In which Annie's loneliness finally comes to an end and two become three.

Ghost, Watching

Part 4

Morning finally arrived.

The nighttimes were always the worst for Annie. How they dragged! Since her death eighteen months ago, she had not slept. She was afraid to, afraid of what awaited her in her dreams. What do ghosts dream of? Long corridors and men with sticks and rope…?Instead, Annie usually spent her nights wandering restlessly about the house, shuffling from room to room, yet somehow always finding herself back at the foot of the stairs, gazing up. It unsettled her, this morbid compulsion to return to the scene of her death. Was this her fate, now that she was a ghost? To endlessly re-visit her last moments alive? To be tethered to that spot at the foot of the stairs, marked by a cracked tile, the place where her skull had shattered and her last breath escaped her lips? Why? She stared at it and shuddered. Like someone has just walked over my grave, she thought.

A juddering groan and rattle from the plumbing overhead told her George was up.

After leaving Mitchell's room last night, Annie had taken up a vigil beside George's bed, hoping vainly that she might assuage her guilty feelings towards Mitchell by watching over his friend. And George seemed to need her more. Whenever he kicked off his covers during his fitful sleep, she had patiently, tenderly, replaced them, so that he might not get cold. When he muttered incomprehensible things, or called out, Annie had leaned over and gently stoked his forehead, her cold touch soothing his feverish skin. What was it that troubled him so? she had wondered. She had seen the livid scars that striped his shoulder. Did he dream of the werewolf attacking him? Or dream ofhim attacking other people?

Finally, not long before dawn, George had succumbed to a deep and peaceful slumber and Annie had retreated from his room.

The smell of burning toast wafted from the kitchen. Mitchell had woken with the birds. This was in fact his second round of toast, and before that he'd polished off a whole pot of Onken yoghurt and a banana. For a dead man, he certainly put a lot of food away, Annie thought enviously, as she watched him from the other side of the serving hatch.

George emerged at the bottom of the staircase, yawning widely.

"Mornin,'" Mitchell greeted him cheerfully.

George frowned suspiciously at Mitchell as he shuffled into the kitchen. "You seem very chipper this morning."

"Do, I?" Mitchell chuckled, handing him a mug of tea. "A good night's sleep, that oughta do it. You should try it some time." He grinned.

George grumbled something in response which Annie could not make out. "You got an early shift?" he asked Mitchell as he pulled up a chair at the table and helped himself to a slice of toast.

Mitchell nodded. "Start at 7. Overtime. They're a bit short-staffed at the moment – that Norovirus-thing."

George shuddered. "Yeah, A and E have been hit badly with it too. And they were short-staffed already, what with Lauren, you know." He shook his head sadly.

"Well, I'd better be going," said Mitchell quickly, grabbing another piece of toast and shoving it in his mouth.

"Oh. Well, see you later, then. I'm on at 9," George called after him as Mitchell threw on his coat and hurried out the door.

Annie watched as George pottered about the kitchen, tidying away the breakfast things, washing up. Yesterday he had heard her, with his super-sensitive werewolf ears. The first person to have heard her voice in eighteen months.Should she try speaking to him now? Would a disembodied voice totally freak him out?

"George," she whispered tentatively, leaning closer to him as he stood over the washing up bowl.

No response.

"George," she tried again, a little louder.

He froze, inclined his head toward her, frowned.

Annie felt a thrill seize her. Had he heard her? Had he actually heard her? "George!" she cried excitedly, extending a trembling hand to touch his shoulder.

Her hand slid through him.

He gave a shiver. Then, with a shake of his head, he shrugged and resumed the washing up.

She stared at her hand in dismay.

For a moment, then, she had almost felt solid, almost real. She sighed bitterly. So much for werewolf hearing! He couldn't hear her. Perhaps a faint echo, that was all. Not enough to register. Not enough to make her real.

He was preparing his sandwiches now. He had laid out the bread, butter, mayo, mustard and a packet of ham slices on the table and was now delving in the fridge for something else, his back turned.

Her eyes glinted mischievously. She snatched the mustard from the table and sneaked it back onto the shelf in the fridge just as George closed the door.

George returned to the table and set about layering the ham slices onto the bread. Suddenly, he paused, knife poised, a look of confusion on his face.

Annie sniggered behind her hand.

He walked to the fridge again, opened the door - and there it was, on the top shelf. He reached in and retrieved it, a confused frown creasing his brow. He returned to the table, still looking very confused, and then stopped.

