzy head a shake, I half fell half stood up out of bed, a challenging feat, I know this for a fact because various muscles got yanked in the process, and scrambled into my robe. There seemed to be quite a few people at my front door, which was very alarming. To top it off, they had odd noises accompanying them, clicks and rattles, beeps and bad midi versions of well known classical music tunes. Some odd whirring and buzzing that made me think of how the television sounded even when muted the rare times it got turned on. All televisions make that sound, by the way, it's got to do with their circuitry. A member of the Hybrid-Mechanism taught me that.
Apprehensively, I left the chain on and opened the door just enough to stretch it tight, and was subjected to an unholy racket and bright lights flashing in my eyes. People were waving microphones and sheets of paper, and one maniac jammed the nozzle of a gun half way up my nose. That was enough for me. Slamming the door shot, locking it tight and bracing a nearby hall chair underneath the doorknob, I had the cops on the phone so fast it was necessary for me to take three deep breaths before speaking to them. "Hello? There is a huge group of insane people at my front door. I don't know who they are. They are noisy, and awful, and at least one of them has a gun." The officer wasn't impressed and started going on about more serious problems elsewhere, and if this was some sort of prank I could be charged, when I simply took the receiver – it was one of those cordless radio models – and held it to the front door. "You hear that?" My argument became completely irrelevant when a gunshot rang out and I heard something lodge in the door. Somebody else kicked it.
I don't know how long it was before the police cars started arriving, even seconds would have felt like forever. When they started pulling up the street, the racket got even worse. Thankfully, seeing this crazy, unruly bunch, they simply got to work arresting people and rounding people up. Neighbours had called in complaints too, especially about the maniac with the gun, and by ten in the morning it felt marginally safe, so I peered out the door again, still with the chain attached. Toby hovered not far away, just out of sight of anyone looking in. A harried officer shambled up the steps, which were now full of trash and cigarette butts. It looked like a herd of pigs had gone through my front yard, keeping back only those bodily effluents real pigs would leave behind.
"Morning, ma'am. Mind explaining what this is about?"
"Excuse me?! Excuse me?!" The blood rushed to my head. This was too rich. "These people turned up, without invitation, invading my neighbourhood, my home, with weapons and noise, pounding on my door like some kind of idiot posse. The hell if I know who they are. There was some asshole with a gun. Do you think I want this kind of crap? Give me a break."
An unpleasant man in a greasy suit waddled up behind the officer. "Ah, yes. Good. Now the papers can be served. It seems you have unearthed a number of tombstones in your basement, and the families involved want you to keep this nonsense out of the newspapers. They have no wish to be further humiliated."
"I have had NOTHING to do with the newspapers. Go ahead and look at my phone log with the company I get my service from. Get out of here, you creep."
None of these events had helped the police officer, and it had finally dawned that no helpful information could possibly be gotten like this. "Actually sir, you won't be serving anything, as you are under arrest for trespass and disturbing the peace. We will need to speak to you, ma'am, if you can spare the time." The guy wouldn't have known a sarcastic from an insulting tone of voice if it bit him in the ass, too.
"Which is fine. But I would appreciate it if you would not accuse me of making some kind of ruckus like a child desperate for attention." Then I slammed the door and called my friend Laura, who is a very good lawyer.
By three in the afternoon, it became clear that something like fifty families were trying to sue me, of whom half had no tombstones in my basement. Why they were trying to sue me, when I had been innocently remodelling my basement and had done what any responsible citizen does and checked with city hall about the situation and had not gone to the media or anything else, I don't know. Their lawyers were trying to claim I must have known the stones were there and must be preparing to charge the families for their removal. A weird idea, because the stones fall under the antiquities act, so I couldn't do that even if I had meant to try. They all ignored Toby, until they heard I was a lesbian, and decided to make hay over my immoral habits with another woman in my own home. Toby was disgusted on my behalf, and soon had enough of a head of steam to demand tinted glasses and some more modern looking clothes, so she could help me fend off the people who kept coming to the door and harassing me, which now included various christians calling down the fires of hell upon me, for a variety of reasons. The media was busy conflating me with the idiot who originally dug up the stones. The university had to put guards on the library. It was all completely insane.
