Things had felt far more normal an hour and a half ago, even if Destiny had been a non-corporeal being at the time and a sad psychic had taken over her body and her home had been overrun with hundreds of ghosts. Now, sitting at the game room bar with a bottle of century-old wine being split between her and Koji, without the sounds of moans, rattling, and things breaking, the mansion didn't feel like a home anymore. It felt like just some old house, an old house that was too big and too lonely for her to live in alone. She missed Dustin…and her great-grandfather and great-grandmother… and L. L. and Bea and Ezra and Phineas and Gus and Emily. She even missed the guys who rattled the knockers in the main hallway. Mostly, she missed the spectacles-wearing driver.
Destiny took another gulp of the red wine. "I'm s'posed to go into work tomorrow. I wonder if I can get the day off for having a prolonged out of body experience. Y'know, like a sick day." Her body tilted to the left a little bit, but then she righted herself.
"At least—at least—at least you have a job," Koji held his glass up in front of her face. "I got nothin'!" He slammed his cup down. "I think I'm gonna—gonna—gonna go back home, see Mom an' Dad. Bet they'll all laugh at me. Their loser son. Ha!" He belched. "'Scuse me."
"It'ssszokay." She gave him a hefty pat on the shoulder, nearly shoving him face down onto the counter. "We're boof losers."
"Nah," he shook his head and almost fell off his stool. "You're not a loser, Diz-a-nee…Desk-a-nee…Dezzanee."
"Yeah I am. I'm afraid of goin' to work because I'll have ta see my boss! Ha! How—how stupid is that? I'm such a coward. I'm like that lion, you know? What—what do they got that I ain't got? Courage. I need to see the Wizard!" She laughed.
Koji stared down into the dark liquor. "Maybe the Wizard will give me a job."
She blinked, her eyelids moving out of synch. "You—you sound drunk, Kojers."
"So…" He waved around his arm and pointed his index finger in her general direction. "So do you!"
"Are not!" She pointed back at him. Then she fell on the floor and started snoring.
Koji looked down at her. "Are too." He finished off the glass. Vision unfocused, he tried to see how much they had drunk. The bottle appeared empty. That on top of being awake since yesterday morning and it was no wonder she was passed out.
With an unsteady dismount he got off his chair. Then he grabbed her wrists and dragged her out of the room, through the hall, and into her bedroom. Despite hitting a few corners along the way, she was still sleeping. He hauled her up and shoved her onto her bed. Feeling generous, he took one end of the comforter and folded it over her.
"Destiny burrito," he said. Then he staggered into the foyer where he tripped over the side of the couch, hit the cushions, and promptly fell asleep.
The "Beyond" or afterlife or Heaven or whatever it was called wasn't what Dustin had anticipated. If you weren't focused on anything, it mainly felt like peaceful cloudy space. He had a feeling he wasn't truly in Heaven, but some place on the very cusp of it, a mere room away. Purgatory, perhaps. That gave him some comfort, though. If he didn't completely cross over, perhaps there was a chance of going back. It was a hope he clung to, even though he knew it didn't make any sense. But neither did this place. It was illogical, euphorically illogical—a Wonderland without any screaming Red Queen.
Just for a second, he thought of home and he was suddenly in the garden path outside of the flat where he'd spent his childhood. There was laughter inside the house and he pushed open the creaky door and stepped inside.
At the small kitchen table sat his siblings and—tears came to his eyes—his parents.
"Dusty!" His mother was just as he remembered her: auburn hair with thin streaks of premature gray, freckled cheeks, and a body thin from almost constant movement. She hadn't aged since her death, an uncomfortable realization since they were now close to the same age.
She was crying as she hugged him and kissed his cheek. She held his face in her hands and took in every little mark and line. "It's been forever since—You've grown! My little boy is all grown up." Her voice was cut with a sob.
A chuckle caught in his throat and he wiped away a tear. "I missed you too, Mum."
"And you're still so skinny. Come on, eat, eat!" She took his hand and dragged him to the table.
Pancakes and scones with jam and tea was laid out for everyone. Bea and Asher were already eating, trying to out-shout one another between mouthfuls while their father attempted to get a whole story together from their outbursts.
"And you were just…just stuck there? For all these years? Bea, there's grape jam dangling from your chin. That's most un-ladylike." He handed his youngest a napkin.
"Dad!" She rolled her eyes. "I'm not a child anymore." She grinned when her brother sat down. "Oh, Dusty, we've been waiting for you!"
Asher leaned back and crossed his arms. "Didn't know if you'd ever figure it out."
Dustin was already buttering up some pancakes. "It just sort of occurred to me to think of this place. Everything's so strange here."
Asher took a sip of tea. "You'll get used to it. Look, I can drink again!"
Bea waved a jam coated butter knife in his face. "God help us if Heaven has Brandy."
"Is this Heaven?" Dustin took a tentative bite of his food. "I was expecting halos and harps and all that." He looked around the room. Everything was just as he remembered it. "Or are we back in London?"
"Neither, really." His father picked up empty dishes and put them in the sink. They vanished. He turned his chair around and sat down with his arms folded across the back. It was obvious their father was where Asher had gotten his darker features from. Both brothers shared their father's prominent two front teeth, though. "It's purely metaphorical."
"Metaphysical, dear," his wife spoke up.
"That too. It's a mix, I think." He scratched his cheek. "It just looks like the flat, but it isn't really. It's a…wotchercallit…a recreation. We've been waiting here for you. We didn't want to go any further until we had the whole family together again."
His wife put her arms around Bea and Asher's shoulders. "And now everything's as it should be, and we can all be happy."
"Speaking of family," Bea said, "what is our last name? We forgot it years ago."
