DON'T I KNOW YOU FROM SOMEWHERE?
All her life she had been surrounded by family and friends who were determined to turn the holiday into some kind of glitter-covered, sugary-sweet, never-to-be-forgotten annual milestone. The truth, she'd found, was much more mundane. Fights, insincerity, being nice to strangers, overspending, overeating, and indigestion - it was all highly over-rated.
And of course, it was lonely. Jay was in her early thirties, unattached, and an only child. Her parents expected her presence every Christmas to brighten their lives and it was usually an exercise in being made to feel nine years old again. Her friends were in long-term relationships, with families and traditions of their own. It was go home to the parents, or sit in her tiny apartment sharing eggnog with the cat.
She'd found a passable solution, though, in recent years. The large daily newspaper for which she worked always had trouble filling the reporting roster over the holiday season, and Jay had learned that volunteering for Christmas duty carried a lot of brownie points. Not to mention the overtime.
So, here she was again. Christmas morning in the workhouse. The newsroom was almost deserted, save for one other reporter a young cadet who had yet to write anything but obituaries and two copy editors. The more senior of the two was the paper's regular chief copy editor, a wizened little man with nicotine-stained fingers and a bark that was every bit as nasty as his bite. Jay got on with him though, because she was reliable, accurate, and not above doing low-down and dirty feats of yellow journalism in order to get a story.
It was midday and Jay had been on duty for about an hour. The deadline for the afternoon edition was rapidly approaching and she was pounding out a routine yarn about the local school board that barely engaged more than a tenth of her brain. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth as she rattled out sentence after sentence. With one hand she intermittently pushed her tortoiseshell glasses back up her nose.
She reached the end of a par and stopped to read over what she had so far. As she perused the lines she reached for the APPLE by her computer and crunched down on it, slurping the sweet juice off her chin.
"Not bad, not bad," she murmured, the green glow from the screen reflecting off her glasses. "Just need to add a little here." She typed in a few more words in one paragraph. "And a little more here."
She knew what that voice wanted. Quickly Jay shoved the apple in her mouth, holding it in her teeth as she finished the last par, typed in the relevant coding in the story's header and filed it into the appropriate basket.
"School board yarn's there, boss," she called out over her shoulder, hoping that would keep the old man off her back until after deadline. Jay bit off another chunk of apple and chewed slowly, contemplating her next story. She ran her hand through her long disheveled black hair, then pulled it back into a loose ponytail with a rubber band.
"Gotta get it cut," she muttered, as she flicked through her notebook. "S'driving me nuts."
Just then one of the sports reporters came in and Jay glanced up at his greeting, doing a double-take at the sight of his COSTUME.
"What the hell are you doing dressed in a SKELETON suit?" she said, wondering at the sanity of a man with a pot belly wearing lycra on Christmas Day. "You get your holidays mixed up or something?"
Don laughed as he rifled through the pile of papers on his desk.
"Nah," he answered. "Got a PARTY to go to and it's one of those themed things, ya know? This one is an 'S' party you know, you have to go as something starting with the letter 's'? What the hell did I do with that invitation it's got the goddamn address on it." Finally he found the scrap of paper he was looking for. "Ah, got it." He turned back to Jay. "My roommate had this thing left over from Halloween, so I thought, what the hell? Not bad, huh?"
You look like an overstuffed PINATA needing a good beating with stick, you idiot, Jay thought to herself. "Yeah, not bad," she said aloud.
"Hey, if you finish early, why don't you come along?" he asked. "You've already got the costume on." He walked over and leaned down close. "You could come as a spinster." Vastly amused by his own hilarity, Don moved away, laughing raucously.
"Merry Christmas, asshole," Jay muttered, turning back to her computer and dismissing the idiot from her mind.
Several hours later, Jay was beginning to wonder if the shift would ever end. She'd churned out a succession of minor stories and rewrites at the behest of the chief copy editor who was struggling to fill the wide open pages on a quiet Christmas Day.
Jay looked outside, surprised to find it was already dark.
And snowing again, she thought. That's gonna be fun to drive home in. She glanced at her watch. Two hours to go. Looks like I'm gonna get away with a nice quiet Christmas. She started thinking about the turkey TV dinner she was going to heat up, not to mention the half a frozen PUMPKIN pie her mother had given her after Thanksgiving. There are worse ways to spend Christmas night, she decided.
It occurred to her then, not for the first time, that while she made a lot of effort to spend Christmas alone, she was actually craving something intangible.
There's something missing here, she thought glumly as she pitched paperclips into the Daffy Duck coffee mug her sister's KIDS had given her for her last birthday. It's not loneliness, she insisted to herself. I like my own company. I'm just ... missing something, god dammit.
