Authors: A. G. Howard
My cheeks grew hotter. Only after I patted the dirt in place around the flower and nudged the stem to assure it didn’t snap did I slip the gown over my head.
Enya forced me to stand, cupping my chin so I’d look directly at her. “Your mother was your world. I understand. I loved her as my own. For all her generosity toward me and my family. For always treating me with respect and kindness. You are not alone in your grief, Juliet. Let me help you.”
My chest clenched against a pain I refused to face.
Enya caressed my cheek sweetly. “I will fix you some chocolate to drink. We’ll share our favorite memories of her. It is the only way to find peace and sense once more.” She started for the cupboard.
“Wait,” I said. I didn’t want to find peace or sense. I wanted to be with the ghost again. Talking to him made me feel closer to Mama, and was much easier on the heart than dredging up bittersweet nostalgia. “I would prefer to be alone. Down here, among her and Papa’s things. Just for tonight.”
Enya’s freckled features saddened, and I despised my selfishness. Omitting her from my grief as if she was nothing but a maid, when she was so much more. I debated sharing the secret, letting her see the captivating face of the afterlife as I had, but before I could form proper words, Enya was gone—into the hall and up the stairs.
Slapping tears from my cheeks, I bolted the double doors behind her, then touched the flower again. Sound was becoming a drunken obsession, having been so long without it. And that tickle in my ears was only the beginning of the sensations this experience was igniting in me.
Hawk appeared across the room this time, standing in front of the dying fire. The smoldering flames flapped behind him, as if showing through a curtain of sheer fabric. His hands cupped his ears. “Stop sending me back … please. I cannot abide the voices any longer.”
His hands inched down. “Why do you think I sing?” His dark brows drew low to contain some intense emotion.
Could it be he was a madman in life, that he had killed someone and been put to death for the crime? Perhaps he was evil and cruel, and those voices were his eternal punishment.
For a moment, I considered uprooting the flower and throwing it out into the night, so by morning it and everything attached would be destroyed by the winter winds.
My guest’s face grew agonized in the firelight—and I knew he weighed my every doubt against the ones he must be having himself.
As I mused upon this, the luminance behind his eyes danced. I realized it was music burning within him, not madness. He wasn’t evil. He was simply confused, and needed help making peace with his death.
My companion held his pocket watch up with a trembling hand. “
.” The word shattered his baritone, as if he choked. He dropped to his knees. “I’m dead.”
Before I could even wonder if a ghost was capable of feeling pain, moisture gathered along his lashes. His fingers clenched his knees, his agony punctuated by the bulging of his knuckles and the gouges in the fabric of his pants.
“Why do you not run away in horror?” he asked without looking at me.
My heart went out to him. I stepped closer and knelt. “I myself have been a ghost for many years. Haunting a muted world as others experience life in full. I understand isolation.”
He studied each of his fingers, preoccupied with his phantom form. “How did this happen?”
“I don’t know. When I buried my mama earlier today …” I struggled with the lump in my throat. “I came across a tombstone. And I saw the name, ‘Hawk.’ The plant is from the gravesite, and you are obviously connected to it.”
This caught his attention, and he stood, slowly. “You dug it up.”
Wavering, I got to my feet with the pot cradled in front of me. “Yes. I defiled your grave. Are you angry?”
“Considering I threatened to defile you moments ago, I believe we’re even now.” He managed a tight, self-deprecating smile. “By taking the flower, you released me from Purgatory. I’m no longer alone in my darkness.”
I glanced at my feet, still gritty with residual dirt. “Nor am I.”
Our attention settled on one another—appraising and thoughtful. I wished I could read his thoughts as he did mine.
“No, Miss. You have no business probing the nightfall of uncertainty that is my mind.” He clasped his wrist, as if searching for a pulse. “How long, according to the stone?”
I caressed the petal. “The flower distracted me from the epitaph.”
Behind him, through the transparency of his chest, the fire snuffed to embers. It was a tragic image, as if I watched his hope die.
Silence stretched between us, a merciless roar.
Hawk cleared his throat. “Might I ask your name, Miss?”
The formality struck me as almost comical, given our situation, until it dawned on me how difficult it was to escape the confines of society, even after death. “You may call me Juliet.”
He nodded. “Juliet, I'm sorry for the loss of your mother.”
His kind sentiment was almost as beautiful as hearing my name spoken. “Thank you.”
“She must have been an exceptional woman, to have left such a hole in your life.”
I shut my eyes, framing her face in my mind. I would never forget her appearance as I had her voice. I would make sure of that.
“But you said you are deaf.”
My eyes snapped open upon my guest’s redundant observation.
“How could you have known your mother’s voice to forget it?”
I studied my feet beneath the throw’s fringe, tilting my left one to the side to shake dirt from between my toes. “A childhood illness took my hearing. Before that, my mama sang to me.” I sighed. “Since then, so many years without music, so many nights without lullabies.” The flower’s incense rushed through me, comforting. “Until your song.” I smiled. “So lovely. So unexpected.”
Compassion and a hint of something else—humility?—flashed across his troubled features. “You flatter me.”
“No. I would venture you have much in common with Aria.”
“Your nightingale? Her melodies were far from harmonious earlier. She doesn’t like me much.” His lips formed a thoughtful line. “She seems to notice me even without touching the flower.”
