Lois Cloarec Hart
To all my betas, my heartfelt appreciation. It is a marvellous thing as a writer to have complete trust in those who cheerfully pitch in to make a story the best it can be. I am deeply grateful for those who continue to hone my words, with little more than my gratitude as their reward.
Special thanks to my wonderful wife, Day, who named her birthday present Lil Po, made me laugh, and got this story started.
If you’d like to comment on No One, you can reach me at email@example.com
It was an unprepossessing house, in a commonplace neighbourhood, in a middle-sized town that had nothing to differentiate it from thousands of others across the country. The For Sale sign on the front lawn was a tad shabby, as if it had been put in place with great confidence but time had worn down its optimism.
No one wanted to buy this house. Despite the realtor’s best efforts, few had even bothered to take a tour. Those that did left hurriedly, as if the placid interior exuded an unpleasant, if untraceable odour.
As month after month, then two years, passed without an offer, even the realtor’s inherent exuberance paled. The owner offered to double the commission for the sturdy single family dwelling with detached garage and large yard, but even continued effort elicited nary a nibble. It was only the hefty retainer from the absentee seller that kept the realtor’s sign on the lawn.
Tiffany Brenner did not appreciate lost causes. It was bad for her self-image, not to mention her bottom line. She decided to make one final stab at selling the Richards place, then wash her hands of it. With that in mind, she was coaxing the property holder to try something new.
“And so, Mr. Richards, I believe that if we put some money into upgrading the house, we would have a much better chance of selling.”
Tiffany inspected her nails as she listened to her client’s response. “No, Mr. Richards, I’m not speaking of major structural renovations, simply things like repainting the interior, installing crown mouldings and new hardwoods, finishing the basement, upgrading the kitchen and baths—that sort of thing.”
She rolled her eyes as her client protested. “Mr. Richards, I know you don’t want to put any money into the place, but I also know you’re desperate to be rid of your brother’s house. You must understand that the housing market is in a slump. There are more houses available than there are buyers, and you need to make your property stand out, particularly given its history. Fundamentally, it’s a solid house and should have sold long ago, but buyers aren’t standing in line. Unfortunately, other than the voyeuristic, there aren’t many who have even taken a cyber tour of the place. Quite honestly, other than the upgrades I’ve suggested, I can’t think of a single other thing we could do to market it more readily. In the end, you may have to accept that it would be best to tear down the house and offer the land for sale alone. You’ve already come down on the price to the point where you’re almost giving it away. The house just isn’t selling as is.”
Tiffany Brenner had no illusions as to why the house had not sold, and the silence on the line told her Mr. Owen Richards was well aware of the reason, too. Finally, her client gave his grudging consent.
“No sir, I promise I’ll avoid high priced contractors. In fact, I may have the very person for the job—an independent who works reasonably. Yes, sir, I’ll keep you informed of the progress. If all goes well, by spring we should be able to sell for a figure that will recoup this minor investment.”
Tiffany bade farewell to her disgruntled client and hung up. “Sure, and pigs might fly, too. I’ll be lucky if I can get even a fraction of the price we have on it already.”
The realtor sighed and leaned back in her chair. If all goes well…well, that is the sticking point, isn’t it? Not a damned thing’s gone right with this property since that horrible day two years ago.
With a shudder, she reached for her Blackberry. Tiffany preferred not to linger on the negative.
“So, I meet the realtor at the property like she tells me to, and then she won’t go in the house with me.”
Alana looked at her old friend in puzzlement. “What do you mean she won’t go in with you?”
Delanie shook her head. “I mean she won’t go inside with me. She walks me to the front door, opens the lock box, but won’t cross the threshold. I figure she wants me to go in first to sort of get an impression of the place without her commentary, so I go in. I’m looking at the living room and I turn to say something to her, and she’s not there. I go back out to the hall and there she is, standing outside, looking through the open door like she thinks something is going to fly out and bite her pretty nose.”
“Ah, so her nose was pretty, eh?” Alana chuckled as Delanie rolled her eyes.
“Get a grip, Alana.”
“I’m just saying…at least you’re back to noticing when a woman is pretty. I was beginning to think you’d declared permanent celibacy.”
“I didn’t declare it, it was forced upon me, but we’re getting off the topic. Ms Tiffany Brenner—”
“Yup, and she looks just like a Tiffany. Anyway, Ms Brenner out and out refused to join me, and it sure wasn’t because I hadn’t showered that morning.”
“Huh, that’s strange. So, are you taking the job, Del?”
Delanie shrugged and finished her beer. “Why not? I’m just about finished with the Pearson’s garage reno. From the looks of it, this job will keep me working inside all winter.”
“Well, it sounds like a good opportunity, Del. And speaking of good opportunities…”
“Oh no, I know where you’re headed. No way, Alana. I’m not doing it.”
“But you don’t even know—”
Delanie smiled at her friend affectionately. “Yes, I do. You’re going to try to talk me into taking on one of your delinquents, and I’m not doing it. I like working alone. And even if I didn’t, the last partner I’d want would be one of your juvenile felons.”
Alana sighed heavily. “You know, if I can’t even get my best friend to give one of these kids a break, how am I going to place any of them?”
“With your usual silver tongued charm.”
“Which apparently doesn’t work with you. Del, I wish you’d just listen and not prejudge. I’ve got a kid, Noah Gerson, who I think would be a perfect match with you. He’s very bright, and he’s done well in the job skills classes, but he hasn’t been a good fit with any of the placements I’ve found for him so far. He has so much potential, he just needs special handling.”
“And you think I’m the one to give it to him? Are you crazy? Hell, so-called ‘normal’ teens drive me crazy—between what they call music, metal poking out all over their faces, and pants they wear around their knees. The last thing I want is one of those brats around me all day, and any kid that’s landed in your domain is already bad news!”
Alana blew out an exasperated breath. “These are good kids, Del, for the most part. A lot of them have simply had a series of bad breaks that even adults would find tough to overcome. They just need a chance.”
“Fine, let some big corporation give them a chance where they can get lost in the crowd. I hear McDonalds is always looking to hire. I’m a one woman show and I like it that way.”
Alana frowned at her friend. When they were young, Del had been a sunny optimist, who pitched in to help at every opportunity… Until that she-demon destroyed every vestige of Del’s exuberance and self-confidence. I could just kill that harpy!
Not that there was much chance of that. Daphne had fled town with Del’s furniture, Del’s life savings, and Del’s employer’s daughter. The only thing she had left behind were Del’s truck, tools, and broken heart. Since then Delanie had indeed become a one woman show. She quit her job, started up her own business, and allowed only Alana—who had been her best friend since grade school—behind the emotional barriers she had erected.
“Hey, did I tell you I finally got my iPod shuffle loaded?”
Stopping short of rolling her eyes at the obvious subject change, Alana smiled. Though there was nothing around a house that Delanie couldn’t fix or improve, when it came to computer technology, she was often a lost soul. “Glad to hear it, but you know I would’ve helped you.”
“I know, but I wanted to figure it out myself.” Del grinned triumphantly. “And I did! It only took me four days. I loaded Lil Po up with Cris and Melissa and—”
“Excuse me? You loaded what?”
“Lil Po—you know, my iPod shuffle.”
“Lil Po?” Alana was familiar with her friend’s habit of naming inanimate objects. Del’s favourite hammer was Winn, after the comely carpenter on Trading Spaces, and her old truck was Herman—named for her first boss and mentor. Apparently her new iPod had been christened, too. “Why ‘Lil Po’?”
Del pointed her beer bottle at Alana’s iPod Nano, abandoned on the coffee table when she’d returned from a run earlier that evening. “You’ve got a big ‘pod’, and mine’s much smaller than yours. Ergo—”
“Little iPod…Lil Po.” Alana groaned aloud, but quietly enjoyed the mischievous twinkle in Delanie’s eyes. For too long her friend’s eyes had been sad and lifeless. It was wonderful to see Del smile again.
Delanie sat up and placed her empty bottle on the coffee table. “And on that note, I gotta go. I told Ms Brenner I’d get her the estimate in the morning. Not that it matters in the long run. I get the feeling I’m pretty much her last resort. It wouldn’t much matter what I charge for this job, it’s mine.”
Alana followed Delanie to the front door. “I meant to ask you to take a look at the dishwasher. It’s shutting off halfway through the drying cycle again.”
“Okay. I’ll come over on Saturday.”
“Thanks, Del. What would I do without you?”
“Hey, you’re the one who lets me store all my junk in your garage. What would I do without you?”
Alana leaned against the doorway, watching Del go out to her truck. What would we do without each other, sweet woman? She went back inside after Delanie drove off. But one of these days I am going to convince you to give one of my kids a chance!
Two gallons of paint in each hand, Delanie fumbled for the door. She was about to admit defeat and set the paint down when the door unexpectedly swung open.
Huh, must not have closed it properly when I left last night. Delanie stared at the open doorway in puzzlement, then at the lockbox into which she had just keyed the entry numbers. No, I’m sure I pulled it shut. I remember thinking I’d need to oil the hinges because they were sticking.
