The clock struck ten times, each ring seeming louder than the last, and the whole house reverberated with its tolling. Beth looked up from her book in surprise, as though it didn’t do this every day at exactly ten o’clock.
Glancing back down at the words in her book, she realized she hadn’t moved the page in quite some time. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last thing she had read. Perhaps she had fallen asleep.
The teapot sat cooling on the stove, leftover from when she had last fired it up. Though she suspected it was quite cold by that point, she considered pouring another cup all the same. Unlike her mother - who valued warmth at all costs - Beth held cold and hot tea in equal regard. She never seemed to get too cold or too hot, so she didn’t mind drinking it when it had sat out awhile.
Beth stood up and stretched, reaching her arms up to the ceiling and then clasping her fingers behind her back and stretching out that way as well. She felt as though she had been sitting for years. She shook her head and watched with a pleased smile as her thick curls bounced at the movement. She loved her ringlets nearly as much as she loved the elegant baby blue frock she wore. Her mother had given it to her on her sixteenth birthday only four days ago. She was supposed to save it for the dance that Friday, but she couldn’t help herself, sneaking it on every day since she slipped off the ribbon and opened the box that held it.
Her best friend was due to return from her trip today, and Beth simply knew she had to show it off. She and Cynthia had been intertwined practically since birth, and Beth found she far preferred the company of her best friend to anyone else, even the handsome boy who had asked her to the dance.
In fact, out of everyone she knew, she wanted Cynthia to see this. She twirled once, laughing a little at the feel of the fabric swishing against her legs. It was perfect.
The wind kissed her skin as soon as she stepped through the door, and though she could see the varied beauty of the fall leaves, the air had no bite to it. Even as she marveled at the colors surrounding her, for some reason they made her sad. She wanted it to be spring, and she hated the thought of waiting through winter to get there.
Still, it was a short walk to her friend’s house, so she wouldn’t have to think about the changing colors for long anyway. She waved at a couple across the street walking their dog. The girl waved back cheerily, but the boy leaned over to whisper something. Almost immediately, the girl’s smile faded, and she looked away. Beth’s smile faltered then fell; she knew why they looked down on her family, though she hated the injustice of it. Clawing one’s way up from poverty shouldn’t have been considered a sin. Yet the world was full of shouldn’ts, and it did her no good at all to dwell on them.
She saw the red door of her friend’s house up ahead and willed the smile back on her face. She wouldn’t let a silly passerby ruin her spirits, not when she wore such a lovely dress. Beth stepped up the uneven stairs until she reached the wraparound porch, raised her hand, and knocked exactly three times, then twice more after a pause. She knew it was a silly code - easy to replicate - but they’d used it since they were little, and she hated to part with the gesture.
The door opened, and in front of her stood a boy with moppy black hair and soft brown eyes. Something about him was familiar, though Beth was sure she’d never met him before. Though she startled somewhat at the sight of him, her hesitation only lasted a moment before she cleared her throat to speak.
“I’m here to talk to Cynthia,” she said. The boy gave her a knowing half-smile.
“Would you like to come in?” he asked. Beth paused only a second longer than was polite before nodding. Though she didn’t know the boy, she trusted Cynthia and her family. They wouldn’t let a stranger into their home.
“Thank you,” she said. “Is Cynthia home?”
“She’ll be down soon,” he said. He started to walk towards the kitchen. “Would you like some tea? I made green. You’re welcome to sit in the study.”
“That would be lovely,” she said.
She looked around absently as the boy clattered teacups and saucers in the kitchen. They had changed the curtains in the days since she’d last seen her friend, and the new blinds let in an abundance of light compared to the previously unkempt slats they had hung up before. The boy returned quickly enough that he must have already boiled the water and steeped it before she came. Incredible timing, that. He handed her the cup, and she took it happily.
“So you said Cynthia will be down soon?” she asked.