The guy with the gun was charged with a misdemeanour and had his gun confiscated. Luckily his problem earlier had had a good deal more to do with drink than the serious desire to shoot me, so I could put him mostly out of my mind. If he became a real problem, well, Laura had a restraining order at the ready.
By the end of the academic year, the case had hit the courts. The majority of the tombstones had been quietly retrieved by families but twenty-three of them still sat in the basement. Twenty-two were tied up in litigation. The Twenty-third was Toby's, and try as I might, I couldn't find a soul who had anything to with her family. Each day, she got a little more sad. A little more depressed. Even the jerks trying to sue me seemed to care at least a wee bit about the people whose graves had been disturbed, even though they were mostly focussed on themselves.
To keep herself busy and help me with the bills, Toby had gotten me to teach her how to drive an automatic, and had begun working for a delivery company. They had had their doubts about her, given her size and odd predilection to army boots and dark glasses at all hours, but they soon had nothing but good things to say about her. Laura had a good friend in documents and statistics who rounded up some papers for Toby, setting her up as a recent landed immigrant, which was as close to the truth as we could reasonably get. Toby's arm had mended well even though no doctor had set it – we didn't dare see one, because we couldn't explain who she was or offer any documents to prove she could receive care. And after the landed immigrant papers were finished, the arm was healed anyway.
The litigation junk finally collapsed, although the judge made a point of leaving me with as many expenses as possible regardless of the fact I had been the wronged party. He has a significant prejudice against any people he deems 'immoral' which seems to equal 'different from him.' I wouldn't be travelling for a long time. Who knew if I'd get to keep my house. The rain had started, and the basement floor had dutifully become soggy and wet.
Laura, Tash, Toby, myself and couple of other friends were sitting in my kitchen deep in June, just drinking a few beers together, and trying not to think too hard about anything. The others eventually left, leaving just the people I listed by name. They were the only others who knew who Toby really was. Laura had pretty much had to know in order for me to convince her to help Toby get to work, and Tash, well – Tash had worked out more than half of it on her own.
"So," Laura took a long pull from a bottle of cider. "at least one problem has been teased out."
"Trouble is it had babies." muttered Toby. Turns out she's quite the smartass.
"Trouble usually does." Tash commented sagely. "You know, maybe you two should take off for a few days. Head for one of those silly resort towns in the mountains and enjoy the air and the quiet for a bit. Solutions are pretty hard to see when you're exhausted."
We rented a truck – mine was too well known thanks to a picture in the paper, and tended to get trailed by gapers, reporters after 'follow up stories' and cops with chips on their shoulders who invariably ticketed me, as if I had control over all those people. Heading out east for the mountains, I ignored the speed limit as much as I dared, and somehow luck held and we never ran into any speedtraps. Tash had picked up a book on ghosts and that sort of thing, and Toby had borrowed it to read before we left. Once we got into the mountains we took turns driving, and when I found sleep wouldn't visit me, I idly flipped though it. Life was so strange. To get thrown together with someone who was definitely dead – we had found her death certificate in the town hall archives – who was also definitely here, and who had become a surprisingly good friend, was beyond anything even most scriptwriters could imagine. A couple of pages stuck together, and I automatically teased them apart. There's a knack to it, you pick it up in my profession.
"My mother," Toby said suddenly – she tended to do this, when she had been thinking really hard, start talking out of nowhere. "My mother, used to talk about the power of 'if.' She loved apples, and always, she'd be eating one of those it seemed, when the idea would catch her up, and she's shake a half eaten one at me and say, 'Never underestimate the power of if, Toby. It's like in that British television show, where one of the characters says if is the most powerful word in the world. And the person who wrote that for her to say, that person was right. If is the most powerful word, because it means every possibility. That one tiny little word.' At first it never made sense to me. She was big on suffrage and all that sort of stuff. And it was when someone else pointed out, 'If women were persons, such and such would not be allowed.' that it made sense. If."
