“This is kind of ballsy,” Davis McKenna said with an unkind smile.
Eve frowned, arms crossed over her blouse. She’d always hated. “I prefer unorthodox.”
“Uh huh,” Davis sniffed. His eyes drifted to the next chair over, where Henry sat still save for an anxious bouncing leg. “And you’re sure about this?”
“You’ve heard Eve’s answer,” Henry said in a clipped tone. “So are you going to let us get a move on or are you gonna stand in our way for another quarter hour?”
“Just for that, I should say no.”
“Then say no, Davis. Quit wasting time.”
Davis shook his head. “You two are a lot of fucking trouble for a pair of sophomores.”
Eve arched a single elegant eyebrow. “You’ll find we’re juniors.”
Eve shifted in her chair, no longer hiding her distaste. The gold chain of her necklace shone like warm honey in the low light. It was all Andrew could focus on during the club meeting that night. It was only his fourth and they were already bending long-standing tradition for him. Henry had asked and Eve had demanded because Andrew was losing his grip. It was mortifying to say the least.
It was a Friday night. The winter holidays and exam week loomed ahead of them. Thanksgiving had been a brief respite from the horrible dreams and tracing fingers. It returned all too quickly, turning him into a shadow once more. At lunch on Monday, Eve had remarked, “you look like week-old horse-shit” before pressing a hand to his forehead. She knew why. Eve also knew how to fix it.
“And our little novitiate is going to be the center of it?” Davis asked, jerking a thumb behind him to where Andrew stood.
Henry’s face was chilly, uninviting. It was a relief seeing him return to form after days of uncharacteristic softness. “Andrew will be guiding us through, yes. He is the one whom the spirit is attached to. It only makes sense. I’ll be the vessel.”
The room's silence hardened. Sixteen pairs of eyes focused on the singular point of Henry March. Andrew was no different, a lump forming in his throat. His eyes slid to the next chair over, where Eve sat in stunned disbelief. She had said the pair of them had discussed every inch of this plan, and Henry had found a way to unnerve her. That didn’t sit well.
Davis McKenna didn’t notice. He leaned back in his chair, regarding Henry with something like pride. Andrew didn’t imagine the senior boy was impressed, just snide. “Alright, March. Have it any way you like. A circle of chairs?”
“I think that would be best.”
“Let’s get to it then.”
The club members rose and moved the layout of the classroom around them. Eve took Andrew by the wrist and moved him to the center of the room before rejoining the swirl. Soon, another familiar presence joined his side.
Andrew shook his head. “I don’t like this, Henry.”
“You don’t need to like it. It’ll be fine,” Henry murmured, rolling up his sleeves. He undid his tie and tossed it towards his bag and discarded uniform blazer. No part of him showed anxiety. He didn’t seem to register the unease spreading through the dark room. Henry March, it seemed, did not feel fear that night.
“What happens?” Andrew started. “I mean, to you. Is there, like, a spell or something.”
Henry snorted, pushing his glasses back up his nose. “It’s hardly so pedestrian, Fox.”
“I think I should be offended.”
“All you have to do is concentrate on your spirit friend and I’ll do the rest.” Henry patted him on the shoulder, an easy smile on his face. “If all else, listen to Eve. She’s the expert.”
Andrew nodded. “I don’t doubt that.”
The room plunged into silence. Club members sat in chairs arranged in a tight circle. A few illicit candles glowed where the cardinal directions might lay on a compass rose. Andrew and Henry were left standing in the center of the circle. It felt like a movie --unreal, somehow scripted. Everyone knew their roles and rules. Everyone knew their places. Everyone except Andrew, lost and helpless.
It was achingly quiet as Henry crouched, kneeling as if in supplication. He gave Andrew a pointed look then closed his eyes.
Andrew closed his eyes and hung his head between his shoulders. He concentrated on his breathing, as Eve had instructed. He conjured up images from his dreams, let the sound of the ghost’s voice ring through his mind, the grey hazy face from the dark interior of the spring house floating in his thoughts. He took slow breaths, feeling himself teetering near sleep. He imagined ounce after ounce of energy rolling off of him into the dark classroom.