"Forgot it?" Their father's eyes widened. "Good heavens! It's Desmond, a name of pride and honour! Good thing you got out of that bloody cesspit. Who knows what else you would have forgotten? Your own parents, your childhoods, first loves…"
Dustin felt a knot tighten in his stomach and he pushed his dish away. He was still missing Destiny. He loved his family dearly and this was a dream come true, but the coldness of his and the mortal's separation wasn't letting him go. It made him feel selfish and ungrateful for what he now had, but he couldn't shake away the want.
His father lit a pipe and took a couple of puffs. "What's the matter, son? Got something on your mind?"
Dustin shook his head. "It's…it's nothing. I was just thinking about someone I left behind."
Asher wagged his eyebrows. "His girlfriend, a comely little lass some century younger 'n'him. I don't know if he's robbing the cradle or she's plundering the grave." Bea swatted him with her bonnet. "Ow. Also the great-granddaughter of me former business partner." He ducked the second time.
Bea shoved her hat back down and let out a huff. "You make it sound so seedy. Oh, Mum," she clasped her hands and grinned, "they were so perfect together! Always giggling at their awkward little jokes and sharing neurosis. Not at all like the nasty trysts Ash had." She stuck out her tongue.
"Yeah," Asher smirked. "I actually got some action."
Their father slammed his hands over his ears. "Not things I want to hear about my children!"
"Dear," Dustin's mother put her hands on his shoulders, "they're not children anymore, despite what we'd like to think. I think we forgot that when we died, they continued their own lives. Why, they even had careers, didn't you?"
Asher puffed his chest out. "I was an attorney."
Bea smiled bashfully. "I was studying medicine and physics at university."
"Good heavens, my young lady is so bright!"
Everyone turned to watched Dustin.
"Uh, I was a cabbie."
Mr. Desmond raised his pipe high. "Good for you, son!"
Their laughter was interrupted by a knock at the door. Mrs. Desmond got up to answer it. "I wonder who that could be. Maybe an uncle stopping by…"
The man who stood at the entrance was unknown to her. His clothes, a brown windbreaker and jeans, were too modern to belong to anyone from their time. He bobbed his head by way of greeting and in a New England accent said, "Good day, ma'am. May I speak with your son?"
Asher was looking confused and pointing to himself when Dustin got up from his seat. His mouth hung open as he approached the man. The bright blue eyes were unmistakably from the Gracey line, but Dustin had seen the same smile the man bore and the exact same quirk of the right brow on someone else.
"Call me Doug. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I thought I should meet the man who's dating my daughter."
Destiny laid face down in bed for a while after waking up. She wasn't sure how long she stayed like that, but the thought of seeing her empty home was too depressing to face with a lingering hangover. She would get used to it eventually, just like how she knew she would get used to going back to work. Life had to go on.
She pushed herself up and wiped away at least three different wet and or gross substances that had leaked from her sinus passages. Then she opened up the curtains and shielded her eyes from the afternoon light.
"I'm alive," she said to the acres of graveyard. "I'm alive."
After a shower and a change of clothes, she found out it was Sunday afternoon. Work was tomorrow morning. Her normal life was to start on Monday. No, she thought, my normal life starts now. As she combed her hair in front of the boudoir mirror, she went over normal things in her head. My name is Destiny Chalmers. I'm thirty years old. I am an engineer. I like solving problems in an as logical way as possible. Confront and deal. I like pool because I get to use geometry. Panic solves nothing.
The last one she repeated a few times as she left her room.
She was more amused than surprised when she found Koji on her couch. She would have been worried if he'd tried to drive home after the night they'd had. "Koj'." She gave him a nudge. "Kojer, wake up." He only snored when she gave him another shove. "We have to talk. Koji!" She gave his backside a hard pinch.
"Ow!" He sprang up, hands protectively over his southern cheeks. "Geeze, what was that for?"
"Couldn't get you up. Look, there's a lot of stuff to discuss, otherwise I would have let you sleep."
He exhaled against his palm and then sniffed. "Ugh, my mouth tastes like month old nachos."
"Okay, queso boy. Why don't you go use my shower and I'll make us coffee and breakfast." She remembered the time. "Er, lunch. Blunch… Lekfast… I like lekfast."
By the time Koji had made his way to the kitchen, Destiny was filling two cups and had already put two plates down on the table. He took a seat and unapologetically tore into a ham and cheese sandwich. "I didn't hurt you when I brought you to your room, did I?"
"Oh, you did that?" She smiled. "That was chivalrous of you. I thought maybe I'd staggered in myself." She shifted against the back of her chair. "Although that rug burn on my back makes sense now."
"Yeah. Sorry about that."
She continued to smile at him and was completely sincere when she patted his hand. "You're a really good friend, Koji." She cleared her throat. "So good in fact that I was thinking about maybe… um, giving you the mansion."
"Wait!" He dropped his food. "Hold up. Why would you want to give the place to me?"
"Well," she shrugged, "you said you'd love to have a creepy old house like this."
"Yeah, like this house, not this house. Destiny, this is by all rights your ancestral home. It's what George would want." He frowned. "You're not thinking of suicide, are you?"
She almost choked on her coffee. "What? No!"
"Because I know that people planning on killing themselves tend to give away their stuff for no explicable reason and then people don't find out until it's too late. And your great-grandfather is a great guy and all, but 'his way' isn't necessarily—"
"I'm not killing myself, Koji," she interrupted sternly. "I just thought maybe you'd appreciate it. I don't know what I'm going to do with this place. It's huge and there are a lot of memories here."
"Good memories," he pointed out. "Continue fixing it up. You have the know-how. Anyone else would demolish it."
She nodded. "I think you're right." Her own thoughts had been along the same lines. "Mr. O'Dell and George both told me to take good care of it. I owe them that much. I owe all of the souls who'd been a part of this house that much. I don't think I could live with myself if I found out someone destroyed the graves and put in a mall or giant movie theater."
He smirked. "Although we could use a good theater around here, just sayin.'"
She rolled her eyes and leaned back, still clasping her coffee. She loved how warm the mug was. "What're you going to do now, though? Are you really planning on leaving for Florida?"
