Anthracosis

(illustrated by catatonic_cats)


Motel rooms always put the light switches in different places, so she groped about for nearly half a minute before her fingers found the switch and flipped it to on. Above the sink, a fluorescent bar flickered into existence, reflecting off the lime green linoleum and casting everything in the closet-sized bathroom with an unhealthy sheen. Exhausted, she gripped either side of the high white sink, trying to will her way to full consciousness on less than six hours of sleep. She ran her fingers under a stream of cold water, then raked them back across her head, plastering her short brown hair in rows away from where sleep had pushed it into her face.

Then she made the terrible, sleep-deprived mistake of looking in the mirror with both eyes, and she let out a blood-curdling scream.

A split second later, a monster made of bedsheets twisted around a woman's frame came rushing to the bathroom, nearly toppling them both in its hastily wakened hurry. "What? What?"

By this time, Ruth had shut both her eyes tight and pressed the backs of her heels to them, as though not looking might make it go away, though it never did. "Shower ghost," she explained, leaning forward so her forehead came to rest against the medicine cabinet mirror. Opening her good eye just a crack, she saw the reflection of the bedsheet monster as it untangled itself and became a woman wearing nothing more than the t-shirt she'd gone to sleep in. "Behind the curtain."

The bishop didn't even bother looking; they both knew there was nothing there she could see -- and, as long as Ruth kept her right eye shut, there was mercifully nothing she could see either. "And you waited until 5:45 in the morning to point this out?"

"It wasn't there last night!" Ruth sighed. Now that the initial startlement was wearing off, a slight embarrassment came creeping in to fill its space. "I don't know, maybe he was one of those people who liked to shower at night and hang himself in the morning."

As it turned out, the ghost -- a balding businessman who looked to be in his mid-fifties, strung up around the shower nozzle with a noose made of his own neckties -- was surprisingly quite glad to be released from being a fixture of that bathroom, and did not fight the bishop's attempts at cleansing. Ruth, after describing the necessary elements of the scene to the bishop for reference, listened to the whole thing sitting on the side of the bed, squirming slightly and hoping the thing would be over soon, because she had to pee. She supposed it didn't make a great deal of difference to the ghost, who was facing the wall anyway, but she had a nervous bladder, and that went for dead and living people alike.

When the bishop was done, she emerged, still wearing her oversized thrift store sleep shirt that advertised Fun Run 2003!, though the F and the 3! were obscured by the stole she'd thrown over her shoulders. By that time, Ruth had found her patch and fixed it over her right eye. "I didn't mean to yell," the bishop said, tucking the silver instruments back into their black leather case.

"I know." Ruth stood and took the stole from her shoulders, rolling it neatly so the fabric didn't grow creases.

"Why were you up?"

"We need to go to Boulder."

The bishop sighed and leaned her head to either side, cracking the joints in her neck. She looked at Ruth with a tired sort of expression, the slightly wilted way she always looked right after working, and did not say any of the things Ruth would have said their positions been reversed -- we just got done with the last one, that's a thousand miles away, don't we deserve a vacation? Instead, she just nodded. "Boulder. Never been there."

Try though she might, even though she inspected the entire bathroom thoroughly with both eyes and found no sign that anything supernatural was or had ever been there, Ruth decided in the end that she could go another day without a shower.

~*~

Ruth couldn't really imagine how strange they looked standing there, the three of them in a line as a red-headed woman opened the door, shoulder-to-shoulder like Christmas carollers trying to keep out the cold. Father Duncan stood in the middle, the sole familiar face; to his right lingered Ruth, who'd been on too many of these excursions to show up wearing anything more than an old YALE t-shirt and secondhand jeans; to his left, the bishop cut a swelteringly Puritanical profile in the July afternoon, dressed all in black, down to a heavy collared cape and leather gloves. For a moment, the owner of the house looked at them blankly, as though waiting for the punchline.

Father Duncan gave a nervous little cough. "Eugenie, may we come in?"

For a moment, Ruth was sure the woman was going to say good gracious, no -- which, really, would have been a sensical move Ruth couldn't have blamed her for. Instead, though, she stepped aside, gesturing them quietly in. She had a desperate sort of nervousness to her face, the kind that didn't ask too many questions when your priest showed up with two strangers in tow.

The inside of the house was furnished simply, a kind of Ikea Modern aesthetic with only a few clumsy notes of Family Herilooms Inherited From Dead Relatives cluttering the scene. Over the fireplace was a singularly ugly oil painting of a farmhouse and a haystack, done in a style reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth on a bad day, with two little blobs down at the front which might have been girls in blue dresses. Even in her dream where she'd been chased through the halls of this very house by an invisible assailant, Ruth had taken time to notice just how ugly the painting was.

Once they were all inside, Father Duncan reached out and took the woman's hands in his own. "Eugenie, these young women have come to me saying they can help with your problem."

There would be a flutter of disbelief and gratitude and introductions that followed Father Duncan's statement, Ruth was sure -- there always was -- but she had already stopped paying attention to the people and started casing the surroundings. Just beyond the sitting-room where Eugenie had ushered them lay what looked to be a study, complete with bookshelved walls and heavy oak paneling, and Ruth slipped silently past the bishop's We're Here To Believe You speech and into the study, which (to her left eye, at least) appeared empty, except for the stacks of papers and books strewn about nearly at random. Someone in this household was obviously wanting for organizational skills.

Relatively alone now -- or at least as alone as she was likely to get in a stranger's house for a little while -- Ruth took a deep breath and shut both her eyes, then slipped the black patch's elastic band off her head. This was always the worst part, the gap between suspicion and confirmation, dreading equally finding something and finding nothing. She took another deep breath, clenched her hands into fist, and look a look around.

