by Bryce Raffle
Evelyn Crowhurst can see ghosts. One of them needs her help.
I dreamt of flames again. A blazing conflagration engulfing an old house with a green roof and cracked windows. And swathed in the flames, I could see three faces, only they weren’t human. They were primates. Three monkeys.
The first had his jaw clenched, his eyes fixed on me, his long fingers enclosed over his ears. Serpentine tongues of yellow flame twisted around the beast’s legs, but he took no notice.
The second had his paws clasped across his eyes, but his teeth were bared, and he was growling at me. Sparks danced around him as the inferno swallowed up the burning timbers.
The third simply looked at me and pressed a single finger to his lips, as though entrusting me with a secret.
The cracks and pops of the flames became the patter of rain against my window. The vermillion hues of the burning pyre became the yellow glow of the sun piercing through the haze of London’s fog.
I blinked away the harshness of the early morning sunlight and pulled back the covers on my bed. I sat up in a cold sweat, my quick breath forming puffs of clouds that dissipated quickly in the brisk air of my bedchamber.
For once, my room was exactly how I’d left it. No visitors had come in the night to rearrange the furniture. I’d have noticed right away. The room was sparsely furnished, with thin white curtains across the windows, a small chest of drawers across from my bed, and atop it a handheld vanity mirror, an ivory-handled hairbrush, and a framed photograph of my mother and a man I’d never met.
Supposedly he was my father, but he’d died when I was young, and I’d never encountered him among the spirits who routinely visited. So the only father I had was Mr. Pickwick, the man who owned this humble household as well as the curiosity shop downstairs. The man in the portrait wore a neatly trimmed beard and had an austere expression on his face, hard lines across his brow as though troubled by something. My mother, by contrast, was smiling, her cheeks dimpled on one side. I remembered her eyes being green, like mine. She had strawberry blonde hair like mine too, but in the picture, all was as grey as London on a rainy morning.
Pulling off the bedcovers, I quickly dressed myself in my work clothes and twisted the latch of my door. Wooden floorboards creaked beneath the weight of my feet, announcing me as I made my way downstairs into the shop.
“Good morning, Miss Crowhurst.” Mr. Pickwick, my father by circumstance, beamed at me as I made my entrance, proudly holding up his latest acquisition for my inspection. I flashed him a quick smile, kissed him on the cheek, and took the item from his possession.
“Good morning, Mr. Pickwick,” I answered, turning the item over in my hands.
It might have seemed strange to a passing observer that I hadn’t taken my father’s surname, given he was my only living relation and that I’d never met my birth father, and stranger still that Mr. Pickwick and I still stood on formality, but calling each other by our surnames had always been our tradition, and it was never without affection.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, praising the item in my palms. I kept my eyes down. I didn’t want to tell him about my dream about the three monkeys. Mr. Pickwick didn’t know my dreams tended to come true, and I wasn’t ready to tell him. But the object he’d acquired was a small monkey, whose little fingers were clasped across his mouth.
“It’s a netsuke. It’s carved from boxwood, but the eyes are made of horn. And look here, there’s the artist’s signature underneath him.”
Mr. Pickwick smiled. “Right you are, Miss Crowhurst. And see, I knew that job at the museum would come in handy.”
“But surely you knew all that without my needing to tell you,” I said, heading for the door. I paused to grab an umbrella from the stand.
“Well,” he admitted with a wink. “It’s always nice to know I’m not alone in my opinions. I’ll see you at supper?”
“Of course,” I said, slipping through the door with a jingle of the bell as I made my escape. Much as I loved my father, he could occasionally be an obstacle to punctuality if I let him keep talking once we started on the subject of antiquities.
Fat drops of rain hit my cheeks as my boot heels crunched through the thick layers of moss that covered the front steps outside of Pickwick’s. I popped open my umbrella and stopped in my tracks.
At the foot of the stairs, a girl with an ashen complexion stood waiting for me in the early sunlight breaking through the rainclouds. She wore a purple dress, pink gloves trimmed with lace, and a black coat printed with an oriental pattern embroidered in the same bright purple as her dress. Smooth black hair spilled down onto her shoulders.
I stole a glance back at the door to see if Mr. Pickwick could see her, although I knew perfectly well that he couldn’t.
The dead don’t always look dead. Sometimes they look as lifelike as anyone. Their hair still catches the breeze. Their eyes are bright and lively. They can smile and laugh and feel the chill of a cold day, just like you or me. It’s as if they don’t even know they’re dead.
Which often got me into awkward situations, as you could imagine. See, I’d never met another living person who could see them. So, as far as anyone was concerned, if I was caught speaking to a ghost, there goes that Evelyn Crowhurst, talking to her imaginary friends again. And I couldn’t always tell the dead from the living. I mean, how was I to know any better? It wasn’t as though the dead carried little handwritten signs everywhere they went declaring what they were. They didn’t walk about with the objects of their demise still lodged in their skulls. They didn’t float above the ground, the way they were sometimes described in the penny dreadfuls.
They weren’t translucent either. There was usually nothing at all to set them apart from the living.
This one, though…
This one was different.
