This is an offering made in the spirit of the Halloween season (and on the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's death). This is a standalone story, written in the same style/format as my earlier story, "Five Nightmares."
Five Ghost Stories
Thunder growls in the distance. Through the drawn curtains, through her closed eyelids, bright white lightning flashes. A steady downpour pulses against the window like the drumming fingers of a giant's monstrous hand.
It was a dark and stormy night, she tells herself wryly. She burrows deeper under the duvet.
A sudden draft of air caresses the exposed skin of her ear and neck. It's moist and warm, as if someone curled behind her has exhaled in a long sigh.
She blinks in the darkness.
Herbal soothers, she thinks. Play tricks with the imagination, don't they?
Later, as she drifts in the limbo of almost-sleep, she feels the gust again. Her skin ripples into gooseflesh.
The sky seems to moan; the thunder sounds suspiciously like a still-remembered voice: "Martha."
For several moments she curls into herself, foetal and forlorn, her wild heartbeats indistinguishable from the reverberating echoes of thunder.
Well, hiding under the covers like a frightened schoolgirl wasn't getting her anywhere, was it?
"Oh, honestly," she frets out loud. She sits, resting her back against the headboard of the bed.
"You're dead, Bill Hudson," she says. "Dead and gone. And unwanted here, you…"
Herbal soothers, she thinks. Rather limit one's vocabulary, don't they?
"… you dead man."
The floorboards creak, and then creak again.
Not beside her bed. Above.
Then the poignant lament of a violin descends from the sitting room upstairs. The sound is melancholy, but Mrs Hudson smiles.
"I've better men than you in my house these days, Bill," she tells the not-so-empty room. "One's a genius whose mind could run circles 'round yours."
She finds it best to omit the fact that said genius proved instrumental in helping Bill along on his journey from man to spectre.
"The other," she continues, "is a doctor and soldier, a war hero, with more courage in his little finger than you ever had in your entire body."
Both appreciate and care for me, she adds to herself, more than you ever did.
She goes silent, waiting for a response. A deep roar of thunder rattles her teeth, but she doesn't flinch. Instead, she crosses her arms and shakes her head.
"You'll have to do better than that, Bill, if you want to scare me."
Minute after minute passes. She receives no reply.
"All right, then," she says with a nod.
She tucks herself back into bed with a minimum of fuss. How odd it is, that she now feels peace, even contentment.
Herbal soothers, she thinks. Marvellous, aren't they?
She falls asleep listening to the violin's melody as it matches the rhythm of the rain.
Late night fades into early morning – just as black, just as fathomless – as he choreographs an intricate dance between individuals and nations and the interests of both. Finally, when calls and texts and emails are concluded, and the necessary reports filed, he dismisses his assistant and pours himself a small brandy.
Mycroft Holmes feels empty, figuratively and literally.
He savours the three swallows of brandy he's allowed himself in a way that he will never savour his accomplishments of the past fifteen hours. This despite the fact he's quite possibly saved the Free World from imminent catastrophe. Yet again.
With methodical precision he exchanges his suit for his silk pyjamas and dressing gown.
His stomach growls.
He washes his face. He brushes his teeth.
When he gazes into the mirror over the sink, he finds not one reflection there, but two.
He sees his own features, pale and drawn with fatigue and stress.
Off to one side, like an echo or an afterimage, he sees another's. Sterner. Older, of course. Much heavier, as well.
Even so, the resemblance is uncanny as that thick-jowled face frowns at him in frank disapproval and distaste.
I did well today, a small, perpetually young part of Mycroft yearns to say.
I'm not you, another of his compartmentalized selves wants to shout.
He pulls himself up straight, dons the best of his aloof and impenetrable masks, and meets the eyes of the second reflection.
Summoning his most disinterested voice, he says, "Go away, Father. It's been a long day, and I haven't the time."
Then Mycroft turns on his heel and goes to his bed.
She's a woman of science, of medicine, well educated and highly skilled. A professional. An expert.
But Molly Hooper also is a study in contradictions. Sometimes she weds her own self-image to the success or failure of a new hairstyle or lipstick. Sometimes she falls for men who are entirely wrong for her: gay or married, criminal or sociopathic (albeit high-functioning).
And sometimes, when she's all alone in the morgue at St Bart's, she talks to the corpses.
