It was December the 24th—Christmas Eve—and at Buckmere Hall, the party was raging; well, as much as a well-conducted group of highly educated people could rage. In fact, the Christmas Eve party at Buckmere Hall was always the event of the year. Every person who had the distinct pleasure of being invited knew they had been smiled upon by some act of good fortune.
This year’s party was said to be the best one in ages—though, past guests still spoke in awed tones of the 1997 party, which was said to have been the greatest ever. If you asked anyone who’d actually been there, each told a wildly different story. Some even spoke of a live elephant and an incident involving peacocks, a punch bowl, and a pack of cocker spaniels.
This year, all gold and red and silver and crimson and evergreen was the dazzling hall on that night before Christmas. The lights were dimmed to let the thousand white and red wax candles shine with flickering warm light. An absolutely gigantic fur tree stood in the middle of the room adorned with little metal bobbles, in every colour imaginable, red and gold ribbons, and pine cones and bright candy canes. It all had the effect of some long-ago Christmas—lost to time except in the hearts and dreams of the party-goers.
It would’ve been an immensely splendid way to spend the evening, especially on a cold, softly snowing, winter’s night, if not for the ghost.
Of course, the spectre went unnoticed for some time amongst the revelry, feasting, chatter, and dancing. But as the evening wore on, it was undeniable. There was a presence—of the unloving sort. It was abundantly obvious to five such partygoers and they were as follows:
First, was Jamie Winthrop, a university professor well recognized in his field, who taught classics to gaggles of twenty-somethings for days on end for not enough money. Thus, he felt older—much older, in fact—than he really was. This night, though, he was starting to feel more like himself again. There was nothing like Christmas to wash away all the grime and wear from the previous year. He wore his finest tweed jacket with a festive tie, though amongst the proper suits, he felt significantly under-dressed.
Second, was the award-winning author, Emelia Pevensie, who hadn’t originally thought she would be able to attend the party—though it was her first time being invited. Instead, she thought her schedule would have her overseas, promoting a new book. However, she found herself at a party on Christmas Eve where everyone knew her and she knew almost no one. Fortunately, she did enjoy any excuse to dress up; and this time she outdid herself, with a surprisingly stunning golden number. She could feel everyone looking at her as she swept around the room, but at least this time she wanted them to look.
Thirdly, was Dr. Patricia Ferguson, a brain surgeon at a prestigious hospital in the city. She had removed a benign tumour from the head of Lord Buckmere some years ago, thus earning her a permanent spot on the guest list. A kind and soft-spoken woman, she appreciated the gesture, though she wasn’t much of a “party person”; she would rather be at home with a good book. But, she did enjoy the Christmas shindig and always arrived with bells on.
Our fourth individual was the old Madame Le Pouf—not too old, though, thank you very much. If you were part of the circle which attended these parties, you certainly knew Madame Le Pouf. This wasn’t her real name, of course, but her stage name—known in all corners of the world, at least by civilized folk. She considered herself the best opera singer of the century, and there were plenty who agreed with her. This year, she had decked herself out in furs and jewels—to the disapproval of many animal-friendly party attendees—but she only saw the looks of awe she received from her fans. Her silver hair was decorated with pearls and diamonds, giving her the appearance of royalty.
Last of all, was Timothy Cowell, someone who was considered a brilliant lawyer by many—including a large number of those in attendance. He had just finished a high-profile trial in the city, which had left him in need of a release—in the form of a drink. And release he did, with many full glasses of whisky. This left him looking rather dishevelled amongst the well-kept and tidy individuals which filled Buckmere Hall, but those who knew the details of his case didn’t hold his appearance against him.
Thus are the five key players in this haunted tale. None of them knew each other, nor were connected in any way, except the fact they had all been invited to this party. But, why were they being haunted? Perhaps we will find out.
For now, enjoy the string quartet playing a jaunty tune for the season, and the people dancing about the Christmas tree, and the joyful chatter which can only be heard this time of year.
Jamie Winthrop picked at a plate of hors d’oeuvres by himself near a surprisingly festive wall. He’d barely managed to fit himself in among the boughs of holly. As much as he liked the people here just fine, he didn’t particularly feel like talking trade just now—though these talks usually contained interesting discussions on the topic of his latest paper. Despite the cozy atmosphere and him feeling more like himself, he still felt burnt out by it all, especially since …
“Winthrop, I saw you standing here all by your lonesome and I thought you needed a refill.” The man who spoke was a former colleague—recently retired to travel the world. In his hands were two glasses of something dark and red. The Buckmeres were well known for their wine.
“Thanks, Williams,” Jamie said as he took one of the glasses and a generous sip. He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but he was so used to calling the man Williams, he’d forgotten the man’s first name.