Shit. Jay's shoulders slumped, knowing damn well the chief copy editor wasn't calling her over to wish her the compliments of the season. She dropped her feet off the desk and sauntered over, making sure she grabbed a notebook and pen as she went.
"Yeah, boss?" she muttered, noting the old man's askew tie and slightly harried look. He barely glanced up at her, just shoved a piece of paper under her nose.
"We got a report of a disturbance at some old deserted place out on the north side," he said gruffly. "Go check it out."
Jay looked at the address. It was way out on the outskirts of town, a good half hour's drive away. Damn it.
"You're kidding, right?" she growled.
A baleful grey eye pinned her to the spot.
"Come on, boss," she persevered. "You're sending me out in the snow, on Christmas night, for a disturbance of the peace call? It's probably just a couple of homeless bums trying to find somewhere warm for the night."
"Ramsay, you see this?" He pointed at the blank layout sheet on the desk in front of him. On a normal day the page would have had advertisements covering almost half the space and he would design the rest of the page, inserting stories and pictures. Today the page was disconcertingly clean. "It's Christmas. Nobody's bought any ads," he said. "That means that you and I, and the other sad sacks working today, have to fill this entire clean-skin, and 40 others just like it." He stood up slowly, resting his knuckles on the desktop and leaning menacingly towards her. "So, Miss Ramsay, I don't give a rat's dick if it turns out to be BATS in the attic, I want 20 column inches on it before midnight or I am gonna have your butt in a sling. You got me?"
Jay backed away, hands up in surrender.
"Okay, okay, don't get your shorts in a shindig," she muttered. "Jesus." She turned away and headed back for her desk, pulling her leather jacket off the back of her chair and grabbing her car keys. "Do I get a photographer?" she snapped as she walked past the copy desk again.
"No," said the chief, his head down again as he scribbled away at the layout sheet. "We've only got two on, and they're both out on other jobs." He looked up at her and grinned humorlessly at her. "Paint me a pretty picture, Ramsay."
"Kiss my ass," she muttered, heading for the exit.
"Jay!" he called out.
Now what. She turned to face him, then moved quickly to catch the small round object he threw at her. It was a foil-wrapped CHOCOLATE.
"Merry Christmas," he said. "It's ORANGE-flavored."
She summoned a grimace of a smile.
"Thanks boss," she said. "Merry Christmas to you too." She unwrapped the chocolate and popped it into her mouth as she walked out to her car. The dark sweetness was wonderful against her tongue and made up for the fact that the heat was out in the old wreck. Jay said her usual prayer to whichever gods and goddesses were listening as she turned the engine over, muttering a quiet thankyou as it roared into life.
She picked her way across the snowbound city, letting her mind drift until she turned on to the street where the derelict house was supposed to be. It wasn't hard to find. Way down the end of the street, separated from the other residences by an overgrown vacant lot, the house was a wreck. Broken shutters hung loose off the darkened windows, paint peeled sadly off the outer walls and missing roof tiles gaped like bad teeth.
Jay pulled up outside and just sat for a couple of minutes, taking in the disaster area in front of her.
"I am trapped in a goddamn nightmare," she muttered. "Somebody's waved their furking magic wand and dropped me down in the middle of the Psycho set, I swear."
Reluctantly she got out of the car, wincing as the cold wind sliced through her. One look at the ground on the other side of the house didn't do much to improve her mood.
"A graveyard. An un-fucking-believable, honest to god, dem bones, dem bones graveyard." She shook her head in disbelief. "This has to be some kind of joke. KIDS on some kind of two-month long TRICK or TREAT marathon."
Jay looked up at the house. There were no lights on, and all was silent, except for the creaking of an unhinged shutter, blowing in the winter wind.
"There's nothing in this goddamned story," Jay muttered to nobody in particular. "I'll give him 20 column inches of what a goddamned waste of time the drive over was."
She had the car door open and one long leg inside the driver's compartment when she saw the faint glow of candlelight in an upper storey window. Jay groaned.
"Aw c'mon, that's not fair. You know I can't ignore that, you son of a bitch," she said to the house, recognizing that the spark of journalistic curiosity was already well alight inside her. Damn it.
She pulled her jacket closer around her and pushed open the dilapidated garden gate, wincing as it slammed shut behind her of its own accord.
"This is not a HAUNTED HOUSE, this is not a HAUNTED HOUSE," Jay chanted to herself as she climbed up the stairs to the rotting front door. She raised a fist to knock but came up short when she noticed that the door was ajar. "Oh great, just great." Gingerly she nudged it open, inching her head inside.