The resulting view was, as always, dissonantly bifocal, like the one time Ruth's aunt had taken her to a 3-D movie, and she'd put on the glasses, then winked each eye in turn, watching the world turn red, green, red, green, red, green. To half her perception, the room appeared the same before picture in a housekeeping business' brochure as it had before, its sense of disarray intensely human; it was the same room anyone else -- including the bishop -- standing in her shoes would have seen.

To the other half, however, everything had become dark and bright at once, as though someone had tracked trails of coal dust through the room. The lines sparkled, as if reflecting some unnatural light, and cut distinct trails through the room. Earlier, a toppled stack of dictionaries by the desk had appeared the wages of gravity and carelessness; now, they shone with a telling line, as though a child with filthy hands had pushed them over deliberately. Every other scattered pile or strewn page showed the same kind of residue. Nothing was moving, and Ruth could detect nothing anthropomorphic in the room that she didn't see before -- just the blackened tracks of where destruction had been visited on the room. For all the weirdness she'd seen in her life, this was a new one.

She settled the patch back over her eye before venturing out into the living room again, where Eugenie had been joined by a tall man who held her hands in a very spouse-like way; they sat side-by-side on the couch, while Father Duncan and the bishop had settled into large recliners. Ruth pulled up a small wooden chair from beside the fireplace and joined the makeshift circle. "Sometimes, at night," Eugenie was explaining, "there's this terrible wailing noise from the hallways. But when Jon and I open the door, there's nothing there."

"It doesn't stop, though," the man named Jon added, patting his wife's thigh gently. He had the same look to his face as did his wife, the fragile half-relief Ruth recognized from the faces of people who were finally so damn glad that they just had someone, anyone, willing to listen to them without accusing them of hoax or insanity. "It just ... moves somewhere else. I hear it from the bathroom, or downstairs, or ... well, the study."

The bishop folded her hands in her lap as he talked and gave a sincere smile Ruth knew was still a work-in-progress; when they'd first met, her 'bedside manner' (as Ruth had though of it) had been somewhat lacking, but she'd made definite strides forward. At the same time, however, she glanced to her side, fixing Ruth with a look that asked, are these people crazy, or is there something here? Ruth gave her a curt, grim nod -- definitely something here, can't vouch for the crazy.

Eugenie wiped her hand beneath her eyes. "We've sent the children to Jon's parents' in Seattle, but they'll be starting school again in a few weeks, and ... I don't feel safe bringing them back here. And we didn't know what to do."

The bishop nodded. "I understand. This is my colleague, Ruth Gies. If you don't mind, I'd like your permission to have her take a look around while I ask you a few questions."

Ruth, who prided herself on her ability to blend into the wallpaper, gave a little wave as the couple turned and actually looked at her for the first time. She knew that look too, the one that wondered why a young lady doing such strange work looked so curiously normal. They didn't look at her eyepatch, but that was because they were good middle-class people who'd been taught it was impolite to stare. Sometimes she wondered if there was a script all haunting victims were taught to follow. "Of course," said Jon, "you're both welcome to look around, Bishop ... I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

"I didn't say it," she answered, her expression still that antisocial deadpan Ruth had spent no small amount of effort trying to crack. "Just Bishop will be fine. Ruth, can you--"

"On it." Ruth stood, glad to have something to do; she hated the awkward family interviews, largely because she had nothing to contribute to the analysis, and felt like she spent most of the time trying to look engaged enough to justify her presence. She was only good at seeing things; she had no idea what or why they were. "Is it all right if I go upstairs?"

Eugenie nodded. "That's fine. The stairs are by the front door."

Ruth gave her a quick nod of acknowledgement, then walked back the way they'd come in. As she left the room, she heard the bishop clear her throat and begin: "Now, Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, like I said, I have a few questions for you -- and they're standard questions, so please don't take offense, I'm just trying to get as much information as possible. Firstly, have you or anyone you know ever engaged in Satanic rituals or practices?"

Despite the good fun it always was listening to otherwise normal people respond with indignation at the suggestion that they might be Satanists -- a completely unfounded reaction, Ruth thought, as she had in the past few years met a fair number of Satanists, and they had on the whole been gracious people -- Ruth stepped into the hallway, generally out of earshot, and removed her patch.

The same trails of black dust appeared again in her vision, marking the walls and leaving more distinct tracks than had appeared in the study, though without the accompanying level of destruction. A smear along the white wall next to a slightly crooked family photograph made it look like the frame had been pushed off-center, then improperly righted. Dark trails marked the beige carpet, looking like tracked-in mud, and in a few places, Ruth could make out the distinct imprints of child-sized shoes. Going up the white banister were a set of black handprints, each smaller than an adult's hand. It might have looked like little more than the leavings of some very muddy children (due for some great punishment when their mother discovered them), had the blackness not disappeared the instant Ruth shut her right eye.

Ruth drew her hand along the wall where the closest smear was, but she could not disturb the mark, and her fingers came away clean. This sort of thing always scared Ruth more than she liked to admit. It was one thing to be startled by ghosts like the shower man, you couldn't blame anyone for being caught off-guard by that, but this still, quiet mess left her with a feeling of cold dread. Something had been here, and was probably still here, and if it caught here, there was literally nothing she could do about it but yell.