He paused to think of his answer and nodded. "Yeah. I'm a laughing stock here now, Des. My career is ruined, but maybe back home I can make something of myself. Sure, I'm not as talented as my parents, but they can teach me how to use my gifts, or expand them, I don't know. I just have a feeling that I can do something important, something more worthwhile than hunting ghosts. There are a lot of souls out there that need help. Maybe I'm the guy for the job."
She blinked, feeling tears come to her eyes. "Well, whatever you do, Kojers, I want you to know that I think you're a fantastic person, and I'm proud to have you as a friend."
He smiled and for the first time Destiny saw him blush. "Ditto to you, Des."
She raised her cup. "L'chaim! To life."
Doug waited until the door was closed and he and Dustin had taken several steps away from the flat before talking. "So, what do you think of The Waiting Room? That's personally what I like to call it. It has millions of other names, though. It's a bit of a mind blower until you get used to it."
"What is it exactly?"
"The newly arrived come here. Sometimes it's stand-by, a place where souls wait if the Powers that Be need to double-check the paperwork. You can do some meditating or repenting, whatever you feel like might help before you, you know, 'meet your maker.' Others like to mingle and meet people with different ideas." He raised his hand in greeting as a couple of people in robes speaking a tongue Dustin had never heard before passed by. They smiled and made a similar gesture.
He continued. "Or, like most of the souls here, you can wait, like I'm doing."
"Due to the very nature of this place, it's the best spot to hang around for loved ones. It's a blank canvas, so chances are you'll spot great-aunt Gertie as soon as she hobbles in. Time doesn't work the same way it does on Earth. Days feel like minutes, so you don't feel like you've been standing around for fifty years. Then when you have everyone together, you can all continue on to…wherever you're destined."
They both walked along in silence for a minute. Then Doug cleared his throat. "Speaking of destiny, you probably know why I came by. I'm sorry to pull you from your family, but time might be an issue. With the way things work here, sometimes even if this conversation feels like a few minutes, a week's gone by on Earth. It's confusing, but I promise I'll explain everything. First though, I'd… I'd like to ask about my daughter." He touched Dustin's arm, a simple gesture with so much pleading in it.
"Anything, Mr. Cha—Doug."
"What'd she do that caught your attention?"
Dustin felt nervous and thrilled all at once. Under normal circumstances, he would be the future son-in-law bonding with the bride's father, carefully weighing what to say to gain approval. Lily was right, he was old-fashioned. "The first time I saw her she was sort of dancing and humming to herself." He left out the part about the bras. "I found it very sweet and… and attractive." That was possibly a wrong word to use in front of a father, but he plunged ahead. "To see someone moving like that instead of caring about being in perfect time or doing one of those bloody dull waltzes they had every night in the ballroom made me want to know who she was. It made me remember how much I loved dancing and jazz and… God, everything from when I lived." He let out a short, soft chuckle. "She made me feel alive again."
Doug smiled. "She can be a handful, though."
"Oh, I know!" Dustin laughed. "But that's part of why I love her. He was grinning and his tone quickened with his enthusiasm. 'She has this wonky sort of sense of humor, but it's genuine. Um… How do they phrase it now? I 'get' her, and she 'gets' me. When you get to know her, her strength shines through. Maybe she comes off as stubborn to others, but I've seen her when she's scared. She freezes. Sometimes that stubbornness is the only thing that gets her through an ordeal."
Doug shoved his hands into his pockets and gazed out into the white void distance. "She was alone for a long time."
"That wasn't your fault." Dustin put a hand on his shoulder. "And I know that's exactly what you were thinking because that's the look she gets when she talks about you. And I know the feelings you have because I've had them for ages."
Doug didn't comment. As they walked along, their surroundings began to change into a lavish, healthy garden. Trees sprouted up from the ground, growing to their full heights in seconds. Scattered bushes popped up into existence while cushiony grass filled in any spaces unclaimed by flowers, fruits, or vegetables. Flamingoes were now socializing in a pool as a peacock cut across the path ahead of the two men.
Dustin took a quick look around. "It's…nice. Your doings?"
"Yeah. I wanted to do an Aerosmith concert, but then I remembered you have to be able to hear me." He plucked fruit from a nearby branch. "Pear?"
"No, thank you, I just ate."
Doug polished it on his sleeve and took a bite. The burbling of the adjacent brook sounded suspiciously like the lead in for "Dream On." "But you're learning to let go of that guilt, aren't you?"
"I think I am, actually." Dustin plucked a rose and thought it looked like the one he'd given Destiny. "Des and I had a talk about it once. Some things are beyond our control and we have to learn to accept that. It doesn't mean we can't be sad or even angry, but at some point we have to move on." He let the flower drop into the brook and watched the ripples. "That's the fortune cookie gist of it, anyway."
Doug sat on the grass and motioned for Dustin to join him. "I wish I could have been able to hang around a bit before moving on. What I wouldn't give to tell my wife I'm okay, or to let my little girl know Daddy's still watching out for her." He wiped his wrist over his eyes. "I could see Dessie's anger and Miriam's loneliness. When you watch someone you love with all your heart crying every night and you can't so much as reach out and touch them, it's pure Hell." He had to stop for a moment when his voice started to crack. "Then when she found someone else, I was angry because I felt like I'd been replaced. It took a while, but I had to learn that she wasn't replacing me; she was living. The most selfish thing I could do was want her to be lonely."
Dustin leaned back on his elbows. He gazed up at a blue sky with clouds that suddenly appeared because he'd thought of them. "You're preparing me, aren't you?"
Doug laid back on the grass, his hands behind his head. "For a long time I only kept an eye on Dessie. A lot of souls here choose not to spy on their loved ones back on Earth. I was warned. You can't physically go there or interact, you can only see them. I was told to busy myself here, to visit dead relatives, or wait for people to arrive. But I wanted to make sure my little girl was okay."
