Lydia Deacon was nervous. She furiously hit the buttons in front of her mostly to put her energy somewhere. A particle accelerator was perhaps an unnecessarily expensive stress ball, but it since it worked for her, she didn’t mind. She occasionally glanced at her brother, who was hunched over some of their ancient spellbooks. Their small laboratory room was easily the safest place in the house. It was protected with such powerful magic that it would take something akin to a tear in the space-time continuum to break in there. And eavesdropping on them while they were in the lab was quite difficult as well.
Still, Lydia was feeling paranoid, and she could see that Gaius was restless too. Fate’s appearance had startled them both, and in hindsight Lydia hoped they would have handled the situation better. Lydia was sure that simply telling Fate to leave wasn’t enough to get her or the other anthropomorphic personifications off their backs. And the fact that Fate had managed to just walk in meant that they definitely needed stronger magic to keep them out.
However, she knew that in the end, power wasn’t the answer when dealing with the abstract. Wits and knowledge were far more effective. And hiding wasn’t a long-term answer either, although a part of her had believed that she had got away with it. After all, they had been in peace for months already. Free to work on their research on the magical arts and on Lydia’s company as well as on some more discreet businesses. But now, they had been surprised, and the damage had already been done.
Sometimes she wondered if she had just been extremely stupid when she had started this all. In fact, she was sure that she had been a bit stupid. But their latest family reunion had simply been the last straw. Father’s mildly drunken rants about how she would always be a failure because she had broken their magical family line and how he was so happy that he and mother had had Gaius were nothing new. But this time… after she had just become successful on her own field, and when she had just got her second degree in physics, and managed to get the Deacon family name respected in the “normal” world while the magical world still immediately went for necrophilia jokes… while being only thirty six years old… it was just a bit too much.
Things had been said. And it all had ended – or in a way started – with a foolish but intriguing bet. That she could do her father’s job better. That she could prove that magic and the powers that be could also bend to the will of a normal human. Well, Gaius had given some help, sure, but that didn’t count because father let him do anything. It had been a bit difficult to persuade Gaius to leave his beloved zombie-theories, but in the end, he’d agreed that siblings had to stick together.
And now, she had showed her father. And father had actually been ecstatic. Perhaps even proud. At least he had been proud enough to lend his name and his help in both getting the gemstone and cutting it so that it could hide both Lydia and Gaius. Though Lydia knew that the help had come with a challenge. With knowledge that father wasn’t perfectly impressed yet. The fact that she had managed to acquire something powerful was a good beginning, but that was all it was. The real test would be how she used it.
She could have saved a piece of the stone for father as well. But she still remembered the rants. Father didn’t even realise until too late that he’d been left with just dust.
That was why it had been surprising that father had approached them again with his distressed phone call. Well, he had approached Gaius, to be fair. Always the favourite. Perhaps the Grim Reaper’s appearance had startled father badly enough to make him forget about being swindled.
And maybe father was right to not want even a piece of the gemstone. Maybe he was laughing at them right now, secretly mocking her for inviting the abstract on their doorstep. Because soon after the high of success had faded somewhat, Lydia had properly realised that she was now in a possession of something that could easily make some very powerful people and beings very interested in her. Most likely with unhealthy results. Well, of course she had known that, but she had to admit that she hadn’t been worried enough about it until now.
Of course, she could just give it up now that she had proven herself. But why would she? She would be labelled as a quitter. Not to mention the gemstone was extremely valuable and useful, a challenge in all its possibilities. It was both exhilarating and scary.
“Well, have you found anything?” Lydia asked in a tense voice, looking up at Gaius again.
“Yes,” said Gaius, much to Lydia’s relief, “This is some really advanced stuff, though. I need to study it and brush up on my ancient languages skills. And we need some more supplies.”
“Those are easy to get in this town. We’ll strengthen the wards, and then… well…”
“We did know this might happen. We knew it when we committed to getting the gemstone.”
“We should have been more prepared. We did agree that the wards are just a precaution.”
Lydia looked up from the numbers on the screen in front of her. She had planned to take her time to study the gemstone more after the cutting. To determine what was the best thing she could do to really prove her father just how much she could do. But now… things had changed in just one moment.
“Do you think Fate was telling the truth? About being here on her own accord?”