For a bit of internal reassurance, Ruth leaned back toward the living room, where she heard the continuing interrogation -- "Has anyone in your family purchased anything recently at an antique store, estate sale, silent auction, or occult bookstore? Have you found any unfamiliar items or symbols in your childrens' rooms, backpacks, laundry baskets, or other paraphernalia? Have your children recently made friends or enemies their own ages who are interested in the occult?" -- followed with a negative response to each question, and a sidebar after the last one indicating their sons were only ten, eight, and five years old. Well, everything was still normal in there, at least.

Not quite brave enough to follow the handprints up the bannister yet, Ruth set along after the footprints that led down the hallway, matching her stride to each one. Little feet, little legs, little hands.... Speculation wasn't her area, but all these things seemed indicative to her of a child ghost -- except for the black marks. In Ruth's experience, ghosts were there one minute and gone the next, and she spent most of her time waiting to see the ghost itself before being able to confirm its presence. Demons tended to leave residue behind, sort of like a spiritual calling card, but they also rarely limited themselves to moving objects and making noise. Maybe the bishop could find something in her interview, because Ruth was stumped.

She pushed open the door at the far end of the hall to reveal a clean, modern kitchen that might have been a catelogue model for anyone who couldn't see the ashy mess scattered everywhere. A small chopping block and vegetables lay half attended-to beside the stove; their arrival must have interrupted dinner preparations. Items around the room looked to have been arranged in hasty piles, all of them still bearing the dusty traces. Something had made quite a mess in here.

The door at the end of the kitchen opened to the study, creating a loop of the downstairs that circled through back to the front door. For a small house, Ruth thought, it made good use of space, and was the kind of place she used to think she'd like to live in, before the monsters in her head, before the sight, before the bishop. She leaned her head into the room and heard the bishop's voice from the other side, muffled but no less insistent: "Do you have any items in your household, organic or inorganic, known to be holy relics? Has anything in your possession ever been blessed by a person of great faith, such as a sadhu or the Pope? Are either of you or your children devotees of any particular saint, apostle, or other holy personage? Are any of your children named for deceased relatives?" Ruth ducked away again before she could hear yet another unhelpful 'no' to the bishop's myriad questions.

A quick check in the pantry and the bathroom beneath the stairs revealed more of the same -- the black trails, but no sign of what had made them. Only a fraction of her dream had taken place downstairs, though, before the thing that had been chasing her ran her up the stairs, stumbling and gasping for breath. Time for the second floor.

They liked to split up like this on hauntings, the bishop questioning observers as much as she could, Ruth taking a walk through the place by herself. It made sense for her to go alone, at least at first: not only could the bishop not see anything, but they needed to know how the haunted site behaved under normal circumstances, and scary things tended to behave abnormally when the bishop got near. She smelled of holy water and rock salt, a demon had once spoken through Ruth's mouth, and ghosts and demons alike became nervous around someone whose name they did not know. Names were power, and speaking someone's name gave you some power over them.

The bishop never said her name, not even to Ruth. Ruth, on the other hand, was willing to tell just about anyone or anything what to call her, but she figured that clamming up now would be not unlike shutting the barn door after the horse had gotten to the next county.

One hand steadying herself against the wall (she wasn't going to touch the banister), one hand wrapped around the silver flask of holy water in her pocket, she stood at the foot of the stairs and took several deep breaths. From the living room, at the edge of her perception, the interrogation continued: "Do you have, anywhere in your house, a book or manuscript by or about one of the following persons: Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, Eliphas LÚvi, Karl von Eckartshausen, Nostradamus, Stanislas de Guaita, Roger Bacon, Arthur Rimbaud, Adam Weishaupt, Alexis-Vincent-Charles Berbiguier de Terre-Neuve du Thym, Manly Palmer Hall, L. Ron Hubbard, Judith Butler, Elaine Pagels, Stephen King, Alan Moore..."

Emboldened by a quiet bout of giggles -- the bishop found nothing funny about her lengthy list of potentially problematic authors, which just made it funner -- Ruth took a deep breath and started up the stairs.

The second floor was a carpeted hallway lined with six closed doors, a sterile off-white corridor so pristine that Ruth had to rub her right eye several times before concluding that, no, what she was seeing was accurate -- the black trails disappeared at the stairs, leaving the second floor entirely clean. Somehow, this didn't make Ruth feel any better. All the doors looked identical; there was no way to tell where they went, and Ruth's panicked memories of the chase in her dream provided no guidance. The house's central air hissed through the empty hallway, a warm breathing sound that muted any noise from downstairs.

"I hate this part," said Ruth aloud. If anything heard her, it chose not to respond.

Choosing to turn right only because that end of the hallway had more doors than the other did, Ruth placed her hand on the nearest doorknob: a linen closet, judging by the narrowness of the frame. Closet ghosts, usually suicides, were horrible because they had no room to move, so they just hung there, their eyes watching you, just waiting for you to--

Rushing before dread could defeat resolve, Ruth practically tore open the closet door, flattening herself against the wall just opposite. Inside were shelves of neatly folded towels and sheets, all the same eggshell as the walls and carpet, none so much as smudged by spectral coal dust, and nothing out of the ordinary with them. Maybe, reasoned Ruth, whatever it was had decided that anything above the first floor was too much effort.

No, she'd seen the hands on the banister, and they'd all been pointing up. Whatever it was, it had no trouble climbing stairs.

The next three doors were clustered together at the end of the hall, all opening nearly onto one another: kids' rooms. Small hands, small feet. Not for the first time, Ruth considered building an extension arm, something with a grip that could work doorknobs from ten feet away so she didn't have to. It might look unprofessional, but it beat standing tense at regular arm's length, waiting for something to burst forth the minute the door opened. She'd watched ghosts stop what they were doing and gravitate toward doors as soon as they heard knobs rattle. Willing herself not to think on that, she braced her feet and reached to open the central door.

