"Grinning wryly, he opens the door to the library across the hall from my bedroom. But I skitter through the door in front of him, re-wrapping my towel around me.
“Oh, after you,” he says.
“Yes.” I love my father’s library. Sway-bellied bookshelves frame the big chesterfield pushed up against the far wall, and the fireplace is reflected in leaded glass windows that extend from the gleaming floorboards all the way up to the pressed-tin ceiling. During the day, the whole room is washed in tides of light and leaf shadow; at night, when dusk becomes a smoky reef across the room, it is as if the walls fold back and separations between objects dissolve: the world is unmasked as the indivisible water it is. If libraries are aquariums for dreams, and for dreamers, reading itself is the removal of the glass."
Yup, I'm editing the whole thing. Again. All over again.
I've got the full manuscript out with (!) a dozen agents now, and one suggested I do a run through for tense, as there's a couple passages that are unclear.
And... you know what... I realized that the whole novel, except for the flash-back chapters, is better as present tense. So.
Fuck. Shit. Here I go. Again. And of course, I find myself editing other things as well.
You've seen the above passage before in its earlier incarnation. The difference between that version and the one above- well, that pretty much explains what I'm up to right now.
So Savages is on hold again, and pretty much everything else, too. But... it's ravishingly gorgeous porch weather. And the pages fold back... and the separations between objects dissolve... and pretty soon I'll be finished again.
.... are you curious about the rest of the chapter, though?
"I go towards the sofa, where a book of Caravaggio’s paintings is cocked across one arm of the sofa. Niall picks it up and flips through its pages. It’s one of Dad’s favorites, littered all through with pen doodles and coffee rings. One of his favorite ways to get ideas is to sit down with a pile of art books and tech magazines.
“You spend a lot of time in this room, Miss Walker?” Niall says.
I flop down onto the sofa.
“Sure.” Braiding my hair out of my face, I wriggle back into one corner of the sofa and fold my legs up beneath me.
“Mind if I smoke?” he says, and I smile.
“Open a window first.”
He does and then begins crumbling tobacco from a pouch into the bowl of a pipe, which has materialized from the pocket of his jacket. He sits beside me, letting his leg fall against mine as he presses tobacco into the bowl with the stained pads of his fingers. When he’s tamped the pipe full, he lights the thatch of tobacco with two matches, drawing once before letting it go out, creating an insulating layer of ash.
“It’s got a ceremony to it, doesn’t it. Pipe smoking.”
“Oh yes,” Niall says. Tamping the ash with his finger, he settles down to smoke, taking slow draws while he moves his match around the bowl, sipping fire into the tobacco.
“An old ceremony. Men have always liked fire. We learned to make fire before we learned to speak. Strange, isn’t it? To think of anatomically modern humans, sitting silently around the first campfires.” He smiles, blue smoke pluming around him. “Sitting there. Just staring at each other.”
Niall shakes out the matches and drops them into a mug on the table. The room is colored green from the streetlights through the magnolias; now and again, a bolt of lightning makes the lamps shudder.
“But maybe what they wanted to say didn’t need words at all. Maybe words have just gotten in the way of everything.”
“That’s one way to think of things, certainly,” he says.
“Hm.” I slide my fingers down between the couch cushions and tug up a flask. “Brandy?”
“Nice stash, but none for me, thank you, Ada.”
The blade-sharp sweetness, lighting first my throat and then my head. I soften, lean back.
“Ah.” Niall snaps his fingers, watching me. “That’s why you were out in the rain- you are Drunk, young lady, drunk, with a capital D.”
“Maybe. And what about you?”
A creeping electricity begins to move over my arms, and I look up to see a boy-sized shadow at the window.
“Ada. Get away from him,” the boy says. The ghost.
I close my eyes, casting my thoughts to him. “You just want me to see you- you get stronger when I see you. That’s why you keep coming through to me, isn’t it?”
Go away. Leave me for now, I don’t want you.”
“Wonderful storm,” Niall says, watching me.
“Yes, it is. A wonderful storm.”
“You’re an unusual girl. But then isn’t everyone, once you get to know them.”
“Some people are boring,” I say.
