This wasn't so bad, as missions went. Correction; this hadn't been so bad, as far as missions went. The little den of Shadows in the basement of the old abandoned house had been easy enough to root out, but then Demyx went upstairs (without the stairs collapsing under him, surprisingly enough) to find an old woman in the kitchen, fretting and fussing about what a mess the place was and how someone really needed to clean it and how she was too old and arthritic to do it herself anymore. And then he saw and smelled the partly-decayed body on the floor, wearing the remains of an old flower-print dress that looked just like what the old woman had on, and he realized that he could see straight through the old woman. Fortunately, he'd had enough presence of mind left to run back outside before being sick.
And now, for whatever reason, he was sneaking back inside the house and up the stairs to the kitchen, even though he knew there weren't any Heartless left in there and he was being a damned idiot. Unfortunately, since being a damned idiot was one of the few things he did very well, he eventually found himself right back where he started, in the kitchen, watching the old ghost fret and fuss about the cleanliness of the place as though she had no idea she was dead. Well, come to think of it, she probably didn't. He was going to speak up and let her know he was there, he really was, but the words stuck in his throat for so long that she turned around and saw him before he could. "How did you get in here?" she demanded suspiciously, reaching towards the broom and not noticing that her hand went right through it.
"...The front door was wide open," Demyx said, after swallowing a couple times in order to be able to speak at all. And really, it had been, if you extended the definition of "wide open" to include "gone". "I was chasing a dog, and I thought I saw it run in here."
The old lady merely huffed at him, unimpressed by his excuse. "Well, I never leave the door 'wide open' for anyone to walk on in like that, so someone must have opened it, and I never saw any dog run in here," she said, looking at him as though she expected he was here to rob her blind and burn the house down with her in it, the fact that she was already long dead notwithstanding. "And I certainly wasn't expecting any visitors, or else I'd have had the kitchen cleaned - or I would if I could, but I just can't seem to keep up with the mess anymore; I swear the dust has been piling up twice as fast as ever lately - but never mind that. If I'd been expecting you, I would have let you in myself."
"Um..." Oh, Gods, should he tell her yet that she was already long dead? "You know...maybe...I could help you clean up in here." Given how she was fussing and fuming about what a mess the place was, maybe, if her kitchen could finally be cleaned, she'd be content enough to move on.
The woman continued to give him a suspicious look, but finally nodded. "All right. But I'll be keeping an eye on you, mark my words."
"Fair enough." It wasn't like Demyx had any ill intent towards the woman or her property, after all. Instead, he simply grabbed the broom and started sweeping up the dust on the floor, carefully working around the disintegrating body and trying not to be sick again whenever he saw it. Ah, Gods, this was going to be a hell of a story to tell when he got back to the castle...cleaning the kitchen for an old lady ghost. Only during a life like his could this ever be par for the course. Once he'd cleaned up all the surface dirt and dust, he tried to turn the tap on to fill a bucket for the mop, but nothing happened - when he did a more in-depth magical check, it seemed like the water supply to the house had been turned off, presumably for non-payment of bills. How long had the poor woman been dead, without anyone ever checking on her? She must have been lonely as anything in life...or had the water been shut off while she was still alive? Maybe she'd been badly affected by dementia and simply forgot to pay her bills, keep or make doctor's appointments, take her medicine, maybe even feed herself. Someone should have been taking care of her, but maybe she hadn't had anyone. "All right, this isn't working; I'm going to go outside and see if I can get anything from a hose," he said, heading back outside and taking the bucket with him. Really, he was just going to use his powers to fill it, but the house did have the remains of a flower garden next to it, so presumably there had to have been some outdoor water source at some point that would work as a cover; hopefully she wasn't going to think he was so stupid as to break in just to steal an old bucket and nothing else. Still wondering what the whole story was, he filled up the bucket and carried it back inside, to mop the floor as dutifully as if he was being paid for it.
Once the floor was as clean as he could get it, what with the dead body and everything, he turned his attention to the garbage piled on every other surface. The garbage can was crammed full, with trash so old it didn't even stink anymore, and it seemed she'd started leaving garbage everywhere instead of ever taking it out - an argument in favor of dementia. Odds were her garbage service had also been canceled for non-payment, but he still bagged up the contents of the can and dragged them out to the curb, then found some more garbage bags under the sink and started filling them with all the old wrappers and moldy half-eaten food and long-expired coupons and garbage he didn't even want to identify that had been left all over the place. Dear Gods, it stank now, but he bit back his gag reflex and kept working, taking each bag outside as it filled up and starting over with a fresh one. It wasn't like the mess would get clean any other way.