A brush of fingers on the back of his neck. Just skirting the sharp fold of his starched collar.
What can I do for you, Mr. Fox? You never call on me.
One thing, if you wouldn’t mind. I want to talk. Face to face, Andrew replied in his thoughts, apprehension beginning to creep in. See my friend on the floor? You’re allowed to use him.
He could feel the ghost considering. Long seconds passing between them, then: Alright… What’s his name?
I don’t want to frighten him. He’s not as brave as he believes he is.
But frightening me is alright?
Possession is very different, Mr. Fox. You'll understand shortly. The ghost hummed and cleared his throat expectantly. His name, please?
Andrew nodded. "Henry."
"Wha-- oh." There was a cough, a low groan, then a heavy thud. "Oh christ."
When Andrew opened his eyes, Henry was curled on his side, clutching the front of his shirt. His eyes were screwed shut, his mouth a thin line as his body trembled and twitched on the rug. His limbs moved of their own accord. His shoulders, hips, and legs twisting like a snake shedding its skin. A horrible gurgling noise came from the center of his throat.
Henry went limp -- a rag doll on the classroom floor. Hung in suspension, barely even breathing. Andrew moved forward but something caught him around the ankle. He stumbled and fell to his knees with a bang.
Another groan sounded in the stale air, originating again from Henry. It wasn’t human or, at least, it wasn’t any sound he’d ever heard another human make. Henry’s body wriggled, then pulled itself back up to kneeling, fingers spread and his head hanging. He took in a shuddering, terrible breath then lifted a hand to his face, stretching his fingers as he inspected them.
“Lord almighty it's been too long…” Henry said, but it wasn’t Henry’s voice. It was light with a teasing lilt. A far cry from the darker, warmer tone Andrew knew as Henry. Henry -- Not Henry, he supposed -- lifted his head, smirked and winked. “Your friend is lucky, Andrew. I was never so tall in life.”
In front of him was Henry March in form and face. All five-foot-ten of him in neatly ironed slacks and polished boots. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close. It wasn’t Henry’s voice. His mannerisms and posture were all wrong. This Henry leaned into one hip, his shoulders at a relaxed angle. A little bon vivant; a little Tennessee Williams. He was graceful on his feet in a way Henry hadn’t yet mastered.
It was jarring.
It was wrong.
Henry had never called him Andrew.
Andrew was horrified and enthralled in equal measure. Henry, but not. A whole soul without a name he knew yet.
Henry’s body stood, brushing off his trousers. He shimmied, seeming to fill out and adjust to his new boundaries. He took a few steps, then caught his reflection in the dark windows beyond the circle. He grinned widely and preened, chuffed about what he saw.
“Well, hello there… He’s quite the little sheik isn’t here?” He undid the top buttons of his shirt and played with Henry’s dark hair. “If only we were all so lucky in life.”
“Who are you?” Andrew breathed.
Not Henry turned towards him. “Almost forgot you were there. I suppose we haven’t been properly introduced.”
“Not at all.”
Not Henry strode back up to him, thrusting a hand into Andrew’s face. “Elliot Lennox. It’s a pleasure.”
Andrew stared at the hand. Henry hadn’t even made eye contact when Eve had introduced them. It was such a foreign gesture from a familiar person, but Andrew took it anyway. Best to be polite. “Nice to meet you.”
Elliot-Henry tilted his head and tucked his hands into his trouser pockets. He took a turn about the closed circle of students, marveling at their surroundings. “Not much has changed, has it? See, I thought the Veil gave you the veneer of what you remembered of a place to make it comfortable, but I guess not…” He sighed. “God it feels good to walk. Can you imagine? Almost a full century off your feet? Not all it’s cut out to be, I’m afraid.”
Andrew caught Eve’s gaze as he pushed himself back to standing. She appeared just as unmoored as he felt. Her dark eyes were nervous. The skin of her face had lost its color, looking sickly pale in the low light. He wanted to grab her hand and take them both out of this place, but he didn’t. He couldn’t break the circle. There would be time enough to recover later.
