Note: Doot-de-doo, updating early. :D Thanks for the support, guys! This story is only getting darker, and the first arc is almost coming to its end. Of course, other arcs are to follow, other stories to explore. And they'll be about other characters! This chapter ate up my whole night yesterday, and I wanted to get this thing out onto the internet ASAP. Hopefully you'll like it as much as I liked writing it!
"Death is someone you see very clearly with eyes in the center of your heart: eyes that see not by reacting to light, but by reacting to a kind of a chill from within the marrow of your own life."
The Ghost Arc
When I awake, the room's bright, as a blithe Ann pushes her hand-sewn curtains aside to greet the new day. "Wake up, sleepyhead!" she announces, and I realize she must have been awake for a while, since she's already slipped into those overalls she loves so much. "You're going to miss breakfast if you don't get up and shower soon." Her hands pull me from my resting position and shove me to the bathroom. "And give me those clothes of yours, I can wash 'em real quick," she adds.
Tch, Ann. Hostess to the core. "I thought you hated my boxers."
"The thought of you without them is grosser." Ann smirks. "Now, shoo shoo, go clean yourself."
It's a little weird, as I go into the bathroom and peel my clothes from my body then toss them out a crack in the door for Ann. Her snide comments about my "man stench" make me smile a bit, and the pitter-patter of her feet against the wood as she leaves also make me happy.
It feels, I don't know. Kind of fun. Like we're playing house.
The shower water runs all over me, and I blink for a moment as I realize I'm using Ann's bathing products. I was indeed correct: it's strawberry shampoo. The soap is lavender, and I can see a delicate little razor perched on the soap bar that, I can assure you, I know not to use. I'm going to smell like a woman and for some reason that doesn't bother me.
"How do you like your eggs?" I hear her holler from behind the door. "Scrambled?"
"What? Can't hear you, shower is loud."
"Sure, that's fine!"
"Alright, sunny-side-up it is."
I laugh despite myself. Yeah, this is fun. A lot of fun, actually. Not the showering, I mean, but…feeling like you're living with someone. Even when I did live with people before, it didn't feel…
When I finish, I'm using a fluffy pink towel—one that's surprisingly feminine for Ann—to dry my hair. I grab a toothbrush labeled EXTRA with a cute little tag (just like Ann, preparing for anything, heh). A quick rap on the door alerts me that Ann is outside, and she shouts, "I washed your clothes but I can't get the grass stains out, sorry! I'll leave them here, I'll be downstairs when you're ready."
And it's true: they're warm and clean, done by the fastest washer in town.
Ann's scooping up her plate as I enter the kitchen and she flashes me a brilliant smile. "It's just us today," she informs me, grabbing a seat. "Everyone else is sleeping late, even Daddy."
"So why'd you wake me up?"
She shrugs. "Eating alone is boring."
Her honesty makes me laugh. "Uh huh. By the way, nice towel."
"Pink suits you more, I think."
"Nah, keep it." I chuckle and slip into the chair opposite her. I scratch my head. "Ahh, so. Last night."
She raises an eyebrow at me. "Indeed. Last night."
"So." I grin mischievously. "How was your first time sleeping with a man?"
She thwaps me on the head, right on cue. "You jerk, I hate you!" And then she laughs. "But if you're any indicator, highly disappointing."
We laugh like old friends as I eat the sunny-side-up eggs, which are fabulous and nothing short of perfect—nothing short of Ann, really. I wonder if "old friends" is an accurate description. After all, I've only known the girl for a few weeks. Yet, it feels accurate. I let the phrase play in my mind, and then I frown. "Friends"…is it as accurate as I want it to be, though?
"You." She points at me and waggles her finger. "You have a farm to tend to."
"A big farm. With…weeds and stuff. And whiny animals!"
"Any whinier than you?"
"Much whinier. They don't make their own meals." She laughs. "So you should get out soon."
I cringe a bit at the idea of my farm. That hell. That place where I lost the beautiful shred of normalcy that I can indulge in, right now, with Ann. In the world that I know to be real, and right, Ann's comment is perfectly true. But I'm not sure if this safe world is the only one anymore.
"I don't want to go."
"No, really. I don't want to." I shuffle my feet and look away from Ann. "I like being here."
"Huh. My hosting skills are officially awesome. I'm stealing people from their homes now." She grins and I try to smile back. I'm failing; hers slowly fades the longer she stares at me. "Hey, you okay?" Her hands gently cover mine. I shudder.
"I just…" I swallow back my insecurities and look at her. "You have pretty eyes," I blurt out instead.
For a moment her lips twist in a confused frown, and then her eyes sparkle with amusement. "Haha...er, well. Thank you?"
I shake my head and feel my palms sweating. I can't tell if it's fear of what lies at my farm, or if I'm just terrified of losing this moment, this great, beautiful moment in which Ann is laughing as I compliment her eyes. I don't want the daylight to darken.