"That would be a terrible temptation," Dustin mumbled. He wondered how he'd handle it.
"It is, but eventually I made myself back off. The only times I would peek in was when I knew Dessie was at her dance classes." He smiled at the memories. "Nothing made me happier than seeing her dance, and she looked happiest when she danced. After she couldn't pay for the classes anymore, she quit taking them. Then I think she pushed it aside completely for her studies, which God knows I'm not complaining about. The girl's brilliant and I knew she would be, but I think she misses dancing from time to time. She needs it. Life can't be all work."
Doug suddenly sat up and patted Dustin's leg. "Which is why I did some serious thinking and plotting." With a grunt, he pushed himself up and strode away.
Dustin furrowed his brow, confused by the abrupt change of pace. "Huh?" He got up and tried to keep up with Doug as he charged across the garden. "What do you mean?"
Doug stopped and turned to face him. "I saw you two dancing. I saw how happy she was, how much she loved you." He grabbed Dustin's shoulders and grinned as if he'd been hit with the greatest idea since the Model T.
Dustin reminded himself that he was dead and should be relatively safe, even if his pseudo father-in-law was acting like a grade-A lunatic. "Where are you going with this?"
"When all of you guys who'd been stuck in my grandfather's house started crossing over, me and my parents were the first ones there. I met and talked to my grandparents. Grandma Lily had a lot of nice things to say about you, by the way. I also talked to Leota. Now stay with me on this… I think we've found a loophole."
"A… a what?"
"A loophole. Before telling you, I wanted to meet you first. That's what dads do, right? I couldn't just let any man cheat death to be with my daughter."
Dustin's eyes widened. "Cheat death?" He gave a nervous laugh. "You mean…"
"You're going back, Mr. Desmond."
Jumping and pumping his fists, Dustin let out a mad half cackle-half whoop. "Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" He grabbed Doug and pulled him into a vertebrae cracking hug. "Oh, Dad, I love you! Can I call you Dad?" He was off again and jitterbugging, feet flinging back and forth and index fingers swinging in the air. "I'm going back!"
"Hold on there, happy feet." Doug grabbed his shirt collar and hauled him back. "This is still an 'if.' Let's go find Leota."
"As you can see in this CG rendering here," Marie Covington aimed the remote at the screen and clicked a button, prompting the Power Point slide to change, "the new Liberty Square Bridge is actually going to need two less supports than we anticipated, thanks to the calculations by our own Ms. Chalmers." She smiled in Destiny's direction, prompting several other people on the crew to swivel their chairs to face her. "Three days back and you're already making us look bad, girl!" This elicited some good natured laughter.
Destiny felt her cheeks flush and she wished she could hide under the boardroom table. "I'm sure someone else would have picked up on that…"
"Yeah, well, nobody did, so you've earned the right to gloat about it. But only 'till the end of the week. Any gloating after that and you run the risk of anonymous goons putting sticky notes with vulgar words written on them all over your cubicle. Also, possibly your chair connected to your desk via Saran Wrap." Marie checked her watch. "Oh! I should have let you guys out twenty minutes ago. Go, scat! I need my cigarette break." She waved her hands at everyone as they got their coats and briefcases and shuffled out. "I release you from the dungeon!"
Destiny stalled, fidgeting with the Velcro strap in her laptop bag until her co-workers left. Then she caught up with her supervisor and slipped into an elevator right behind her. She watched the numbers of a few floors pass before working up the nerve to speak. "Um, Ms. Covington, Marie, if I may bug you for a moment?"
They stopped at the ground floor and a dozen people spilled out into the main lobby.
"Not bugging at all, but pick up the pace."
Destiny power-walked at Marie's side as they exited the building and stepped out onto the slush covered sidewalk. "Record colds this month," the brunette's teeth chattered. She pulled her coat a little tighter around herself. She tried to cough quietly after Marie lit up her cigarette.
"Yeah," Marie took a drag. "Used to love it as a kid. Don't know what the hell was wrong with me. Anyway," she tapped off some ashes, "what do you need to talk about?"
Destiny shrugged her laptop bag a little higher up on her shoulder. "I wanted to thank you for all of your encouragement the past couple of days and for not talking about, you know, that whole mess on T. V." She winced at the memory of Craig attempting to propose to her in front of the cameras.
"Look, with Boss Man recuperating, I'm in charge, which means it's my job to make Frees Construction Company look good. If I don't, I look bad. As far as I'm concerned, employees getting hassled for something that wasn't their fault isn't 'good.' Bad press is the last thing we need after that stunt Craig pulled. Not that you're looking any better either, I might add. It's almost fifty-fifty between you being an Ice Queen or him being a stalker. I know the truth, you know the truth."
Oh, you don't know the half of it, Destiny thought, but kept her mouth shut.
"But I'm not going to say anything bad about the C. E. O. while he's laid up in the hospital, and neither should you," she pointed at Destiny with her cigarette. "The best thing we can all do is keep quiet about it until it all dies down. And if someone isn't keeping quiet, you let me know right away and I'll straighten him or her out. It won't do to have one of our brightest uncomfortable at work, not with a half dozen projects due by next February." She coughed and took another drag.
"So… it's all business?" Destiny raised an eyebrow and quirked her lips up in a smirk, looking just like George. "None of this niceness has to do with any feelings of remorse or guilt concerning a certain affair…?"
Marie smiled and held up her index finger and thumb about half an inch apart in front of her face. One eye shut and the other squinted, she said, "Just a little. But don't tell anyone, I have a reputation to uphold. Queen Almighty Mega Bitch is a title I intend to keep. I'm having it engraved on my headstone." She snubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray and tossed it into a trash can. "Anyway, I'm going to pay Craigy-Poo my daily visit. Want to ride with? I'd understand if you don't want to, but from a business standpoint, it might help smooth things out. And if it doesn't, well, there's always a restraining order," she joked.