“You’re an awful quiet bunch,” Elliot said. “Does no one have a question?” He pulled a face and shivered. “Keep it down would you?” He raised his eyes to Andrew and half shrugged. “Your friend’s kicking up a fuss. My apologies.”
Andrew was suddenly stricken by fresh terror. Somewhere, stuffed down deep inside his own skin, Henry March was conscious. He was still there, struggling just under the surface, against the barrier of another soul taking all of him up. Andrew swallowed back a flush of nausea at the thought.
Elliot was still talking. He liked the sound of his own voice apparently.
“Lord what are these?” Elliot pulled the glasses from Henry’s nose. He held them up with both hands, squinting in distaste at their smudged lenses. He shot Andrew a laughing look. “Did you know these are fake? One hundred per-cent bunk. Aesthetes, I swear.”
Rolling Henry’s eyes, Elliot bent the frames in half at the nose bridge, then dropped them to the floor. The lenses crunched and splintered underneath the toe of his boot a second later.
Someone cleared their throat and Elliot spun around. Davis McKenna was sitting straighter in his chair. He must have meant it as confidence, but he appeared more or less like a toddler learning to use the toilet.
“When and how did you die?” Davis asked, his voice modulated to be more adult.
Elliot laughed, circling in on Davis. “Oh you are a flat tire! Is that all you want to know?”
Davis nodded, facade crumbling.
“Boring, but that’s easy enough. I drowned in the lake in 1928. I was eighteen years old. Well… I suppose…” He spun and found Eve, marching up to her and crouching down. “You’re the brains here, aren’t you, kiddo? Tell me, is it still a drowning if one was pushed in?”
Eve gaped at Henry’s face. She lifted a few fingers, then replaced it in her lap. “I believe that’s murder… Mr. Lennox.”
“Mr. Lennox,” Elliot chuckled at that. He leaned forward, affectionately tapping Eve twice on the nose. “Aren’t you a darb? I didn’t live long enough to be any Mr. Lennox. Only Elliot, or Ellie if you were my mother. But that’s besides the point.”
“What is the point?” Eve’s voice was as pale and shimmery as she appeared. Silvery, clear, but faint all the same.
“That I was murdered,” Elliot said. He gave Eve a final smile and hauled himself back up to standing. “He tells you everything, doesn’t he? Trustworthy, a good head on your shoulders. I see why.” He turned away, walking yet another slow circle. He hummed a little to himself, then paused and tapped his temple. “I told you to keep it down, March. I’m enjoying myself.”
“You can talk to him?” Andrew said.
Elliot nodded, kicking Henry’s ruined spectacles out of his way. “Possession is an odd thing. It’s very uncomfortable for both parties, one more than the other obviously. Why your friend is going a little stir crazy at the moment. He’s pressed right up next to me. It’s rather unsustainable, all things considered, but it does what is required of it.”
“You’ll let him go, won’t you?” Eve’s voice cracked as he spoke.
Elliot granted her a genuinely warm smile and nodded. “Worry not, my lovely. I’ll give him back to you exactly right. I have no need for a body anymore.”
Andrew cleared his throat, earning the spirit’s gaze. For the first time he saw how inky black they had become. It nearly stopped him cold, but he pushed forward. “Why did you attach to me?”
“Because you looked like -.” He cut himself off, looking pained. “A dear friend of mine.”
“Who pushed you?” Davis piped up again.
“The rugby team.” Elliot rolled Henry’s eyes. “Big lunkheads not unlike yourself.”
“Could you not swim?”
“The lake was frozen over. I couldn’t break back through before everything went black.” Elliot’s cheer sobered dramatically. “It wasn’t the first time I had been their target but it was the last.”
“Why the springhouse?” Andrew asked over Davis.
Elliot shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
“How are you not sure?”
“Being dead doesn’t give you all the right answers, sorry to say.”