She never touched it. Instead, in the pause as she held her own breath, she heard above the respiration of the air conditioner another breathing sound, tiny shuddering sobs from over her shoulder. Her hand still extended, she stood frozen in place, keenly aware now that she was no longer alone in the empty hall. Frost formed in tiny lace patterns over the brass doorknob. The small, hitching breaths persisted, neither approaching nor receding, just waiting. Ruth felt her stomach knot.

She could cry out, she knew, just convince her vocal chords to work again and scream for help without ever turning around. She'd done it often enough in the first year they'd worked together, and the bishop had told Ruth she'd done the right thing every time. What had followed the praise, however, was invariably Ruth's silent doubt and suspicion of her own overactive imagination, her quiet terror that the bishop, behind her stoicism, might be disappointed in her. In the end, it had been the fear of her own failure that had taught her to swallow her dread and turn around, as she did now.

The thing at the other end of the hallway was black and shiny like the dust, and it had teeth. It had no shape, or it had several at once, shifting in and out with hints of hands and eyes and hair that disappeared the second Ruth tried to look closely at them. Worst of all, it was wrong in no way Ruth could articulate; it gave the impression of being mangled without providing any hint of its original state. Still crying, or making a noise like crying, it held its ground at the far end of the hallway, tall enough to reach the ceiling and tiny enough that Ruth could see clearly the wall behind it all at once.

Clutching tightly the silver flask -- useless against ghosts, though handy if that wasn't what it turned out to be -- Ruth cleared her throat. "Can you tell me what's wrong?" she asked, watching the words form clouds in front of her.

An abundance of mouths opened, and out poured the sound of a great iron door swinging on long-rusted hinges, so loud and terrible that Ruth staggered back a step and ran into the closed door behind her. Her hands clenched reflexively into fist, and her knuckles cracked in the cold. Before her, the thing took a shuddering step forward and fixed her with a grim glare; it convulsed, as though choking, and from between a set of long teeth coughed forth several black clots. "THEY TOOK MILLIE," it thundered, its voice a metal scream that intensified with every word. "GIVE HER BACK GIVE HER BACK GIVE HER BACK GIVE HER--"

"Bishop!" Ruth closed her eyes and slammed her hands over her ears as she shouted. Shaking too hard to stand anymore, she fell to the carpet, curling her legs beneath her. "Bishop!"

From her fetal crouch, she could see dark shoes and the hem of a fluttering black cape sweep up to the landing at the top of the stairs. Daring to let go of one of her ears, Ruth pointed down to the other end of the hall, and the shoes turned in the indicated direction, pacing right toward the thing with authoritative might. "Exorcizamus te, omnis immunde spiritus, omni satanica potestas," shouted the bishop, but the thing was gone nearly before she'd finished the first word, swallowing into itself and leaving a wide, black stain on the carpet.

"It's gone!" Ruth yelled just loud enough to be heard over the din -- her throat was starting to hurt -- and the bishop stopped mid-exorcism. "It's gone, it's gone. Whatever was there, it's gone now." The chill in the air had already begun to dissipate, and she felt her knuckles start to unclench.

Three more pairs of shoes tromped up the steps after them, and Ruth quite emphatically didn't want them to see her lying on the floor like this, so she pulled herself into a semi-seated position against the wall and decided that was good enough for her dignity. The homeowners and the priest surveyed the scene with looks of terror on their faces, and Ruth knew that the whole house -- minus its black-cloaked visitor -- had heard the demands. She closed her right eye and the black stain vanished.

"Mr. and Mrs. Baxter?" The bishop tucked back into her shirt the great silver cross she always wielded in the possible presence of evil, then folded her arms beneath her cape. In the midst of the chaos and confusion, she was as cold as the air had been, with barely a hair out of place. "We're going to need to stay here tonight. And you're going to need to tell me who Millie is."

~*~

Ruth pulled back the rocketship cover on the bed the Baxters had identified as belonging to their middle son, Will. They'd shown the bishop to the room belonging to their eldest, Bryce, but they second the couple had closed the door to their master bedroom, the bishop had promptly moved herself across the hall. "It's small," Ruth said, eyeing the twin mattress.

"It'll do." Having hung up her coat and most of her outer layers, the bishop unhooked her bra and slipped it off without removing her black t-shirt. She was broad-shouldered, both also small-waisted and broad-hipped, giving her an hourglass figure most women wouldn't cover up with eighteenth-century clerical clothing. Then again, most women weren't the bishop.

With a yawn, Ruth pulled off her eyepatch and folded it beside the bed. She'd already given all the rooms a once-over, this time with the bishop firmly in tow, but they had all come up empty. She slipped her bare legs between the sheets, smiling at the difference between the laundry detergent real people used and the scratchy one cheap motels had. It was always pleasant when a job gave them a nice place to stay, even if that nice place was usually haunted. Well, from all reports, if the thing in the hallway decided to show up again, it'd make its presence audibly known, and if it didn't, there'd be a good night's sleep out of the deal.

Stripped down only to a pair of loose black pants and a t-shirt, the bishop turned off the bedside lamp and slid into bed on top of Ruth so they were face-to-face. She threaded her fingers through Ruth's hair and pressed her lips first to Ruth's forehead, murmuring something in Latin that Ruth only knew was a prayer for divine protection because the bishop had done it many times before. Ruth lay there still for a moment, allowing the bishop to finish what she had begun, and only when the word amen had been spoken did she lift her hands up to the bishop's hips, at the skin just above the waistband of her pants, pulling her close.

