3.09: Phantasms

In bundles and carts and back-bending armfuls, the last of the Tortoise Shell Inn’s rubble was cleared away. Most of the village continued turning out to help—dispelling any potential rumors that some were only trying to put in a good face. Many threw in day after day, chipping away at the seemingly insurmountable work until it shrank in scope before them. From a mountain, as it were, into a blank slate. At first there was little oversight. Helpers showed up, milled around, and eventually got the idea that they should be taking broken stone and shattered glass off site. In time, Aria stepped in to give direction.

She brought in an outside contractor, who took one look at the site and declared that, before even thinking about building anything new, they would need to demolish the portion of back wall which had stayed standing. A few days later, a bulldozer entered the scene. Aria, wearing a bright orange hard hat, watched the wall come down and be transported in chunks down to the dump. From that moment she was on site every day. Advisors, architects, and professional construction workers occasionally came along with her.

“How is this being paid for?” Henry asked one particularly exciting morning, while everyone was unpacking and sorting the lumber which would be the new Tortoise Shell’s frame.

“Business has been good,” Aria said. “And it’s not like I’m not being compensated at all.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Jamal says he’s going to name a sandwich after me.”

Jamal still presided over an endless keg, but as time passed his attitude changed. No longer did he trap people in endless conversations wherein he made nothing but tearful dad jokes. Instead he began helping more and more with the actual project, in time performing more work than anybody half his age. He politely listened to the stories of the day, whatever they might be, but did not contribute any of his own. 

It took Henry a week to corner this new reticent version of Jamal, taking a rest on the rough stone foundation where the wall had recently been toppled. “How are you holding up?” he asked.

Jamal jumped at the sound. “Henry! I didn’t see you there. Sorry, I must have dozed off.” He was damp with sweat, his forearms red and bleeding with days of hard labor.

“You should rest, if you need it.”

He struggled to his feet. “No, no. It’s all for me, isn’t it? That wouldn’t look right. I just wish I could do more.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. The village is doing this because they want their bar back—not to break your back.”

“I used to be the helper,” he said, then shook his head. “Ah, don’t mind me. Just a big adjustment, you know? But the Tortoise Shell 2.0 is going to be even better. And I’ll tell you what: I have a surprise for you.”

“Yeah?”

Jamal lowered his voice. “I wasn’t going to say anything until it was official, but once we get this place built, you can say hello to the new distribution center and sales point for the Tortus Bay Examiner. If you like the idea.”

“Of course I do. It was sexy for a bit, running an underground newspaper, but I suppose there’s no need for that anymore. Are you sure you’re okay?”

The frown hadn’t left his face. “It’s foolishness. Do you know the feeling of being given some sort of great gift, and feeling ashamed? Like you’re not able to look it in the eye?”

“I think I do.”

***

Henry spent his nights on a timer. He slept out on the couch; even with limitless patience, Niles didn’t deserve to go through that with him. It wasn’t a natural way to live. Every two hours, after being pulled out of deep sleep, he silenced and then switched the alarm tone on his phone. If he got used to them they would become ineffective. They would meld into his dreams.

They were, and needed to remain, of Emmaline. It was the same thing every time: he brought offerings to her molding bones, and she looked at him as though there was something she wanted to say. But she never would. Sometimes she was missing her mandible. Other times it flapped uselessly at him, producing no noise. 

He woke, and switched the alarm. He read the trance to himself again.

It was a spell he found in a book titled Projection Dreaming—the only volume he had taken from the Gauthe estate. The pages were filled with dry musings on the philosophy of dreams, practices for astral projection, and a stanza which the authors guaranteed would reveal the truth behind any recurring phantasm. Henry followed the instructions. He repeated the lines over and over to himself, until he could no longer keep his eyes open.

Emmaline crinkled. She popped and scraped wherever she moved, her empty joints complaining against worn bone. Henry crawled to her. He kissed her fragile toes in supplication, but from her mouth received only the senseless chattering of teeth.