"A-heh." Destiny had actually been seriously considering that. At the mere mention of seeing him again, her throat tightened and her heart started to pound. What would she even say to the man who had tried to trick her into marriage, and, far worse, had tried to burn down her home? How do you even approach a person with that mindset and try not to rip him apart, let alone be civil?
She took a deep breath and then let it out. "Sure. What's he in the hospital for anyway? No one seems to have the whole story." She followed Marie to the parking garage and joined her in her Prius.
"From what I can tell, early morning after Halloween, he ran into a street and was hit by a car." She shrugged. "No one knows why and he's barely saying a word. Sometimes he says your name and then moans about Chihuahuas."
Destiny grimaced. On the way, she didn't speak, but could hear the sounds of tires screeching over and over in her mind.
"Well, if it isn't my favorite ladies!"
Destiny almost dropped the fruit bouquet they'd picked up. Craig was sitting up in his hospital bed, his right arm in a cast, and the same side leg propped up on pillows. His robe was partially open, revealing bandages covering his ribs. His cheek sported some stitches. There were still a few bandages on his nose.
"Ms. Covington, Ms. Chalmers, good to see you. Are those flowers made of cantaloupe?"
"And honeydew." Destiny couldn't take her eyes off him as she pushed the fruit basket onto his bedside table. She was torn between feelings of guilt and victory. "I didn't think you'd be so… coherent."
"I'm doing a lot better today. Even the Morphine is lower." He reached over and tugged out a strawberry rose stuffed with marshmallow. He couldn't quite open his mouth all the way and he had to chew slowly. "Didn't think I'd see you here, Destiny."
"Thought it would be, you know, the right thing to do."
There was silence for a minute as Craig stared ahead of him, apparently digesting more than fruit.
It came to an end when the generic trilling of a cell phone prompted Marie to go through her purse. "It's that guy from human resources," she said after a glance at the screen. "I need to take this. Try the chocolate covered raisins." Then she went out into the hall, leaving Destiny glancing from Craig to the door for a couple of seconds.
"Come sit over here," he patted a chair by the bed. "You act like I'm going to bite you. I can barely eat the hospital Jell-O."
She glowered at him as she took the seat. "You tried to burn my house down with me in it. Lack of proof is the only reason I haven't called the cops."
His eyebrows shot up. "What?"
"Halloween night," she pointed at him. "You lit it and then took off! I was locked in my bedroom!"
"Why were you locked in your room?"
"It doesn't matter! You almost killed me!"
He shook his head, and then winced at the pain it caused. "I would never, ever hurt you like that, and you know it. I admit a lot of that night is pretty hazy, but that is one thing I did not do!"
"Yeah," she rolled her eyes. "You just happened to be running away right as my roof was going up in flames?"
"I never saw the fire!" His face went blank for a moment. "Unless… Oh, I know what happened." He groaned and laid back against the mattress. "It was those kids."
"What kids?" She crossed her arms over her chest.
"Two boys, a…a zombie and a… I think he was a hobo? It'd gone quiet, and there weren't any more trick-or-treaters. I was waiting for a chance to come talk to you, so I parked nearby and walked up to the house. I waited by the porch so no one would see me and recognize me."
"We all know how much you hate to be noticed."
He ignored her. "The boys had stopped by earlier, but ran off for some reason, like they were scared. Later they came back. I was busy thinking of what to say, because I was angry and confused. Mainly because you'd rejected me again and because someone punched me in the face on live T. V." With a sneer, he pointed to his nose. "Anyway, I saw them messing around by the bushes. Looking back, I think they were lighting cherry bombs or something like that. They had matches and I saw some sparks, so I chased them off." He put his left hand over his face and rubbed his temples. "God, I had no idea that started a fire, Des. You know I wouldn't have left you like that."
"Well, with the way you'd been acting-"
"Look," he sat up, "there are a lot of 'A' words that describe me. Arrogant, yes. Asshole, I'll admit to that. Arsonist? Not even close." He shifted uncomfortably. "Then that see-through guy with the glasses attacked me. I finally get rabid Bill Gates off my case, and I go back to my car to see that those punks egged it. So I went to the ice cream shop to think things over and cool off. Things are foggy after that. I woke up in the hospital the next day."
"Wow." Destiny absorbed his story, ran it through her mind a couple of times, and tried to find holes. She had to admit, it did seem too far out of character for him to do such a thing. He'd never been physically violent with her. Was he a committer of sexual harassment? That was a hardy "Yes." Definitely the type to sneak a hand on the waist or a dirty joke, but going all out psycho was a bit of a stretch. "I'm sorry. I mean that honestly. Though, you did basically stalk me and try to force me to marry you, I have to say."
He smiled as best he could with the stitches. "Not exactly stalking." He sighed and adjusted the bed so the head came up higher. "It's so hard to get any rest. I'm up too long it hurts; I'm down too long it hurts."
"Maybe not the usual textbook example of stalking." She leaned forward and shifted his pillow to better support his head. "Seeing me on the news and then rushing over has to be in the same category."
"Thanks. Yeah, that was stupid of me," he frowned. "I've done a lot of stupid things." He took her hand. "Destiny, I'm sorry I hurt you. "
She smiled and patted his hand. "I forgive you. I'm sorry I broke your nose and shoved a tampon up your nostril."
"It's okay. Maybe I deserved that."
She checked his medicine bottle. "They do have you on a lot of Morphine. No wonder you're being so sweet."
He laughed. "No, I mean it. I've been doing a lot of thinking since I woke up. I had a near death experience during surgery that changed everything."
A grin began to form, but she stopped it and cleared her throat. "Really?" She hid a chuckle behind a cough
He pouted, "Don't laugh at me, I'm serious. I saw me on the table and I was floating up. Then there was this light and I went towards it. A woman appeared, pretty, with dark, long curly hair. Had a slight accent, like she was from Louisiana. Bright green eyes…"
Destiny pressed her lips tightly together and didn't say a word.