Cautious, Del lowered the paint to the pavement. She glanced back at her truck, wondering if she should grab a pry bar, just in case an intruder was still inside. Oh, for crying out loud! No intruder is going to hang around when there’s nothing to steal. Just go in and check it out.
Despite the inner rebuke, Delanie stepped as quietly as she could, given the debris. She skirted around bits of drywall, wood, broken tiles, and scattered wires as she walked the length of the hallway checking bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets. As she hadn’t yet started work on that part of the house, all was tidy in the empty rooms.
Nothing. Told you so! Delanie shook her head at her foolishness and returned to the front door to retrieve the paint. She was looking forward to the day’s work. The past four weeks had been devoted to converting the small kitchen, dining and living room to one large space. Tearing out walls, dry walling, and installing new cupboards and cabinets had been noisy, tedious, tiring work, but well worth it. It had opened up and modernized the space dramatically.
Delanie patted the iPod shuffle clipped to her overalls. “And today it’ll finally be quiet enough to listen to some music.”
Del enjoyed all facets of her work, but painting was her favourite. It was quiet, contemplative, and relaxing. Music made the hours fly by, and the results of her labours were readily apparent at the end of the work day.
“What colour are you going to paint?”
Delanie spun around, her first thought that a child must have entered through the balky front door. There was no one standing behind her. “What the hell?”
“I like red best, but Mommy says I use it too much sometimes.”
Del snatched the ear buds from her ears and stared at them in astonishment. She turned the iPod off, then on again and carefully put the ear buds back in her ears. When only the sounds of The Kingdom of Heaven came through, she blew out a shaky breath.
“Damn! Maybe Lil Po was picking up a nearby kid’s baby monitor or something.” Ignoring the prickle on the back of her neck, Del resumed work. She had barely pulled another piece off the roll of tape when the little girl’s voice sounded in her ear again.
“Blue is pretty, too. I like the blue carpet in my room.”
Del whirled around and pressed her back to the wall, staring around the room. Except for the gallons of paint sitting on a drop cloth in the centre of the large space, the room was empty. A movement caught her eye and Del focused on the paint. One of the cans tipped and was hovering at a 45 degree angle.
“What’s Si-enn-a Dawn?”
Delanie’s mouth was so dry she was sure she would choke. She could not have spoken to save her life.
The paint can was lowered to the floor and the one beside it tipped up. “Oh, I know this one. Snow White—like the princess!”
A childish giggle sounded in Delanie’s ears. She desperately wanted to pull the headphones from her ears, but was frozen in place.
The second can of paint resumed its place, and the third can moved. Delanie barely breathed as she watched the lid ripple but remain in place.
“How do you open this? I want to see what colour Si-enn-a Dawn is.”
Del swallowed hard, licked her lips and responded instinctively, “You shouldn’t play with that. You could make a real mess.”
There was an audible sigh in Del’s ears. “Grown-ups always say that.” The paint can suddenly overturned against the other cans, sending up a loud clatter.
“Hey! Don’t do that!”
At Del’s sharp, indignant words, the music instantly resumed in her ears.
Galvanized, Delanie ripped the ear buds out and ran for the door, not stopping until she reached her truck. Turning, she stared at the house as she tried to catch her breath.
The bungalow, its front door ajar, appeared harmless. Delanie leaned against her truck and waited, never taking her eyes from the building, but nothing moved.
“Okay, what the hell happened?” Delanie thought back to the previous night. She’d had a few beers as usual, but she prided herself on never drinking too much before a work day. “So, I’m not hung over… Was I seeing things then?”
If it had been just the sight of her paint cans moving, Delanie might have been able to persuade herself that she was delusional. But the aural memory of the child’s voice was crystal clear. She knew she had not imagined the little girl’s questions, or her laughter.
Though the day was cold enough that snow was predicted for the afternoon, Delanie was sweating. She swiped a sleeve over her face, her mind racing as she tried to decide what to do. Part of her—a very large part—wanted to drive immediately to Ms. Brennan’s office and resign. But a more stubborn part of her refused to leave a job half done. In her line of work, reputation and word of mouth was integral to securing jobs. It would be bad for business to become known as a quitter.
There was an additional factor—one more powerful than her pride or financial bottom line. Since the debacle in her personal life, Delanie’s self image had become profoundly and solely vested in her work.
I may have slept alone for the last eight hundred and thirteen nights, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone or anything make a laughingstock out of me on the job!
The paint cans were as Delanie had left them—three upright, and one rolled on its side. She forced herself to pick up the overturned can and set it upright. After a quick glance around, she returned to her taping.
The music in her ears flowed smoothly from the Indigo Girls to Josh Groban, and by the time it had segued into Cris Williamson, Delanie began to relax. When it came time to open the first can of paint, she was singing along softly to the Wyrd Sisters.
Her first stroke was halted by a child’s timid question.
“Is that Si-enn-a Dawn?”
Delanie froze instantly. She knew it would be pointless to turn around and look for the source, but slowly she did so anyway.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make a mess. I won’t do it again. I promise.”
The child’s voice sounded as if she were near tears, and Delanie couldn’t help softening. She had never been able to bear a child in distress, and even though she could not see anything, she responded.
“It’s okay. Just be careful, all right? It would make an awful mess if the paint spilled.”
“I’ll be careful. Honest, I will.” The little girl’s voice was remorseful but eager. “So, is that Si-enn-a Dawn?”
“It looks like Mommy’s clothes. She said they were bay—baysh—”
“That’s it! Mommy wore beige, all the time. I asked her why she didn’t wear red or blue or green, but she said Daddy didn’t like her to be noticed. Daddy didn’t like lots of things.”
Feeling foolish for addressing the air, but impelled by the wistful tone of the child’s voice, Delanie asked, “Did you like to wear red and blue and green?”
“Daddy said I had to wear pink because I was his little girl.”
“Do you wear pink?”
Delanie couldn’t help a chuckle at the question. “Um, no, not really.”
There was a long silence as if the child was pondering. “But you’re a girl—aren’t you?”
There was uncertainty in the disembodied voice.
“Yup, I’m a girl.” Delanie patted her coveralls. “But in my line of work, it wouldn’t be very practical to wear pink.”
“I’ve been watching you. You work hard.”
A shiver rippled through Delanie’s body at that, but the child blithely continued.
“Daddy said girls should never play with tools. He was really mad at me when I took his hammer, but I only wanted to fix Mrs. Deaver’s birdhouse. Does your daddy get mad at you for using his tools, too?”
“Um, no. These are my tools, not his.”
“You have your own tools?”
Delanie grinned at the astonishment in the child’s voice. “Yup. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t have my tools.”
“But this is a boy’s job. Daddy says.”
Delanie rolled her eyes. She had encountered more than enough gender stereotyping in her life, but she never expected it from a...ghost? “I think your daddy is wrong. Girls can do anything they want.”
“Nuh uh. Mommy wanted to work, but Daddy said she had to be home to take care of us.” The child’s voice saddened. “I saw Mommy crying sometimes. I think she wanted to work really, really bad.”
The music abruptly resumed and Delanie expelled a huge gust of air. What in God’s name was that? She slid down into a crouch, leaning against the wall as she considered the conversation. If it hadn’t been that the room was totally empty, she would have sworn she was talking to a real little girl.
Oddly, the fear that had accompanied Del’s first encounter with the voice had vanished. There was no malice attached to the voice, only childish curiosity. Then something occurred to her and she forced herself to her feet. Walking down the hallway, she bypassed the master bedroom, and stopped to peer in the second bedroom. There was badly stained, tan coloured carpet in that room. But in the third bedroom, the one closest to the backyard, Delanie saw faded, pale blue carpet.
She said she liked her blue carpet.
Delanie accepted the beer Alana had automatically opened when she arrived. Sinking into the couch that felt more like home than her own sparsely furnished apartment, Del watched as her friend checked the oven.
She hadn’t specifically told Alana she would be visiting that evening, but whatever it was that smelled so delicious, Delanie knew there would be enough for her. There was always enough for two, even though Del often protested that Alana didn’t need to feed her. There were any number of fast food places in town where she could grab a quick bite when she got hungry.
Delanie smiled, remembering Alana’s gentle proselytizing for a healthier lifestyle when she had mentioned the fast food option. Del doubted her lean, fit friend had tasted so much as a French fry in the last decade.
Del’s gaze lingered on Alana, bent over a pan in the oven, until she suddenly realized what she was doing. Jesus! Ogle your best friend, why don’t you? “Um, so you and Keisha still planning that ski trip next month?”
Alana pushed the rack back into the oven and set the timer as she sighed heavily. “Del, do you even listen to me? I told you two weeks ago that we broke up. I’m pretty sure she’s not going to want to be in the same room with me again, let alone on a ski trip together.”
“Oh.” Delanie blinked. “Um… I’m sorry?”
Alana leaned over the counter and raised an eyebrow. “For what? Not listening when I tell you things, or us breaking up?”
“Both?” Delanie relaxed as she saw the familiar smile break over her friend’s face.
“Keisha and I were long over with, Del. I got tired of her monopolizing my time. She was fed up because I refused to live with her; I was exhausted from fending off her insistence that we spend every available moment together.”