"I'm a real dick," I say suddenly. This startles Ann into a laugh, and I insist, "Seriously, I'm not joking—it's not that funny! Ann, I really am a dick."
"You really are," she agrees, wiping her eyes from her laughter. "Where did that come from?"
"Nothing." I stare at my eggs smiling up at me with bacon. "I just might not ever admit that again."
"I could see that, Mr. Stubbornface." She ruffles my hair and for some reason I can feel my heart tugging within me. It hurts. God, why does it hurt?
"You're not a dick, Ann," I murmur. "You're, well, pretty much usually right." I gulp back my terror and concentrate instead on what I'm scared I'll never get to say. Never get to fully feel, at least. "Ann, I…" My voice stops and I can't force myself to say the next line. I grab her hands instead.
She stares up at me curiously. "Jack, what are you doing?"
It's not gone, but already I'm missing this moment. I want to stay here with Ann forever. I want this sweet, wonderful girl to protect me always. I'm afraid I'm going to start crying—whether from fear, or from the bliss of the reprieve I've been granted, I'm not sure.
"Ann," I repeat, and I think maybe saying her name is enough. "Ann."
"What's going on? I don't understand—"
The door to the Inn slams open, and we can hear it echo even from the little kitchen where we're seated. Ann sighs before getting up to greet the new guest, giving me a pointed look suggesting we-will-discuss-this-later as she scurries off. I cover my face in my hands and groan. What am I doing? What am I even thinking? If it weren't for all this stupid, baseless fear, I probably wouldn't even feel this way. I wouldn't look at Ann and desperately want…
"What do you mean?!" Ann shrieks and I immediately stand and run to the lobby. To my annoyance, it's Popuri who's shown up, panting like a Labrador Retriever as Ann covers her mouth. "I…I just can't believe that…"
"It's true, though, it's true!" Popuri huffs.
"What's true?" I dare to ask, and they both send me dark looks. Immediately I become defensive. "Wh-what?"
"How can you not know?" Ann mutters, and I have more reason to hate Popuri as Ann's blue eyes darken with disappointment. "I see why you didn't want to go to the farm now."
"You terrible, terrible farmer!" Popuri accuses me. She has the nerve to stick her tongue out at me and put her hands on her hips. "How could you?! You're lucky we don't consider this a crime, but if it were Ricky, I'd have never forgiven him for it."
"What did I do?" I state, and the dread in those syllables finally convinces Ann to grab my arm and drag me out the door, leaving Popuri behind.
"Come see what you've done," Ann whispers.
Death has a scent. Your body reacts to it: leaves you breathless, reminds you that invincibility doesn't exist and with each step you're decaying. In my barn, I see what appears to be a normal collection of animals—my horse, my cows, my sheep—all sleeping late in the day. And then that stench fills my nose, and I am overcome as I realize there's no sleep heavier than that of death.
"They're dead," I breathe.
"They're dead," Ann intones.
I run over to Millie, my first cow, and I wrap my hands around her head, patting her in a way that always caused her to awaken with a smile. "C'mon, girl, look at me," I say, and despite myself I can feel tears pricking at my eyes as I realize she never will. I run to each animal. I beg them to look at me.
Dead. All of them. Death surrounds me.
The final day. That knowledge hits me squarely in the eyes and I blink, suddenly quaking all over. My fairy tale is a lie. The happiness I've been feeling all this time is an illusion I've built for myself to escape my terrifying reality.
Ann watches me with a strange form of pity as I crumple down and ram my fists against the floor. And again. And again. A sob rips from my throat and I scream, "Damn it all! What did I ever do…what did I do to earn such a…"
"This is what you get for not caring for those who matter," Ann admonishes me despite my tears.
"What didn't I care for?!" I shout back, whirling on her. "I fed the stupid beasts! I brushed them, I talked to them, I adored them! Don't you dare tell me what my faults are, you high and mighty piece of shit!" My voice cracks under the pressure of my tears, and I squeeze my eyes shut to contain them as I let out a single, agonized cry. It resounds in this room of corpses, and I can hear the terror seizing me singing with each rebounding echo.
The final day. The final day. That night Claire arrived, I'd slept just fine. That next night, the nightmares arrived. And this night, I'd spent beside Ann, safe and…no, not safe. Just hidden from the fate befalling me.
This leaves tonight. The ghost is coming tonight.
I have no diary to give her.
"Jack, for Goddess's sake, compose yourself." Ann's hands reach for me and I swat them away. "Why are you—I don't understand, why are you acting so strange lately?" Anger laces her words but beneath them I can hear a whisper of my own fear.
"Look around you, Ann. Just look, damn you!"
I shove over the mangers and let the hay spill all over the floor. Ann's eyes widen and I evade her as she lunges forward to hold me, knocking over the rakes, the water troughs, everything, venting this emotion I'm not able to explain.