“Yes.” He sipped from his own tea. “While we wait, I’d love to hear a story. I’m sure you and Cynthia have had plenty of adventures together. Anything interesting you’ve done recently?”
Beth tried to think about the last thing she’d done, but she had difficulty conjuring anything in particular to mind.
“If you can’t think of anything recent, perhaps you could rehash an old favorite? Or something spooky; it’s nearly Halloween, after all,” the boy said. He smiled charmingly, but his words suddenly reminded her of a day that she had worked hard to forget.
The memory flashed in her mind’s eye, and for a brief moment it was as if she had been transported back to a different day, a horrible day. She could practically taste the damp darkness that had stretched out in front of her then, consuming all her thoughts.
She shook her head and mentally buried the memory back from where it had come. No one could know that. But she could share a different adventure with him while they waited. She cast around until she landed on something far safer.
“When Cynthia and I were just kids, we decided to build a treehouse. But we didn’t have enough materials, so we thought we’d just take things from the house and no one would notice.” Beth laughed a little to herself, remembering. “We took…”
She trailed off, looking over where the chair with only half its slats should have been. A bulky, almost shiny brown sofa-like chair sat in its place. Odd, she’d never seen that before.
“You took what?” the boy asked.
“We took pieces from furniture,” she said, shaking off her confusion. She must have been mistaken. “Little by little, over the course of a couple weeks. Our parents caught on, naturally, but by that time it was too late. We had a rickety, wildly unsafe treetop house, and they had a series of malformed chairs and end tables. We thought we were so clever. I’ve never seen her father so mad.”
Beth looked around again, searching for the end table with the missing leg that had to be propped against the wall. When she couldn’t find that either, she set her tea down and stood up.
“Did you say she’s upstairs? Maybe I should go check on her.”
“Elizabeth, wait -”
“Don’t call me that,” she said. “It’s Beth.”
“Beth,” he repeated back. “Of course. I always forget.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, taking a single, cautious step away from the boy who was both familiar and a stranger to her. He stood up too, holding out his hands as though trying to soothe a wild animal, despite her calm demeanor.
“Cynthia doesn’t live here anymore,” the boy said slowly.
“That’s absurd; I saw her just six days ago before she left.”
“She’s been dead ten years now,” he said, and though his tone was gentle, his words simply bounced off her. They were too absurd to process.
“Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself,” the boy said, shaking his head. “Cynthia died, but it’s okay. She lived quite a long life, I promise. A happy one.”
“What do you mean she lived a long life? She’s sixteen!” Beth cried. She swung her arm in a wild gesture as she spoke, and her hand struck the cup she had just drank from. It fell and hit the ground, shattering. She jumped back, but she had felt part of it hit near her ankle.
“Look down,” the boy said in a matter-of-fact tone, as though he hadn’t just implied the impossible. Beth had half a mind to just run up the stairs and look for her friend, but there was something in the boy’s eyes that stopped her. Something knowing. “Before you run upstairs to find her, look at your leg.”
She hesitated, and, figuring she had little to lose by doing so, looked down.
The tea had soaked through her socks. Odd, she hadn’t felt the water hit her. But the water hardly mattered when she saw why he had directed her to look.
A small piece of the china jutted out from just below her ankle where it had stuck on impact. She gasped and reached down, tugging it out on impulse. Of course, the instant she did, she realized she would regret it. There would be nothing to stop the bleeding now.
Except there was no blood. The skin simply held a small, perfectly clean slice through it. She stared at it, confused. And the longer she looked, the more little holes and scrapes and cuts she saw, all without a drop of blood to them. Her skin looked odd too, darker than she thought it had been only a moment ago, as though it had been burned. Nothing she saw made sense.
She looked up at the boy in fear - what had he done? - but an expression of sympathy and sorrow unfolded on his face.
“Sit, please,” he said. She sat, too unsteady on her feet to do much else.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice nothing more than a whisper.
“Cynthia is dead because she died of old age, Beth. And you died many, many decades before that. It was a house fire. You left the stove on.”