“Can’t say I blame her. You’re a pretty easy person to be around.” A thought occurred to Delanie. “Oh hell, did I get in the way? Damn it, I’m sorry, Alana. I come around way too much. I should go and get outta your hair.”
As Delanie rose from the couch, Alana came around the counter and firmly pushed her down.
“Don’t be silly, Del. I like it when you come over. Having you around is like...”
“Putting on an old pair of slippers?”
“Hmm, not a bad analogy.” Alana’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “You are kind of soft and well broken in, definitely very comfortable to come home to.”
“Soft?” Del shot Alana a look of mock outrage. “I’ll have you know there’s not one damned thing soft about me.”
“Yes, there is. Your heart. And thank God for that.”
Alana turned back to the kitchen and Delanie stared after her in astonishment. Her oldest friend has spoken with complete sincerity, but also with something in her voice that Del couldn’t quite pin down.
Alana’s tone was casual as she began to set the table. “You know, Del, those reservations I made for the ski lodge are non-refundable. You should come with me.”
“Me? I haven’t skied since...I don’t even remember the last time I went skiing.”
“I do. You were twenty three, you’d just met Daphne, and you brought her along on our first trip of the season.”
“Oh yeah, now I remember. She hated it.”
“I know. You gave it up for her.” Alana set the plates down without looking Delanie’s way. “You gave up a lot for her.”
Del waited for the old pain to resurface—the pain that had haunted her since her partner of twenty four years left, but for the first time, there was no resonance in the painful memories. Surprised, she did not even notice Alana cross the room and kneel in front of her, until her friend’s hand covered hers.
“Maybe it’s time to reclaim some of the things she took from you, Del.”
Delanie met Alana’s gaze, noting the warmth, concern and affection in her friend’s dark eyes. “You were about the only thing she didn’t take from me.”
“She tried, though.”
“Yeah, she did.” Delanie smiled weakly. “It’s the only time I dug in my heels and denied her something.”
“Which might explain why she loathed me.”
“She couldn’t stand me loving anyone else—”
The timer on the stove sounded. Alana smiled wryly and squeezed Delanie’s hand. “Sounds like supper is ready.”
Distracted by the feel of Alana’s hand and the look in her friend’s eyes, Delanie was almost through supper before she remembered the subject she had intended to raise.
“Hey, you know that house on Gill Street?”
“The one you’re doing all the renovations on? What about it?” Alana leaned forward with a smile. “You’ve changed your mind? You decided you could use some help there after all? Noah is still available. I could have him there tomorrow.”
Delanie shook her head with a grin. “Sheesh, you just don’t give up. No, that’s not it at all. But I had the weirdest thing happen today. Maybe I’m going crazy, but I would swear there’s a ghost in that place and she spoke to me.”
Alana lowered her wine glass and stared at Delanie. “A ghost? Speaking to you? Are you serious?”
“I am. And not once, but twice. Oh, and she moved the paint cans, too.”
“Gill Street… Oh, my God, Del! You’re not working on the Richards place, are you?”
Delanie shrugged. “I dunno. It’s 619 Gill Street, that’s all I know about it.”
Alana paled, and pushed back from the table. Grabbing her laptop from the counter where she’d left it after work, she quickly booted up. “Don’t tell me you don’t know about the Richards place? It was most sensationalistic story ever to hit this town. The national networks even sent reporters to cover it. How could you have missed it?”
Delanie frowned in confusion. “I don’t know. When did it happen?”
Busily tapping at her keyboard, Alana didn’t glance up. “Two years ago in July.” She abruptly stopped and looked up, her expression apologetic. “Oh, right. Sorry.”
Delanie nodded grimly. Her entire summer two years ago was lost in a haze of misery, despair, and alcohol. Daphne had robbed her and run off with her boss’ twenty-three-year-old daughter in mid-June. Everything from then until October, when Alana forced her to reclaim her life, was a blur.
Alana finished her search and turned the laptop so it faced Delanie. The lurid headlines of two year old news reports scrolled down, taking her breath away.
Mother Murdered; Father and Child Missing.
Delanie raised stricken eyes to her friend. “My God, Alana. What the hell happened in that house?”
“Paul Richards happened.” Alana’s voice was grim. “We’ll never know for sure what went on before, but one summer night he snapped. He killed his wife, took his daughter and made a run for it. He managed to evade the police for eight days, but was caught trying to cross the border in Southern Ontario.”
“And his daughter? What happened to her?”
“No one knows. She wasn’t with Richards in the car when they caught him. He’d covered thousands of kilometres by then, so he could’ve dropped her anywhere.”
“God! Someone should’ve beat it out of him.”
“Believe me, Del, there was no shortage of those who would’ve liked to try, but there was no time. When they cornered him, Richards tried to run over a couple of police officers. He was shot and killed.”
Delanie gave a frustrated growl. “Too damned easy a death.”
“I won’t argue with that. Everyone agreed he was a complete control freak. Apparently his wife had taken her daughter and gone to a women’s shelter earlier that day, but they didn’t have space to take her in. So, lacking any other resources, she returned home. It was against the advice of the counsellors, but what else could she do until she and her daughter could get into the shelter? In any case, her body wasn’t found until a counsellor got worried when she missed an appointment and went to the house.”
The computer screen showed a school picture. The solemn little girl in the photo had eyes alight with intelligence and curiosity. Del traced the image with a gentle finger, certain she was seeing the face that matched the voice in her ears that afternoon. “What did they find out about the child?”
“Her name was Jessie Ann. She was only seven. Her teachers said she was a very quiet little girl, never said much, but loved to draw. They said the only thing they’d really noticed was that she always wore pink or white long-sleeved dresses and leggings, no matter how hot it was. They just figured it was a religious thing or something.”
“No wonder she longs for colour.”
Alana looked at Delanie curiously. “Pardon?”
Delanie shook her head. “Never mind. Not important.”
“Did you really hear a voice today, Del?”
“I really did, Alana.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go back there.”
Delanie was surprised at the fear in her friend’s voice. “I have to. I’ve got a job to finish.”
“Why? No one will ever buy that house. They should just tear it down. Whether it’s haunted by a real ghost or not, it’s definitely haunted by the evil that happened there. I hate the thought of you working in there day after day. What if you’re up on a ladder or something, and it just falls over? You could be badly hurt, even...”
Touched by Alana’s concern, Delanie tried to reassure her. “Nothing’s going to happen to me, hon. If it was Jessie Ann I heard today, she’s not evil. She’s just a little kid.”
Alana reached across the computer to take Delanie’s hands, and Del was surprised to feel how cold they were. She tried to warm them within her own large hands, and felt them shake. On impulse, Del raised Alana’s hands to her lips and kissed them.
“It’s going to be all right. You’ll see, Alana.”
But Alana did not look at all convinced.
“I like this colour better.”
Delanie didn’t even flinch when the now familiar voice came through her ear buds. She turned to see the colour samples fanned wide. “Which one, Jessie Ann?”
“Ter-ra Cot-ta.” The young voice sounded out the words and Delanie grinned.
“Figures. It is kinda reddish, isn’t it?”
“Uh huh. I think you should paint the walls Terra Cotta, Del.”
“You do, do you?” Delanie knew that anyone entering the room would think she was stark raving mad, but over the past several days she had grown accustomed to Jessie Ann dropping in on her. She set down her roller and went to look at the colour more closely.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it, Del?”
“Not bad.” For reasons she preferred not to examine, Delanie wanted to make Jessie Ann happy. “How about if we use something like that for an accent? It might be pretty overwhelming if we did the whole room in it, eh?”
Delanie had grown adept at reading the child’s moods, but it didn’t take much to hear the disappointment in her voice. “Tell you what, why don’t you see what colours you might like for the bedrooms and bathrooms, okay? I’m not saying we’ll for sure go with your choices, but you’ve got a good eye.”
The sound of the child’s laughter told Delanie she’d guessed right. Jessie Ann was obsessed with colour, the brighter the better. So far Del had gently rebuffed suggestions of china red, flaming scarlet, turquoise blue, deep vermillion, sunshine yellow, lime green, high gloss chilli, brick, ruby, and raspberry.
There was a knock at the door and a feminine voice called out, “Helloooooo? Are you there, Ms Marcus?”
Delanie recognized the realtor’s voice. “I’m in here. C’mon in.”
“Can you come out for a moment?”
“Nope, I’m right in the middle of something.” Delanie smiled to herself. Aside from having no intention of coddling the realtor’s fears, she was also curious as to how Jessie Ann would react to someone else in her house. She heard the slow, cautious sounds of high heels on the worn hardwoods behind her.
“Oh my, this is wonderful, Ms Marcus!”
Delanie turned to see the realtor looking around in amazement. “Thanks. I’m glad you like—”
Her words were cut off when a barrage of debris that Delanie had swept into a corner rocketed off the floor and flew across the room. Though the projectiles were nowhere close to her, the realtor shrieked and scurried for the front door.
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Delanie shook her head in exasperation and hurried to the door. She was in time to see Ms. Brennan hurling herself into a car and roaring off, her tires spinning on the icy road. “Jessie Ann! You stop that right now!”
Laughter sounded in her headphones. Delanie closed the door and turned back to the empty room. “Jessie Ann, why did you do that?”