"You're psychotic," she whispers, white. "This whole Claire thing. Last night. And this. You're…you're insane, Jack."
I swerve to face her, and her doubt stings for the first time. "Oh, I'm sorry," I snarl, coming towards her and gripping her by her shoulders, "am I the only one who is aware this whole town is going batshit insane?! Oh, is this room not full of dead animals? Is Claire not dead after all? Am I actually some lunatic who came crying to your room last night, Ann?! Is that all I am!" My hands fasten on her as I shake her senseless. I want to throw her to the floor, run my hand through her fragile flesh, force her to understand and breathe my own sick reality. She bites her lip, for once not strong and in control, but a scared little girl with tears welling in her eyes.
"I don't understand…"
"I fucking don't either! Thank Goddess we agree on something!" I push her roughly aside and tighten my hands into fists, ready to hit something, anything, watch something bleed. "Damn, damn, damn, damn…" I grab a rake and hurl it at the wall, the metal hitting the wood with a satisfying clink. "Damn it all!"
Ann blinks her eyes dry and I can hear her voice quietly rising above the silence. "Jack. Stop. Just stop." I grab the rake and ram it again, and again, and Goddess it feels nice, feels liberating to be powerful over something. I lift it over my shoulder and two capable arms hold me back. "Stop," Ann repeats, this time firmly. The girl has disappeared and a woman has replaced her, one whose voice can shame me. "This solves nothing."
"Nothing can solve it," I say bitterly.
"That's not true," Ann interrupts me. "You wouldn't be this mad at me if you didn't want me to do something." She takes in a steady breath. "What would you like me to do, Jack? Let me at least know that."
Tremors snake up and down my body and I finally drop the stupid rake and shudder. It clatters to the ground. "Believe me," I beg. Pathetically, I beg. It's nothing more than a child asking his mother to see the same monster he does under the bed. "Oh, God, Ann, it's not hard! Please…for the sake of what sanity I have left."
"What am I believing?" Ann insists.
"Believing in ghosts," I say, and while the words are alien to me, they calm me. "Tell me Claire showed up at my house three days ago. Tell me there's a diary in this God-forsaken house of mine with her name on it. Tell me she's haunting me." Tell me I'm not insane.
Her lips move soundlessly and I can see it in her eyes: Ann doesn't believe. She never will.
"Diary?" she murmurs. And then I begin to wonder, as she covers her mouth and shuts her eyes, if I have misread her gaze. "Jack, why would you mention a diary?"
"Claire asked for her diary back," I reply. "That's the whole reason she came. For some reason, that's why I've been haunted, why my animals are all dead. If I don't give her what she wants, who knows what the hell she'll do to me tonight. It's the final day."
She nods her head like a puppet, and I'm not sure which one of us is holding the strings. "I…maybe I actually can help you. At the very least, I can give you what you need." She composes herself with a shaky breath and stares at me head-on. "That diary. I own it."
"I own it," she repeats, and I feel a chain loosening within me as she continues. "I helped clean up the farmhouse after Claire's passing. I found her diary. I haven't read it," she clarifies, "but when I saw her name, I knew it was tasteless to leave it in the hands of the village. I was going to give it to Cliff, but." Ann shrugs. "He's gone."
"Give it to me," I half-demand, half-implore. I'm aware that I must look ridiculous, almost groveling at Ann's feet at the kindness she's offered. "Please, Ann…"
"It doesn't feel right," she mumbles.
"Goddamn it, Ann, I'm going crazy! Give the damn thing to me!" I fight the urge to slap her. I fight the urge to cry more than I've stupidly cried already.
"Contain yourself!" she snaps, but her voice wavers. "Good God, Jack, you're barely human."
"Give it to me," I beg again. "Please, Ann…"
Her shoulders droop. Sadness swirls in those misty blue eyes as Ann gazes at me, and I wonder if she's thinking of earlier, when we shared eggs and laughed and I told her those same eyes were beautiful. It feels like a year has passed, and yet I know it's only been an hour.
"I will give it to you," she speaks in the faintest of whispers, "if it will bring back my friend."
She slinks out the back, and the door shudders on its hinges as I watch her silhouette pass. The sunlight pouring through the crack in the doorway blinds me, and I wish, wildly, for darkness to fall. I close my eyes and I see Claire's blood-red lips, and for a moment, I don't care what that diary brings. My death, my freedom, nothing matters.
Ann's right. I'm barely human. I look a man, but I feel empty now; if you touched me, I'd surely disappear. I try to remember happiness and it feels like a movie I watched long ago, one whose plot I've forgotten but that I knew I must've loved, once. My humanity is slipping. I've become attached to nothing but my own fear.
Perhaps I'll haunt someone, too, when I pass.
Heh. Perhaps I'm haunting Mineral Town now.