Beth looked down at her leg again, at the darkness there. She glanced at her hands then, and as though a veil had lifted from her eyes, she saw the soot that painted them. Her hands trembled, and she clasped them together in her lap.
“Was...was anyone else…”
“No, your parents were out. They survived that day.”
Beth let out a shuddering breath of relief. A moment later, the reality of his words sunk in. They had survived that day, but if Cynthia was dead, they would be long gone as well. A single tear rolled down her cheek, though she didn’t feel it.
“Cynthia lived a good life. She told me she missed you every day,” the boy said.
“You knew her well?”
“She was my grandmother,” the boy said, and at his words Beth finally understood why he looked so familiar to her: she could see Cynthia in the shape of his jaw, the curve of his nose. She blinked back more tears.
“If I’m de-dead,” Beth said, struggling with the word, “how can I be here?”
“I don’t know,” the boy said. “But I’m glad you come by.”
Beth noted his use of the present tense and cocked her head to the side, confused.
“I’ve...I’ve been here before?”
“Every day at ten since they fixed the clock,” he said. “It took awhile before I thought to start asking you questions and a little bit longer than that before I could figure out how to show you the truth. You always come for her, though I’ve never found out why.”
Beth watched as he reached over to the unfamiliar side table and pulled out a thick book, cracking it open to a page towards the end. He snatched a pen off the table as well.
“My grandma - your Cynthia - lost her memory towards the end, and she never got to tell me everything. I thought maybe she’d sent you, at first, to help preserve her memory in a way. I know you two had plenty of adventures together.” He shrugged. “I’m sure that sounds silly, but -”
“I...I need a minute,” Beth said.
“Take all the time you need.”
She stared out the window again, and this time she realized things weren’t quite as she’d left them. The cars parked outside looked different, rounder somehow, and a lone girl walked by wearing the oddest clothes. When she turned back towards the boy, though, she noticed that he wore clothes closer to what Beth knew. She smiled at that, guessing he meant it as a kind gesture.
“I’ll help,” Beth said finally. The boy smiled, and her heart broke a little seeing so much of Cynthia in his eyes. “What do you want to know?”
“I think there’s just one day unaccounted for. We’ve chatted so much, I feel we’re practically family,” the boy said, smiling affably. Beth frowned. If that was true, it would have to be that day, but he couldn’t possibly know about that. “I wonder if you could tell me about the day the two of you decided to visit the cemetery.”
Beth froze, and time seemed to suspend. He knew. She didn’t know how, but he did. Panicked, she tried to stand but an unseen force pinned her in place. Though she struggled against it, she couldn’t budge an inch.
“I have nothing to say about that day,” she said, trembling. “Let me go.”
The boy’s eyes grew cold, and Beth found herself pulled closer into the seat. With a loud sigh, he snapped his fingers, and the room around them dissolved away so that nothing remained except her and the boy. Darkness surrounded them, crushing in on her like a weight.
“I had hoped the gentler approach would suffice. Oh well. One of these days,” the boy drawled, “you will tell me what you stole from my tomb. I’m tired of being bound to this weak form, relegated to communing with spirits.”
Beth gaped at him as the memory surged back like a wave crashing against her skull: she and Cynthia running and running, barreling their way out of the confines of the tomb, clutching the amulet in horror. They had only thought it a pretty trinket then, but the horror that followed…
“Just tell me where you hid it,” the boy said. His face had shifted, she noticed. He no longer resembled Cynthia at all; his eyes were pure black, his skin a flat grey. She shook her head mutely, but instead of looking angry or disappointed, he only smiled, revealing sharpened teeth.
“Perhaps a little more time asleep will jog your memory. I have an eternity to wait, though I’d prefer it not take that long. I’ll see you tomorrow at ten o'clock, my Elizabeth.”
And before Beth could say anything else, the demon closed the book with a short snap, and everything went black.