“Daddy said we must never let strangers in the house.”
“You let me in the house.”
“You’re not a stranger. You’re Del!”
Delanie sighed. Sometimes reasoning with a seven-year-old involved pretty convoluted logic. “But I was a stranger at first. Maybe you just have to get to know people, and then they won’t be strangers anymore.”
“I don’t like her.”
Del could hear the scowl and tried not to smile. “Why is that, Jessie Ann?”
“She’s not the right one.”
Before Delanie could question the child’s meaning, the music resumed in her ears. Any further conversation would have to wait until Jessie Ann decided to return.
Or would it? Delanie resumed painting as she considered the strange turn her life had taken. An hour later, she finished for the day. As she cleaned up, she decided to try something.
“Jessie Ann? Jessie Ann? Please come talk to me?”
Delanie smiled. “Do you know any nursery rhymes?”
“Of course I do! I’m not a baby!” Clearly indignant, Jessie Ann started rattling off every nursery rhyme she could come up with.
As the child spoke, Del pulled first one ear bud out, then the other. Jessie Ann’s voice was inaudible when the headphones were out; there was no sound in the room. But as soon as she popped them back in, she could hear the child’s voice coming through clearly on both ear buds.
“That was wonderful, Jessie Ann. You’ve got a good memory.”
“That’s what Mommy always said. She was teaching me my three times table when...”
Delanie tensed. It was the closest Jessie Ann had come to referring to the events of two years past. She waited to see if the child would say anything more. She knew Jessie Ann was still present, because the music had not resumed.
Deciding it might be better to change the topic, Del asked gently, “Do you think it would be okay if I bring a friend to see the work I’ve been doing, Jessie Ann?”
“Yes, my best friend. Her name is Alana.”
The voice grew wistful. “I have a best friend too. Her name is Mackenzie. We were in kindergarten and grade one together. We’re going to be in Mrs. Welland’s grade two class next year.”
Delanie analyzed the words. Jessie Ann spoke in the present tense, yet her tone indicated she was aware that her world had changed, that she and Mackenzie would never be in class together again.
Treading as carefully as she could, Del asked again, “So, would it be okay with you if I bring Alana over tomorrow? I’d really like you to meet her, but I don’t want her to be frightened either. I want you to promise not to throw anything at her.”
“Is she going to work here, too?”
“No, sweetie. She has her own job, but tomorrow is Saturday and we both have the day off.
“I don’t like Saturdays. I like going to school better.”
There was an undercurrent of fear in the child’s voice that alarmed Delanie. What happened on weekends when you were home the whole time, Jessie Ann?
“If I’m nice to your best friend, you’ll come tomorrow?”
“That’s right, Jessie Ann. I’ll come tomorrow.”
“Okay. I promise I won’t throw anything.”
Delanie smiled. Now if she could just convince Alana.
“You want me to do what? Are you out of your frickin’ mind? You just told me that your little ghost friend threw a bunch of garbage at the realtor!”
Delanie sighed. This was not going as well as she had hoped. “Jessie Ann promised, Alana. She won’t try anything while you’re with me.”
Alana paced back and forth in the kitchen, glaring at Delanie who sat at the table drinking coffee. She stopped abruptly and put her hands on her hips. “Why is this so important to you, Del?”
Delanie studied the tablecloth for a long minute, and shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe because I need to know if someone else can hear her, too. Maybe I need to know I haven’t gone off the deep end.” She forced a laugh. “Hey, who knows what prolonged celibacy can do to a person? Please, Alana? I swear I won’t let anything happen to you. I’d never let anything happen to you.”
With a heavy sigh, Alana sat down again. “All right. But you’re holding my hand every second we’re in that house.”
Delanie grinned and nodded. “No problem. I swear I won’t let go of you.”
“And you’re taking me out for dinner tonight to make up for scaring the living daylights out of me. And I don’t mean one of your fast food places, either!”
“Also not a problem. I’ll even throw in dancing the night away at Leapin’ Liz’s.”
Delanie saw Alana’s surprise. She had been an enthusiastic dancer in her youth, but Daphne didn’t enjoy dancing, so it was another of her passions Del had let slide. “So, what do you say? Ready to go?”
Alana raised upturned hands. “Talking to a ghost, dining and dancing with my best friend.” She seesawed her hands with a wry smile and then let one fall. “I must be crazy.”
“Yes!” Delanie jumped to her feet. “I knew dancing was the key. You always loved dancing.” She turned to grab her coat and heard Alana mumble something behind her back. “Sorry, I didn’t hear that. What’d you say?”
“Nothing.” Alana rose to go and Delanie trailed her out, her eyes narrowed in thought. She was pretty sure she had heard Alana correctly, but wasn’t ready to make an issue of her friend’s words. Still, if she was right, if Alana had indeed said what she thought she heard, then they needed to have a talk soon.
As the women walked down the path to Delanie’s truck, Del turned the mumbled words over and over in her head.
No, I always loved you.
Delanie punched the entry code into the lock box and pushed open the door, wincing at how hard Alana gripped her free hand. “Hey, remember I’m going to need those fingers on Monday, okay?”
Alana loosened her grip a bit, but stayed so close she trod on Delanie’s heels as they entered the house.
Delanie murmured soothingly and spoke of mundane matters for a few minutes. She pointed out the work she had already done and chatted about what she still needed to do, until she felt Alana’s hand relax in her own.
Only then did Delanie pull out Lil Po, put on the headphones and turn it on. Instantly Jessie Ann’s excited voice was in her ears.
“Is this your best friend, Del? She’s a pretty lady.”
Delanie glanced at Alana with a smile. “She is very pretty, isn’t she, Jessie Ann?”
Alana stared at her, her eyes wide with surprise as she mouthed, “I don’t hear anyone!”
Delanie nodded her understanding, but spoke again. “Would you like to talk to Alana, sweetie?”
Sliding her arm around Alana to pull her close, Delanie took out one of the ear buds and gently tucked it in her friend’s ear. They stood with their heads almost touching as Del made introductions.
“Jessie Ann, this is someone very special to me…like Mackenzie is special to you. Her name is Alana Erickson. Can you say hi?”
Alana clutched Delanie tightly, her voice wavering as she answered. “Um, hi, Jessie Ann. How are you?”
Del chuckled, and Alana raised her eyebrows. Delanie knew exactly what was going through her friend’s mind. What the hell do you say to a ghost?
“I’m good. I’ve been helping Del pick colours. She’s going to paint with Terra Cotta next, eh, Del?”
“That’s right, sweetie. And then we need to pick out colours for the other rooms, don’t we?”
Delanie knew she was getting a look of sheer disbelief from Alana, but she had grown accustomed to chatting with Jessie Ann about mundane matters and didn’t feel the least bit self-conscious.
“I paint with my colour box at school. Do you paint too, Alana?”
“Um, no. Del does all the painting at my house when I need it.”
“She’s a good painter, isn’t she?”
“She’s good at many things, Jessie Ann, not just painting.”
Del felt a ripple of pleasure at the pride and appreciation in Alana’s voice.
“I know.” Jessie Ann’s voice was very matter-of-fact. “She made the kitchen and living room look way better. And she told me she’s going to fix the bathrooms, too. But she’s doesn’t like that part.”
Much to Delanie’s surprise, Alana loosened her clenched hands and slid them around Del’s back.
“Did she tell you why, Jessie Ann?”
“Mmmm, she does that sometimes, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, ma’am. Does her daddy wash her mouth out with soap, too?”
“No, I don’t think he ever did that.”
“Maybe he should. I never say bad words anymore.”
Delanie snorted softly at the discussion of her vocabulary. You try keeping a civil tongue in your head when you’ve just smashed your knuckles to hamburger! It tickled her, though, that Alana and Jessie Ann were conversing comfortably.
“Jessie Ann, do you think Del could use some help around here to do the things she doesn’t like to do?”
Delanie’s mouth dropped open in surprise. But before she could protest the unexpected turn of conversation, Alana, her eyes reflecting amusement, covered Del’s mouth. “Do you, Jessie Ann?”
The child’s voice sounded uncertain. “I don’t know. I like it when it’s just Del and me.”
“So Del is your friend?”
“Well, it’s like your friend—what did you say her name was?”
“Right. Well, when Mackenzie has a problem in school, you want her to get help, don’t you?”
“Uh huh. And when her big brother Connor stole her lunch, we told on him. That was helping her.”
“Exactly. I have a friend who would be really good at helping Del if you’d let him. His name is Noah.”
“Like in the Ark!”
“Just like that, exactly.”
Delanie could have ended the conversation by turning off Lil Po, but she was enjoying the closeness with her sweetly manipulative friend. So instead, Del used her tongue to tickle the soft palm that covered her lips. Exceedingly ticklish, Alana squirmed, but refused to remove her hand. Instead she swatted Delanie lightly with her free hand.
“You spanked Del!” The child was instantly upset. Alana dropped her hand and both women rushed to reassure her.
“No, no, Jessie Ann. Alana didn’t hurt me. Honest. She’s never hurt me; she never would hurt me.” Delanie’s eyes met Alana’s, whose voice softened noticeably.
“It’s true, Jessie Ann. I would never, ever hurt Del. We were just playing.”
