“People speak about abandoned places but there is no such thing. Even when a place is too empty for the dead to haunt, we who made them owe them our presence. If you build it, they will come. Or must come. I don’t know.” Wilbur glances at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. “Kelly – doesn’t want to drive us right now, and I got my licence last week.”
“You said something was pulling at you. Going alone isn’t safe, especially to abandoned places.” I hesitate. I try not to but I can’t help myself. “Especially for you.”
“Hmm?” Wilbur asks as he turns down another dirt road. We’re far east of Rivercomb now, wandering through logging roads and side roads that the GPS doesn’t admit exists.
“Well, you could fall through the floor?” I offer, thinking up a line to use next.
Wilbur snorts. “That works better as a joke if you don’t make it a question, Noah.”
“I thought it was obvious that a fact isn’t a question,” I say.
He laughs softly. “Almost a proper one.”
“Thanks,” I say, and mean it. Too many years of being stuck in a home and being me make conversation hard even months after being free of my parents. I glance out the window, not wanting to distract Wilbur further. He’s swerved at least four times so far for things that weren’t there at all, but Kelly is stuck doing a long job at work. And after their one car was destroyed by something with too many teeth, Kelly hadn’t been all that eager to drive any of us anywhere.
Not that I blame them. Anya has been keeping to herself, worried we’ll treat her differently now that we know she isn’t entirely human. I’ve tried to tell her it doesn’t matter to me, but I’m not good enough with words to explain that right and it matters to her. Everything has been complicated since we saved Rivercomb from being changed into something alien by Greg Ruk. We’d saved our home, and everything else had fallen apart.
My stepfather had to attempt to kill me – only technically, and it summoned a creature that saved everyone – but he and my stepmother – my parents, now, haven’t been talking like they used to. I don’t know how to fix that, save by moving out. I don’t know if that would help. Wilbur has been coming into his power as the world’s only ghost magician, though no know knows what that really means. All I really did was become stronger in using my own magical Talent. I can push things. Really well. Anya can cause pain, Kelly can fix broken vehicles. The four of us worked well together, but now everything is – whatever it is.
“Noah?” Wilbur’s voice pulls at me. It’s not like John Adams, the magician in Oxbow, who could command, but it still pulls. I look back over. “You okay?”
“You should be watching the road,” I mumble.
“No one is on it.” He pauses, his expression distant and blank for a moment, then pulls the car over, killing the engine. The passenger’s door is almost buried against narrow trees. “We haven’t hung out properly in weeks as just the two of us being friends.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. We did something great together, and sometimes there’s prices for that. We can fix things, but not if we don’t try. Which means hanging out and taking. I can make all the jokes if you want,” he adds after a pause.
I laugh at that, feeling relaxed for the first time in the last half hour. “You’re jealous of my jokes.”
“Of course.” He gets out, and I follow him out the driver’s door. “I didn’t ask you here just for that, though. Pickles said I might need help.”
That Rivercomb has a proper magician, and one who is a cat, is also something we’ve never really talked about. I nod. Wilbur looks up at me. He’s a bit shorter, a lot bigger, and I think he’s waiting for something but I’m not not sure what. In the end, he starts walking and I follow beside him.
The road narrows as we round a bend, enough that we’d have scraped the car badly against the thin scraggly trees pressing against either side. “There’s something odd here,” Wilbur offers, holding up his right hand even as he’s hurled backwards by some unseen force. His back slams onto gravel so hard I didn’t even have time to try and use my talent to stop it.
“Wilbur?” My voice cracks, even to my ears. He doesn’t make a joke about it, just lies on his back and stares up, trying to get his breath back.
“Nothing feels broken,” he wheezes.
I reach down and help him up without a word. He had a cut on one cheek but stands on his own without any sign of pain. I’m about a hundred pounds at best – still too skinny despite the meals Aram and Lia make – and Wilbur is around four hundred pounds so my talent pulling him to his feet elicits a shared grin at the absurdity other people would see.
“You’ve gained weight,” we both say at once, and then share a laugh that cracks tension like a bomb.
Wilbur wipes his cheek after, stepping back toward the car. The cut isn’t deep at all. “Whatever is ahead of us is scared of me and doesn’t want me approaching. So it has to be you.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know!” I think it’s my imagination that the forest about us seems to get quieter at the shout. “I didn’t mean to shout: it’s something abandoned, I think, based on what I was saying earlier. I just – know things now, Noah, and I don’t know why. Part of being a magician, I think, but it’s hard to know what is the magic and isn’t, what might just be me or –.” He falls silent.