Once the table and counters were clean, he opened up the refrigerator, and the stench in there had him running outside with the current bag so he could throw up into it without her seeing him. Clearly, her power had been turned off too, and everything in there was in an advanced state of decay. Well, except the dead cockroaches, but how bad did the rest of it have to be to kill a cockroach? On the plus side, he hadn't eaten in several hours, so his stomach had to be nearly empty by now... Cinching the bag shut and tying it off, he left it piled with the rest of them and headed back inside to face the remaining horrors, firmly reminding himself that he'd dealt with so many nasty and horrible things in his life that a fridge full of rotting food and dead roaches, no matter how disgusting, didn't even register on the scale. He just had to try to will himself not to smell it. "Man, this stuff is pretty old," he said, trying to be as casual as possible to distract himself from the wall of pure gross he was dealing with. "Haven't been grocery shopping in a while, have you?"
There was a pause before the old woman answered, as if she had to think about how long it had been before answering him. "I suppose it has been a while," she said finally. "I keep meaning to go out and get the shopping done, but I just never have the energy anymore. I always end up putting it off until tomorrow, and then when tomorrow comes, I'm still feeling too old and tired to leave the house and maybe I can do it tomorrow..."
"That explains it," Demyx grunted, right before his stomach decided it wasn't putting up with one more second of this shit and he had to run outside again.
Once the last of his stomach contents made it into the garbage bag, he was able to go back inside and actually finish the job, to the point of washing the table and the counters and the filthy stovetop and even the inside of that disgusting fridge, until he felt like he might actually be able to cook in this kitchen if he had to. "Do you want me to clean out the cupboards too?" he asked when he was done, figuring he might as well make as complete a job of it as he could. "If you haven't been grocery shopping in a while, there's probably a lot of old, expired stuff in there too..."
"Oh, no, no, that will all keep," the old woman said, waving her hand; Demyx was momentarily fascinated by how the sunlight shone through it. "I need something left to eat for dinner tonight. You've been a wonderful help, though, young man. I don't have a whole lot of money to spare, so take a few jars of jelly from the cupboard by the fridge by way of payment. Homemade. Do you know I used to win prizes at the county fair every year for my homemade jelly?"
"Actually, no, I didn't know that," Demyx said as he opened the cupboard in question. The jars were there as advertised, each one labeled with its content and (presumably) the month and year they were made; he took three of the newest jars - apple, peach, and cherry, each from just over a year and a half ago. He was willing to bet good munny that that was the last point in time when the woman was capable of functioning normally. "Haven't made any in a while, I see," he added casually, realizing he now had to break some major news to her. Oh, Gods, what if she didn't believe him?
"No, I haven't," the woman sighed regretfully. "Haven't had the energy to go to the farmer's market in Tiverton in ages...that's where they have all the best fruits, you know. Fresh from the field, not like those cardboard peaches and wooden tomatoes you see in the grocery store that have been shipped in from Bollinia and Colobria and Equanter and God alone knows where."
"I know what you mean," Demyx said, presuming she meant to name actual countries like Bolivia, Columbia, and Ecuador. "Things always taste better closer to where they're grown."
"That's exactly right," the woman said, clearly on a subject she felt strongly enough about to give Demyx an undeserved lecture on. "I don't see why we should have to ship in all these fruits and vegetables we can grow just fine around here, just because they can get away with paying those poor farmers in the Amazon three cents a bushel or whatever for produce that has to cost a fortune to ship and doesn't even taste like anything when it gets here, when they could save enough money buying what we grow around here and not having to ship it three thousand miles and having something actually worth eating when it gets there. That's what they sell at the farmer's market over in Tiverton. Good, local stuff that still tastes like it should. My husband used to take me up there every weekend, did the driving and helped me carry everything, but since he died, I just haven't had the energy to do it myself..."
"But you still cook for yourself, right?" Demyx said, trying to find a potential opening to break the news and stay the hell off the subject of the international produce trade.
"Don't have anyone else to do it for me, do I?" the woman asked tartly, in a particular young-people-are-such-idiots-nowadays that was very specific to people her age. "Of course, half the time, I don't even have the energy to do that, so I just have some bread or some chips or something...and lately, I just haven't had any appetite at all. I've never been one of those people who can eat anything, anytime; when I'm not hungry, I just don't want to eat."
"Well, um...the fact that...you're dead might have something to do with it." And it just might have a lot to do with the fact that she was dead, but now was not the time to speculate on her exact cause of death; the coroner could sort that out if the body wasn't too far gone. Now that he'd gone and said it aloud, Demyx's only job was to convince her that she was dead, period. She'd obviously gone on thinking she was alive for quite some time when she was anything but, so it was apt to take some doing.
As expected, she didn't believe a word he said. "Dead? Nonsense, absolute nonsense," she huffed, glowering at him as though he was a misbehaving child she had a mind to take a ruler to. "You young people think you're the greatest wits in history. I may be old, but I'm as alive as you are, young man."