“Probably,” Gaius said, “At least if the old writings are true, they usually keep to themselves. It could be a game, really.”
“Of course it’s a game!” Lydia huffed. The solutions kept forming and shattering in her head. Then they solidified again, and Lydia smiled, “Well, we can play games too, right?”
Lydia left the particle accelerator alone and crossed her arms.
“We messed up when she surprised us, and now we have to fix that. Fate told us she wanted to help. That had to be a lie, but maybe she wanted us to take the bait. So then… why don’t we take it?”
“What?” Gaius frowned, “Isn’t that kind of… backwards?”
Lydia rolled her eyes.
“We won’t do it without a plan, of course! But I want to talk to her. Aren’t you curious about what she really wants?”
Gaius nodded slowly, but didn’t seem convinced.
“She’ll probably try to trick us or something.”
Lydia nodded. She had always been the one to see the solutions in places where others didn’t. They’d just had to turn this around somehow. Or at least to make sure Fate wouldn’t bring the entire abstract world on their doorstep.
“Well, then we just have to trick her back if it comes to that.”
Gaius still hesitated, so Lydia crossed the room and pushed a couple of books to him.
“So let’s dig up those old summoning rituals, shall we?”
The days before Amelia’s birthday blurred together. There were invitations and baking and even some decorating, mostly done with wildflowers in vases. Julia looked so happy, and Amelia felt happy, and it was contagious. Everyone seemed to get into the joy and smile much more often. Even Novak, though that may have been because they mostly left him alone, as he claimed to have “studying” to do.
A couple of times Amelia dared to go ask him if he wanted food. He was usually in the middle of some intense computing or meditation, and just grunted one-word answers at her. To Julia he barely even spoke, and he was mostly just annoyed by any extra attention directed his way.
So Julia directed her hospitality towards Tad. She followed him around in the garden, making remarks about how nice it looked and asked him endless questions and gave him advice on gardening techniques. Tad occasionally seemed a bit alarmed about it, and would sometimes retreat into his room for some peace and quiet. Still, all in all he was mostly pleased with the situation. And whenever they talked about birthdays, there was a smile on his face, the kind of nervous smile that was usually caused by a good gift idea. As the birthday approached, Amelia hoped Tad wasn’t taking the whole gift-giving too seriously. He had a tendency to fret about things.
When Amelia woke up to a slightly off-key rendition of Joyeux Anniversaire sung by her mother, she felt like a little kid again. Well, when she had been little, her dad had been there too, and the songs had been sung in Simlish and occasionally Spanish when her dad had been in the mood to remember his old native tongue, but this was still a moment that made her smile.
The guests started arriving soon after midday. There was Katie, who had returned from her trip a few weeks ago, and who shoved a neatly wrapped gift in Amelia’s arms right before greeting her with hugs. And Sandra, who smiled and handed Amelia a small gift box that surely contained a piece of jewellery she had made herself. Amelia’s friends from work. Old family friends. And a couple of newer ones.
It was admittedly a bit odd to celebrate birthdays in such a scale again. Amelia hadn’t done that since she’d turned twenty. But her mum had insisted on wanting to meet old friends, and Amelia had to admit that it was nice.
Novak had left early in the morning and probably wouldn’t be back until he was sure everyone was gone. Tad had stayed, though, like he had promised many times. He stood near the walls, a deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes whenever he dared to look up from his shoes. Sometimes he looked like he wanted to melt into the wall so he could get away from the chatter that filled the house.
Amelia hoped he wouldn’t actually melt into walls. She was sure he was capable of it if he just wanted, and it would definitely cause a lot of chaos during a perfectly nice event. But no, Tad stayed where he was, with most of the guests ignoring him. Amelia and Julia attempted to chat with him a couple of times, but usually the only other person near the walls with him was Philippe, whose Simlish was uncertain enough to form at least some kind of language barrier between him and the others. Not to mention he too was a stranger. Amelia heard Philippe mutter something she couldn’t understand, and Tad answered in fluent French seemingly without thinking. That got Philippe excited, and a stream of French mingled with Simlish. Tad looked even more uncomfortable and unsure of what to do. Amelia gave him an encouraging smile.
“Well, your mum seems pretty happy,” Sandra said, forcing Amelia’s attention back to her, “So she just showed up here?”