"Wh -?" He spun round, glaring fiercely about the kitchen. He halted.

Annie actually did let out a laugh then. She doubled over and clutched her sides as George stepped over to the windowsill and picked up his lettuce. He turned it over in his hands, staring at it perplexedly. With narrowed eyes, he scanned the kitchen thoroughly, but his eyes did not find her.

Her laughter, she suddenly realised, had a hollow ring to it. Abruptly, she stopped and straightened up.

He did not see her. He did not hear her. Would anyone, ever again?

In a breath, she moved to her armchair in the pink room upstairs. Hugging her knees tightly to her chest, rocking herself gently with her silent sobs, she remained there until she heard the front door slam once more.

Alone again.

(((((( )))))))

She had found the red paint in the shed. An artist had owned the house before she and Owen had, and he'd left a horde of old paint tins behind. The tin was heavy, though, and had been very difficult to move at first. Her hands kept sliding through it. Eventually, she discovered that if she concentrated very hard on forming a picture in her head of herself holding the tin, her hands could grasp it firmly. Actually moving it, however, required a new layer of concentration which really tested her. Gradually, inch by inch, she managed to nudge the tin off the shelf and she watched with satisfaction as it rolled towards the shed door. Now she was faced with the task of dragging it up the garden path to the back door. She placed her hand about the handle and focused. It took a very long time – she did not keep track of exactly how long - but somehow it did become steadily easier, so that by the time she reached the back door, she was able to raise the paint tin up balanced only on her little finger. She marvelled at this and congratulated herself. Was she becoming stronger? Or just simply more determined? Perhaps it was the house itself helping her, so that as she got closer to its perimeters, she became more powerful...

Certainly, as she stepped inside the house again, buoyed up by her achievement, she felt more in control, stronger. This was her home. She was taking it back, and the house was on her side.

Annie waited on the stairs, desperate to see the boys' expressions when they saw what she'd done.

The key turned in the lock. The door opened. She could hardly bear the excitement!

"Oh, shit!" murmured Mitchell, staring at the wall opposite the front door

"Shit …" echoed George, his mouth gaping in horror.

Annie let out a triumphant whoop and jumped up with a clap of her hands.

"What was that?" said George.

He'd heard her again! She let out a squeal of delight and scampered up the stairs, laughing. Just for good measure, she slammed her bedroom door with all the force she could muster. Which turned out to be quite a lot. She dropped into her armchair with a satisfied sigh and listened. They were talking at the foot of the stairs. Arguing in hushed tones. Now they were coming up. Slowly. They were coming to find her. Though they wouldn't, of course. She'd have to watch them stumbling around idiotically, staring right through her, probably even walking right through her too. Her amusement had faded already. She gnawed at her fingernails absently.

The door was flung wide. Annie flicked her gaze up to see George standing in the doorway with a cricket bat raised above his head. Mitchell edged behind him carrying …an umbrella? She rolled her eyes and returned to her fingernails.

"Who the hell are you?" demanded George loudly.

She glanced up. He was looking directly at her, the cricket bat twitching in his hands. She looked behind her. No one there. Her jaw dropped as she turned to look at him again. "What?" she responded, stupidly. "Can you see me?"

"Of course! Who are you?" he replied, his voice rising with indignation.

"You can see me?" cried Annie, hardly daring to believe it. She jumped up onto the arm of the chair. "Can you see me do that?" she asked, flapping her arms wildly.

"What are you talking about?" He stared at her, a look of angry confusion on his face.

Were they having a conversation? Annie leapt out of the chair and bounded towards him. "You – you can hear me too?" she gasped, her heart doing a little flip inside her chest. He could see her and hear her voice! She drew her hands to her face. "Oh my God, it's incredible!" she exclaimed, trembling.

She looked at Mitchell. He was staring at her open-mouthed.

"George –" he murmured uneasily.

He could see her too! "Oh, I don't believe this!" she squealed. She wrung her hands excitedly.

"You don't believe this?" George repeated, levelling the cricket bat towards Annie's chest. "Mitchell, call the police."

"George, hang on -" Mitchell urged him.

George ignored him. He glared angrily at Annie. "Did you write that on our wall? That had better come off!"

But Annie was oblivious to George's hostility. The only thing that mattered was that for the first time in eighteen months, someone – two people – had seen and heard her! They were looking right at her! George was talking to her like she was a real, living person. He actually thought she was a real, living person! "Oh this is incredible!" she cried, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

"George, it's okay," repeated Mitchell patiently, placing a hand on his arm.