The bishop kissed her once more on the forehead, then began to trail kisses down the side of Ruth's face, stopping every quarter inch for another until she reached Ruth's ear; she took the lobe between her teeth and growled softly, a wonderfully silly expression from someone so customarily straight-laced as the bishop, and Ruth laughed and pulled her closer, hooking her thumbs in the belt loops of the bishop's pants and pushing them off her hips. That accomplished, she pressed her hands upward, up lines of skin she knew even in the near-complete darkness of the room, beneath the bishop's shirt, and the bishop lifted her weight on her elbows just enough to let Ruth have access to her breasts. Her nipples stuck out pebble-hard, and she shivered silently as Ruth skipped the lightest edges of her thumbnails across them.

The first time they'd done anything like this had been so charmingly formal: Ruth had only been with the bishop three weeks, three weeks after seven years of living possessed, and Ruth was still heady with the sheer freedom of it all, when the bishop had approached her the night before an exorcism to say, this is old, this is older even than anything else I usually touch, but there is power here, I'll understand if you don't want to, you shouldn't feel obligated, never mind, I don't know why I thought, I shouldn't even have suggested-- And then Ruth had kissed her for the first time, and lay back on another motel bedspread as the bishop pretended she knew what she was doing, only her hands had trembled the entire time. The next day, during the exorcism, she had been so glorious that Ruth had needed to put her patch back on before she burned out her eye just looking at her.

That would be their cover story, Ruth supposed, if anyone asked, if anyone discovered -- but no one ever did. After all, exorcists had a widespread reputation among clergy and laypersons alike for being downright weird, and thus were generally passed over for inspection by those people who decided it'd be better if they just didn't know. Besides, if anyone wanted to catalogue the bishop's peculiarities, her sexual habits were far from the most obvious. Most people never even got past her lack of a name.

Ruth knew her name, of course -- one of her demons had whispered it to her, only on its way out, when a name could no longer do it any good -- but had nearly trained herself not even to think it anymore, not even as she tilted her face to the side until their lips met. Secrets are most dangerous when you're most unguarded, the bishop had said once, and Ruth had believed her. She believed damn near everything that came from the mouth she now kissed, and though her pragmatic nature hoped otherwise, she suspected that the bishop could say yellow was blue and Ruth would find herself taking the statement under serious consideration.

The bishop lay on top, as she always did, one knee between Ruth's thighs, one knee braced at her hip, holding up her own weight as she kissed down Ruth's neck again, to her collarbone beneath the loose t-shirt she slept in. Her lips made words against Ruth's body, ones that she could feel through the fabric, and Ruth shut her eyes, reaching for the waistband of the bishop's pants. She slipped her hand beneath, sneaking past the elastic of the bishop's underwear, following her way past cloth and skin down to where the bishop's body parted into warmth and wetness.

Having sex with the bishop was like having sex with a very focused yet very easily spooked bird. The first time this had happened, Ruth had raised her hand to the bishop's body to reciprocate and the bishop had nearly levitated off the bed, she'd been so startled -- both by the touch itself and by the idea that anyone might want to touch her at all. Her desire was not toward her own pleasure, but was directed rather single-mindedly toward Ruth. Once, when she'd been in a particularly foul mood, Ruth had simply lay there on the bed to see if the bishop would in any way demand Ruth's contribution to the process, or if this was indeed all about Ruth; when the bishop had at last fallen to Ruth's side, unsatisfied herself but apparently content that Ruth had received the appropriate attention, Ruth had concluded the latter was the case, and had never been so selfish again.

Slipping a finger to either side of the bishop's hardened clit, Ruth began to rub her knuckles together, working within the confines of clothing. Being naked on the job was never an option, so Ruth had learned to make do, to move slightly when she'd wanted to move mountains. With her other hand, she continued to push up the bishop's shirt, rubbing at her nipple, both hands catching in a similar rhythm.

The bishop shuddered, then reached for the hem of Ruth's shirt, pulling it up just enough to expose her small breasts. Ruth bit back a gasp as the bishop caught one of Ruth's nipples between her lips, flicking her tongue and setting the nerves at attention. In retaliation, Ruth slipped her own fingers deeper between the bishop's wettened folds of skin, until she felt that curve of body over gently sloping bone she knew as well as she knew her own skin, the last ridge before she opened like the ocean, warm and wet. Ruth pushed a well-trimmed finger inside, just to the first joint before pausing, letting the bishop acclimate to the intrusion.

Ruth kept her right eye half-shut out of habit when it wasn't patched, but she opened it now and in the dark could see the ley lines of power running across the bishop's skin. Whoever had picked her for this life years previous, whatever priest or mystic, that person must have been able to see her like this, veined deeply with her connection to the Divine. Ruth made a wordless noise of inquiry, and the bishop nodded slightly, so Ruth joined her first finger with a second, sliding them gently inside up to the third joint; the pad of her thumb rocked against the bishop's clit, pressing small circles.

It wasn't much longer after that. Tuned to the high energies of the job, crackling with power, the bishop buried her mouth in the valley between Ruth's breasts, exhaling noiselessly as she came around Ruth's hand, her slick vaginal muscles pulsing in a slowly decreasing rhythm, until they finally stilled. She lay flat against Ruth's body for only a moment further before reaching down and pulling Ruth's panties off her hips. Her fingers found their way between Ruth's legs as Ruth had done for her, touching at the wetness there before withdrawing and pressing her slick fingertips to Ruth's forehead.

Ruth pulled a face, though she remained steady. "That's gross, you know."

"Hush," the bishop chided, tracing her fingers three times in the shape of a single cross on Ruth's brow. She kissed the center of it, then kissed Ruth's mouth, long and deep. "I need to know you're safe."