“Yeah,” Amelia replied, “With no warning. It was a nice surprise.”
“At least things aren’t boring around here, I suppose,” Katie mused.
“You have no idea.”
“Mm-hmm… hey, but I’m not without excitement either,” Sandra said, “Did I tell you about that date I went on the day before yesterday? It was so random. First I ran into this guy at the park, like literally ran into him. Then he started talking about how his lunch had gotten cold, and apparently thought that was a good pick-up line. Well, then he got a bit better at it, and…”
Amelia smiled and let herself get lost in Sandra’s story. Supernatural action was surely exciting, if a bit scary, but sometimes it was a welcome break to just go back to the everyday life.
When the guests left, it was already evening. Amelia cleaned up the stray plates and let mum rest. She had been like a hurricane the last few days, but now even her energy was running out. Behind Amelia, Tad finally detached himself from the wall. Even Philippe had eventually left him alone, probably to go cuddling with Amelia’s mum.
“Well, I would say that went rather well,” Tad said, “Although it was… intimidating. Too many people I should matter to at once. But not really matter-matter. Just to be there so that there is even more noise. Anyway, can I give you my gift now? It would not have been appropriate during the party.”
Amelia put the plates in the dishwasher and turned.
“Um… okay? What is it? Wait, why is it not appropriate?”
Tad’s eyes widened.
“Oh? I said that wrong, didn’t I? I meant… well, it would have caused confusion, because I was planning to ask if you would like to visit my realm.”
He thought about it and then added sheepishly.
“It would be an experience. Not a material gift. I heard they were acceptable and nice.”
“So… with your realm, you mean…”
“Yes. But it does not mean you would have to die. I will keep you safe. And it will not get me in trouble either. People briefly visiting my realm is as okay as people using a ritual to summon me for a short visit. Just a brief one, though. Longer visits may start confusing the soul.”
Amelia bit her lip. Visiting Death’s realm was a frightening thought, but Tad looked so hopeful, and if he said he would protect her…
Amelia extended her hand.
“Alright,” she said.
Tad smiled and took her hand, and Amelia’s world changed into a bright burst of colours. Well, her house was like that as well, but this was different.
She blinked rapidly and took a moment to regain her balance. Then she breathed in the air that felt odd. Heavier. Chillier, even though it wasn’t really cold.
Amelia looked around properly, and gasped.
“It’s so beautiful!”
There were trees and flowers everywhere. Some of them looked fantastical and unreal. Like a magical forest from Amelia’s beloved fairytale books. There were giant, blue mushrooms that towered above her, and trees with spiralling branches that seemed to glow. The sound of not-quite real water streamed through the garden, which seemed to go on forever all around Amelia. And maybe it did.
“I am glad you like it,” Tad said, “It took me quite a while to make it like this.”
Amelia saw people walking among the trees and flowers. Some of them looked like everyday people, but some were dressed in historical clothing, and some could have been from the future. Some didn’t look even human. It was like people from all over the universe and time had gathered here. Amelia’s breath caught again in wonder.
“Is this where people go when…” she left the sentence hanging in the air.
“Everyone passes through here,” Tad said, “Not just humanoid beings. Everyone. But this is just a temporary stop. Everyone must find their way forward from here. Some do it right away. Some get lost for a longer while.”
“I thought it might help you deal with your fears. To see this, I mean. Even though it is just a gate. And beautiful only because I want it to be. Just another lie in the truth that many of you find unpleasant.”
He paused, gently letting his hand brush against a cherry blossom in the tree next to him.
“Still, beautiful or not, it is not a good place for souls to linger. Those who stay in-between are stuck in perpetual confusion. The garden only helps with giving them a place to rest. And maybe they will find something that would help them move forward. So as much as you hope you could still meet your father, I do not. For I am glad for every soul who passes to the beyond. The quicker the better.”
He turned to look at Amelia.
“However, there is someone who can prove that your father passed through here. Other than me, that is.”
“You don’t need to…” Amelia started, but Tad had already turned away from her.
“Mr. Smith?” he called, “Connor?”
It took a while, but then a young boy stepped out of the bushes.