I glanced at Aria’s covered cage. “I've read animals are endowed with an extra sense … a perception humans don’t possess. Could it be the same holds true for plants, and somehow, by touching the petals, such insight is imposed upon me?”
He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Or somehow, that flower holds my very essence.”
“Can you remember anything that would tie you to this plant? You apparently know a second language.”
“Nothing. It is all a void. I couldn’t even tell you the language of my songs.” A muscle in his jaw fluttered. “Although …” He flipped his pocket watch to look at an engraving on the backside. “
. Damned if I know what it means. But it’s in English.” He tucked the chain away again. “As is the name I keep hearing when I’m in hell.”
. The despondency in his voice over the acceptance of his fate sliced like a blade. “What name?” I asked.
Hawk’s brow furrowed. “Thornton. The voices in my purgatory. They speak it often.”
A horrified knot formed in my chest … undeniable confirmation that the viscount was somehow bound to this tragic soul. For his name to be carried to Hawk’s dead consciousness on a choir of haunting voices, paired with the outburst I’d earlier witnessed, Lord Thornton might be more dangerous than I ever imagined.
Hawk stepped closer. “What do you know of him?”
“Very little. I have never even seen his face. But he was at your grave today. He had no way in and appeared distraught about that. A padlock kept him at bay. There’s a path that leads from the backside of the fence surrounding your tomb. A well-worn path. Someone else keeps a vigil at your grave. They have the key.”
My ghostly guest’s eyes grew wild. “You must return to the cemetery! I need to know my identity. How this fate befell me. Please …”
My stomach flipped. I had already been planning to go so I might outmaneuver the viscount before he came at week’s end. Yet, now, faced with the ever deepening chasm of my doubt about the man’s emotional stability and the possibility he was involved with another man’s death, I’d lost all courage.
A shiver ran through my spine as I realized how dark and chilly the room had grown.
Hawk looked over his shoulder at the embers. “Let me stir the fire for—” The statement broke and he bowed his head, cursing.
I wondered how anyone could bear such frustration.
He slumped onto the hearth. “God help me. I’m nothing more than a puff of wind or a passing chill. Just put the flower down and cast me back into the darkness! I can’t expect you to carry a blasted pot around for the rest of the night.”
“But you hate the darkness.” After the accident I’d endured as a child, I of all people could empathize with the gruesome notions a lightless setting could inspire.
“What kind of accident?” Hawk asked, as though eager to turn the subject on my past and away from his own absent memories.
I didn’t answer. My attention had caught upon the singular rose petal I’d earlier had in my glove. The one I’d taken from Mama’s rose to hold her spirit close to me. It gave me an idea.
Biting my lip, I plucked the petal I’d been holding on Hawk’s flower. I fisted my hand around it and set aside the pot. When I looked up, Hawk was still there.
I raised my eyebrows. The flower didn't have to be intact to bind us, so long as I held a petal.
He stood, tentative. “That’s encouraging. But …” He rubbed his chin. “It will prove a challenge to carry that around and never drop it. The chain on your neck. Did I see a locket earlier?”
I tugged on the necklace to expose the heart-shaped charm and the intricate rose embossed on its front.
“Is it pure silver?”
A “yes” was all I could manage as he strode closer, intent in his study of the necklace. A full head taller than me, had he been flesh, his breath would have warmed my brow. I wondered what he smelled like … if the upturned hair at his shoulders was as soft as it appeared. Cradled in the safety of otherworldly isolation, I wondered all the things I’d never let myself wonder about any man.
Then, remembering my nakedness beneath my bed gown, I blushed.
Hawk’s fingertip scattered upon attempting to touch the necklace’s chain. A ripple of sensation grazed my collar bone, gone before my brain could even register it. “It seems I’ve stepped from one purgatory into another,” he whispered.
“As am I.” He smiled, though sadness cluttered the curve. “Tuck the petal within your locket,” he instructed. “Silver is the most conductive of all metals. Perchance it will allow the energy … life force … whatever I share with this flower, to find its way to you.”
“I shall lose you in the transfer.”
Anxious lines scrawled across his forehead, but he nodded.
“I’ll be swift.” I promised, then placed the petal in the pot.
With a sense of urgency, I picked up the pot and carried it to the dining table. It pained me to remove Mama and Papa’s portraits from the locket. But if Hawk was correct, there must be nothing to interfere with the silver.
I caught a flicker of him as I placed the petal inside and latched the locket shut. The moment the charm slipped between my breasts beneath the throw and touched my skin, my ghostly companion reappeared. This time, to stay.
Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.
I dreamt of a moving darkness with legs like centipedes. It crawled along my skin until nothing remained but bones. The shadows whispered, bidding my spirit to join them. I obeyed, no longer walking but flowing: a liquid, lightless void.
I became one with the night, oozing into the depths of some underground world, joined by the skeletons of others who had followed the shadows long before me. The only colors were black and white, and a red as deep as the mud coating Hawk’s ghostly boots.
He hovered over me, his lips so close I could taste his breath—mint with a hint of chicory. As he started to sing, other voices gathered for the serenade, all of my friends and family who’d passed throughout my life. Their music swelled within my soul.
It was then I realized I no longer resided in the land of the living. And it wasn’t so unpleasant here, in the world of the dead …