"I can take care of myself," Ruth argued, though the second half of her protest dissolved into a deep moan as the bishop's fingers found their lower target again. They'd learned everything together, Ruth armed by her mother's pilfered supply of badly written romance novels and the bishop operating on sheer instinct and mimicry, but they'd learned each other so well. Ruth settled back against the pillows and let the bishop's hands sink deep into the folds of her skin, breathing deep and letting her knees fall wide, so caught in the friction and sensation that she made the mistake of opening her eyes.

There was a girl in the room with them, shimmering and luminous, like a black-and-white projection on a transparent screen in a dark theater. Her curly hair framed her head like a blonde halo, and she was nearly smiling at the two of them, her face curious and open. Her bare feet were dark nearly to her ankles, and the same darkness stained the ragged edge of her old-fashioned dress. As little girls went, she looked nice enough, like something you might see on the cover of a Depression-era issue of Life or an waif extra in a Norman Rockwell painting, not the heart of a monster with too many mouths and a rusted metal voice, even though Ruth knew in an instant that was exactly what she was.

"Something else is here," Ruth murmured, all the muscles in her body drawn tense, the previous seconds' ecstacy washed away by deep, cold fear. "She's by the door, about two feet in front of it."

The bishop didn't move, didn't jump into action, just went still against Ruth, and Ruth could feel the corresponding pressure against her chest as the bishop took three deep, slow breaths. Nobody knows that she's scared all the time, Ruth thought. Nobody but me. Without lifting her head, the bishop nodded. "Figures," she muttered, and rolled off the bed, landing on her feet in front of the girl, searching the darkness for something she couldn't see.

For a moment, the girl looked honestly surprised by the reaction -- and then she coughed once, and when she did, the black cloud began to pour from her mouth, and with it came the metal scream. As she did, the bishop grabbed for her pouch and produced a tiny plastic bottle with a squirt nozzle; she squeezed, sending a stream of holy water raining down over the general area where the little girl stood. The creature swirled and reformed around the intrusion, but neither burned nor melted at the touch. "She's a ghost!" shouted Ruth as she rolled out of the far side of the bed and pulled on the jeans she'd left crumpled on the floor. Which was too bad, in a sense, because at least demons could usually be reasoned with, even in the short term. Ghosts, with very few miserable and stationary exceptions, tended to be uncooperative across the board.

The bishop switched tactics, tossing a handful of salt crystals into the cloud, and the cloud sank almost immediately through the floor, leaving its black stain smeared across the carpet. "Did that work?" she asked, readying another handful just in case the answer was 'no'.

"Yeah." Ruth raked her hair back away from her face. "Through the floor. Do you think that's Millie?"

Pulling what Ruth jokingly called her 'utility belt' around her waist, the bishop shook her head. "You said she was calling for Millie earlier. I think this is someone else." She draped a heavy silver cross around her neck and started for the door. Wherever her bare feet hit the black residue, the carpet came away clean. "Stay with me."

As she turned into the hallway, Ruth close on her heels, she nearly ran face-first into Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, rumpled and bleary-eyed as though they'd fallen asleep in their clothes, spooked and breathless. "Did you hear that too?" asked Eugenie.

The bishop turned to Ruth. "Is it making noise?"

Ruth frowned, then nodded; it never faded, that momentary surprise every time that even the most ear-splitting spectral noises were silent to the bishop's ears. "It's downstairs now. It's not saying anything, though."

"Come on." The bishop put her hand on each of the Baxters' shoulders and pushed them down the hall at a fair clip, until they were all in the master bedroom. It looked clean at first glance, but Ruth could see the black stain creeping around the edges of the room. "Where's safe?"

"The bed."

"Great. On the bed," the bishop ordered them, and as the couple crawled up onto the high four-poster bed, the bishop pulled tiny two leather pouches and another handful of salt from her belt. "Hold out your hands." Shaking, they complied, and the bishop poured her objects into their cupped palms. "Hang the amulets around your necks and spread the salt around you. I need you to stay here, no matter what; I need to know where you are at all times. If something comes to you, call out for us, but don't leave. As long as you're here, you're safe. Do you understand?"

The Baxters nodded, clutching one another's hands, and Ruth felt sorry for them. They reminded her of the way her own parents had looked when the bishop had arrived: customarily headstrong people reduced to quiet obedience in the face of sheer overwhelming weirdness. That was how the bishop operated best, by sweeping in with such unimpeachable authority that when she demanded faith, most people had no choice but to believe. The important thing was not the salt or the amulets (even though each of the latter contained a seventeenth-century icon of St. Dymphna painted by a blind mystic and blessed by three different popes), but that they believed in the salt and the amulets -- and, most importantly, in the bishop. In the darkened room, her fingertips began to spark.

A crash from downstairs made them all jump, including the bishop, and Ruth supposed some very corporeal bookcase had just emptied its contents with a little supernatural assistance. The ghost wanted their attention, it seemed. "Stay here," the bishop ordered again, and, taking Ruth's hand, she headed back into the darkened house.

"It's moved downstairs," said Ruth as they passed through the bedroom door; the bishop took a moment to close it behind them and lay a line of salt in front of it. "What's the plan?"

The bishop shrugged, lighting a cone of myrrh and placing it upright in the salt line. "I have no idea," she admitted, quietly enough not to be heard through the door.

Ruth snorted. "Some expert you are."

The bishop made an exaggerated frown and pushed Ruth's short hair as far into her face as it would go. "Remind me to leave you home next time," she snorted, though Ruth caught a smile at the corner of her mouth just before she turned and made for the stairway.