"She told me that we weren't meant to be, and that if I kept bothering you she'd have me reincarnated as a Chihuahua in my next life."
"Huh." Let no one doubt the goodness of Leota, she thought with a smile. "I'd have to agree with her. About the not meant to be part, I mean. I rushed in and you… " She exhaled. "God knows why you liked me. I get on my own nerves."
He gave a one shoulder shrug. "I think I sensed you had high standards, and I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be more like you, but in my own mind that translated into me having you. Does that make sense?"
She tilted her head and thought about it. "Kind of."
He held up a magazine that was on the bedside table. "All they have for me to read is old Cosmos. I've been doing a lot of soul searching using them. Also, I'm apparently an 8.5 according to July's 'Stud-O-Meter' quiz. Something to keep in mind." He winked.
She laughed. "You're such a narcissist."
"Very true. So…" He picked lint off of a rib bandage. "It's never going to happen between us, is it?"
"No," she said slowly, careful to be sensitive as she thought out her response. "But that's not a bad thing. Some people just shouldn't be together. Us, we clash too much. Not a good personality match there."
"I guess so."
Marie's heels clicked on the tile as she came back down the hall and entered the room. "No one's tried to kill anyone, have they? The company's medical insurance will only cover so much."
"Nah," Destiny gave her a genuine smile. "We're being civil."
Craig chuckled. "You're harsh, Marie. Maybe I should just retire to the Bahamas and leave you in charge."
She sniffed. "I would hunt you down and gut you like a fish if you did that. Those people drive me insane, and being the boss gives me fewer chances to sneak out for a smoke. You will be coming back, mister," she waved a finger at him.
"Fine, if you say so." Craig grabbed his medicine bottle and a glass of water. "If you ladies don't mind, I think I need to get some rest. This was a big day for me."
"No prob." Destiny lingered to make sure he was able to take his pills and set his water back on the table. "I hope you feel better soon."
"I'm on my way to recovery." He laid back and closed his eyes. When he heard the sound of heels getting fainter, he opened one eye to make sure Destiny was the only one still in the room. "Ms. Chalmers?"
"Yes?" She stopped in the doorway.
"Tell your boyfriend I said he throws a hell of a punch. For a scrawny guy."
She grinned. "He's a pretty amazing man." On the way out of the hospital, she couldn't help but feel a sting of pain thinking about Dustin and how much she missed him.
Before Marie dropped Destiny off at Frees Construction, she made an offer that surprised her. "The other girls and I were thinking of going out this weekend. Maybe check out a couple of bars and some new shops, or catch a flick. Would you like to come along?"
"Oh, um…" Destiny leaned into the rolled down window. "I'd really like to," she said apologetically, "but I'm throwing a going-away party for a friend of mine on Friday, and I invited my Mom and step-Dad to come over on Saturday to spend the rest of the weekend with me. Maybe next time?"
"Sure, kiddo. I'll keep you updated. Take care!"
Destiny waved as Marie drove off. She was dreading saying goodbye to Koji, but at least some other areas of her life were looking up. Overall, she had to admit as she went back to her car, it was a good day.
Madame Leota raised her arms high, her bracelets jangling. Her eyes shut, she intoned, "Before I can step into the last stage of my afterlife, I must complete this unfinished business so my soul may finally find true inner peace."
In a bassinet next to her, Maddy giggled. L. L. put her finger to her lips. "Shh, Mother's working," the elder sister said and rocked the basket.
Leota, her daughters, Kayode, Dustin, his family, and Doug were sitting in a more cheerful version of Leota's parlor. Instead of sitting at a table in front of a crystal ball, they sat in a circle on cushions. A lamp and several candles lit the room. The tapestries that hung on the walls around them were colored in pastels, and instead of being adorned with demons and monsters, they now had happy clowns and cuddly animals on them. The chamber doubled as a nursery, after all. However, everyone agreed the clowns were more frightening than the original basilisks and dragons. The toy box in the corner didn't add to the mysterious ambience, but the girls were quite happy with it. It was a nice recreation, even if it looked a little less threatening.
Sunlight was hurled into the room, making everyone blink and shield their eyes. "Did we miss it?" Lily strode in holding George's hand. "I didn't want Dustin to go without saying good-bye."
"No, but you wrecked my concentration." Leota folded her arms, but her scowl was playful. "Everything has to be as sincere as possible."
Lily sat on her knees on the carpet. After, she made sure to smooth down her skirt to a modest length. "Oh, Dustin darlin', we're going to miss you."
George was more skeptical. "We still don't know if this will work. Just because Leota makes the claim she has to keep a promise, doesn't mean—"
On either side of him, Lily and Bea slapped their hands over his mouth.
Leota narrowed her eyes at Gracey. "Thank you. Indeed, I do have unfinished business. I told Dustin that if I was set free, I'd bring him back to life. Now I am free, and that means I must fulfill my promise. If I don't my soul surely can't rest." She said all of this matter-of-factly with a straight face. She didn't know if it was the second or third time she'd repeated it out loud, but she would say it as many times as she needed to for the "Powers that Be" to grasp the concept. It was a long shot, she knew, but if there was any chance, just a tiny scrap of it, she'd snatch it and see to it that it panned out. She wanted it to work, almost as much as Dustin did.
"Everyone hold hands," she commanded. They obeyed. "Believe…" Once again, she closed her eyes and began to chant in a monotone under her breath.
Dustin looked at the others surrounding him, men and women whom he loved. They were here for him, a mundane cab driver, a brother, a son, a friend. Tears filled his eyes and the appreciation, respect, and love he felt for them was almost overwhelming. He shut his eyes, and it felt like only a few seconds later that a silvery-white light blazed behind his lids. The gasps around him convinced him to peek.
In the middle of the circle, wisps of light formed a brilliant pillar. Some shielded their eyes or squinted. The column beamed out through a hole in the floor, but it was far too bright to see into it.