“You look a little exhausted,” Williams said as he assumed a place on the wall beside Jamie, not bothered by the garlands and tinsel. “Everything still going well at the school? It’s not too early to retire, you know.” He was always touting the benefits of retirement and somehow managed to slip it into every conversation he had.
“It’s been a rough month, but I’m doing okay,” Jamie responded as politely as he could, though one month was a bit of an understatement. “The winter break will do me some…”
That’s when he noticed her; across the room, walking through the crowd with a flute of champagne—much more sophisticated than the beer she usually drank. There was no denying it; he could recognize the curve of her back from a mile away. She turned and there was no mistaking those lips. But, there was absolutely no way she could be here at this party with these people. How could he see her as if she was truly there?
The sweep of her royal blue gown; the twinkle of the silver starts adorned her dark brown curls. It was all real. The way she smiled as she spotted him across the room was exactly the way she always did. But, just as she took a step towards Jamie, she disappeared, again.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Winthrop?” Williams asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’m not completely sure I haven’t,” Jamie replied as he put his plate down on a side table beside him and ran a hand over his face. The words felt strange coming out of his mouth because he’d never been one to believe in anything paranormal.
“Well,” Williams started, unfazed by Jamie’s honesty, “you know, houses like these always have a few ghosts running around.”
Jamie doubted any spirits around here would take that form, except to specifically torture him. It had to be a trick of the light or he’d drunk too much wine. But, he felt pins and needles up and down his arms. Perhaps a reaction to seeing something not wholly natural.
He excused himself from the conversation with Williams—whatever his damn name was—and retreated into the hallway, where it was quiet and cool. He could collect his thoughts and maybe sober up a little. The hallway was mostly dark, though a small beam of light leaked from beneath the door to the ballroom.
“It was just ‘an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” he quoted to himself quietly.
But, to be completely honest, he didn’t feel overly drunk. He considered for a moment of walking outside to stand ankle-deep in the snow to clear his head, but it was much too late for any of that.
The temperature around him began to plummet as if someone had opened a window into the winter’s night. He felt his ears pop as the pressure shifted and closed his eyes almost instinctively. When he opened them again, he sorely wished he had kept them closed.
A women’s face peered at him out of the darkness of the hallway—the woman. Though, how could anyone see with no eyes? James stared right into the gaping black holes where her eyes should have been and felt himself unable to move or scream.
He heard her voice, though her mouth remained partially open as if her jaw no longer could hold itself closed:
The time has come, Jamie, she said—sounding somehow simultaneously far away and nearby—for you to finally be honest. You cannot hide your sins any longer.
“Who are you, spirit?” he heard himself asking. “Why do you take that form and how do you know me?”
She didn’t react. Her bone-white face continued to stare at him without eyes. If he had the ability, Jamie would’ve screamed until his throat bled. But, the voice continued.
Tell the truth, Jamie Winthrop, or else.
“What will happen?” he questioned timidly. He trembled quietly, unable to take his eyes off the yawning holes in her skull.
He knew exactly what this was about—why the spirit wanted him to be honest. It was the reason he’d been so burnt out; the reason he needed this break. The spectre—however ghastly—had taken the form of one of his students.
It had all been his responsibility—his fault—he knew, as he should have said no from the beginning. She was all charm and sparkling eyes full of passion and he hadn’t wanted to say no—not at the time. So he did what so many men had done before him and will continue to do after: he cheated on his spouse with someone half his age. She was barely twenty, in fact.
He’d heard of the affairs of others, how could he not? He had rolled his eyes at the stupidity of it all. How could they be so dense? How could they succumb to their basest natures? But, face-to-face with his own torrid affair, he understood what it was like to be the cliché.
Over and over he told himself he would end it, every time she left his bed that it was the last time, and over and over he didn’t. Her beguiling ways had a firm hold on him—though that was placing too much blame on her. In his most honest moments with himself, he admitted how much he enjoyed her youthful exuberance and he liked being with a woman.
Jamie’s husband was the dearest soul in the world, there was no question. He loved his husband with all his heart. Trying to compare his feelings was like trying to compare apples and oranges. But, there was something about her which drew him in, in ways he’d never felt before.
He finally came to his senses, though, after months of secrets and tiptoeing. Like all things of this kind, ending the affair didn’t go well. She accused him of using her and promised to tell everyone of their affair—ruin his life by ending his job and his marriage in one fell swoop. He managed to talk her down somehow, by promising her better grades, letters of recommendation, anything he could offer. She accepted then, but he knew it was only a matter of time before she came forward. So, he drafted a letter of resignation, which now sat in a drawer in his desk, for when he finally had the nerve to send it.
You tell them. Tell them all. Or I will.