“Okay.” Jessie Ann sounded doubtful, so Delanie hugged Alana and planted a kiss on her cheek. Alana returned the hug, and it felt natural to Del to remain in the loose embrace, the headphone wires running between them.
“So what do you say, Jessie Ann? Would it be okay if someone helped Del?”
There was a moment of silence before Jessie Ann answered. “I guess so.”
“Not going to happen!” Delanie didn’t have to whisper loudly, given how close Alana’s ear was, but she knew by the look on her friend’s face that she had been heard—and ignored.
“Thank you, Jessie Ann. That’s awfully nice of you.” Alana smirked at Delanie, who shook her head in exasperation. “We have to leave now, but it was nice talking to you.”
“You can come again, Alana. I like talking to you.”
“Thank you, Jessie Ann. I like talking to you, too.”
Delanie piped up, “I’ll be back on Monday, sweetie.”
The music started again and Delanie reluctantly released Alana. Both women pulled out the ear buds, and Del switched the tiny machine off.
On the way out, Delanie set the lock box before the women walked back to the truck. Unable to repress her curiosity, Del prodded Alana. “So, what do you think?”
Alana sighed and gave Delanie a tiny smile. “I think you have a little ghost friend. I guess that settles the question once and for all of whether Jessie Ann is still alive somewhere, not that we can tell anyone.”
“Yeah, I guess not. They’d think we’d both gone off the deep end.” Delanie bumped Alana with her shoulder. “But at least it’s nice to know I’m not alone in the deep end.”
“No, you’re not alone. I definitely heard her.” Alana opened the passenger door as Del went around to the driver’s side. “You know, I think I also felt her presence.”
“I know what you mean.” Del turned the ignition. “When she’s around, it’s like the air is—”
“Yeah, that’s a good word for it—sparklier. Sort of like being surrounded by Christmas lights on a winter night.”
They were quiet on the drive back to Alana’s house. When Delanie pulled up in front, Alana turned to her. “Aren’t you coming in?”
“No, I’ve got some paperwork to do at home. But what time do you want me to pick you up tonight?”
“Actually, Del, may I have a rain check on the dinner and dancing?”
Delanie’s expression fell and Alana smiled. “No, you’re not getting out of it. I’m definitely calling in my marker soon. I just have some things I have to do, too, okay?”
“Sure. Any time you want is good with me.”
Alana hesitated, and for a split second Delanie was certain her friend was going to lean over and claim a kiss. Instead, Alana smiled and climbed out of the truck. Walking up to house, she turned and waved goodbye. Del waved back and waited until Alana went inside before she pulled away, muttering to herself.
“Hmmph. Wonder what she’s got up her sleeve? How much you want to bet it’ll be something she gets me involved in?”
The idea made her smile.
Alana motioned the young man following her to a halt. “Give me a minute, Noah. I just hope I got these numbers in the right order.” She punched in a sequence of numbers and sighed in relief when the lock box opened. “Wait here a bit, okay? I’ll be right back.”
She slipped into the house, and closed the door behind her. Entering the living area, Alana turned on her iPod Nano. She wasn’t sure if it would work as Del’s had, but she hoped that Jessie Ann could hear her.
“Jessie Ann? Jessie Ann, it’s Alana Erickson. Are you here?” Alana turned down the volume on her iPod. She was partial to boisterous Latin music to accompany her runs, and didn’t want to overpower any ghostly voices. But the music continued unabated. Damn! “Jessie Ann, I brought Noah here. He’s going to work on getting the tiles off for Del, all right?”
Alana thought she felt the air change about her, but there was still no voice. “He’s a really good boy, Jessie Ann, so don’t make things difficult for him, okay? He just wants to work and make Del happy. You want to make Del happy too, right?” Though Del is going to kill me when she finds out what I’ve done.
Crossing her fingers, Alana returned to the front door. Noah stood outside, a hammer, chisel, and pry bar in his hands. He looked at her curiously.
“Everything okay, Ms. Erickson?”
“Everything is fine, Noah. Come on in and I’ll get you started.”
Noah followed Alana to the master bathroom. It was almost entirely covered with old, and, in Alana’s opinion, horrendously ugly tiles. Del had retiled both bathrooms in her house, so Alana had a pretty good idea of what was involved. She gave Noah a quick tutorial and left him to start work while she explored the house more closely.
As she wandered, Alana occasionally spoke softly to Jessie Ann, hoping the child would hear her and be reassured that her and Noah’s presence was a good thing.
The only time Alana was absolutely certain she felt Jessie Ann’s presence was when she opened the door to the basement stairs. She felt a wave of fear wash over her, and when Alana tried to walk down the steps, she was overwhelmed with nausea.
Breathing deeply as she tried to regain control, Alana retreated, closing the basement door behind her. Just at that moment, Noah poked his head out of the bathroom and called to her.
“Ms Erickson, what do you want me to do with—” The teen stopped abruptly and stared at her. “Are you okay? You look terrible.”
“Just not feeling well for a moment there, Noah. I’m all right now, though.” Alana had no doubt she was pale and sweating, but she forced a smile to reassure her protégé. “Don’t worry about it. What did you want to ask me?”
“Um, I just wondered what I should do with the old tiles.”
Alana considered for a moment. “Why don’t you stack them in one corner, and Del can say tomorrow what she wants done with them.”
Noah didn’t retreat immediately. Alana, who had been working with the young man for 18 months, read his expression easily. “What is it, Noah? What has you concerned?”
“You know I trust you, right?”
It had been desperately hard to gain Noah’s trust, and Alana was deeply grateful for this expression of her victory. “I do, Noah.”
“And I’m really grateful for this chance, too. You know I don’t mind hard work.”
No, you don’t. You just can’t stand a male boss, and with good reason. Alana nodded encouragingly.
“Well, it’s pretty clear that your friend doesn’t want me around. Are you sure this is a good idea? Going behind her back, I mean? I don’t want to make her mad or anything.”
Alana walked down the hallway and stopped in front of Noah. He stiffened momentarily, then relaxed. “Noah, you’ll find Delanie is one of the fairest people you’ll ever meet. Though she won’t readily admit it, she’s got a huge soft spot for kids. Most importantly, there is a tremendous amount she could teach you. I want you to have the best opportunity to succeed. Del can give you that. She can change your life.”
Noah looked at her doubtfully. “But she doesn’t want to, right? You said she was ‘resistant’ to the idea of taking me on. I know what that means. She wants no part of me.”
“Which is why we need to show her what she’s missing. She’s not getting any younger, and she needs an assistant to take on some of the grunt work. You’re perfect for the job. You let me worry about Del. Just do your best today, and I’ll come with you tomorrow morning.”
Noah nodded and went back into the bathroom. Alana listened to the sounds of him working, and then went to the kitchen. She hopped up on the new island and sat thinking about Del and Noah. She knew it was a perfect match between boss and employee. More than that, she was certain that each would be good for the other in ways far beyond their shared workplace.
If only I can persuade Del it’s a win-win situation all around. But hey, I managed to talk Jessie Ann into letting Noah work here. How much harder can convincing Del be?
Alana laughed wryly. Guess we’ll see tomorrow.
Delanie had only been at work for ten minutes when she heard a knock and the front door opened. Sparing a quick thought for her invisible companion, who hadn’t made herself known yet that morning, Del turned, half expecting to see Ms Brennan. Much to her surprise, Alana stood in the hallway, a thin, angular, shaggy haired teenaged boy next to her.
Delanie scowled. Damn it, Alana! I said no! Before she could say anything, Alana held up one hand.
“Before you start shouting, Del, did you look at the master bath this morning?”
Delanie shot Alana a confused look. “The master— What the hell are you talking about?”
“Just go take a look, okay?”
Delanie stalked by the duo, glaring at the boy as she passed. She couldn’t help a reluctant appreciation when he met her scowl calmly and evenly. Huh. Kid doesn’t scare easily, anyway.
When Delanie reached the door of the bathroom, she gave a whistle of amazement. Every bit of tile had been removed and was stacked carefully in one corner of the room. The workspace had been tidied, and the floors swept up.
Alana’s voice came over her shoulder. “Noah did this yesterday, Del.”
Delanie turned to face her friend with a frown. “How’d he get in?”
“I brought him. I used the code I saw you put in on Saturday. I stayed with him, Del. I didn’t leave all day, but I didn’t help him, either. I just wanted him to prove to you that he was a hard worker and could do a good job.”
“Huh. Doesn’t mean we’d get along.” Delanie studied Alana’s hopeful expression and sighed. “Is this so damned important to you?”
“Jesus, I’m such a wuss. All right, if Jessie Ann is okay with it, then I guess I’ll give him a try. But one screw-up and he’s out on his ass, got that?”
A huge grin on her face, Alana nodded. “Got it. But he won’t screw up, Del. I promise!”
“Don’t make promises you’ve no part of keeping.”
Alana simply smiled, leaned forward and gave Delanie a quick kiss. Shocked, Del stared at her friend as Alana left the hallway.
Delanie could hear Alana talking to Noah in the living room. She delicately touched her lips, not wanting to disturb the lingering sensation. Hell, if she’d done that at the beginning, I might’ve caved in long ago. With a bemused expression, Del went to meet her new employee.