"Hello?" she called out. "The, uh, door was open, so I, uh, came on in." Her voice echoed around the dusty lobby. She stepped inside, brushing aside the large COBWEB that threatened to cling to her face and hair. "Hello?"
The lobby was covered in an inch of dust which obscured what she was sure had once been a rich red Persian rug but was now a dirty grey rag. A long staircase climbed up to the second storey, the ornate banisters curling up into the darkness.
Jay's mouth was dry. She took a few hesitant steps towards a doorway on the left. One look inside told her there was nobody there either. The furniture was covered in sheets, cobwebs drooped from every ledge and overhanging surface. The fireplace was cold and dark. If she listened really closely, she could hear the scuttling of some unknown creature away in the far corner of the gloomy room.
"Hoo boy," Jay breathed. "I am not freaked out, I am not freaked out, I am not ..."
"Fuuuuuuuuuck!" Completely freaked out, Jay swirled back around, searching for the source of the voice from nowhere.
"I'm up here," it came again.
Jay looked up to the top of stairway where a woman stood, holding a candelabra, the glow from the candles casting her in a warm wash of gold.
"Jesus, what are you trying to do, SCARE me out of 10 years' growth?" Jay exclaimed, clutching one hand to her heart.
"I've been waiting for you," the woman said gently as she began descending the staircase, her movement smooth and graceful.
"Are you the one who called the newspaper?" Jay asked. She reached back to pull her notepad and pen out of the back pocket of her jeans, flipping the pages until she came to a clean sheet. By the time she looked up the young woman was in front of her, startling the journalist once more. "Damn, you keep sneaking up on me." She tried a polite smile. "I knew you would come." "Well, yeah. That's the newspaper business for you," Jay quipped. "Where there's a story, we tend to show up." She was mortified to hear herself giggling nervously. What the fuck is up with that?
Now that she was close, Jay had a chance to really look at the mysterious woman. Emerald green eyes gazed back at her with a kind of gentle serenity that the tall journalist found oddly soothing. A pretty face was framed by shoulder-length almost white-blonde hair. She was short, but compact and held herself with calm stillness.
She's beautiful, Jay found herself thinking.
Remembering her manners, she stuck out her right hand.
"Jay Ramsay," she introduced herself. "And you are ...?"
The blonde ignored her outstretched hand. Instead she stepped forward and without any preamble, reached up and kissed Jay. The shock of it drove the journalist back against the doorjamb of the front parlor. But the blonde followed, maintaining contact and deepening the kiss, pinning Jay to the wall.
Her lips are cold, Jay thought. But even as she thought it, the kiss ended and the blonde stepped back, the softest of smiles lifting the corners of her mouth.
"Boy, you're not backward in coming forward, are ya," Jay spluttered, trying to ignore the tingling sensation that was rocketing through every blood vessel in her body, it felt like.
"I knew you would come," whispered the blonde.
"Look, not to be rude or anything and god knows, I never miss an opportunity to be kissed like that but who the hell are you?" she blurted.
The blonde said nothing, but took Jay's left hand in hers and pulled her into the parlor. She led the way to the big armchair near the fireplace and indicated Jay should sit. The journalist hunched into her jacket a little closer, feeling the chill of the empty house all the way to her bones.
The blonde knelt in front of her, placing her hands on Jay's denim-clad knees.
"You are cold," she whispered.
Jay nodded mutely, wondering why the hell she wasn't running a mile from this strange, forward woman and this empty, sad house.
The blonde smiled and turned her head to look into the fireplace. She closed her eyes and nodded once. Jay stared, open-mouthed as a fire burst into life in the grate, flames springing from hot coals that hadn't existed a second before.
"Okay, that's it," Jay murmured, her brain stalling in the face of one weird happening after another. "I am now officially, utterly, completely and totally freaked out."
The blonde laughed a low, infectious chuckle that wrinkled her nose and made her green eyes sparkle.
"I have been waiting a long time for you to come back," she said.
Jay tore her eyes from the fire and, despite her better judgment, decided not to go screaming into the night.
"Come back? I've never been here before," she answered. "Please, what is your name?"
The blonde sat back on her heels, gazing up at Jay.
"I have had many names. You won't remember any of them," she said quietly. "It was my turn to do the remembering this time."
Jay's head was beginning to ache, and she rubbed her temples, grimacing against the throbbing. She felt cool but gentle fingers displacing her own and opened her eyes to find a concerned face inches from her own.
"Let me," the blonde whispered.
Jay did. There was something hypnotic about the movement of the fingers on her skin and she found herself swallowing hard.
"Are you going to kiss me again?" she murmured, mesmerized by the green eyes and the magic way the headache was receding.
There was that laugh again.
