Noah had woken up at his front door this time. After a moment of disorientation and terror, he’d shaken off the dream enough to realize he had been sleepwalking again. He just happened to be lying in a heap by the door in his kitchen and Gray Lady curled up on top of him, purring.
He stood up, still groggy, and checked the time. Ten-thirty. Maybe Liv was still up. He was tired, but the adrenaline of the dream he couldn’t quite remember still made his skin crawl as he walked over to the table and pulled on a t-shirt he found draped over a chair. He’d go downstairs and see if anyone was around. If they were busy he’d head back up, but he was getting better admitting when he needed another person around. And right now he needed someone else, at least until the uneasy feeling of waking up in a different place than where he’d fallen asleep had passed.
A moment later, Noah was knocking on the door of Olivia’s apartment. The door creaked open and her mother peeked out.
“Oh, sorry Aunt Monica,” Noah said, slipping immediately into grade school habits as he backed away from the door.
But Monica just smiled at him. “Hi sweetie,” she said. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I just forgot Liv was working. I can-”
“Come on in.”
She opened the door wider, revealing a children’s movie playing on the TV as Mia curled up on the couch. “Someone is having trouble with bedtime tonight. Want to join us?”
He should say no, let them have their evening. Monica didn’t need his problems. But she was already heading back to her own spot on the other couch. And if he was honest with himself, the warmth of Olivia’s apartment was much more appealing than the darkness of his own. So he walked in and sat down next to Mia, who barely glanced at him before returning to the movie.
By the time she was locking up, Olivia didn’t want to talk to anybody. It had been yet another shitty night, barely saved by having Charlie and Hugh there to keep them afloat. Noah was off tonight, though he’d offered to come in if they needed the help. She’d been reluctant to take him up on it. Partially because of the limitations on his employment, but mostly because they were so tight on their labor costs that an extra hour was going to bring Bret down on her ass.
Not that he wasn’t going to yell at her anyway. Food costs were up, despite the fact that he’d shaved expenses by buying some of the cheapest products available. And the customers had noticed. She’d gotten two complaints this week about how the bar no longer had decent liquor. And sure enough, the only liquor that approved for purchase this week was the lesser stuff. Not quite bottom of the barrel, but that meant they were all out of the better ones by now. And no one was going to come into Keegan’s for a crappy drink, followed by a microwaved meal.
That was the other recent addition. To save on labor costs while keeping food going out quickly, he’d switched them over to multiple different pre-made foods. Meaning instead of making meals to order, Olivia was thawing and microwaving more than ever. She wasn’t precious about bar food, but there was an embarrassment that came over her when she sent out gray looking steak and cheese subs to someone who was paying twelve dollars for it. But bringing up the complaints to Bret had only resulted in him telling her how talented she was at managing. He knew she could figure out a way to keep everyone happy.
She certainly knew one way, but burning down Keegan’s wasn’t an option at the moment. So instead, she did the best she could with what she had. She’d brown the precooked meat just a little more before sending it out, or add a few extra spices and seasonings to the soup she was pouring out of a plastic bag. Roman had given her some tips, along with barely disguised pity, at playgroup earlier in the week. So tonight she hoped that they wouldn’t get complaints about bland dip and stale chips.
Olivia just needed to get out of here. Even with Noah back, things weren’t going well at all. Bret seemed to think she could work miracles and Olivia could only blame herself for that. She’d done too good of a job in the past and now here was her reward. Two years ago, she’d loved this job. She got to make good food and the cheerful energy of the place fed her creativity.
But then Dave had sold the place to Bret. And then Bret had tried to fold it into his little Central Massachusetts bar empire. And now Olivia couldn’t even make her own queso dip because it was too expensive.
She could feel bits of her soul disappearing by the end of each shift. Even her clandestine hookups with Hugh (Well, as clandestine as they could be with Noah smirking at her at every opportunity. This was the one thing he was cheerful about these days? It had to be this?) weren’t enough to make her optimistic as she walked in the door in the afternoons.
But today was done. One more day down. She wasn’t sure what she was counting down to, it wasn’t like she had anything else lined up. Her fantasy of opening a shop was just that, a fantasy. And the idea of becoming a medium had blown up so badly that it made Keegan’s look good in comparison.
Speaking of, Olivia was pulled out of her dark thoughts by a shadowy figure at the edge of the parking lot, just out of the pool of light shining down from the streetlight. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, then she calmed slightly as she realized the figure was translucent. She could see the bush through the wavering outline of its torso.