Sometimes I’m stupid. Sometimes I’m very stupid. “I’m not afraid of you. Magician or not, you’re my friend,” I say. I don’t have it in me to shout like he does, not even if no one else is watching, but he smiles at whatever I manage in my voice.
“I know. It’s just I’ve dragged you all the way out here and now I can’t do anything. I could try and ward you, but I don’t know if that would cause another incident.”
“I’ll be okay. If I’m not,” I add quickly, “You can gather everyone and get revenge.” He snorts, but doesn’t disagree.
I pull my talent about me as I walk. I can push and pull things, and whatever is out here pushes so I should be okay. I walk down what I think is actually a driveway rather than a road. There is no mud, the gravel surprisingly solid, the road wider than it should be given the press of trees and vines against it. It ends in a tangle of brush I almost don’t realize conceals a building. Nothing strange is happening that I can tell. I move forward.
“Hello?” I add it a second time, a bit louder. There is no reply.
The glimpse of something that caught my eye turned out to be a sign reading POSTED, with Private Property underneath it and small print about prosecution under that. The walls are old brick that somehow hold together despite age. The first floor windows were boarded up long ago, but the sign was put up later beside a window. Not just put up: someone drilled into the brick, made a wood frame and put the sign in that. I have no idea what to make of that, but Aram insists that paying attention means paying attention.
I can see the sky through a second floor window that isn’t boarded up and walk about the building carefully. It’s not large, what would have been a door also boarded and encrusted in vines. I could pull them apart with a thought. I don’t, and circle the building again to try and understand why. The vines are old, the brickwork somehow standing against time and age. I look back the way I came, and back at the building.
“You called Wilbur here. He’s the one who can deal with ghosts. I’m not. I can –.” I wave a hand, push with my talent. Vines rustle. Wood creaks. And the bricks ripple. I pull it back and get my phone out to call Wilbur.
“Please. Do not.”
The voice is a whisper, barely above the wind. It sounds like creaking wood, a little bit, unless I’m imagining that. “Don’t what?”
“Call the one who can unmake me.”
“We don’t even know what is going on here, but is there a reason Wilbur would unmake you? Whatever you are?”
“An exorcism always works if blood is drawn; it cannot be resisted.”
“Oh. I – I don’t think Wilbur actually knows that, if it helps?” There is a breath like wind about me. “Wilbur isn’t an exorcist like others are. He has options they don’t,” I say, and really hope I’m right. “It would help if you didn’t hurt anyone. Or try to hide.”
“Hiding is all I am good at.” And somehow, weirdly, that sounds more human than anything else it has said.
“It’s dangerous to be too good at anything? My step – my mom told me that.”
“You do not hide?” And there is breaking glass along with creaking wood under the words now.
I feel myself starting to blush. “I know what I look like. Acne. Freckles. Too much of both. I get it.”
“That is not –.” The voice cuts off, adding nothing else.
I wait, then call Wilbur. “I think the building is haunted by itself, maybe? And I don’t think it’s strong enough to hurt you right now.”
He thanks me and I hang up. Brickwork dissolves moments later. There are more vines, the private property sign less legible, the bricks cracked and riddled with decay. I put my phone away slowly. “I was right, about what you are?”
“I haunt myself, yes.”
“And you’re using that energy to do renovations no one can see.” It would be funny, if it was funny at all.
The ghost says nothing and Wilbur makes his way up beside me, looking the building over.
“All right. You’re the ghost of a house haunting itself, and you called me here and tried to hurt me. Talk,” he says mildly.
“You are too big,” the spirit responds.
“I don’t think it means you’re big. Even if you are,” I stumble out.
Wilbur grins at that. “I know what you mean, Noah. You don’t want to be alone, house?”
“I am a place. I was made for people, not to be abandoned. Not to become one of the empty places in the world.”
“But if people repair this place, you’d have to move on,” Wilbur says slowly.
I don’t have words for the sound the spirit makes. I never want to.
“Other ghosts? Can’t other ghosts be here?” I whisper.
“That. I could get other ghosts to come here. For company. You could haunt them?” Wilbur says, and the ghost listens to what it in his voice. The rest of the conversation happens in ways I don’t hear, but the house haunts itself back into a better state as we walk away.
Wilbur waits until I’m in the car, gets in as well and turns it around. “I have no idea how I’m going to do this,” he says a minute later when we’re a couple of roads away from the house. “We’re definitely going to need to talk to the others.”
“No,” I admit, and he nods, flicks on music and convinces me to join him in singing Queen songs. Because sometimes the only way through any sense of abandonment is to push on through it. Like how Aram says the solution to a maze is to burn it to the ground.