“So...how’d it go, Del?” Alana watched her friend closely. She had deliberately made herself scarce after introducing Noah and Delanie that morning, but had been burning up with curiosity ever since. Now, with Del in her usual spot on Alana’s couch, she just had to know.
Delanie smiled lazily. “All right.”
“All right? That’s all?” Disbelieving, Alana stared at Delanie’s enigmatic expression. “You have to give me more than that. I have reports to fill out, you know.”
With a chuckle, Delanie took a long, slow drink of beer while Alana contemplated throwing something heavy at her uncommunicative friend.
Finally, Del lowered her bottle and shrugged. “He seems like a decent kid. Doesn’t talk much, thank God, but he knows how to work. Takes direction well, too. And at least I don’t have to see his blasted underwear.”
Alana suppressed a smile. She had briefed Noah well before his first day of work. He had removed the studs from his nose, ears and eyebrows, and belted his jeans at waist level. He had also worn his customary long-sleeved shirt. The only thing he’d put his foot down about was getting a haircut, and Alana hadn’t pushed him on the issue.
“Well, since you conned me into taking this kid on as a sort of apprentice, and we’ll probably be working together for a while...”
Alana regarded her fidgeting friend curiously. “Uh huh?”
Delanie took a deep breath, and looked at Alana with worried eyes. “Is there anything I should know—I mean, are there triggers I should avoid with Noah?”
Alana stiffened, immediately alarmed. What happened today? “Why do you ask, Del?”
“The kid was helping me bring in lumber. His sleeves slid up in the process. I couldn’t help seeing the scars.”
Relieved to see that Delanie was merely concerned, not accusatory or angry, Alana considered her answer carefully. “You know there are things I can’t tell you, right, Del?”
“I know. I’m not asking for his history. I just want to know if there are minefields I need to avoid. Is there something specific I shouldn’t do around him?”
“Don’t change genders.” Alana responded to Delanie’s startled expression with a wry smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be flip. It’s just that Noah has...issues with older males in authority over him.”
“I don’t think you need to worry, Del. Many of the kids that come to me turn their anger and pain outward, and lash at anyone in their orbit. Noah turned everything inward. He only ever hurt himself, but he’s been getting help for that and has made good progress.”
“Okay. Well, there shouldn’t be a problem, then. I’m pretty set on staying a woman, even if Jessie Ann thinks I should wear pink and stop playing with tools.”
Alana was grateful for the change of topic. “Does she really?”
“Nah, she actually thinks it’s pretty cool what I do, how I dress, and that I have my own tools. It’s just that her father put some odd ideas in her head. But she’s a smart kid. I can almost see her learning and adapting, and putting aside some of her father’s bullshit.”
“She’s very real to you, isn’t she, Del?”
Delanie nodded. “I missed her today. She didn’t come around when Noah was working with me, but then we were being noisy, so maybe when things quiet down again.”
Alana wasn’t sure how to respond. She accepted the reality of Jessie Ann’s presence in the house, but was nowhere near as blasé about it all as Delanie was. Having spoken to Jessie Ann, she did not believe there was any danger in the young spirit, but it still took some mental perambulations to accept that her best friend spoke so freely to something so other-worldly.
“That last one was a good cut, Noah. You’re really getting the hang of this. You know, a lot of people never do grasp how to put up crown mouldings properly.”
Noah beamed at Delanie and she gave him a nod of approval.
“Okay, I think it’s about quitting time. Sweep up the sawdust and we’ll pick up here tomorrow.”
Noah grabbed the broom leaning against the wall and set to work. “About tomorrow, Del…”
“I’ve got an appointment at four. I, uh, can’t miss it.”
Alana had already briefed Delanie about Noah’s standing appointment with his therapist every second Friday. “No problem. I was going to shut us down early tomorrow anyway.”
Noah knelt to use the dustpan. “Got a hot date, boss?”
Delanie smiled to herself as she unplugged the mitre saw and coiled the power cord. “You could say that. I owe Ms Erickson dinner, and she’s calling in her marker.”
Dumping the sawdust in the industrial size garbage bag, Noah set the broom back. Delanie saw him chew his lip, but he didn’t meet her eyes.
“Spit it out, kid. What’s on your mind?”
“Um, are you two...like, um, dating, or something? I mean…I don’t care or anything. It’s okay with me— Not that it’s any of my business. She’s a real nice lady. You’re nice, too... Oh crap, forget I asked.”
Delanie grinned at her flustered apprentice. “Don’t sweat it, Noah. And to answer your question, it’s not really a date, just two good friends having dinner and doing some dancing.” Slow dancing, with any luck. “And thanks for not being a ’phobe.”
This time Noah met her eyes, his gaze serious. “I’m tryin’ real hard never to judge anyone else, Del. It ain’t right, and it ain’t fair.”
In two weeks of working with Noah, Delanie had come to respect the young man’s attitude and determination to overcome his past. His words reinforced her admiration, but also her sadness. You were judged early and judged hard, weren’t you, my young friend? Without a word, she held out her hand, and Noah shook it firmly.
“See you tomorrow, Noah. Have a good night.”
“If you hustle, you’ll catch the five o’clock bus.”
Noah glanced at his watch, and, grabbing his jacket, took off running. He waved as he dashed out the front door and Delanie chuckled to herself. The seventeen-year-old was dying to get his own truck, but for now he was stuck riding the bus to and from his group home.
Delanie finished putting away her gear, but instead of locking up and leaving, she took a seat on the floor, her back against the wall. She pulled Lil Po out of her pocket and put on the headphones. Turning on the music, she called, “Hey, Jessie Ann.”
“Hi, sweetie. It’s been a while since we talked.”
“It’s been too noisy.”
“Yeah, sorry ’bout that. I’m afraid it’ll get even noisier, too. We’ve got a lot of mouldings to cut.”
“Noah did a good job of painting them, eh, Del?”
“Yes, he did. He’s a good worker.”
“I know. I’ve been watching him. Del?”
“Noah is very sad. Sometimes he’s angry, but mostly he’s sad.”
Delanie was quiet as she turned that over in her mind.
“But sometimes he’s happy, too, Del. He’s glad he’s working here. He thinks you’re a good boss.”
“Do you read minds, Jessie Ann?” For a moment Delanie thought she’d lost contact, but there was only silence on the headphones. “Jessie Ann?”
“It’s not...mind reading, Del. Not like reading a book or something. I just know what Noah’s feeling. Like with you and Alana.”
Del’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Me and Alana?”
“Uh huh. She likes you an awful lot, Del.”
“She does, eh?” Delanie smiled. “Well, I like her an awful lot, too.”
“I know. Are you two going to live here when you’re finished?”
It was Delanie’s turn to be silent. “I...hadn’t really considered it. We both have homes, Jessie Ann.”
“Are they nice like here?”
Delanie’s gaze swept around the room she’d been working on. It was shaping up beautifully, though there was still much work to do. “Not as nice, no. But I thought you didn’t want anyone else living here.”
“You and Alana could. I’d like that.”
I can just imagine what Alana would say if I proposed the two of us living here with Jessie Ann. Delanie chuckled at the thought. “I’m not sure there’s enough closet space in this house for Alana, Jessie Ann. She’s got a lot of clothes and shoes.”
To assuage the disappointment in the child’s voice, Delanie added hastily, “But I suppose I could build extra closets in the basement.”
Instantly several tools, along with the broom and dustpan, rose sharply into the air. Delanie was stunned at the fear evinced in that one, short word. “Hey, hey! Jessie Ann—settle down. It’s okay. It’s okay. Calm down, sweetie. I was just thinking out loud. If you don’t want me building in the basement, I won’t. I promise.”
“It’s a bad place.” Even over the headphones, Jessie Ann’s voice was a strained whisper. “I don’t like it down there.”
“Shhhh, sweetie. It’s all right. Nothing can hurt you down there, now. Not ever again.”
Abruptly the music returned in Delanie’s ears, the tools and broom dropped to the floor, and Jessie Ann was gone. What the hell was that all about? Del had been down the basement a number of times, but had never noticed anything unusual about it. It was drab and ordinary, mostly unfinished, except for a laundry room and outdated wood cellar.
Delanie’s immediate impulse was to go inspect the basement for something she might’ve missed, but a second, stronger instinct kept her in place. From her spot near the front windows, Del could see the door that led to the basement. The old slab door, pitted and uneven, appeared innocuous enough, but suddenly, for the first time since her initial contact with Jessie Ann, Delanie wanted badly to be anywhere but where she was.
She jumped to her feet and bolted out the door. Delanie was halfway home before she realized she had left her coat behind.
“You’ve been very quiet tonight, Del.”
Delanie looked across the table at Alana. “Mmm. Didn’t mean to be. I’ve just been thinking about something that happened at work today.”
“With Noah? Is everything all right?”
“Oh yeah, he’s great.” Delanie smiled reassuringly. “In fact, I owe you a much overdue thanks. I don’t know how I got along without him. He works his ass off and soaks up instruction like a sponge. I’m not saying he never makes mistakes, but I’ve yet to see him make the same one twice.”
