Emmerson flinched as the cashier reached out with the change.
“Your change is three sixty-three, and I’ll have those out to you in just a second.”
“Thanks,” Emmerson murmured. Rubbing the palms of his hand with his thumb nervously, he sat down at the table across from the coffee stall and avoided eye contact with the other customers. If he had his phone this wouldn’t be a problem, but the Holly Circlet hated technology so.
Emmerson popped his knuckles, lost in thought, and jumped when the barista called “Hot ginger tea, an iced Mint-to-be latte, and a medium chai for Emmerson?”
“That’s, uh, that’s mine.” The warm, wide eyes of the barista bored into him expectantly and he wished she wouldn’t smile so brightly.
“Do you want a carrier for those, sir?”
Emmerson was so taken aback by the question that by the time he had finished processing it, the barista had already begun to unfold a cardboard carrier. “Oh, um, I, uh, thank, thanks.”
“No problem! Have a great day!”
“You, you—” Before Emmerson could splutter out the ‘too’ half of the sentence, the barista turned and began whirring something on the espresso machine. Just as well. Emmerson was sure his ‘too’ was going to sound as weak as his ‘you’.
Leaving the coffee shop, Emmerson took a sharp right towards the woods. Although there was no real way to get to the Holly Circlet—the trees didn’t care which way you went as long as your motive was true—he always worried he was going the wrong way, or that his motives weren’t pure, or that he had somehow missed the woods entirely, or that the magic of the woods that had been in place since his grandparents had moved here forty years ago had suddenly gone. Emmerson worried a lot.
The Holly Circlet didn’t let him down though, and after only fifteen minutes of walking, Emmerson found it. He circled the ring of trees quietly—the entryway was always on the opposite side of the Circlet from where you walked in. Just, part of its charm, Emmerson supposed.
He entered the Circlet and knelt by the willow stump, putting the Mint-to-be latte in the middle of it. “Arcadia? Are—are you here?”
The wind heralded her arrival as it always did, and Arcadia’s sparkly, translucent form flurried into existence. “Emmerson! Oh! Is it Sunday already?”
“Uh, yeah, it is.”
“Not many weeks left until your trip, is it?”
“This is, uh, actually the last one.” Emmerson winced as his voice cracked.
“Is it? Oh, that’s wonderful, my boy!”
“Yeah, it is. So if… if…”
Arcadia waved her hand, somehow meticulously manicured (ghost nail polish maybe? Emmerson didn’t know how to ask), and giggled. “Of course, of course. I’ll summon Linnie right now. Hands,” she ordered, and Emmerson begrudgingly held out his. He’d always hated the way it felt to pretend to hold hands with her as she hummed out her séance. He was grateful for Arcadia, of course—before the Medium had died and her ghost had taken up residence in the Holly Circlet, predicting what ghosts were going to be in the Circlet and when was almost impossible. She really was indispensable, Emmerson knew, but she was just so… confident. And loud. And psychic. Emmerson wasn’t so sure about that last part, but whenever Arcadia looked at him, he felt as if she knew exactly how stupid and nervous and paranoid and weird Emmerson really was. Although, to be fair, Emmerson thought that way about everyone who made eye contact at him.
“MmmmmMerlinde! Merlinde! Merlinde!” Arcadia finally called, and the warm, crayon-scented air that always ushered Miss Defay in.
Miss Defay’s shimmery silver ghost settled down next to Emmerson. Emmerson smiled at the old, multiplication-themed vest she wore—her fashion sense hadn’t changed since she’d taught his first grade class way back when.
“Emmerson, honey, cheri.”
“Miss Defay, hi.” Emmerson took a deep breath. Miss Defay was one of the only people that didn’t make his guts twist into knots. “I mean, uh, bonjour.”
“Salut. Comment allez-vous?”
“Uh, um, uh, bien.” Emmerson kicked himself—he was better than that. “Je me sens nerveux.”
After reviewing his basics, Miss Defay ran him through vocabulary for the airport. “Puis-je prendre votre valise?”