The habit didn't begin intentionally, you understand. It simply felt right.
Dr Crawford, the dear man, donated his body to science. When it – when he– wound up on Molly's slab, well, she told him all about that particularly difficult autopsy, the poisoned-first-then-immolated murder victim. She knew he'd appreciate the unique technical challenges it had posed.
Then, when the woman who so resembled Molly's grandmother arrived, it seemed fitting to relate Gran's best stories of her days with the Wrens during World War Two.
Next, that beautiful baby boy appeared – for once fulfilling the old cliché, looking as if he merely had fallen asleep – and Molly found herself first humming, then singing to him her favourite lullaby.
After that, things progressed naturally.
She isn't a religious woman or a superstitious one.
Although her life occasionally feels like an emotional rollercoaster, and she suspects her relationship with her cat borders on unhealthy dependence, she is perfectly sane. And she's never, ever hysterical.
But Molly Hooper also is a study in contradictions.
And sometimes, when she's all alone in the morgue at St Bart's, she fancies that the corpses talk back to her.
She doesn't mind at all, truth be told.
She's met evil. She's known fear. Very recently, in fact.
Both come from the living, not the dead.
He wakes with a gasp and a start, nearly tumbling onto the rug. His body is made of sore lines and stiff angles, payment for collapsing on the sofa earlier that night and nodding off there.
Squinting, he stares at the muted telly around the clutter on the table: the half-full bottle of once-cold and now-tepid beer; the untouched plate of once-reheated and now-lukewarm leftover takeaway. He stares, but he doesn't see.
A single thought possesses him, expanding until it fills him to overflowing.
Perhaps this very thought is what shocked him from his exhausted rest in the first place.
He repeats it to himself: I can't remember the sound of her voice.
Frowning, he squeezes his eyes shut and holds his breath, fighting to prove himself wrong, to conjure the memory.
He recalls how she looked. Of course he does. He has photos, after all, which he revisits on an all-too-regular basis. He even can remember the details of how she appeared when she spoke to him.
Her eyes, warm and brimming over, as she whispered, "Love you so much."
Her lips, curling in mirth as she laughed, "It's a grey hair! Won't you be a sexy thing? My own silver fox."
Her face, flushed with exertion as she cried out his name in pleasure.
But her voice… It's gone. He's lost it.
A wounded, inarticulate sound catches in the back of his throat and struggles there.
After several long minutes, he rubs a hand across his face and tries to gather his crumbled pieces together again.
His abortive attempt at supper mocks him from the table. He's a practical man at heart. He tidies his mess, does what needs doing.
After disposing of the beer and takeaway, he finds himself standing in the kitchen, as bewildered as a lost tourist. He can't bear to go to his bed tonight. It's too empty, too bereft, too cold.
Stripping to his boxers and vest, he returns to the sofa. Lies down. Turns over. At last he pulls the pillow out from under his head and hugs it to his chest.
I wish I believed in ghosts, he tells himself. I wish she'd haunt me. She could rattle chains, chant curses. Wouldn't matter, as long as I could hear her voice again.
He surrenders to slumber at last. The muted telly plays restless patterns of light across his furrowed brow.
But later, at the sensation of slender fingers combing through his silvering hair, Greg Lestrade smiles in his sleep.
It begins with a slamming door.
It always begins with a slamming door.
Then footsteps follow, unsteady and graceless in their thump-thump-thumping.
She presses her back to the wall and sinks to the floor in awkward, hitching stages. Her fingers tremble and tighten around cool glass.
Dead. He's dead.
And yet he's here. Right now.
This time, little brother isn't there to stand in front of her, as tall as he's able, square-shouldered and stubborn in his protectiveness. This time, he can't shelter her from this drunken, lumbering storm.
Tonight, she's all alone.
And whose fault is that, hmm?
A shriek rises in her throat. She swallows it down and sobs around the knot it makes in her chest.
Dad is dead. But Dad is coming.
Nothing for it, then. She raises the bottle to her lips and drinks deeply.
As she welcomes the burn of the cheap alcohol, a moment of clarity passes over her before disappearing altogether.
She thinks, I'm glad Clara and I never had kids. I'll have no one to haunt when I'm dead.
The thump-thump-thumping grows louder. Harriet Watson drinks herself to deafness.
Vital Stats: Originally written in October 2011.