The moment I saw her, I knew exactly what the girl was. She was a ghost. And she had died horribly.
The pale grey skin was the first giveaway. Her eyes were jet black, devoid of life. And the lips…
Deep gashes lined the girl’s mouth, red and sore. Her lips were stitched together with thick sinews. She must have been about fourteen, only a few years younger than me.
I wanted to scream, but this wasn’t exactly my first encounter with a ghost. I couldn’t surrender to a life of screaming every time I saw one, or I’d be sent straight to the asylum. So instead I put my hand over my mouth and sobbed quietly into my hand. I took a deep breath and looked around the street to see if anyone was looking at me. No one was watching.
So I took two steps down the stairs toward her, slowly, so as not to startle her. “What do you want?” I whispered softly.
I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t answer me. The dead don’t always talk. Sometimes they’re as silent as the grave. My best friend, James, talks a fair bit, but I often go months without ever hearing his voice. I’ve met others who could outtalk even Mr. Pickwick.
But this girl had her lips sewn shut. I wasn’t expecting a reply.
But she did answer me, in a way. With a gesture as clear as day, she turned away from me and motioned with her hands. Come with me, she seemed to say. There’s something I need to show you.
She didn’t have to use her words. I knew what I had to do.
I sighed. I was going to be late for work again.
With a wayward glance back at Pickwick’s, I set off after the ghost.
She moved quickly, and didn’t wait for me to follow. We made our way in silence through the early morning crowd that was beginning to form at the market, and my new friend passed effortlessly through the crowded market stalls, while I was forced to push my way through, until I was heaving for breath. She could pass through material objects like fog through a keyhole. I shoved through a crowd of pedestrians purchasing pigeon pies, and carried on through a narrow alleyway that smelled of stale beer and mildewed rags. I found her waiting for me across the street.
I noticed that the rain didn’t affect her either. Each shimmering, fat droplet passed right on through her body to splatter upon the cobbles beneath her. In fourteen years, I’d never met a ghost who was impervious to the weather. Clearly, she had other things on her mind.
I pressed on, quickening my step to meet her across the road, barely aware of the approaching brougham carriage. I felt the girl’s fingers close around my wrist, and a moment later, felt her whisk me to safety.
I glanced back as the driver let out a curse and glowered at me from his chair. I called out an apology and turned back to the girl who’d saved me.
My throat tightened. She was inches from my face. It was the first time I’d really gotten a close look at her. She must have been pretty in life. Exceptionally so. But she looked dreadful now.
I knew she meant me no harm, but my chest tightened all the same as I looked upon her sutured lips and scarred face. It wasn’t fear though. It was compassion. Whatever must have happened to her, it must have been dreadful.
I felt a stirring of sympathy for her, and I choked out a sob as she turned away from me to hurry on.
“What happened to you?” I asked, but she was already gone.
I broke into a run to find her on the next block, but she didn’t stop there. We carried on and just kept running until my feet ached. My boots weren’t entirely suited to running. I stooped over, hands on my knees, as I tried to draw breath, and when I looked up, I realized she had stopped too.
She was standing at the door to the museum, the very place where I had intended to go that morning even before I met her. She disappeared through the door, and I hurried up the steps after her, fishing for the keys that hung from my belt. Finding the right one, I fit the key into the latch, listened for the click as I turned it, and slid the key from the keyhole.
My eyes snapped open.
I gave a start, shaking off the groggy feeling that comes with waking up in a strange place, and spun about in a circle as if to find my bearings. I had just woken up. Again. Meaning that I’d only dreamed waking up in the first place. And I was not in my own bed. Meaning that I’d sleepwalked here.
It was only because I’d been sleepwalking regularly these days that my mere befuddlement wasn’t terror. I could easily have been killed. I was at the front door of the British Museum, just as I’d been in my dream. But I was freezing, and I was soaked. I ran a hand through my clumps of wet hair. I felt like a drowned rat. In the dream, I’d grabbed an umbrella on my way out the door. In reality, I was empty-handed and chilled to the bone.
It made me wonder. How much of it was real?
Had I actually said goodbye to Mr. Pickwick on my way to work this morning? For that matter, was it even morning? I shook my head in disbelief as I looked around me. The first morning light had yet to touch London’s gloomy streets. A few street-lamps over Trafalgar Square were the only substitute for daylight. How early was it? Three o’clock? Four? There was no sign of dawn on the horizon, and the square in front of the museum was deserted other than the rats skittering around in the gutters.
I thought of the cabriolet that had nearly trampled me. Was that real?
I considered how the brain tends to incorporate sensory data into my dreams; if a dog barks outside my window, I find myself dreaming about a dog; if a draft of cold air manages to reach me beneath my blankets, I shiver in my dreams as well.
There was a good chance there really had been a carriage. That my nocturnal perambulation had nearly seen me run over by the horse and cart. And if so, then someone really might have grabbed me by the hand and pulled me to safety.
I thought of the girl who’d led me here.
Dread tightened in my throat. She was real. I knew that with as much certainty as I knew that I was now, well and truly, awake.
I pushed open the museum doors and stepped inside. The doors shut with a resounding thunder that reverberated off the high ceilings. I locked the doors behind me.