"It is most certainly not okay!" replied George, his voice rising again. "We paid a deposit!"

"George, shut up!" said Mitchell firmly. "She's a ghost."

Annie glared at Mitchell sniffily. He had to go and spoil it. "Your point being?" she demanded of him irritably.

"My point being," explained Mitchell calmly, "that no one's gonna be calling the police."

George stared at him, then back at Annie. "She's a ghost?" he croaked.

"Yes, George. She's a ghost." A smile curved Mitchell's lips as he regarded her appraisingly. He folded his arms.

"Alright, yes, I'm a ghost! Don't keep going on about it!" retorted Annie, scowling at Mitchell, her hands on her hips.

"We – we have a – ghost - in our house?" George stammered, not removing his horrified gaze from her.

She rounded on him furiously. "Your house? It's my house!"

"Yes," answered Mitchell, ignoring Annie's outburst. He grinned at her. "What's your name?"

Annie's breath caught in her throat. How long had she waited to hear those words? For someone to look into her face and ask her her name? She felt tears brimming at the corners of her eyes. "A -Annie," she answered shakily. She swallowed. A little more confidently, "My name is Annie."

"Well, Annie," said Mitchell, smiling warmly, and opening his arms wide, "I'm Mitchell and this is George."

"I know," admitted Annie, feeling a blush rise in her cheeks. "I've been, um, watching you, and um, listening to you." She ducked her gaze and twisted a finger through her curls.

"Have you now?" said Mitchell, his eyes twinkling playfully. "Well, how about we all go downstairs and have a nice cup of tea together? George here's had a bit of a shock, you see, and I'm gasping."

"Oh, I don't – I don't drink. I mean, I can't drink. Or eat," Annie explained, feeling a little awkward.

"But you'll join us?" He looked at her hopefully.

George inclined his head towards Mitchell quizzically. "Er - Mitchell?"

"This is her house, George," Mitchell answered, turning to face him. "We should get to know each other, don't you think?"

George made a squeaky noise in his throat. He coughed. "Okay," he conceded with a nod, as he lowered the cricket bat. "Okay, Tea. Yes. Tea."

"Right!" said Mitchell, chuckling, and giving him a slap on his shoulder. "Come on, then."

Annie bit her lip to disguise her glee. Two boys, who could see her and hear her, and who wanted to get to know her! She beamed as she looked from one boy's face to the other: Mitchell the vampire, grinning encouragingly at her; George the werewolf, stunned and a little hostile, it was true – BUT - housemates!

(((((((( )))))))))

Much later, after both boys had gone to bed, Annie found herself hovering outside Mitchell's door. If they were to be friends, she needed to apologise to him, privately, for rifling through his photos and personal things. There had been a moment earlier in the evening, when all three of them were sitting around the kitchen table, when she had nearly blurted out her apology in front of George. However, just as she opened her mouth she had caught Mitchell's eye, and some warning in his look restrained her impulse and silenced her. She understood that what had occurred between them in his room, what she had witnessed, was too personal for Mitchell, and not something he wished to share with George.

Tentatively, she knocked on the door. She strained her ears, heard him groan as he dragged himself up from his bed, the click of the lamp. The door opened and Mitchell stood there, in his vest and pyjama bottoms, looking at her through sleep-filled eyes.

"Annie," he said, by way of acknowledgement, and stood aside to let her in.

Timidly, she stepped past him into the room.

He closed the door behind her, then crossed to the bed and climbed back in.

"Why did you bother knocking when you could easily have 'rent-a-ghosted' in?" he muttered, drawing the covers tightly up to his chest.

She decided to ignore that. He knew the answer anyway. "I wanted to talk to you. In private," she explained.

He sighed wearily. "Look, if it's about the photos – "

"I'm sorry, Mitchell!" she burst out, imploring his forgiveness with her remorseful expression. "I didn't mean to – to – " She fumbled for the words. How much should she admit to? Should she admit that she had watched him gathering the photos back into the shoebox? That she had watched him cry over them? She bit her lip and shook her head. "It was mean. It was a horrible thing to do," she continued, lowering her eyes. "I promise I won't – I won't go through your personal things again."