"Oh, sure, go right ahead." Ruth trotted along behind her, rolling her eyes. "You can just go back to taking the wrong exit all the time and never remembering to eat or do laundry and walking face-first into giant malevolent she's right there." Ruth grabbed the back of the bishop's shirt, yanking her to a fumbling stop on the staircase.

"Where?" The bishop found her footing and leaned back into Ruth's touch.

"Straight ahead, at the landing. Right in front of the door." The same shimmering girl as before stood below them, only now there was no more kindness or curiosity on her face; now her brow was all stormclouds, and the blackness poured out from beneath her dress, reminding Ruth of the fog machines from her tenure in her middle school's drama club. "She's standing right there; she's not moving."

"What does she look like?"

"A little girl. ...But there's something else moving under her skin."

With a nod, the bishop straightened her shoulders and made the sign of the cross. "Tell me your name." The girl didn't even budge. That was the other problem with ghosts, Ruth thought. Demons, at least, could be compelled by divine power; ghosts, you couldn't really make do anything they didn't think they had to do. "I need to know your name."

The girl flickered and rolled a step backward with the same liquid motion as smoke. "She hasn't said anything," Ruth said, her breath pluming in front of her face.

The bishop took a step forward, reaching into the pocket of her pants and pulling out a photograph of a smiling old woman. Mrs. Baxter had explained it was the most recent photograph she'd had, and even that was nearly five years old; distance and creeping dementia had made contact with her great-aunt sporadic at best all through her life. Now the bishop turned the picture forward, facing the ghost, and walked down the rest of the stairs until they stood on the same level. "Tell me why you're looking for Millie."

Ruth could see the girl's expression soften. "Stay there," she instructed the bishop, keeping her high vantage point on the stairs. "She's coming closer."

For a moment, everything hung suspended, the three of them holding their respective positions. Ruth felt her hand shake where she'd grabbed the banister, and tried not to image what it must be like in the bishop's shoes, knowing that something was standing right in front of you but not being able to tell what it was or what it was doing. Only the white clouds that rose in slow rhythm from her mouth let her know that the bishop was even breathing anymore. A tendril reached out of the cloud and engulfed nearly all of the photograph, keeping a respectful margin from where the bishop's hand touched it. Whatever the girl wanted, Ruth thought, maybe it was enough.

And then all hell broke loose. "GIVE HER BACK GIVE HER BACK," came the awful voice again, sounding like long-neglected heavy machinery starting up again. The bishop was picked up off her feet and carried straight backward down the hall to the kitchen, wide-eyed at being swept away by something she couldn't see. The door to the kitchen slammed shut behind her with a crash and a billow of black smoke.

"Bishop!" screamed Ruth, scrambling down the stairs so quickly she nearly pitched headlong over her own feet. She plowed fists-first into the door, but it gave no ground, and when she closed her hand around the brass doorknob, the metal was so cold it burned her palm. "Bishop!"

"I'm okay," answered back the bishop from the other side of the door, sounding unreasonably calm considering the circumstances, "but I think it's still in here."

Ruth put her ear to the door, careful to avoid all metal fixtures or ornamentation, and heard the low iron breathing from the other side. The ghost was still in the room, and it had the bishop trapped and helpless; she could bless all the objects and cast all the salt she wanted, but anything effective required at least some direction, and she couldn't hunt what she couldn't see. Desperate, Ruth tried the knob again, managing to keep her grip for nearly a full second before the pain brought tears to her eyes and she had to draw her frostbitten hand away.

There was the path through the study, of course, but that would take time, and it was time the bishop might not have. If the ghost though the bishop might have her missing Millie, and if the ghost was also powerful enough to move the bishop bodily -- no mean feat, to say the least -- then there was no telling what it might be capable of doing. And that was simply a chance Ruth wasn't willing to take.

"Hey!" Ruth yelled, concentrating with all her might on addressing the ghost -- and, indeed, she heard the breathing pause, the cocking of a listening ear. "I'm the one who's got Millie! You want me, you stupid ghost! Come and get me!"

"No!" shouted the bishop, but it was too late. From beneath the door, the black mist began to seep through, teasing at Ruth's ankles; she pulled back, her joints aching from the chill of the touch. She had definitely gotten its attention, which meant it was time to run.

Unfortunately, the small house didn't give her far to go. She beat a hasty retreat the few steps down the hall again, to the front door, glancing back only once to make sure that it was, indeed, coming after her. In the shadows now, she could see the outlines of its mouths, its grinding metal teeth gnashing forward. Frost crept in and cracked the glass in the picture frames and light fixtures, and only the heat of panic kept her limbs from going numb as well. The chorus of GIVE HER BACK spiked until the words were unintelligible, flattening into a roar that made her bones rattle.

As she rounded the corner into the living room, though it was about the dumbest thing she could have done at the time, Ruth stopped in her tracks. The room was spotless, free of the black residue despite everything; in fact, the dust appeared to stop cold at the doorways to the room.

...No, Ruth amended, giving the floor a quick once-over, there was a little give beyond that, creating bare patches that reached into the hallway and the study where the dust couldn't settle. Not the room, then, but maybe something in the room? Nothing seemed a likely candidate, though, nothing central or visible or large enough except--

Except, well, the painting of the two girls in blue, with a shaky signature in the corner that read Mildred Louise Howell.

"Bishop!" she shouted -- though this time it wasn't a cry for help but a warning shot, a heads-up for how she was about to do a second, even dumber thing. She raked her fingernails across her forehead, breaking the bishop's seal. From the corner of her eye, she saw the bishop's frame appear in the doorway to the study, barely ten feet from where Ruth stood, but ten feet was too far already to stop anything. With her fists clenched but her mouth wide open, Ruth stepped into the cloud of teeth and breathed in deep.