With a sneer painted across its face, the ghost looked more sinister. The more Jamie looked—though, he didn’t have much choice—the less it looked like her. The face was shifting and changing into something unrecognizable, distorted, and mutilated.
He thought of his husband then, who would be at his mum’s like they agreed when Jamie received an invitation to the party. Suddenly there was no place Jamie would rather be, even if it meant losing everything. He couldn’t break Evan’s heart, but he knew he must. There was no escaping it, just as there was no escaping the gaping black gaze of the spirit, whose last semblance of humanity had melted away and was replaced by something Jamie couldn’t begin to describe.
It rushed at him then, cavernous eyeholes and all, and sent him falling onto the floor with a cry. He hit the back of his head against the wall behind him with a sickening thump. When he looked up to face his doom, there was nothing but an empty hallway.
The ghost was gone. It had given him his ultimatum, and it was up to him to see it through.
Jamie sighed and leaned back against the wall, and reassured himself he wasn’t having a heart attack—which he most certainly wasn’t. Eventually, his breathing slowed and his heartbeat stopped pounding in his ears like an ominous drum. He was finally able to stand, though his head throbbed where it made contact with the wall—the wall itself didn’t feel a thing.
Just as he was starting to feel “normal” again, the screaming began.
Before Jamie Winthrop had his ghostly experience in the hallway and before the mysterious screams echoed through the ballroom, our resident author, Emelia Pevensie, was having quite the time. After feeling proud of herself for creating such a spectacle when she arrived—the golden dress really was a knock-out—she was now having to contend with the consequences. People knew who she was, they knew she was at the party, and they wanted to speak with her about her next book.
She’d been cornered not more than half-an-hour after she arrived. While she was flattered that these individuals—especially the type who attended this party—were interested in her work, she was terrified of having to disappoint anyone.
By all accounts, she wasn’t even supposed to be there. It was almost ironic, for if she hadn’t been there, she would’ve had something to talk about with them. But, since she was attending the party, she didn’t. And it was a hellish experience; an awful Catch-22 where the only loser was her.
She could have called sick, sent her sincerest apologies, but the thought hadn’t occurred to her until she had already been surrounded and inundated with questions.
“When will the next book be published?”
“What is it going to be about?”
“Have you been feeling the pressure of having to follow your award-winning debut?”
No. Nothing. And yes, obviously.
She didn’t say any of this aloud but danced around the questions just as gracefully as she could. One thing she’d learned, especially after attending award ceremonies, as people didn’t often want blunt honesty. They wanted something sweet and palatable to chew on while they talked behind your back about how your book was so pretentious and pseudo-intellectual that they could barely get through it. All while smiling to your face, of course.
So, she gave them excuses and vague untruths, all of which were received well enough. Emelia knew they all considered themselves writers, despite never having written anything more than a grocery list, and believed themselves understanding of the struggles and hardships of such a life. Though, none of them genuinely knew what it was like to hold the hopes and expectations of millions of readers as they watched and waited for the inevitable next piece of genius.
The truth of it was she hadn’t written a word since Hapsburg’s Paradise was published—over two years ago.
She was deftly deflecting questions and the usual, “I could be a writer if I had the time,” when she spotted something strange across the room. It was a figure, which looked sort of man-shaped, at least to her, wearing a hood, which obscured his face from view. He looked familiar—as much as he could when she couldn’t see his face—but she couldn’t pinpoint from where. It was odd to see someone dressed in such a fashion at this lavish party. No one else seemed to notice him as he stood perfectly still amongst the swirling crowd.
Excusing herself with many smiles and apologies, Emelia snuck away to investigate this mysterious figure. She found the spot where she’d seen him, but realized quickly he was no longer there.
It didn’t take long, though, before she found herself the centre of attention again. More strangers asking her the same questions in different ways. She couldn’t help but be a little pleased since so many had read and enjoyed her work, but it was more diplomacy than she ever wanted to partake. Especially with people who didn’t know her. It would be another thing entirely if she actually knew them and they actually cared about her thoughts and opinions, but all those standing in front of her had was an idea of her they’d built in their minds.
He was there again—the hooded figure—in a different location near the Christmas tree in the centre of the room. A little closer than he had been before. She still couldn’t shake the feeling she knew him somehow.
Again, she attempted to find him in the crowd but was unable. Before anyone had another chance to ambush her, she saw him once more. He grew ever closer, but never close enough to get a look. His identity remained a mystery, though his presence was imposing
“Who are you?” she whispered to herself as she watched him, still unmoving, hooded and dark.
Unless she could get a closer look, Emelia had no way of knowing who he was. But, was it what she really wanted? As much as she didn’t want to be picked apart by strangers, this dark stalker was something different—a new sort of hell. He was always there, watching, even when she tried to ignore him. She felt his eyes on her.