***

Clint scarcely seemed to leave the construction site. At first this came along with the obvious jokes—he’ll do anything to get another beer, even rebuild the bar himself—but as the weeks wore on a difference could be distinguished in the man by even the most casual observer. His complexion improved, his eyes cleared, and his wild tangle of a beard was regularly trimmed; in every regard he was a new man, and seemed to relish every second he was afforded to toil under the sun. But Henry was not one of those casual observers, content to observe and praise from afar. He still wanted an explanation for their abrupt encounter outside of his apartment, but every time he approached, Clint found somewhere better to be. For several days they played cat and mouse, until Henry finally decided to call it quits.

If the old man didn’t want to talk, that was his own business. He put it out of his mind, and focused on the task at hand, until late one evening—shortly after the frame of the new Tortoise Shell went up. All of the other volunteers had left for the night, and he was just considering following suit himself, when he saw movement from within. A brief flash of plaid.

“Can we talk?” Henry asked. “There’s nobody else around.”

Clint froze, and then rapidly shuffled off in the other direction.

“I’m not going to chase you. I only wanted to clear the air,” he said, but it was no use. The man was already gone.

“I think it would be grand to clear the air,” an unanticipated voice said. Noel revealed himself from the shadowed beams of the framework, dusting off his rumpled sweater. “Unlike you, I would be willing to give chase, if necessary.”

Henry’s hand instinctively reached for his back pocket, where he felt the reassuring presence of the silver spoon. Carrying it on his person at all times had become something of a paranoid tick, but now it would pay off.

“There’s no need for anything dramatic,” the mayor said. He stayed far back, and spoke quietly. “You made sure of that, didn’t you? I’ve spent weeks digging back through your work. You found out about what I am through the Brihtes. I had no idea how far that family had fallen. But the rune? That threw me for a long time. You got it from Emmaline, didn’t you? How did you learn her craft? How were you successful where nobody else has ever been?”

“I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know myself. But you’re misinformed; I’ve seen others use her magic.”

“Is that so? Well, maybe they can help, then. You have to reverse it.”

“Even if I could, why would I?”

Noel took a single step forward, entering the relief of a streetlight. He was thin. Coarse, unwashed hair covered his face. “Because you’re ashamed. I’ve been silent to the public’s eye lately. They probably assume I’m out on one of my infamous vacations. But I’ve been waiting for the tell-tale issue of your ratty publication to surface. May I ask where it is?”

“We’re waiting until we -”

Noel cut him off. “Do you have any idea what it’s like? What you really did to me? That was a gift I’ve had since I was a child. It wasn’t all illusion and sleight of hand to scare the locals. There are real wolves out in those woods, and I’ve been speaking with them for decades. They’re my friends. Do you understand that? You must, or else you would have spilled it all already.”

“I did what I had to do.”

“And who have you told of this proud accomplishment?”

“Everyone will know. As soon as I have the full story. As soon as I figure out this thing with Emmaline.”

“Emmaline! You’re even dumber than I thought. Where did that woman end up? At the bottom of the ocean. That’s the path you want to follow?”

“It’s better than yours.”

“Everything can go back to normal. I know when I’ve been bested, and this is it. You have my word that I will snoop no further in this Emmaline business—as long as you reverse what you did to me. Or else, I will tell everyone what you did.”

Henry drew his hand from his pocket. “They believe me. They believe in my paper. You have the rest of the month to get your things in order, or else to get out of the village, if you can. Everything we both did is coming out. The public can decide which of us acted worse.”

Noel’s eyes became little reflective plates under the bright fall moon. He stood there in silence, digesting those words, then nodded his head and turned away, melting into the shadows.

***

That night Henry fell straight into sleep. He didn’t have the energy to lull himself with the book’s doubtful incantation. Perhaps because of this he found himself in a different dream than usual. Something familiar, but which he had not been forced to endure in months.

He stood outside of the middle school, thoughts drifting a million miles away. But the door stood ajar, and there were noises from inside. Popping popcorn? Bottle rockets?

Something deep in his mind told him what it was, but even that couldn’t stop him from entering. His feet fell with absolute dread. They echoed off the lockers, off the squeaky linoleum. At the end of the hallway a classroom door opened. That something in his mind started screaming. Don’t look don’t look don’t look!

There were no desks inside. No chalkboard, no cubbies, and no tiny limp bodies on the floor. In fact, there was no floor at all. Emmaline hovered above the crashing waves of the endless ocean, her arms spread wide, smiling down at him.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Give yourself to the water.”

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