Leota grabbed Kayode's hand. She was grinning and bouncing in her seat. Her girls giggled with her. "I did it!"
Kayode gave Dustin a nod. "Now's your chance. We don't know how long it'll last. Good luck, and don't take a moment for granted!"
Dustin got up and approached the edge of the portal. "I won't!" He had to take a few deep breaths. This was it, a new beginning, a second chance. "Thank you." He turned to face them one last time. "You've done more for me than I could ever repay you." He gave his parents a final hug. "I feel like such a git for leaving you. We've barely had time to—"
"Oh, pish-posh!" Mr. Desmond squeezed his shoulder. "It's long past time for you to leave the nest. Live the life you were meant to have, son."
His mother stroked his bangs away from his forehead. "We'll always love you. When you come back, we'll have even more to share." She smiled with tears. "Be good, my Dusty," she kissed his cheek.
"I will, Mum." He took a few steps backwards, towards the light. "I'll never forget you. You'll always be in my heart, all of you."
Before he took the plunge, he could hear Bea shout, "I want a niece!"
He fell through fields of white, then black, hurtling down through the universe. A flash of blue, some green, and he knew he was on Earth. As he plummeted, he was hit with the sudden realization that he didn't know where he'd land. Also, there was some nagging memory of Halloween night, about having a body to go back to. How was that going to be poss—
A square of gray drew closer and closer, and it occurred to him exactly where he was going to land.
Like a meteor crashing to earth, he was slammed down into his carcass. His bones rattled with the impact of his soul. The stench of death filled his nostrils, but he couldn't plug his nose. He couldn't even part his lips.
He wanted to scream and tear at the low ceiling, but his body didn't wouldn't so much as twitch. Pain shot through him as nerves began to grow and connect. Around him, he could feel the shell of his decomposed body start to change. Veins, muscles, and tendons grew over his bones. Skin, soft and pink, layered over the inner components like icing on a cake. His lungs tried to expand. He had no air.
When his vocal chords were close to complete, he let out a squeak: "Help me."
Destiny gave Koji a tight hug before he walked out. "Take care of yourself. Call me anytime. Anything at all you need, let me know."
He tipped his fedora to her. "I'll drop you a line, let you know how things are goin'."
"Please do." She followed him out to his car and helped him load in the cake and gifts she'd bought him. The backseat was full of boxes with snacks, drinks, and C. D.s for the road. A moving truck was waiting back at his house. "You sure you got everything packed up? Need any help?"
"Nah, I'm good." He held out his fist for her to bump and she tapped her knuckles to his. "Keep on keeping on."
"Be safe." She waved until his car was almost out of sight. Then, arms wrapped around herself, she walked over to the front yard crypts. Despite the chilly weather, she laid her cheek against Dustin's name and wished it was his shoulder. "I miss you."
The sound jolted her back. "What?" She pressed her ear to the cement.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
"Is something in there?" She knocked.
"Dustin?" She tugged at the stone drawer until she broke nails and skinned her fingers. "Dustin! Is that you?"
He kicked at the foot of the coffin. "No air."
Her heart was pounding, but she knew Dustin must have felt this terror a hundred fold. She had to be calm for him. Looking around for anything helpful, she spied Dick O' Dell's old shed at the edge of the yard. "I'm getting you out."
She took off and hurled open the shed door. There was a crowbar and a hatchet, so she grabbed both and went to work. Hacking away at the cement with the blade, she grunted and begged and yelled. Each second brought him closer to death. "I'm not going to let you die." Whack! "I won't lose you again."
Before Koji had left the dirt road, he heard the scream in his mind. He hit the brakes and his car screeched to a halt. "The hell?" He looked around. "Des?" Then he heard it again, a piercing shriek that reverberated in his brain. "Destiny!" He turned around and headed back for the mansion. I don't know what's going on, he thought, but I'm not leaving without seeing you're safe. He didn't even wonder how he heard her voice; he just knew he had to help.
Dustin's eyes rolled back into his head and he let his hands drop to his chest. It was almost, love. Almost…
Koji's car was barely stopped when he unbuckled his seatbelt and pushed open the door. "What are you doing?"
"It's Dustin," Destiny rasped, still swinging the hatchet. "He's—he's in there. I don't know how. Just help me get this open. He's dying!"
He didn't bother asking questions. He picked up the crowbar and joined Destiny at the crypt.
Then it happened. The door cracked and slid outwards. Both of them grabbed it and pulled until it fell at their feet. Ignoring the reek of mold, they took hold of the coffin and hauled. It slid out and hit the ground. The lid of the case popped open, revealing Dustin in his rotted clothes. He was pale, his lips barely parted, but his body was fully formed.
In an instant, Destiny was on her knees, pushing on his chest and breathing into his mouth. What felt like an hour took less than a minute. He inhaled, mouth wide open, bringing fresh air into his lungs for the first time in almost a hundred years. Opening his eyes blearily, he whispered, "Am I alive?"
"Yes." She sniffled and pulled him up into a tight hug. "I can't believe this is happening."
He waggled his eyebrows and grinned. "Maybe this will convince you…" He wrapped his arms around her and pressed his lips to hers.
After the lengthy kiss, she pulled back to look into his eyes. "I might need some more proof."
"That can be arranged."
Koji shook his head and rolled his eyes. However, he was smiling when he took off his coat and draped it over Dustin's shoulders. "You guys forgot you have an audience."
Destiny laughed as she blushed. "Sorry Koji." She stood and she and Koji each took one of Dustin's arms to pull him up.
"Jealous?" The former ghost smirked at the former ghost hunter. His legs buckled under him, but his friends caught him before he took a tumble.
"Of you swapping spit? Ew, no."
Dustin let out a giggle. "I can feel the cold. Through my shoes, under my toes. It's brilliant!"
When they got to the porch, Destiny reached forward to open the door. "The heater will be more brilliant. My hands are numb."
"And hungry," Dustin continued as the trio walked in. "Do you have apples? I'd like an apple."