“Are you Emelia Pevensie?”
“Yes,” she answered, sounding more exasperated than she meant. “What can I do for you?”
Emelia turned and found herself looking at a timid young woman, who looked not much younger than herself. This stranger had ash blonde hair and striking blue eyes.
“I didn’t mean to bother you,” she said shyly.
Emelia smiled warmly and waved at her dismissively. “You’re not bothering me.”
“Oh good,” she said, looking vastly relieved. “I just thought I should ask if you were all right. The look on your face made me think you’d seen a ghost.”
“Oh!” Emelia couldn’t help but laugh—somewhat surprised her emotions were worn so plainly on her face. “I think perhaps I have,” she said, still laughing.
The young woman looked more intrigued than shocked or concerned. “I’ve always wanted to see a ghost. It would be such an amazing experience—not to mention a great story.”
“Are you a writer?”
“No. I mean, not like you,” the young woman stammered. “I’ve written a handful of short stories—even had one published—but I could never write a whole novel.”
Emelia smiled. “You should keep working. You never know, one of those stories could turn into something bigger.” Then quietly she said, “And if you write, you’re a writer. Just like me.”
The young woman blushed so much, her whole face turned bright red. She thanked Emelia repeatedly before disappearing back into the crowd. As she watched the girl leave, Emelia realized she’d never even asked the girl’s name. But, the conversation was enough to lift her spirits and remind her of when she herself had been a writer just starting.
Emelia was still feeling gracious, the warmth of an authentic interaction making her glow until she noticed a familiar shadow in her eye line. He was closer now and as ominous as ever. She could now see a horrific smirk under the hood. Again, she felt as if she should know him somehow, but his identity continued to allude her.
To escape the crowd, her guilt, and the haunting figure, Emelia dashed to the bathroom. Well, it was more a simple powder room but was still adorned with as much Christmas cheer as the ballroom, but in the peace and quiet, it was more a comfort than an overwhelming sensation. She stood at the pedestal sink and took several long deep breaths. Thoughts swirled around her head like a hurricane, but they were slowly losing momentum.
She leaned over the sink and—very carefully, as to not smudge her makeup—splashed a little cool water on her face, which had the effect of calming her more.
A hand grabbed her shoulder and yanked her back to standing. The force caused her to stumble back a step. In the mirror, she saw the figure who had been stalking her most of the evening; he was standing behind her so close she could almost feel his breath on her neck. His skin was greyish and discoloured, with bruises and marks from an unknown altercation. He still wore the smirk, which seemed more a sneer this close. She still couldn’t see his eyes, but she could feel them staring at her under the hood. The hairs on her arms stood on end and she let out a shriek. She whirled around and…
Nothing. He was gone.
She gasped and looked back at the mirror as if perhaps his reflection would still be there. But it wasn’t. She then realized where she knew him and it made the encounter even more startling. He wasn’t even real.
He had been a character in her novel. More importantly, he was a character whom she’d killed off in the final draft. She didn’t want to—he had been a key fixture in the story—but her editor insisted it would “seal the deal” on Hapsburg’s Paradise becoming a classic. Apparently, she had been right.
Indeed, he was a ghost, but how—why—was he haunting her now?
It didn’t make sense, but there was no denying what she saw. If only she knew what else was going to take place this evening, her confusion would be even more profound.
Patricia Ferguson—or Dr. Ferguson, if you weren’t well acquainted—never really dreaded these parties at Buckmere Hall, though she’d freely admit she’d rather be doing something else. And she certainly didn’t dread the “Christmas Eve Ball,” as she called it. Truly, she enjoyed it very much, which said more about her love of Christmas than any feelings she had for or against parties. This year was no exception, as stated earlier, she came with bells on. Literally. Her dress, an inky indigo blue, had tiny silver bells attached which jingled cheerfully as she walked. Secretly, she referred to herself as a Christmas fairy.
It was the first bout of cheer she’d felt in a long time.
She deserved it as much as anyone at the party—perhaps more. As a brain surgeon, she was plenty privy to the horrors of life. But, as probably one of the best surgeons in the country, she was steady enough to know just as many joys accompanied the pains. This year had been especially kind to her with many many successful surgeries and treatments, all except…
This was not the night to think of such things. So, she did her best not to and enjoyed socializing with all the “regulars” she recognized. She also noted a number of fresh faces which was a sign of good humour in Lady Buckmere.
This was indeed one of the best “Christmas Balls” that she’d attended. The way the lights and decorations invoked the pure feeling of Christmas; joy and generosity and love and hope. It was like stepping into the most idyllic Charles Dickens novel. The magic in the room was palpable— it seemed to dance through the crowd like a guest itself. It was almost enough to erase the deep woes of Patricia’s heart.