“Oh, Del, that’s wonderful! I just knew you two were a match made in heaven!”
“You did, eh? And here I thought we—” Delanie stopped abruptly, covering her confusion by turning her attention to the dance floor. “Um, would you like to dance?”
“I’d love to.”
Grateful for Alana’s discretion, Delanie led her friend out on the floor. She had not been dancing at Leaping Liz’s for decades, but the club hadn’t altered much. The music might have changed over the years, but the floor was still crowded with women happily dancing out of step with the mainstream. Even after all her time away, Delanie felt completely at home.
After a few fast numbers, the music slowed, and Delanie looked at her partner questioningly. Alana just smiled and moved close, wrapping her arms around Del’s neck.
The feel of Alana’s slender body against her own suddenly scared Delanie. It felt so bewilderingly right that she couldn’t breathe. Del had never experienced a panic attack, but suspected she was on the verge of her first.
“It’s just me, Del.”
Alana chuckled and leaned back in Delanie’s arms. “Well, that’s foolish of them, then. They should be jealous of me. I’m dancing with the kindest, most considerate, handsomest woman around. And if any bimbette attempts to cut in, I’ll be showing her the door, tout de suite.”
Delanie laughed aloud and relaxed. “Sweet talker.”
Alana shook her head and tweaked the collar of Delanie’s crisp white shirt. “Just telling the truth.”
“As you see it,” Delanie teased, feeling back on solid ground.
“As I know it, love.”
The solid ground suddenly felt alarmingly unstable again, but Alana only smiled and melted back against Del.
After several long moments of worrying, Delanie gave a mental shrug. What the hell? This is Alana. I’d trust her with my life. Let’s see where she wants to go.
“Are you sure you want to go…” she gestured with her head, “…there?” Delanie looked worriedly at Alana as she unlocked her door and turned on the hall light.
Alana turned to face Del, a gentle smile on her face. “Very sure, but if you’re not, that’s okay, too. There’s no hurry.”
Delanie shifted her weight from foot to foot. Part of her wanted nothing more than to follow Alana into the house, and shut the door behind them until the morning. But part of her was definitely not sure she was ready.
I don’t know if this is such a good idea. This is Alana. She’s known me for thirty years. She reads me inside and out. Hell, she’s seen me at my absolute worst, and she’s saved me from the wreckage that was my life. This could get very weird, very fast.
Uncertainty ruled, and before Delanie could even voice her concerns, Alana leaned forward and kissed her. Then she laughed softly and caressed Del’s face. “Take a rain check and go home, my sweet worrywart. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Alana closed the door quietly, leaving Delanie to her solitary walk back to her truck. Once inside, she delayed starting the ignition as she thought over the evening’s events. Finally, she slapped the steering wheel and shook her head in disgust. “I’m an idiot!” Del looked at Alana’s house, but the lights had gone off, except for the one in Alana’s bedroom. She briefly considered returning to knock on the door, but abandoned the impulse. What would I say? ‘I’m an ass, but may I join you in bed anyway?’ Yeah, right! That’s real smooth, ya jerk.
With a sigh, Delanie started her truck and drove away. There would be other nights…she hoped. At least Alana didn’t appear to be fazed by Del’s hesitation. That boded well for a future when Delanie might have overcome her reservations.
Gonna be a long, sleepless night, though. And so not in a good way.
Delanie and Noah stood in the arched entrance to the living room and kitchen, surveying the results of their work with pride.
“Sure looks good, boss.”
“Damn right, Noah. You’d never know this house was sixty years old, eh?”
“Not unless you looked at the rest of the place.”
Delanie chuckled and affectionately punched Noah’s shoulder. “Then I guess we’d best get working on the bathrooms next.”
“Okay. Where do we start?”
“We’re going to pull out the old fixtures. Go downstairs and turn off the water main, will you? It’s the red tap under the window by the laundry tub.”
Noah headed off to carry out his instructions, while Delanie allowed herself a few more moments to appreciate the renovated rooms. “So, Jessie Ann, what do you think? Do you like it?” Del didn’t have Lil Po on, so she didn’t expect an answer, but she looked forward to their nightly conversation to hear her disembodied little friend’s response. She was certain it would be positive, especially as they had incorporated shades of Jessie Ann’s favourite colour as an accent throughout.
Noah’s voice floated up from downstairs.
“Can you come down here?”
Delanie frowned. Her apprentice’s voice sounded odd, uncertain. She quickly crossed to the stairwell and headed down.
“What’s the matter? You can’t find the shut off?” As soon as she said it, Delanie saw Noah standing by the water main, his hands tucked under his armpits. There was a disturbed look on his face.
Aw, Jessie Ann, are you messing with the kid? Delanie felt an absurd disappointment in her ghostly pal.
“No, I turned off the water.” Noah pointed at a small door just down the wall from the laundry area. “What’s in there, Del?”
“That? It’s just the old wood cellar. When this house was built, it had a furnace that fed on wood or coal. My grandmother had one just like it. Once or twice a year she’d get a shipment of wood dumped outside the house, and us grandkids had to toss the wood down the chute into the cellar. Once she got a gas furnace, she turned the wood cellar into a pantry. Why? What’s the problem?”
“I think there’s something in there. I heard noises.”
“Huh, maybe a rat or a squirrel got in somehow. Let me check it out. Run up and get me a flashlight, will you?”
Noah hastened up the stairs while Delanie eased open the door to the wood cellar. The small, windowless room smelled musty and earthy. And there was definitely a small animal rustling within. Spying a string dangling from the ceiling, Del yanked on the light. Then she yelped as two mice ran over her feet and darted beneath the stairwell.
Noah bounded down the stairs, wide-eyed and worried. “What happened?”
“Aww, it was just some mice. I’ll get some traps tonight and we’ll take care of our little intruders.”
“Man, I thought the ghost had you or something.” Shaky, Noah handed over the flashlight.
Delanie accepted the flashlight and shone it into the dark corners of the wood cellar. “Damn. Looks like they were nesting, too. Get me a broom and a garbage bag, Noah. Last thing we need is a bunch of baby mice running around making a mess.”
While Noah went back upstairs, Delanie entered the cellar to take a closer look. It was a simple concrete sided room, with an old plank floor that was broken in spots. The former wood chute had been bricked up, and there were no windows.
Delanie stepped gingerly as she made her way to the corner where the nest was. Kneeling, she examined the nest.
“What the hell?”
The shredded material appeared to be old burlap and bits of dirty pink cotton. Standing, Delanie looked around. The single, low watt ceiling bulb threw little light, but her powerful flashlight illuminated every corner of the room. It didn’t take long to find the source of the mice’s building material. Frayed pink material was visible just below the edge of a broken plank.
Curious, Delanie crossed to the broken plank. Pulling her hammer out of her tool belt, she pulled up the splintered board. Now the material could be clearly seen protruding from the ground. Using the hammer, Del scraped gently at the ground.
“Oh, my God!”
Noah appeared in the doorway with broom in hand. “What’s the matter, Del?’’
“Now, Noah! Go!” Delanie bolted from the room, hard on the heels of her confused apprentice as they ran up the stairs.
When they reached the main floor, Noah turned, but before he could erupt with questions, Delanie shook her head. “Hold on, kid. I gotta make a call.” Pulling out her cell, she punched in 9-1-1. When the operator answered, Del gasped, “I need to report a body.”
An hour later, Delanie and Noah sat on the tailgate of the truck, watching the swarm of police and news vehicles.
“Times like this, I wish I never quit smoking.”
Noah glanced at Del with a wry grin. “Times like this, I’m thinking I should start.”
Delanie gave him a light cuff. “Don’t even consider it, kid. I’m not giving you ten minutes off every hour so you can go feed your habit.”
They looked at each other, then back at the hectic scene around 619 Gill Street. Noah shifted, moving almost imperceptibly closer to Delanie.
Another hour went by and Delanie could feel Noah shivering from the cold.
“Why don’t you take off, kid? I can handle talking to the detective again. No point in both of us sitting out here freezing our asses off.”
“Okay, thanks, Del.” Noah hopped down from the tailgate. “Um, what happens tomorrow?”
“Looks like we both get a few days off at least. I’ll let you know when, or if, we’ll be back to work as soon as I know, okay?”
Noah nodded, then stopped as two men emerged from the house carrying a small body bag. “Fuck.”
“Yeah.” Delanie gave a heartfelt nod as her eyes filled with tears. She had long accepted that Jessie Ann had died two years earlier, but knowing and actually seeing the evidence of Paul Richard’s murderous frenzy were two different things. She leaned over and gave Noah a quick hug. “Get going, kid. You don’t need to see this.”
Noah shot her a grateful look and loped off towards the bus stop, easily dodging a handful of reporters who stepped into his path. Del watched him round the corner, then turned back to see the detective approaching her.
“I think we’ve got all we need from you for the moment. I’ve got your contact information, and if we need anything further, I’ll give you a call.”
“Okay, thanks.” Delanie watched as the men carefully loaded the body bag in the back of the coroner’s van. “You know, right now I wish Paul Richards had survived, just so I could kill him all over again.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve been working this case from day one. We were all pretty sure the little girl was dead, but finding her here is a real shock.”