Ignore it, she thought, and turned toward the road home.
A few seconds later, she realized the figure was walking alongside her. One second there was nothing, the next it was there. Olivia felt the cold panic start seeping in and she walked a little faster. It matched her step.
Help me, the spirit whispered directly into her brain.
It was freezing now. While the air had been crisp and refreshing as she left the bar, it was now so cold that her teeth were chattering and her hands stung. What the hell had she been thinking, walking to work today?
Go away, she thought.
Another voice now, pleading with her. Help me, I’m lost.
And another, angrier. You hear me.
“No, I don’t!” Olivia yelled out loud, breaking into a run.
As she ran, she realized she could see the figures around her now. Their faces blended into each other, but their voices surrounded her as she ran, breathing heavily, down the dark, empty streets of downtown.
Listen to me.
You need to help me.
Send this message.
They weren’t going away. Even now, tears streaming down her eyes and a stitch hot in her side, Olivia could see them both in the air around her and inside of her head. There were more now, she couldn’t even tell how many, the spirits swirling around and through each other as each tried to get her attention. She didn’t say anything, couldn’t say anything, as she ran and cursed herself for not working out more. But pure fear and adrenaline kept her going as she went.
She was on Main Street now. As she went, she saw figures lingering on the side street leading to the cemetery. Olivia couldn’t go home like this. She couldn’t bring this into her home. Getting into her house wasn’t going to stop it.
As she passed Forest Charms, she noticed Andrew through the window and didn’t think twice. Acting purely on instinct, Olivia tore open the door and flew inside, letting it slam behind her. Andrew and the young woman waiting at the register both jumped.
She was gasping for breath, but the air around her was quiet for the first time since she’d left work. She suddenly realized how insane she must look right now, with tears on her face and her hair frizzing out everywhere.
Andrew hurried over, pulling her gently further into the store. “Hey, hey, what’s happening?” he asked, voice soft.
“Ghosts,” Olivia choked out. “There were…God, Andrew, there were so many of them.”
The girl, who Olivia didn’t recognize, awkwardly ducked out of the store, leaving Andrew and Olivia alone. Iris was nowhere to be seen and Olivia noticed Andrew was wearing a cheery name tag. She looked at it for a moment, trying to catch her breath.
“Iris has wards up,” Andrew said. “They can’t get in here. Come on, sit down.”
He steered her over behind the counter, where a folding chair was sitting. Olivia sat down, knees shaking. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was coming home from work and there were just so many of them. I panicked and…”
Then she blinked and looked around. “Wait, what are you doing here?” she asked. “It’s midnight.”
“Dicking about with my book while I wait for Iris,” Andrew replied. “She wanted to meet after she got back from The Countess, but I reckon she might have forgotten.”
“What about that girl?”
Andrew looked at her. “What girl?”
Then Olivia realized she hadn’t actually seen him interacting with the girl at the counter. Before she could stop herself, she was crying again.
Andrew swore and wrapped his arms around her. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “Okay, maybe some can get in here. But nothing dangerous, yeah?”
“I don’t know if they’re dangerous,” Olivia said, trying to catch her breath. “I just…there’s so many. And they all want things from me and I can’t do it. But they won’t go away and I’m scared they’ll stop taking no for an answer.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Andrew promised. “We’ll talk to Iris tomorrow. Maybe she can help. Do you want to leave?”
No, she didn’t. She never wanted to leave this building again. But she had to get home and relieve her mother, who was watching Mia for her. “I need to get home,” she said. “My mom’s watching Mia.”
“Right. Here, let me just…”
Andrew scanned the shop, looking for something. Then he stepped out from behind the counter, walking away for a moment. Olivia watched him go up to a display case and pick up a box, hurrying back over.
“Onyx,” he said. “Might be a load of bollocks, but can’t hurt.”
He handed her the box and she realized there was a gleaming black gemstone sitting in the middle of it. “Wait, I can’t just take it,” Olivia said.
“I’ll leave Iris a note and put the cash in the register, it’s fine.”
“You don’t have to-”
He ignored her, pulling a bill out of his wallet and sliding it into the register. Then he scrawled a quick note to Iris and left it on the counter.
Whether the stone worked or not, it was quiet as they walked out of the shop. Instead of the bone-chilling cold she’d felt as she ran in, the air was bright and crisp again as they began walking home.