She held her peace for a long time then, blinking at the highway with its cat's eyes starting to glow in the early dusk. "Women couldn't vote in B.C. until 1917, you know. A woman could go die in the war, but be damned if she could have a vote until then. Anyway – that's not why I started yammering on about this. What happened was, I got to wondering, what if, that tractor hadn't been there, or I had been able to stop."
"Oh, okay." Smoothing the book's pages out, I glanced at her. "That's the sort of if there's no sense brooding on, Toby. You'll drive yourself nuts."
"Yeah." sighed Toby.
"Did your Mom really call you that, Toby I mean?"
"Yes ma'am. We both liked it. Saramas is a pretty name, but it never suited me. My father was the one who picked it, and he abandoned us when I was only a year old. That's how I wound up in the forces, really. A way to earn money, and get away for awhile. It turned out so well. I could still help out my mother, and do something about my itchy feet."
"Wow." The stuck together pages were all about gates 'between the worlds.' Glowing lights, tunnels, all that stuff. Flipping the book shut, I tossed it on the dashboard. If there were gates, one would be pretty damned welcome right now, so I wouldn't have to go back and face the accidental mess those tombstones had made in my life.
"Tired of tormented ghouls?" Toby asked drily.
"Sure." I grinned. She always makes me feel better.
The next day, we wandered out into the Alberta foothills, with me driving again. There was a fairly nice little town famous for its beef jerky that was worth stopping at, then we could head out to the nearby Stoney reserve right under the wing of the mountains, to visit my grandmother. My grandfather was a truly openminded fellow. Of course, it started to rain not long after we left the beef jerky town with a bunch of its product in a plastic bag with some sunflower seeds and warmish bottles of cola to wash it all down. At one point, the rain became so bad, with bursts of hail that destroyed visibility that we pulled off at the first turn out and settled in to wait for the storm to pass.
The rain had thinned to a steady drizzle when we headed back onto the road, taking the still rough secondary highways out to the reserve. Toby had begun reading the ghost book again. "Hey, listen to this: 'many ghosts are not unaware that they are dead, and have no wish to torment the living.' Duh. 'Often their continued presence on this plain...' Oh for crap sake, what hooey – '...is related to unusual electromagnetic conditions in the atmosphere. Several long term ghostly residents of houses in North America where electrical storms are frequent have at last been able to cross over during particularly vigourous storms.' Well, the electromagnetic stuff might have something to it, I suppose. But if that plain stuff means anything, my name is Sam." For the most part, Toby was a skeptical person, but she reserved judgement on the things she couldn't explain. Until she came along, I had been a bit of a science snob, myself.
We began climbing a hill, and I heard the RPM drop because it was quite steep. Looking up, it seemed surprisingly long, and thanks to the mist and low cloud from the still dawdling storm, it wasn't possible to see the top. Weirdly, it looked like Toby's road into the sky.
"Course, this all begs the question why more folks don't just vanish during electrical storms, if there's a door between the worlds so convenient. See – there's that if again." Tossing the book on the dashboard in her turn, Toby leaned back in her seat.
"Well, it isn't too often you can narrow down when a person disappeared quite that much. But somehow I can't see it happening, regardless of the all-powerful if." I gave her a gentle poke and a grin to let her know I was teasing. Then, I had to slow down because the visibility had dropped so much again.
This is where the end of the story comes in, and the only one I can tell you is the one that exists for me. If you want to know anything else, you'll have to head to Lusko, and see what the police and the rest of them have to say about it. The rental company is pretty weirded out, because they located the truck easily enough, parked on a turn out, neatly facing oncoming traffic the way you're supposed to. The spot is on the other side of that long, steep hill. There was not a thing wrong with that truck, and not a thing left in it, except for Tash's ghost book.
As it turns out, folks do disappear into other worlds every now and again, when the conditions are right.
- The End