"You never could resist my kisses, my love," the blonde replied. For a moment Jay thought she wouldn't, but then she ducked her head, brushing her lips against the journalist's again.
"I give up," Jay surrendered. "You know me, I don't know you. You call me 'my love' like we've been together for years. I'm in a haunted house, with a magic fire and a beautiful woman with cold hands and thousand-year-old eyes." Again the blonde smiled, but the healing fingers withdrew before Jay captured the hands in her own. "Who are you? Wh-what are you?" Jay swallowed again. "Are you a GHOST? I mean, I could handle you being a ghost," she fumbled, still not quite believing she was having this conversation. "As long as you're not a VAMPIRE," she continued. "That would really suck."
"I am no vampire. Some would call me a ghost, yes," the blonde answered. "Your soul, and the soul I represent, are mated. They are tied together through time. One without the other is incomplete. They have been apart too long and I am here as reminder of what you are seeking."
A slightly manic giggle escaped Jay.
"This is so nuts," she muttered. "I am never gonna be able to keep this to 20 column inches." She giggled again. "Please tell me I'm not completely insane."
The blonde leaned in close again.
"Not insane, my love," she breathed, her mouth barely touching Jay's. "Just forgetful." They kissed again, this time a slow, deliberate exploration that left Jay feeling languid and droopy-eyed. "Sleep, my blue-eyed warrior," the blonde whispered. "And watch for me. Merry Christmas."
It was the cold that woke Jay unknown minutes later. She shivered into consciousness, yanking her jacket closer around her as she snapped awake. She pushed herself up out of the chair, blinking into the darkness of the frigid room.
"Jesus H Christ, what the hell was I thinking," she muttered, rubbing her eyes. She glanced down at her watch, horrified to discover it was almost 10pm. "I've gotta start getting some sleep at night passing out on the job is not a good thing." She gathered up her notepad and pen and walked back out into the lobby.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
"That's it, I'm outta here," Jay decided. "Story, or no story, this place is giving me the heebie-jeebies." She strode for the front door but was brought up short by the sight of two out-of-place objects in the corner of the lobby. One was a BROOMSTICK and the other was a metal bucket. Jay peered inside, wondering at the block sitting in the bottom of the pail. She reached out to touch it but then thought better of it, slipping on her glove before she picked the block up.
"Huh," she grunted. "DRY ICE. Methinks dry ice and a witches' broomstick spells Halloween party. This story isn't anything but a bunch of kids having some fun." She flipped the ice back into the bucket and pushed herself upright again.
Two minutes later she was back in her car and making her way towards the newspaper office.
"Goddamn waste of time and gas," she muttered as she carefully maneuvered around a snow plough. That was some dream though, wasn't it? A vision of emerald green eyes and a gentle smile floated across her mind. A reminder of what you are seeking.
Jay snorted in self-disgust.
"What the hell was in that chocolate?" she wondered aloud.
"Ramsay!! Where the fuck have you been?" the chief copy editor bawled at her as she walked in the door of the newsroom half an hour later.
"On the wild ghost chase you sent me on, boss," she retorted.
"Forget that crap," he growled. "All hell's broken loose. Big pile-up on the freeway. Take Egan and get the hell out there."
Jay groaned. It just wasn't her night.
It wasn't long before Jay was back out in the cold and the snow. She stamped her feet while she waited for the photographer to get what he could of the accident. There were at least three vehicles involved, she knew, but so far the police hadn't let them close enough to get anything useful in the way of information. Flashing lights from squad cars and two ambulances illuminated the scene as if it was some kind of macabre carnival.
"Merry Christmas," Jay muttered as she watched two paramedics wheeling away a dark, motionless shape on a gurney.
Finally a cop came within hearing range and Jay called him over.
"Where can we get some information, officer?" she asked, wishing the night was over.
"You need to talk to Detective Barton," the cop replied, pointing out an indistinct figure on the other side of the wrecks. "Come on," he said, lifting the yellow tape they'd surrounded the scene with, and ushering her through.
Jay walked over to the detective, who turned out to be very obviously female despite having her back to the journalist. Nice curves, Jay thought.
"Excuse me, Detective Barton?"
"What can I do for you?"
"I'm Jay Ramsay, from the Chronicle, and I just need to ..." The detective turned towards her and Jay felt soft chimes sounding in her heart. Green eyes and a very familiar smile filled her field of view.
"Just need to what?" the blonde asked, finding something very familiar in the blue eyes that blinked at her.
"I just need to remind you of what you are seeking," Jay murmured. "I mean ... hello." She reached out and shook the detective's hand.
It had been a long, long day for Gina Barton, with no prospect of it ending any time soon. But somehow the long fingers wrapped warmly around her own made her forget all that.
"Hello." She smiled.
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