His dust-coloured hair was messy, and he had scars on his cheek. His clothes were slightly old-fashioned, or perhaps just retro; Amelia wasn’t sure. What she was sure about was that the boy had been too young to die. He couldn’t be much older than sixteen. The boy looked at Tad nervously, but Tad just gestured towards Amelia.
“Hello, Mr. Smith,” he said, “This is Amelia Sprigg. The daughter of Alex.”
The boy’s eyes lit up.
“So you were serious? This is so amazing!”
In the blink of an eye, he was in front of Amelia.
“Good day! I’m Connor.”
Amelia’s ears heard that he spoke what sounded like slightly old-fashioned English with an accent and dialect she could tentatively guess could be from some part of Britain or Ireland. But Amelia’s mind understood it in perfect Simlish. Maybe it was a spirit-thing: not speaking with words but rather with meanings. Or maybe it was a feature in Tad’s realm. The boy extended his hand, and Amelia took it. She had expected it to be cold, but it was… nothing. No temperature at all, if that was possible. She could barely even feel any skin texture.
“Hello, Connor,” she said, “I’m Amelia.”
“Good old Alex told a lot about you,” Connor said, “Well, a lot for the time he was here. He wasn’t here long, really.”
“So you did meet my dad?” Amelia asked. She couldn’t help feeling a spark of excitement and curiosity. The thought of her dad not ending when he had fallen from the rocking chair had been in her mind ever since it had happened, but to have actual proof of it… it was wonderful and scary.
“Well, yes. Of course I did. Why else would I know about him?”
Before Amelia could ask anything more, Connor started telling his tale:
“He was real nice. He appeared near one of the ponds. Said it had to be because he loved fishing. I think the fish souls spoke to him. Though there aren’t many fish souls here. They usually just pass on real quick. Anyway, I was there, having a bad day. Or night. Or whatever it was. Time is a… difficult concept here.
“I’m usually pretty alone here. Most of the souls are, really. They don’t want to mingle because they’re so caught up with their own pain. But Mr. Sprigg… he was one of those who are at peace. He should have moved on right away, but he stopped by for just a moment to talk to me. He told a joke about yetis. I don’t remember it, but I remember it was hilarious.”
Amelia felt tears in her eyes.
“That does sound like dad.”
Connor nodded. He smiled fondly.
“He must have been real grand when he was alive, then.”
“After the joke he told me about how great a family he had. About you. And then… I guess he couldn’t ignore the pull anymore. I think it’s a pull. You feel it when you know how to move on.”
“He said goodbye. Wished me luck… It was a good day after all.”
Amelia stared at Connor through her tears. When Connor spoke, Amelia could almost see her dad, smiling and then walking away with confident steps. Where he was now, she figured no one knew. Or then Tad did know but wasn’t allowed to tell. Or maybe there was something terrible, or even nothing after this, and Tad just didn’t want her to lose hope because she wasn’t really the kind of person who could think about life with nothing afterwards. Or especially life with something bad waiting in the end. But did it even matter? Tad had made it clear that moving forward was what had to happen. And as much as Amelia would have wanted dad to stop and turn back, to return to life or at least as a ghost, even she knew it wasn’t… right. She tried to wipe away her tears. They just kept coming back.
Connor smiled a bit nervously.
“So uh… Sir Death asked me to talk about that. But that’s all I can say, really. It’s not much, I know.”
He fell silent, and for a moment Amelia didn’t know what to say either. Were there real answers to the questions she had to be found here? Perhaps not. But Amelia could still feel immense happiness. Not just because of the thought that her father had been so… himself in the end. But because of how nice a gesture it all was. She turned to thank Tad, but realised that he wasn’t there anymore. Connor noticed her wandering look.
“He left us alone. He knows he makes most of us here nervous,” he explained, “So… you’re friends with Death?”
“Yes,” Amelia said in a thick voice.
“Wow. That must be tough.”
“Not really,” Amelia said, rubbing her eyes again. This time the tears weren’t as stubborn to keep falling.
“Well, if he does something like this for you, then I guess he’s nicer than I thought.”
“He is,” Amelia smiled, “Thank you, Connor. I really appreciate all this. And I’m glad that my dad took a moment to talk to you.”
Amelia took a deep breath. Tad still hadn’t come back. That probably meant she still had time. She smiled.