But even amongst the smiles and laughter and frivolity, a dark shadow hung over the good doctor. No one really noticed, of course, because no one ever does. Patricia knew well everyone was so busy with their own trials, that the trials of others—unless particularly specified—were of no consequence to them. This didn’t mean everyone was selfish, no. But, it’s incredibly hard to live outside one’s reality, isn’t it?
Patricia found it hard not to live inside other’s sorrows. She would’ve thought years in a hospital would’ve numbed her, but she felt everything still.
This was not the time, though.
What was the time, indeed? As much as Patricia loved these Christmas parties, she always found herself checking the clock—not out of any conscious desire to leave, more of the unconscious sort. It was nearly 11:30 pm—which, for sake of keeping track was 20 minutes before Emelia’s encounter and 35 minutes before Jamie is knocked down in the hallway. Patricia was unconsciously disappointed because it was still too early to go home, but late enough that she was starting to feel it.
However, she could ignore the constant gnawing fatigue if she put her mind to it. And there were certainly plenty of distractions to keep Patricia occupied at least for a couple more hours—when it would be a less awkward time to leave.
But, Patricia would soon forget all about leaving—whether consciously or not.
As she helped herself to another plate of food from the immense and almost intimidatingly varied spread of food, something caught her eye at the end of the table. She glanced over and almost dropped her plate on the floor—fortunately for the cleaning staff, she didn’t. At the other end of the buffet was a ghost.
She knew it was a ghost because she was looking into the face of a young girl who’d passed away six months ago—almost to the day.
“Holly?” Patricia whispered, just loud enough for herself to hear.
The phantom, looking fairly fresh from the grave with translucent pale skin and dark circles under her glassy eyes, nodded slowly then backed away with a beckoning hand.
Dr. Ferguson wasn’t sure if she wanted to follow Holly, wherever she was trying to lead her but found her feet moving anyway. She was led to a quiet corner away from the bustle of the festivities. However, the ghost simply stared at her with cloudy dead eyes and mouth slightly agape.
Perhaps she was waiting for Patricia to speak first.
“What do you need from me, Holly?” She spoke the ghost’s name slowly as if she was unsure of whether the ghost still used the name.
“In life,” the ghost began slowly and gravely, “I was Holly. Now, I am charged with purpose on this night.”
“What purpose is that?”
“A warning. This night is going to be fraught with terrors for a number of those at this party.”
“Oh dear,” Patricia said softly, though found it a little ironic because this was a sort of terror of her own. “Sounds terrible. What kind of terrors?”
“Each will be haunted by a ghastly creature of their own making. How they react will determine the course of their futures.”
“But, why tell me this? What can I do?”
“That, I cannot tell. You will know at the right moment what is needed. I wish I could say more, but my time in this place is almost over.”
“Wait,” Patricia said firmly. “Tell me one thing.”
The ghost waited, though the ghastly expression didn’t change.
“Please tell me if you are at peace.” She would’ve said more, but couldn’t bring herself to speak the words.
For the first time, and only for a moment, Holly smiled—as much as a dead person could smile. Her lips twitched upwards for a second then fell again, as if the motion was too much for her. Patricia felt the warmth, if only sparingly.
“You carry guilt on your shoulders,” Holly said, “but it is unnecessary. My death was not your responsibility to bear. I am at peace, for it was my time.” Without another word, Holly disappeared—well, not disappeared so much as she faded slowly, eventually becoming nothing but the wall behind her.
Patricia turned around, her eyes darting through the crowd as though she could find the ghost and its victims simply by looking. Everything appeared normal—the partygoers were partying, the music still floated around the room. It was all revelry and joy; it was hard to imagine anything terrible or terrifying happening.
A chill, she didn’t realize had settled on her bones, began to lift and the borderline suffocating warmth of the ballroom crept back up and cocooned her again. It occurred to her momentarily this could’ve all been a hallucination or some sort of mental break. All the guilt must’ve poured out from her deep subconscious and created the image of Holly’s ghost.
She felt mildly disgusted with herself. What a disrespectful way to remember a patient she had lost.
Despite the ridiculousness and illogical nature of this paranormal experience, it felt just as real as the people she’d been talking to before. Holly had been there and something was going to happen here. What it could be, she couldn’t tell. She would have to wait and see what was to come if it was indeed coming at all.
If we were keeping a chronology, Madame Le Pouf’s scene would begin now. But, we shall leave it for last. For now, we will visit Timothy Cowell, the lawyer, after Dr. Ferguson had her ghostly encounter. Jamie and Emelia were yet to have theirs.