Emmerson fought his accelerating pulse. “Uh, uh, I, I mean, je, I mean—”
“It’s okay,” Miss Defay said, slipping back into English. Breathe deeply. You’re okay. You’ve got time. You’ve been doing great so far.”
Emmerson nodded. “Non, uh, merci. Je veux les garder avec moi.”
Miss Defay smiled brightly. “Tres bien! I think you’ve learned just about everything you could possibly need to get through the Charles de Gaulle.” She reached out and sipped the ginger tea.
“Thank you. Honestly, it’s not the airport I’m worried about, it’s the bus.”
“You do know they’ll speak enough English for you to get along, especially when you’re in Paris. You don’t need to—”
“Worry so much?” Emmerson rubbed the palm of his hand with his thumb. “Yeah. I know. My therapist says I’ve been doing much better though, with the, the worrying. A lot more positive self-thinking though. I still need to work on the stammering though. She says it makes me feel less confident and if I feel less confident that’s when my spiraling starts.”
“I’m proud of you,” Miss Defay said. “You’ve come so far. Flerida will be so happy to see you.”
“I hope so. I’m risking a lot by making it a surprise.”
“That’s true. What’ll happen if she’s not in or she doesn’t have a spare room or something?”
“I booked a hotel room. It’s in Nantes, technically, but I’ve got enough money to get to Nantes in an Uber and enough to get an emergency trip home if I need and I’ve got all that squared away just in case.
“Just in case,” Miss Defay repeated with a chuckle. “Oh, Emmerson, you never change. I wouldn’t fret too much about it though. Flerida will just have her breath taken away when you come and visit.”
“I hope so.” Emmerson popped his knuckles. “She’s been so down lately. She barely comes online unless we have plans, she barely gets out of bed.”
“I know, cheri, I know. You’re doing a good thing going up there to be with her, ‘specially with your nerves and all.”
“I hope so. I hope it’s not seen as an intrusion.” Emmerson’s stomach knitted itself into knots again. “She just… doesn’t have a lot of friends, and I don’t know who else would check on her and I—”
“I know. You’re doing good. I’m so proud of you.” Miss Defay’s form flickered in and out. “I am a little sad, though. I suppose this is the last time we’ll see each other.”
Emmerson pursed his lips. “Well, I mean it, it doesn’t have to be.”
“Your trip is next week, is it not? You don’t need me to teach you French anymore.”
“Yeah but I’d still like to… see you, if that’s okay.”
Miss Defay’s shimmering, semi-translucent left hand reached out and stroked Emmerson’s cheek. “Emmerson… you can’t cling to ghosts forever.”
“But…” Emmerson bit his lip. “You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
“That’s not even true. I’m just the first teacher you ever had. You’ll be okay without me.”
“Emmerson, you’re 23, we’ve known each other for 17 years. You can call me Merlinde.”
“Okay, I know, I know,” he said, absolutely not going to do that. “But, the thing is, I don’t want to be okay without you.”
“I’ve been dead twelve years. I’m the last sister to die, and the only one still here. Emmerson, cheri, I love you and I love our visits, I do, but… you need to let me pass on.”
Emmerson’s breathing quickened. “But I—”
“Tell you what.”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” she said, chuckling. “How about you meet me when you get back from France? Tell me how it was. Tell me how happy Flerida was to see you, how impressed she was that you learned French and fought your own fears to see her. Tell me everything. And then let me go.”
Emmerson put his hand on his wrist and felt his own pulse. Biofeedback, he reminded himself, was a useful technique. “But I can’t—but—alright,” he said finally.
Miss Defay smiled sadly. “I know. I’ll miss you too. But its time for you to graduate this prolonged first grade.”
“Relax. Time hasn’t run out yet. Now, drink that spiced milk you call tea.”
Emmerson smiled and nursed his chai. “Alright, Miss Defay. Et tu bois le tien.”
“Mais oui, cheri. Mais oui.”