“Do you want to talk to someone now?” she asked Connor.
Connor raised a brow.
“I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
“Yes. But do you want to talk about something other than my dad? About yourself? And I may have some jokes too if you want to hear them.”
Connor smiled brightly.
“Yes, please! You don’t believe how rude some of the other in-betweeners are here! And just this other day, I fell right into one of the ponds! And I can’t even swim!”
“Oh, that sounds bad!”
“Well, it’s not like I can die again. Good thing too, since shite like that happens to me all the time. I’m so unlucky! Do you know how I died in the first place?”
“I was struck by a meteorite! How likely is that?!” Connor threw his arms up in the air, “I think that’s partly why I’m still here! Because I can’t believe I died like that! And then… well, when I could finally almost accept it, I realised I’d got lost. But… you know, at least I’ve found a peaceful nook or two from here. Sometimes I think this is a nice place after all.”
“It really is. Well, from the perspective of a living person, at least.”
“Right. That perspective. So, how about a joke or two? This place is really no fun. Totally dead. Get it? It’s funny because it has ‘dead’ in it!”
“Um…” Amelia chuckled nervously, “That’s… pretty funny. But how about something less dark next?”
“Oh, I’d like that!”
They joked and talked for some more, until Tad was there again. He seemed pleased with himself when he saw Amelia and Connor laughing.
“I am sorry to disrupt this, but we should go back. I told you I can only allow a short visit.”
“Of course, sir!” Connor said nervously, “I uh… I’ll be going now. T’was grand to meet you, Amelia.”
He turned around quickly and scurried into the bushes.
“Thank you so much for your help!” Tad called after him. Then he sighed, “I do try to be a good host. Somehow it just never seems to work.”
He shifted his weight nervously.
“Anyway, so… happy birthday? I… I hope I managed to do this gift-thing right. I know this was not conventional and… well, I just thought you might want to know. Even though you said you were joking. About your father. But I knew you wanted to… to have some degree of certainty. It is not… perfect. Far from it. I just…”
He looked a bit embarrassed and added in an almost inaudible voice:
“This was the closest thing to closure I could give you.”
Amelia couldn’t hold back a smile. Before she could fully process what she was doing, she stepped forward and put her arms around Tad.
He was cold, maybe the only thing in the garden to have something resembling a real temperature. He also felt so fragile, even though he was probably the most constant, lasting thing in the world. Amelia didn’t dare hug him very tightly for an irrational fear of breaking possibly non-existent bones. Tad froze in shock.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Amelia laughed, “This all… it was lovely. Thank you so much.”
Tad sighed in relief. He slowly relaxed and fidgeted uncertainly for a while until he managed to return the hug.
“Oh. Good,” he said, “Normally people only cling to me sometimes when they are dying and in panic. And I was afraid I would make things worse. The cracks in the soul, I mean.”
Amelia just nodded. The tears were still a bit too close.
“You didn’t. I think it was a great gift.”
“I am glad to hear that.”
He stepped away from Amelia’s embrace, but kept his hand on her shoulder.
“Now, let us go back home. To make this place a good memory before it starts to feel bad.”
Amelia nodded, and the garden faded from around her until just the beauty of it remained.
Author’s Note: I’m a very unsure gift-giver and I always feel like I’m not picking out good gifts. Well, unless we’re talking about Christmas gifts. Then I feel like I have tons of good ideas. Maybe it’s the anonymity that gives me security.
There was this one time when some guy randomly walked up to me and started talking about how the ham at the school’s Christmas dinner had got cold. I’m not sure but I think he was trying to hit on me. So yeah, a part of Sandra’s story is based on experience, sort of. Though in real life, it didn’t work. 😀
Also HUGS! I have this weird thing that I love hugs and I’d love to see a lot of fictional characters hugging, and am sad if they never do, but when I’m writing something and would have the power to make people hug, I do it very rarely. Maybe because in my writing, almost any non-violent physical contact is a sign of trust and an already pretty deep friendship (or just very poignant/strong emotions, like grief etc.). It was really close that I wouldn’t have let Amelia hug Tad here, but in the end I just had to do it. Tad especially needs more hugs.
Well, that was a thing. Now let’s see if I can get to the next part of the plot. It’s gonna be fun. At least in my head.