Timothy, or Tim—or even Timmy, he didn’t mind either way—was having a surprisingly good time. He had found himself with the attentions of a very attractive woman and had spent a good deal of the evening entertaining and dancing with her. For someone usually so awkward with just about everyone—he was amazed at how easily he could talk to her. If he’d heard her correctly, her name was either Rachel or Rebecca. At this point, he was too embarrassed to ask again. Otherwise, he was having a grand old time.
They were laughing and joking and prancing about like they were drunk, which they weren’t particularly. At least, they didn’t consider themselves that drunk.
Tim could almost forget about the moment he’d first arrived, the room buzzed with whisperings of everyone who’d been keeping up with his latest trial. Considering it had been on television, he wasn’t surprised in the least. But, it was enough to send him into an embarrassment spiral until he’d met Rachel—or Rebecca.
He continued to dance the night away, downing more glasses of whisky than he could keep track of. A dishevelled quality began to appear, unnoticed and unheeded by Tim, though people who did notice paid no mind. They were sympathetic. A man, especially one who’d been through what he had, deserved a chance to relax sometime. And he wasn’t causing any disruption, so they were all willing to look the other way.
“You want to get out of here?” Rachbecca asked. Her cheeks were flushed with drink and the exertion of dancing, which only added to her allure, and her eyes drooped seductively.
Who could refuse such an offer? Not Tim, certainly.
Thus, Tim found himself kissing a beautiful woman out in a hallway—though, a different one than the one Jamie would find himself in later. It was as dark in the hallway as the kissing was sensual, which was to say it was sort of middle-y both ways. Tim wasn’t going to complain one ounce because who wouldn’t want to be kissed, even drunkenly, by such a woman? And the kisses weren’t bad, either. In fact, despite it all, he was enjoying himself immensely.
Until something caught his eye and he froze. The haze of his intoxicated state evaporated instantly as the ghostly chains dragged across the floor with metallic rattling.
It took Rachbecca a moment to notice Tim had stopped responding to her affections, but she eventually pulled away with an inquisitive look.
But Tim was far away—figuratively, at least—and didn’t see her at all. His eyes were firmly fixed on the dim hallway behind her as he beheld the prisoner. Though it was merely a shadow with indistinguishable features, he knew it was a prisoner—jumpsuit, chains, and all. Worst of all, he knew exactly who it was, this prisoner.
“Dear God,” he whispered, backing away only to find a wall in his path.
“What’s wrong?” Rachbecca looked around, but, of course, couldn’t see the spectre.
Tim didn’t respond, or couldn’t more like, but simply took off in a sprint down the hallway and away from the ghoulish figure. As he ran, he could hear the dragging of chains behind him, and a million thoughts spun through his mind. They were all of the trial and the poor soul he’d failed to save.
He had no one to blame but himself. It had been him, and only him, who had missed a key piece of evidence. And now it was too late. He could petition for an appeal, a retrial, something, but it wouldn’t happen until well into the new year. An innocent man was sitting in prison over the holidays while Timothy had gone to a party.
How could he forgive himself?
He burst forth from a door into the frigid night air. It was a clear and crisp evening, with stars shining brightly above. In another life, Tim had wanted to study the celestial bodies and explore the universe, but reality and his parents had other plans. Still, whenever he was under the sky, and it was dark enough to see the galaxy turning above him, he always needed a moment to mourn his lost love.
Not this night, though. On this deep and cold Christmas Eve, the sky could have been falling in around him and he couldn’t have seen it. His eyes were fixed dead ahead on some ineffable safe place, where he could escape the enormous guilt of his failure.
Madame Le Pouf would probably never notice a ghost even if it came up and poked her on the nose. Usually.
To establish ourselves in this somewhat convoluted timeline, Madame Le Pouf stayed blissfully ignorant of the presence of any paranormal activity while each of the other players in this tale were having their experiences. The scene which takes place thusly was in the moments before Jame Winthrop’s confrontation in the dark hallway. By this time, Dr. Patricia had been warned and was on the lookout for something—of what she wasn’t completely sure. And poor Timothy Cowel was waist-deep in the snow.
Madame deserves some credit, to do her justice, as much as she was fairly oblivious, it was to some purpose. This night was the eve of an event—separate from those in this story—which she would very much like to forget. And she was succeeding quite comfortably. There were enough people around her, delectables to eat, and carols to sing. She kept no fewer than four hangers-on around her at once, for the aim of this distraction.
It worked, for there was jolly laughter and entertaining conversations galore. Not a moment could be spared on anything else. Certainly not anything of the grim and ghoulish variety. No, certainly not.
Currently, Madame was in the middle of joking with a most outrageous gentleman—a young duke, or something, she couldn’t quite remember. He was ridiculous, for one, because he was of the new way of doing things. It could be said with full confidence that Madame was of the old-fashioned sort, and didn’t often agree with anything young folk had to say. But, this young duke, or whatever, had a good sense of humour, so she took advantage.