“Why did they kill you?” Another voice rang out behind Andrew’s head. He almost turned to see who it was but stayed still. He was stuck, held fast by Henry’s too-dark dark eyes. They weren’t so far apart. Andrew could feel wave after wave of sadness, of longing, of anger washing out from the spirit to engulf him.
“Why they killed me…” Elliot licked Henry’s lips, rubbed a hand over his clean shaven jaw. “I wonder…. Is the world perhaps more understanding in this day and age?”
Andrew watched as Henry’s body crossed the gap between them. He watched as Henry’s form stepped closer to him than they’d ever been. A chill rolled off his skin, likely from Elliot. He watched as one of Henry’s hands came to rest on his chest, his fingers dancing up his collar and neck to the back of Andrew’s head.
Andrew leaned into the touch, instinctual. He kept eye contact with Henry who wasn’t really Henry. A soft hand slid under Andrew’s chin, cupping it tenderly as Elliot kissed him slowly.
Because it was Elliot.
This wasn’t Henry. It wasn’t Henry’s choice. It wasn’t what Henry could have wanted in that moment. Andrew had to remind himself of that.
But, it was Henry’s mouth, plush against his own and still sweet from the cookies at dinner. It was Henry’s fingers playing with the small hairs at the nape of his neck. It was Henry’s shampoo in his nose.
Andrew couldn’t help the small wick of heat stirring in his stomach; a new, awkward feeling inside him. His heartbeat sped the moment the kiss broke.
“That’s why.” Elliot’s voice shattered the illusion. He stepped back, turned away. When he spoke next, it was to Eve. “One of them found me another boy, who was smart enough to not return after Christmas. It was months before they finally saw my end.”
“The bathtub…” Andrew whispered, hardly audible above Elliot’s own voice. A tug in his gut said the spirit had heard him.
“My parents were told I have run away, that I-- oh.” Elliot moved a hand over Henry’s stomach. He sucked in a hard breath, then flashed a sparkling grin. “Well, I think we have to cut this bull session short. Your friend wants to rejoin you.”
“Thank you,” several voices sounded through the dark.
He waved to Andrew. “Come help. I don’t think Mr. March wants a head injury after going to all this trouble for little old me.”
When Elliot released his hold, Henry wilted. His face was grey. His breathing was shallow, punctuated by small coughs. Andrew caught him easily under the arms, holding his friend close to his chest and sinking with his weight. Henry’s forehead rested against his collarbone, clammy and sweaty. Eve jumped from her seat the first moment she could, rushing to their side.
“Lay him down, Andrew,” she instructed. “Just like that. Now, roll him onto his side in case he’s sick.”
“He’s not really breathing, Eve--.”
“Give it time before we panic.”
Eve ran soft fingers through Henry’s hair, surprisingly motherly for her disposition. Slowly, just as she had said, Henry resurfaced. His nose crinkling, eyelashes fluttering. The color returning to his face as his eyes blinked and opened. Andrew was relieved to see they were back to their ordinary sable brown, even if his face looked bare without the glasses on his nose.
Henry had just started to make sounds and recognize them when panic overtook him. He pushed away from them, rolling up onto his knees as dry-heaves wracked his shoulders. He coughed hard enough to hurt, tears streaming down over his cheeks as one episode abated for another to rear up behind it.
Henry was trembling, shivers coursing through him head to toe. Someone produced a blanket from nowhere, wrapping over his hair and around his shoulders. Eve arranged his coat over his shoulders, holding him close as he shivered.
“Did it help, Fox?” Henry wheezed.
For the first time in weeks, Andrew didn’t hear hushed voices in his ear. He didn’t feel breath at his shoulder. But he knew Elliot was nearby, waiting for a new moment. And Andrew wasn’t afraid. In fact, he looked forward to it.
Andrew nodded. “It did, March.”
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Very good story. Great dialogue and characters. Solid premise and plot. The pacing is great -- pulls you right along to the end. Nice job!
Thank you so much, that's so good to hear! The original draft was closing in on 5,000 words, so this piece required a lot of editing work to fit the contest parameters. The pacing was something that I was concerned about; I'm very glad to hear its working in its revised state!