"Anything you want, Dustin."
"Hot tea… and cookies!"
"I'll go whip up a batch." She went in the direction of the kitchen.
Dustin sat on the couch, only to bounce up again. "The loo," he squirmed. "I think I need to use the loo."
Koji held up his hands. "You're on your own there, pal."
Dustin hobbled down the hall to the bathroom. After a couple of seconds, he opened the door and popped his head back out. "I love being alive!" That announced, he slipped back in.
Soon they had hot tea and cookies. For a while afterwards, they reminisced by the hearth. Before he left, Koji got more well wishes and thanks from the happy couple. They watched him drive away and then went in for the night.
Now alone in the house, the young couple sat in front of the fire. They both gazed warmly at one another, the lights dancing across their faces.
"Destiny, I love you with all my heart." No other words he'd uttered had ever seemed so pure before.
Destiny smiled back and laid her head on his shoulder. "And I love you with all my heart too, Dustin."
He sighed heavily as he wrapped his arm around her. For the first time in what seemed like centuries he felt what had been absent before - -the warmth. "Very few people get a second chance, and I know this one is going to be heaven on earth."
In the mansion once possessed from floor to ceiling by ghosts and ghouls, new lives began.
The acoustics of the ballroom saw to it that "Jingle Bell Rock" was heard throughout the house, filling recently silent chambers with the holiday melody. Destiny and Dustin spun past the tree, nearly tripping on the outpouring of presents underneath. A package from Koji had come with a letter detailing his training with his parents and a growing ability to hear souls in trouble.
Destiny knew they had to get to bed soon. Her parents would be arriving in the morning, and Dustin would be the one to make a plan a grand feast. Right now, though, they were having too much fun to head out.
"Mistletoe!" Dustin dipped her low under the dangling leaves and kissed her.
"You have an uncanny knack for twirling me right under that."
He laughed and pulled her up into an embrace. Together they half shuffled, half slow danced to the tree. "I have something for you, an early gift," he panted, giddy.
She draped her arms around his neck and ruffled the hair on the back of his head. "You sure it shouldn't wait for tomorrow?"
"I'm sure." He stepped back and searched the tree. Upon finding an ornament that was a small, cloth stocking, he snatched it. "Ah-ha." He placed it in her palm, grinning and glowing as bright as the lighted branches. "It's inside," he pointed.
She put her fingers in, felt about, and pulled out a silver band with a dainty diamond on top. "Dustin…" she breathed, her eyes widening. "Is this…?"
He plucked the ring from her and got down on one knee. "Destiny," he clasped her hand. "My darling, would you do me the honor of becoming my bride?"
There was no panic this time. No doubts. Not even a second guess.
She squealed and flung her arms around him, knocking them both down. "Yes!" Again and again, she smattered kisses over his lips and face while he laughed and tried to give as good as he got.
Their kanoodling by the tree was brought to a halt by the sound of clapping hands and whistles. They froze and then slowly looked up to see a gaggle of ghosts. Their old friends stood around them grinning and applauding. Asher gave Dustin a wink and a thumbs-up. Bea was bouncing with joy and tittering about nieces. George gave them a noble bow and Lily curtsied.
"No way," Destiny laughed. She sprung to her feet to hug all of them. "What a wonderful Christmas gift! Dustin, did you know?"
"No," he grinned. "How is this possible?"
His brother grabbed him for a noogie. "Unfinished business was declared. We all decided that you two needed some guardian angels, so to speak." He glanced at the table. "Is that champagne?" Not waiting for an answer, he wandered away.
Leota, with Maddy snuggled to her chest, took a look at the huge chamber. "It isn't good to have so many empty rooms in a home," said the psychic. "I wouldn't want that. Some positive spirits will balance out the energy and bring good luck."
George gave Lily a kiss under the mistletoe. "And we have to keep an eye on our estate. It's ancestral, you know. Very important to family heritage and all that."
"Oh, yes, yes, quite," his wife concurred with a wink.
Dustin felt Destiny bump her hip against him and he put an arm around her waist. "So you're staying with us?"
George nodded, distracted by the tree lights. He poked an ornament and was startled when it played a tinny version of "Jingle Bells." "Until our unfinished business is done."
Destiny gave Dustin a quick kiss and turned to watch the playful spooks. "I hope that won't be for a long, long time, Grandpa."
Dustin was the first to notice that three spirits in particular were missing. "Where are the hitchhikers?"
Far down south, beyond the realm of snow, Koji yawned and plodded into his bathroom. When he turned on the light, the reflection in the mirror wasn't nearly as disconcerting as the chaos that followed.
"Kojers!" Ezra, Phineas, and Gus shouted, leaping out of the glass and tackling their buddy.
So it was the destiny of the haunted mansion was fulfilled.
It's bittersweet having this finished. As you can see, it took years to write, and I was working on it for a long time before the first chapter was even posted. Of course, it started as a simple fan project, something that wasn't supposed to be more than twenty chapters, tops. Over the course of plotting and editing, it turned into a complex fan project spanning hundreds of pages. I'm going to miss working on it, but at the same time, it's uplifting to finally have it done.
Maybe some people out there are wondering why I kept at it. It's stubbornness, partially. I vowed to get this done, no matter how long it took. Destiny is a pet project that became very close to my heart, as silly as that might sound. A lot of it, though, was because of you, the readers. You guys let me know that I was making something that created smiles and sometimes even tears. That's why I write. It brings me joy to bring others joy. Perhaps that's pretentious, especially coming from someone writing fan-fiction, but it's the truth.
Because of your comments and critiques, I knew that Destiny, Dustin, Koji, and all of the others, would see their adventure through to the end. To all of you who read and leave reviews, thank you so much. You let me know what I'm doing right, wrong, or just so-so. That's a huge help that can't be emphasized enough.
I hope you enjoyed the ride. If you did, be sure to hurry back… Hurry back…