In another life, many moons past, Madame might’ve also found herself flirting with him, but as she was greying—gracefully, thank you very much—she couldn’t even think of such a thing. Even in small fantastical moments. Those types of flights of fancy were behind her. But she could still have a good time, no doubt, and young men still proved fun at her age.
He was a handsome fellow, certainly, with dark brown, almost black, hair and grey eyes that could be roguish in moments and quite charming in others. His smile was toothy and wide and whenever he laughed, his company couldn’t help but join in.
In contrast, Madame felt herself quite elegant and subdued, with her matronly silver hair—though, this was her view only as she was more dressed and decked than the Christmas tree itself in the centre of the room. But, this ageing woman imagined herself quite the humble belle of the ball, in spite of her laughter which carried across the room, and wherever she went, she had a small entourage around her. As it stands, she was, in fact, one of the most famous guests in attendance, and people were often enthralled by her presence therefore paid no mind to her conduct. Though it could be said surely, she conducted herself no worse than anyone—especially certain drunken lawyers.
“And the pigeon in the tree said, ‘Fruit cake’!”
The crowd of twelve or so around Madame burst into laughter at the punchline of a joke, which wasn’t that funny, but everyone, having helped themselves to a generous amount of alcohol, found it funny enough. Our lovely Madame beamed with joy and pride at making such a splendid sensation. She knew that everyone not in her party must be seethingly jealous of their good time.
If only Madame Le Pouf could have stayed in such a jovial state, but then her purpose in this story would be lost. Unfortunately, she was due for a fright.
She didn’t deserve it, of course. Perhaps less than most. Despite her outward countenance, she was hiding darkness which no one would ever see if she could help it; a tragic history, it haunted her at low levels every single day of the year. Her past acted as a ghost she could never quite shake, but she could hide it away in the deepest recesses of her heart.
But, there was something else going on this night. If I could explain it in any sort of way, I would. Alas, there is nothing I can do.
The unfortunate Madame’s spectre appeared to her and caused her to turn white as a sheet. Peering out at her from around the huge Christmas tree was a face and two boney hands. It wasn’t much, for the ghost—whoever it was—didn’t seem sinister, but it was enough. And maybe that’s what made it more horrific. The face gazed at her almost pathetically. Tears looked to be streaming down the sallow cheeks from glazed and foggy eyes. If it came out of hiding, Madame knew, the wound where the knife had cut all the life out of her would be visible.
“No, no!” Madame cried, almost falling into the arms of the person beside her.
“Is she okay?”
“Madame, what happened?”
“She looks like she’s going to faint.”
All this was said and more in the commotion as people rushed about to make sure she didn’t collapse or she wasn’t having some sort of health crisis. Madame screamed a little more before being seated in a chair with a glass of brandy to calm her nerves.
By this time, Jamie had come in from the hallway in search of the source of the screaming. Though, he looked like he needed his own glass of brandy.
A crowd had begun forming, including Dr. Ferguson and Emelia. Both of whom approached Madame, feeling it in their bones they knew the reason for her fright. They caught each other’s eyes and recognized in each other a certain knowledge only those who’d glimpsed beyond the veil would possess.
Under the pretence of wanting to give Madame Le Pouf a thorough checking over in a quiet place, Dr. Ferguson, with the help of Emelia and Jamie—who had also noticed the frightened looks of these women and had come to understand their experiences matched his—escorted Madame into a quiet room and set her down on the sofa.
“Madame,” Dr. Ferguson started slowly, “did you see something upsetting?”
“Yes,” Madame sniffed, her hand holding the glass shaking as she took a sip, “but, how did you know?”
Patricia looked around at the others standing behind the sofa and wondered how to begin.
So we find four of our players sitting around the crackling fire of the cozy library of Buckmere Hall. The room—all warm tones and dark wood it was—with its numerous bookshelves and comforting places to sit, seemed to absorb any outside sounds before it could disturb the sensibilities of those inside. The three who’d assisted Madame into this quiet place each told the story of their encounters, beginning with Patricia and the warning from Holly, to Jamie and his shameful confession, to Emelia with her fright in the bathroom. Then Madame told them what she saw.
“My sister,” the elderly woman said quietly, “was murdered seven years ago this very evening.”
Emelia brought her hands to her mouth as she gasped, feeling embarrassed at being so frightened by a fictional character. “I’m so sorry,” she managed to say.
Madame waved away Emelia’s words of consolation. “You don’t need to feel sorry for me, dear. Now that I’ve got a stiff drink and a moment to clear my head, it doesn’t seem so harrowing. I was just startled, is all.” She said all this with a laugh, but Patricia wasn’t sure she believed Madame’s flippancy.
“But, what does it all mean?” asked Jamie, speaking for the first time since he’d told his story. “What does the ghost want?”