"...Well, leaving aside the question of exactly how alive I am, which is a bigger question than you might think, you are definitely less alive than that," Demyx sighed, wondering if he should just go back to the castle and get Saix. Saix had years of experience talking ghosts into accepting their deaths and moving on, at least according to him, and Saix wasn't the type to lie about something like that. "I mean...didn't you notice how I was sweeping and mopping the floor around your dead body? And seriously, how else could you go for...maybe weeks on end without ever bothering to eat and still never feeling hungry? How are you strong and limber enough to stand up and walk but not strong enough to pick up a broom? Why didn't you ever notice that the water's been turned off or that all the fridge in your food was - sorry, food in your fridge - was rotting, or how cold it is in here when you've got nothing on but socks and a dress and presumably underwear? I have a long coat and boots on, and I can feel it...I guess your gas has been turned off too, or whatever your heater runs on."
The woman just stared at him for a long second, seemingly startled by all the evidence he was throwing at her, then narrowed her eyes. "You may imagine you're having a grand old joke on a poor old lady, young man, but you've gone far enough," she said, starting towards him with one hand outstretched. "In fact, I have half a mind to -" There was a sensation of sudden cold, and they both froze in place, both staring at the hand that had just gone clear through his shoulder.
Demyx was the first to break the silence. "So, do you believe me yet?" he said dryly, backing away from the woman's hand. "Before you start questioning which end the problem is on, remember, I was solid enough to sweep the floor and take out the garbage. Neither of which you've been able to do in quite some time, it seems."
The old woman frowned, staring at her hand as if it was somehow magical and would do tricks on its own if she watched it long enough. "I don't believe it," she said finally. "How could I...well, die and never notice?"
"Well, content yourself with the thought that if you didn't notice, it must have been quick and painless," Demyx sighed, really wishing he could go get Saix now without looking and feeling like an idiot. "But at any rate, since you are dead, there's no real point to hanging around your kitchen, waiting for it to get all dusty again. Since the first thing I'll probably do when I leave is call the police and report a dead body at the residence, you'll probably want to be out of here before they show up. Besides, you want to see your husband again, don't you?" That last was a bit of a gamble, but she had spoken kindly about him. Presumably they at least hadn't hated each other.
The woman nodded, looking wistful. "Him and Mary...I used to go over and visit her every Tuesday to play dominoes, once she took her vows and forgave me for stealing Paul. She always said she was happier as a nun than she ever could have been as a married woman. Our mother was mad as anything, though; she'd had her heart set on Mary marrying Paul and me marrying that Solus boy Robert. Good thing I didn't - I knew that boy would never amount to anything, and he never did. Died drunk in a back alley and good riddance, especially for that poor girl he did marry." Demyx only nodded politely, entirely familiar with how old women could go on and on about their deceased relatives without ever caring how little their audience needed or wanted to know. Maybe listing off all the dead relatives she missed would help her move on herself so she could see them all, but he wished she would get on with it. "And dear little Johnny - he was only five years old when he came down with whooping cough. None of us thought much of it - every child had it in those days, and mostly lived through it just fine - except he suddenly took a turn for the worse. I'm sure he would have looked just like you, if he'd lived that long..." Now, Demyx had seen the lovingly framed picture of the little boy on top of the fridge, and seriously doubted that a black-haired, dark-eyed boy would have grown up to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed man, but he was polite enough not to interrupt her. There wouldn't have been any point to it. "I named him after my brother Johnny - he was the baby of the family, and the apple of our father's eye. It broke his heart when Johnny went off to war and was killed on some island out in the Pacific whose name I could never pronounce even when I could remember it..."
"Well, you can see them all again in a minute," Demyx said, unable to take it any longer. "All you have to do is just...move on, leave this world behind, and head to the next one."
"But...how do I get there?"
"Just...wish yourself there?" Demyx wasn't sure; he'd come as close to dying as anyone could while still being able to come back and talk about it, but he wasn't sure how useful his experiences would be to someone who was genuinely and undeniably actually dead. Presumably, if she saw any big white lights waiting for her, she'd have mentioned such; he didn't remember any. But the woman only blinked at him, and closed her eyes; a second later, she disappeared. Demyx sighed with relief - she was certainly going to be happier where she was now than she would have been fretting about her dirty kitchen while the house fell apart around her, and more importantly to him, he could finally get out of here without feeling guilty about it.
When the police responded to the anonymous pay phone call about a dead body at the residence, they found no one there except the body in question, which had quite obviously been there for weeks. So they were quite surprised to find the kitchen - no other room in the house, just the kitchen - spotlessly clean, from the counters to the floor and even the inside of the fridge, with no garbage left in sight. Stranger still, nothing in any of the cupboards had been touched, except for the one next to the fridge, where three perfectly clean circles in the dust marked the former locations of three missing jars of jelly.
AN: And one day, I found a site called Seventh Sanctum, which has all kinds of interesting generators, anything from fictional tavern names (which is what I was originally looking for) to story prompts. I love their prompts (at least, some of them). I managed to write two stories in one day. I never write two whole stories in one day; I have a hard enough time writing one story in a week.
Prompt: The story must have a ghost at the beginning. The story must involve a jar of jelly in it.
I wish it had the "slip of the tongue" condition too. I typed "fridge in your food" by accident, then since it was in dialogue anyway, I just left it and made Demyx correct himself. But Demyx is always polite to old ladies, and ghosts.