Niall’s pipe lights in his hand, as strongly as if he’s drawn on it.
“Must be a breeze in the room,” I say. “These old houses.”
“Maybe you aren’t asking the right questions, then,” he says. “Everybody, absolutely everybody, has a story. Some might surprise you.”
“You really believe that?”
He re-crosses his legs. “I surely do.”
Creek cold fingers run through the underside of my hair, gently undoing my braid. My spine tingles as the boy, invisible to Niall, strokes my hair down over the arm of the sofa. When I don’t react, he won't let go of my hair, and I have to stretch back, casually lifting my arms up behind my head, batting at his hands.
“Stop,” I say to him, silently.
“Maybe I don’t make such a good pet after all,” the ghost says, bitterly. I feel his breath at the side of my face and then he comes around the sofa on his knees, looking at me searchingly. He kisses the hollow of my neck and rests his face alongside mine.
I look at Niall. Surely he’s felt the temperature drop in the room. But Niall only draws concentratedly on his pipe, looking at our bookshelves.
“Listen to me,” the boy says, intently. “Niall is not what he seems. You have to get away from him. Listen to me. Now.”
I struggle free of him, brushing my hair indifferently over one shoulder.
“Yet you dislike parties,” I say to Niall, my voice uneven. I’m still shaken by the idea that the ghost might be using me, instead of the other way around.
“I don’t have the right touch. Party talk takes a happy frivolity, which I don’t possess,” Niall says, watching me keenly.
The boy flickers, growing weaker, and then slips away. Whether he’ll admit it or not, I know that I’ve figured out he does become weaker when I ignore him. Which means that he must become stronger every time that I call on him, too.
Will the same hold true for Nell? -if I can find her.
“But Jo is excellent at it. Party talk,” Niall says.
“So you think your wife is frivolous?” I tip back the brandy as lightning ghosts over the room. The lamps flare.
“Mm,” he says.
“Maybe what you want to say doesn’t require questions at all,” I say, laughing.
“I think you’re a little young for me,” he says.
“That’s not what I meant-”
Niall shifts closer, and I feel a strange bloom come inside me that is like the flaring of the lamps- and the boy returns, so faint this time that I can hardly see him at all.
He grabs at my wrists with a rapidly eroding grace. “Ada, get away from him, don’t you see that this is not a game?”
“You think I’m coming on to you, Niall? We’re only talking…” I stand carelessly and go towards the windows to look out at the storm, my pulse racing.
I can see Niall’s reflection studying the small of my back.
“Maybe the thing, the problem here, is the brandy. Too much brandy,” I say, and pretend to drink again.
The bloom fades back. “I remember my first drink,” Niall says. “You feel it running along under your skin, just as if it were loosening flesh from bone, yet it’s wonderful, completely wonderful.”
He taps his pipe gently.
“You know, some people hate it. To feel that straitjacket of inhibitions just sliding away. Losing control, making mistakes.”
The boy brushes my cheek faintly. “I can’t stay any longer. Promise me you’ll be careful. Promise me you’ll leave.”
“You really are a professor, aren’t you, huh?” I say.
“I’m a researcher, truly, but the term doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, shall we say, in nearly the same—”
“What do you research?”
“Just garbage. Philosophy, books to ruin your life, make you question everything that you cherish and believe in.” He smiles wolfishly. “In the end it all comes down to a single idea. A man is just a man and no more. Anyway.”
“Anyway is a strange word, when you think about it. It’s a secret passage of a word. ‘Anyway’- it always takes you from here to there.”
“Ada, my dear, you are fascinating, and I have forgotten myself. It’s late. You should go on to bed. I can show myself out. Your parents probably don’t even realize I’m still here.”
“You haven’t finished your pipe.”
I feel the brandy in me coming on as a delicious, slow swimming-up. Niall still holds his pipe between his fingers and I touch it experimentally, testing its warmth.
“Good night, Ada,” he says, and goes quickly down the stairs.
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
Candlemoth: A Holy City Romance
ratings: 27 (avg rating 4.04)
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Candlemoth Volume 2: How To Spend It
ratings: 10 (avg rating 4.40)
Candlemoth Book 3: A Twist of Fate
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.17)
Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.25)