“I think we all know what the ghost wants from you,” Emelia said bitterly. She had no patience for men and their cliché affairs.
Jamie sheepishly shrunk back into silence. But, he had a point. There had to be a reason for these paranormal events. What it could be was anyone’s guess at this point.
The door to the library swung open with a sudden boom, and a snow-covered Tim stood in the doorway. He looked more like an abominable snowman than human, and even in the dim warm light of the fire, his skin had an odd pale colour to it. He said nothing, but moaned quietly and swayed, as he was unsteady on his frozen feet.
Dr. Ferguson jumped into action immediately, only taking the briefest moment to assess the situation. Somehow, she knew this was what she’d been warned about.
The group was beckoned around Tim, though no one knew his name yet, and they used their collective body heat to warm him gradually. When he stopped shaking so violently, Dr. Ferguson guided him closer to the fire, where he could continue to warm himself. Jamie dashed out and brought back with him a large mug of steaming coffee. Before long, Tim was sat on a stool by the crackling warmth of the fireplace and cradling and sipping from his mug.
“What happened to you?” Emelia asked when it finally seemed appropriate.
His voice was shaky, but he responded, “I was drunk—very drunk—and scared myself.”
“That must have been some scare,” Patricia said, inspecting his fingers for frostbite.
“I thought I saw a… well, before I realized it was only a trick of the light, I’d run so far in the snow I was a little lost.”
The others looked at each other knowingly. He’d also seen something, even if he couldn’t admit it yet. Why the five of them been singled out and what were they supposed to do remained a mystery still. It seemed what connected them was the realization, the reveal of some truth, whether conscious or unconscious.
But, why had Madame been tormented by the image of her murdered sister? Why did the prisoner appear to Timothy? Neither of them deserved more guilt.
The only one who knew exactly what his task was, was Jamie—whose ultimatum rang in his head like an ominous bell. But, this left him free to ponder the reasons for others. There had to be something.
“Madame,” he said timidly as he approached her. After the ordeal of saving Timothy from freezing to death, she’d returned to her place on the sofa. “Your sister, was her murderer ever found?”
Madame simply shook her head. “Cold to this day.”
Timothy, though still looking rather bedraggled, perked up. “Are you referring to the 2012 murder in Vienna?”
“That very one,” Madame said solemnly.
“I’ve actually been fascinated with the case for years. I mean, I like to study cold cases in my spare time. There is some interesting evidence which was overlooked in the initial investigation.”
Tim and Madame began talking to each other about his theories, and soon enough, they were in their own little sphere. Like magic, the strangers had become something more.
The quiet room, made for reading, seemed also made for connecting; with a friendly fire and books to fill hundreds of minds with new ideas. It was close, but not so close. Jamie saw what he’d done and smiled.
He turned to Patricia and Emelia, who were standing by the bookshelves and watching the scene. Knowing what he had to do, he approached them.
“Dr. Patricia?” he said, “I’m interested in your encounter with Holly. It seems so different from the rest of ours. Can you tell me about it again?”
Patricia agreed and told her story again, this time with more detail. As she elaborated, especially about Holly herself, Jamie noticed Emelia listening intently, her eyes lighting up gradually. There was a spark there obvious enough for all to see.
When the good doctor finished her tale, Emelia said, “Would you mind if I asked you some more questions? This story had weirdly tickled something in me and I finally feel inspired. If you knew me, you’d know how big a deal that is.”
So Patricia and Emelia retired to another corner of the room, where Emelia could ply Dr. Ferguson with gentle questions about Holly. This room had done its job again and connected two more souls.
Jamie stood alone, watching the others talk and become part of each other’s stories. Perhaps, he had done his job as well and the purpose of it all was merely connection. Once, they had been individuals, apart from each other in their sorrow, but it was that which had brought them together.
But, there was still one connection left to make. Without a word, Jamie slipped from the room and made his way down the dimly lit hallway. The joyful sounds of the party were muffled echoes around him as he strode to the front door. He didn’t look, but he was sure a shadowy figure was watching him as he buttoned his wool coat and walked out into the night.
Behind him, the revellers continued on in their glittering, sparkling, laughing, singing Christmas revelry without any awareness of the strange happenings of the night. Above Buckemere Hall, the stars twinkled in the cold winter sky, silent and calm.
The only sound which could be heard outside was the crunch of snow beneath Jamie’s shoes as he walked across the snowy walk to his car. His hand shook with nerves as he reached for the door handle. The truth would be painful—horrifically so—but it had to be done.
For a moment, he looked up at the moon, with its silvery gown of light made especial for this evening, and thought that is smiled on him. Perhaps if he listened hard enough, he could hear it softly singing a song for the coming Christmas day.
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