"Fine," Mitchell muttered, rubbing his tired eyes. "Thank you. You're forgiven. Now, it's late, I've got an early shift…"

"Was that really your mother in that picture with the baby?" It had left her mouth before she had the wits to stop herself. She gasped and covered her mouth with her hand, feeling the colour rise in her cheeks.

He stared at her, a deep frown creasing his brow.

"I'm sorry, Mitchell, I didn't mean to pry, it's just – it's just – I just wondered –" she spread her hands helplessly, aware that she was babbling now to cover her embarrassment.

Mitchell sighed heavily and pushed himself up against the pillows. "Yes," he answered simply. "That was my mother." He met her eyes with a steady and intense gaze, as if to measure her reaction.

Annie swallowed. "And the baby?" she persisted, feeling emboldened by his frankness. "Was that you?"

"The baby is dead, Annie," Mitchell answered coolly. "The picture was taken after the baby died."

"Dead?" she repeated, her eyes widening.

"Yes. Babies died a lot in those days. The baby was my brother. He died before I was born."

"And then they took a photo…?" She stared at him incredulously.

"It was all she had to remind her of him."

Annie clutched a hand to her chest. She dropped down onto the foot of the bed, by Mitchell's feet. Somehow, hadn't she known all along? She'd been so drawn to that picture, the picture of the dead child cradled in its grieving mother's arms…. She took a steadying breath.

"What was his name?" she asked quietly.

"Who? Oh, the baby. John. He was called John."

"But that's your name, isn't it?"

"Yeah, well, he died, then I was born, and they used the name again." He shrugged, unconcerned. "It was my grandfather's name."

She turned her face to his then, as the tears slid down her cheeks. A dead baby, a grieving mother, a motherless boy who would live forever, never growing old; and a lonely, dead girl, cut off from all those who loved her when she was alive. What were they going to do?

"Oh, Annie," Mitchell sighed, reaching to rub her back soothingly. "It was a long time ago. They're all dead now. All gone." He patted her shoulder gently and withdrew his hand. "You feel cold," he said, offering her a lopsided smile.

"I'm dead, Mitchell," she snorted.

"You feel very – solid though." He regarded her curiously.

"Do I?"

He nodded appreciatively.

Something else had been bothering her however, and with this observation he had reminded her. "Why do you think you and George couldn't see or hear me when you first moved in?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Maybe because you didn't want to be seen?" he suggested.

"But I did!" she insisted. "I did. I shouted at George this morning!"

"Did you?" He considered this for a moment. "Did you really though?" He levelled his eyes to gaze searchingly into hers. "Maybe you got so used to being ignored, Annie, that part of you wasn't sure you were ready to be seen and heard yet. Maybe you needed to really want it before you could be seen by us."

She reflected on this. Had she really preferred to hide herself from Mitchell and George when they first moved in? She had watched them, listened to their conversations, snooped among their belongings. It had suited her to stay hidden, hadn't it? Had she only become visible to them when she had really wanted their attention? Or maybe she was getting stronger, as she had felt before, when she had dragged the paint tin from the garden shed? Whatever was going on, her circumstances had changed hugely since this morning, and she was grateful for that, even if it meant sharing her house with two boys.

"George hates me, doesn't he?" she said glumly.

"He doesn't hate you," said Mitchell kindly. "Give him time. He just needs to get to know you, that's all. He takes a while to adjust to change."

"He's a werewolf! He has to change into a rampaging beast once a month!" Annie scoffed.

"Yeah, well, I don't think he's quite adjusted to that change yet, and it's been nearly two years," muttered Mitchell darkly.

There was a silence, in which Annie thought about George: mild-mannered, fastidious, slightly OCDish George and the terrible curse that he endured every month. How did someone like George adjust to that type of change? How did he live with it?

"He's a bit strange, our George, but he's got a good heart. You'll see, once you get to know him," said Mitchell.

Annie sighed wistfully. "That's what people used to say about me, too. 'Oh, Annie, she's got a good heart.'" She smiled sadly to herself as she remembered.

"George will see that too, eventually, and you'll be friends. Soon, I'm sure of it," Mitchell reassured her.

The conversation had come to a natural end. She stood up from the bed. "Right. I'll leave you to sleep now," she said. "And thank you Mitchell, for – for – " She shrugged and smiled. "For finding me." She vanished.

As she curled up into her armchair that night, settling down with one of her Anne Rice novels, she felt peaceful and content for the first time in eighteen long months. Mitchell, George and Annie: a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost, living together in her pink house in Bristol. Life after death.