“About that—why wasn’t the house searched more carefully when it happened?”
“Because we had two eye witnesses that swore they saw Richards with his daughter leaving town in a god awful hurry, and another eye witness that was dead certain they saw the pair two hundred kilometres from here, heading east.” The detective spat in disgust. “The little girl’s room—”
The detective nodded. “Jessie Ann’s room showed evidence of hasty packing, like her father had grabbed clothes and toys at random to take with them. Then when he was cornered, and the police were trying to talk him into giving up and telling them Jessie Ann’s location, he just laughed. Told them she was under twenty feet of water, then he gunned his car right at the nearest officers. They had no choice but to shoot. We all figured he’d decided Jessie Ann was a liability on the run, so he killed her and dumped her in a lake somewhere between here and that border crossing.”
“That he was. Hopefully he’s rotting in hell for what he did to that little girl and her mama.” The detective extended his hand. “Thanks for clearing up this mystery, Ms Marcus. At least now Jessie Ann can be properly buried with her mother.”
Delanie shook his hand. “It was a pure accident we found her, but I’m glad, too.” Weary, she heaved herself off the tailgate. Was it an accident? Guess I’ll never know.
Halfway home, with the truck finally warmed up, Delanie suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to put Lil Po on so she pulled over to the curb. When she turned on the machine, the first sound she heard was Jessie Ann’s voice.
“Thank you, Del.” The child’s voice had altered subtly. It was unquestioningly Jessie Ann, but the voice sounded older, more peaceful, and much matured.
“You could’ve just told me from the start, Jessie Ann.”
“Not until the time was right, Del.”
Delanie thought about that for a long moment. “Noah?”
“You were waiting for me to get over being stubborn and take him on as an apprentice.”
Jessie Ann laughed softly. “Alana was right, you know. You needed each other. Now you can both move on—together.”
“Cuz he needed someone to see him. Alana does, but he needs you, too.”
Delanie shook her head in puzzlement, but before she could question Jessie Ann further, the voice in her ears spoke again, sadly this time.
“It was my fault, Del.”
“What was, sweetie?”
“I told my father where Mommy and I went that morning. I didn’t mean to, but he knew we’d gone out without permission. He got very angry when I wouldn’t tell him, and I got so scared I blurted out the truth. Then he got even madder and ran downstairs where Mommy was doing laundry. I heard her scream. I ran downstairs, too. Mommy was on the floor. I tried to stop him. I got in Daddy’s way... I don’t remember anything else.”
Tears ran down Delanie’s face as she listened to the narrative of Jessie Ann’s last minutes. Her voice barely audible, she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I don’t hurt anymore, Del. And I’m happy for Noah.”
“I’ll do my best for him, Jessie Ann. I promise.”
“I know. And for Alana too, right, Del?”
Delanie nodded, a thick lump in her throat.
“You’re the right one, Del. You can see.”
The soft sad sounds of Martina McBride’s Concrete Angel came from Lil Po, and Delanie cried with abandon, knowing she had just spoken to Jessie Ann for the last time.
Flanked by Alana and Noah, Delanie stood in the softly falling snow, watching as Jessie Ann’s coffin was lowered to rest next to her mother’s. The child’s funeral had drawn a big crowd, though few could claim to have known her in life.
When people began leaving, Delanie noticed Noah’s eyes were fixed on a thin, haggard looking woman standing close to the grave’s edge. When the woman looked up and saw Noah, she averted her eyes and stumbled away.
Unsure if she should ask, Delanie decided to take a chance. “Who was that, Noah?”
His voice was angry and sorrowful when he answered. “My mom. Guess she figured she should make an appearance with the family.”
“Jessie Ann’s family.” Noah looked up at Delanie. “My mom and Jessie Ann’s mom were sisters.”
Delanie blinked in surprise. “Jessie Ann was your cousin?” She looked at Alana. “Did you know that?”
Alana shook her head, her expression equally startled. “No, I didn’t.”
Noah shrugged. “I was only nine when I saw Jessie Ann for the first and last time, and she was only a few weeks old. Her dad thought my mother was a bad influence because she had so many ‘boyfriends’, so he forbade Aunt Molly from seeing her sister. Can’t say I’d disagree with him on that, even though he turned out to be a fuckin’ murderer.”
Noah fell silent, staring at the open grave. Delanie and Alana’s eyes met over his bowed head.
“Hey, kid, how ’bout since we’re already all dressed up, I take you and Ms Erickson out for a nice dinner.”
Later, when Noah was devouring his steak like he hadn’t eaten in a year, Delanie asked a question that had been on her mind since the day they had found Jessie Ann.
“Noah, back in the house you said something about ‘the ghost’ getting me.”
Noah mumbled acknowledgement around a full mouth.
“You didn’t say ‘a’ ghost. What’d you mean by that?”
He swallowed with difficulty and Delanie saw Alana smother a smile.
“Well, I didn’t think there was more than one ghost in the house.”
Delanie raised an eyebrow in surprise. “So Jessie Ann talked to you, too?”
Noah regarded her quizzically. “She talked to you?”
“Yup, all the time. On Lil Po.”
“Huh.” Noah leaned back and stared at Delanie. “I never heard no voices or anything. I could just...I dunno, feel something, you know? Like someone was watching me, even if you were outside.”
Both women nodded and Noah leaned forward, growing excitement on his face. “You could really hear her, boss? No shit?”
“No shit, Noah. Ms Erickson heard her, too.”
“Loud and clear,” Alana confirmed.
“Wow! That is unfuckinbelievable!” Noah gaped at his dinner companions. “And you’re sure it was Jessie Ann?”
“Yeah, I am. Didn’t you know we were working on your cousin’s old home?”
“Hell, no. It’s not like we showed up there for Sunday dinner or anything. It was just an ordinary old house to me, at least until that day—” Noah sobered, and Delanie knew he was remembering the small body bag. “Do you think she’ll still come around, boss?”
Delanie shook her head. “No, I suspect she accomplished what she set out to.”
Alana looked at her inquiringly. “What she set out to? What do you think Jessie Ann was trying to do?”
Unwilling to disclose all that Jessie Ann had told her, Delanie equivocated. “Well, I think she wanted her body found, of course. And I think maybe she was looking for the right person to live in the house. The last thing she told me was that I was the right one.”
“You’re going to buy the house?”
Delanie smiled at Alana’s surprise. “I’m thinking about it. We got the okay to return to work next Monday, so the house will be completely upgraded by spring. I suspect they won’t get many offers on it now that everyone knows there was a body in the basement for over two years.”
“You’d be okay living there, boss?”
“I think so, Noah. Jessie Ann never scared me.” Delanie stopped and looked sheepish. “Well, except for the first time she spoke to me. Damn near messed my pants that time!”
Alana and Noah greeted her confession with laughter, and Delanie had to join them. The mood lighter, they soon finished their dinner and left. Delanie and Alana dropped Noah off and drove towards Alana’s house.
“I’ve been thinking...”
“About what, Del?”
“Well, not to sound pretentious, but I guess—sort of the nature of evil. I mean, when you think of horror, you tend to think of things like vampires or werewolves or zombies.”
“Or headless horsemen or monkey’s paw or screaming skulls—yes, I understand what you mean. The storybook kind of evil.”
“Right. And what happened to Jessie Ann and her mom was a horror, too. But it was all too human, and all too common. No one saw anything. No one noticed what was going on. No one helped them, until it was way too late. Thinking about that keeps me awake at night, you know?”
“Would I? Look how long I resisted taking on Noah. The kid told me the other day that for the first time he believed in his own future. And he thanked me. Hell, he should be thanking you, not me!”
“He has, Del. Trust me, he has, but his gratitude to you is also appropriate. You’ve been wonderful with him.”
“Jessie Ann—the last thing she told me was that I could ‘see.’” Delanie glanced over at Alana who was watching her intensely. “I want to live up to that, best I can. So I was thinking—Noah’s been talking about eventually going to a technical college and getting his papers, like I did. Maybe when he does...well, maybe you know of another Noah that could use my help.”
“God, I love you!”
Startled, Delanie swerved, then pulled over to the curb. She turned to face Alana who was smiling at her with tear-filled eyes. Gathering her courage, Delanie answered from the heart. “I love you too, Alana. I don’t know what the hell I’d have done without you these last couple of years. I only wish I’d had the good sense to walk away from Daphne twenty six years ago. Who knows what might’ve happened between you and me, eh? Hell, we might’ve had grandkids by now.”
Alana unbuckled her belt and slid across the bench seat. With gentle hands she cupped Delanie’s face. “Might-have-beens don’t matter, my sweet Del. All that matters is from this moment on.”
Delanie stared into the eyes that so visibly cherished her. Her heart pounding, she whispered, “About that rain check—”
Alana’s answer was delivered with a long, lingering kiss that sent shivers through Delanie. When they finally pulled apart, Alana whispered, “Let’s go cash it in, love.”
Delanie claimed one more searing kiss before throwing the truck in drive and hitting the gas pedal.
And on the other side of town, an old house sat quietly, yellow tape still over the doorway though the police cars and news vans were long gone. Where it had once housed horror, it would soon house hope.