And there she was. She was already at the threshold of the nearest exhibit by the time I started after her.
We moved through the deserted museum in near silence, as though we felt it might be disrespectful to the ancient relics housed here were we to make even the slightest noise.
“Where are we going?” I whispered as we moved quickly through the exhibit and on to the next. She paused at the sound of my voice, but she didn’t answer. I knew she could hear me, at least.
“I’m Evelyn,” I told her. “Evelyn Crowhurst.”
That had worked on James at any rate. He’d followed me in silence for a month before I’d tried introducing myself to him. And then, as if I’d said the magic words, he’d told me his name, and he didn’t stop there. His whole history came pouring out of his mouth once he’d opened it. And it must have felt good, having someone to listen to him after forty years of wandering the earthly plane in silence.
But the girl simply turned away from me and kept going. So much for that.
Finally, we reached the threshold of the Japanese exhibition, and I felt the hairs on my arms stand up straight. We had reached our destination. I felt certain of it.
I stole a glance at the girl, at her jet-black hair, her dark eyes, and her intricately embroidered coat, as we stepped into the Japanese hall. There were less than five hundred Japanese people in all of Britain, the museum curator had told me when the exhibit was first installed. Yet London was in the midst of a Japanese craze. I wasn’t sure what exactly had prompted this obsession with all things Japanese, but I supposed I could see the appeal. There was certainly something captivating about seeing something different, something exotic or foreign to distract us from the doldrums of the ordinary. And Japanese culture certainly had that.
I realized, after a moment, that the girl had left me standing there alone at the doorway, so I picked up my heels to follow her into the hall. And there she was, in duplicate.
The ghost of a girl looking mournfully upon her own ravaged body.
I don’t know why the dead come to me. I don’t know how they find me. Perhaps they sense that I can see them and are drawn to me by some magnetic pull, the way moths are drawn to a flame. Perhaps they think I can help them to move on from the limbo that is their earthly existence. And sometimes I can.
Sometimes all they need is for someone to listen to them. Someone who understands. Sometimes they need to unburden themselves of a secret they couldn’t divulge while they were alive. Other times, they just want to make sure there’s someone watching out for the loved ones they’ve left behind.
This was more than I’d ever been asked to do before.
A weight seemed to have been added to my shoulders as I looked upon the body, a weight of responsibility. I couldn’t turn away from her now. I didn’t know how I was meant to help her, only that I had to try to do something.
I felt for this girl. Felt the horror of what she must have been feeling, looking down at her own cold body, lying on the floor of the museum like that. The horror of it, as well as the sadness of a life cut short too early.
She was still beautiful, even lying there cut up like that. Her eyes were open, her expression fixed in terror. Just like her ghost, her body’s mouth was stitched shut.
I drew closer.
In spite of my expectations, there was little smell to the body. Just the sharp metallic scent of blood, and the slight mustiness of her wet clothes drying out slowly throughout the night. She couldn’t have been dead for long.
There was a long trail of blood, stretched out along the floor behind her, like the trail behind a slug, as though she’d crawled her way here after she’d been stabbed. Or like she’d been dragged here.
There were wounds in her throat and chest, and cuts in the fabric of her shirt. I glanced up from her body. No sign of these wounds in the ghost, but then, there usually weren’t.
Her hands were clenched in tight fists, as though she’d put up something of a fight. Good. I had to respect that.
The ghost standing behind her made a little mournful sound, the first noise I’d heard her make, through her sutured lips. I raised my head. “What is it?” I whispered.
I wasn’t expecting a reply. As far as ghosts went, she hadn’t exactly been the most forthcoming so far, when it came to answering my enquiries. Not that I could hold it against her, given the circumstances, but still. But she stooped over her own body, pointing with her slender, grey fingers.
I bent down to get a closer look at what she was pointing at and saw something small poking out of one of her closed hands. A tiny object of carved wood, which looked like it might have come from one of the exhibits in this very museum.
I drew a sharp breath. I was going to have to touch her dead body, wasn’t I?
I looked up at her ghost and saw the pain in her eyes. And through the pain, there was another expression I recognized. A pleading desperation that I’d come to expect from the ghosts that visited me. Most of them were masters of that expression, just as I’d become, of necessity, an expert in ignoring it.
I couldn’t help them all. I just couldn’t. Much as I wanted to, there were too many. And for every one that I helped, another would come to take its place. And so I’d made a pact with myself, that I wouldn’t make them any promises, and I wouldn’t feel bad about it either. I never managed to hold up that last end of the bargain with myself, but I did try. I had a life to live of my own, after all.
But this girl was different. She had died brutally. Violently. I couldn’t ignore her, even if I tried. I twisted my finger through my hair.
Then I reached down and grabbed her by the hand. Her fingers were colder than I’d expected, and wetter too. She must have been caught in the rain before coming here. Unless she’d gotten wet after her death. Unless her killer had brought her here after killing her somewhere else entirely.
I peeled her fingers back, one at a time, to reveal the small object enclosed in her palm. It was a monkey.
And its small, wooden fingers were closed across its own mouth.