~*~

Her first thought was that this wasn't like before. Before the bishop came there had been nearly three hundred inside of her, great and small, all types and persuasions, and the cumulative effect had been not unlike stepping into a room with nearly three hundred televisions, each tuned to a different station at top volume. She'd beaten herself unconscious on numerous occasions, but even in that void of unawareness, they hadn't let her rest. Everything had been high and bright and day, like living next door to the sun.

This, by comparison, was simple, small. The air smelled like a coal-burning train she'd been on once when she was five, and everything felt grey and heavy; breathing became a conscious effort. She also was aware that the world was much bigger -- no, it was that she was smaller now, maybe nine or ten, with her golden hair pulled into pigtails, and her blue gingham dress stained a dingy ash colour that all of her mother's scrubbing couldn't get out. Everything was choked with the ash: the sky, the creek, the grass, the barn at the top of the hill, the water wheel making its lazy revolutions, the tall smokestacks that rose like witches' fingers into the sky.

She became aware of a dim pressure on her hand, and turned to see a little girl just like her, dressed in a blue gingham dress so similar you knew it had not only been cut from the same bolt, but sewn together by the same needle. "Come on, Alice," said the girl, whose name was Millie, who never took off running with all the other kids, who always waited so she wouldn't be left alone. Their soft children's hands twined together, warm in the late September air, and they walked up the hill as fast as their lungs would let them. She in particular moved slowly, breathed deeply, knew that if she gave into the impulse to run even for a second, she'd be in bed for nearly a week after, coughing up blood.

But Millie never ran, and never made her run. When the other kids played at stickball or hopscotch or blind man's bluff, Millie and Alice would disappear together into the hollow of an old tree, where no one could ever find them. There, on a bed of dried leaves, Alice would lay her head on Millie's chest, and Millie would pet Alice's hair, and together they'd talk about what life would be like when they were older. Alice said that they should get married, because it meant they could always be together, and Millie pointed out that married people had to kiss, so they'd practiced kissing together there in their private sanctuary: first dry lips coming together for chaste pecks, then lingering for another inch of contact, then open-mouthed and wet, finding out together how their bodies worked. They'd even made up their own vows from bits of weddings they could remember hearing, and had tied stalks of dried grass around one another's fingers, which they'd planned to wear forever and had actually only worn until their mothers had made them wash up for supper.

Then Alice's cough had worsened, and Millie had been banished from the sick house for fear she might catch it too, but Millie had faithfully sent up letters every day, written in their secret code. Alice had read every one fifty times over, and when she'd gotten too weak to hold up her head, her mother had read them aloud to her again every time she'd asked, never understanding why Alice wanted to hear again Millie's boring (and swiftly outdated) goings-on of their peers, never knowing that 'I like apples' meant I love you or 'I hope mother makes beans for supper' meant I can't wait until we can get married for real or 'I saw a pretty bird' meant let's leave someday, just the two of us, let's fly away.

Then one day, Alice had woken up feeling fantastic, and had run straight to Millie's house to tell her, feet flying all the way, lungs clear. When she'd gotten there, though, she'd found Millie crying, and had been surprised when Millie had told her, "I'm crying because you're dead."

Alice wasn't sure how to react to that. "No I'm not," she told Millie. "See, I'm right here!"

"You died last night," said Millie, "see?" And Millie reached out her hand to touch Alice, only her hand fell right through, as if Alice weren't even there. "And now you have to go to Heaven and be with the Baby Jesus, and I'm going to be all alone."

After thinking about this for a long minute, Alice folded her arms. "I'm not going anywhere," she said defiantly. "If Baby Jesus wants me? Well, He can come get me Himself."

Millie dragged the heel of her hand beneath her eyes and smiled. "Does that mean you can stay with me?"

"Forever and ever," answered Alice, and she put her hand in the same space as Millie's hand.

~*~

Ruth became aware of a pressure on her own hand, and she opened her eyes, but when she did, there was someone else looking through them with her, and they were both crying. "I promised her I'd stay," said someone else's voice through her mouth. "Why did you take her?"

"I didn't," answered the bishop, who was standing in front of them with a sad, compassionate smile on her face. "Millie died a month ago, in her sleep. She was ninety-four. Were you with her the whole time?"

Alice, inside of Ruth, nodded and sniffled. "Then why did she leave me?"

"I don't think she meant to. I think she was very old and very tired, and it was time for her to go home. She's probably wondering where you are." The bishop brushed the back of her knuckes across Ruth's wet cheeks. "I think it's time for you to go home too. You've stayed out pretty late."

Alice nodded, and Ruth could feel her exhaustion in her own bones, the ache that comes after you're finally done being lost and confused and angry. The bishop extended her hands, and Alice took them with Ruth's, swallowing down a lump in her throat. "Are you the Baby Jesus?" she asked, her voice full of childlike wonder.

The bishop shook her head. "I work for him, though. Now close your eyes and think of Millie as hard as you can."

Ruth felt her eyes close, and a flash of images burst into her mind -- pictures of Millie, as a girl, as a young unmarried woman making her way as a secretary, as a successful artist opening her first gallery show, as a grown woman curating an art museum, as an old woman smiling in her rocking chair at her nursing home. All of the images were happy, and in every one, she could see Millie's gaze drawn slightly to the side, to the face of a little girl no one but she could see, keeping her promise.

She felt the bishop's hands on either side of their face, drawing their open mouths together into a kiss, the way Alice and Millie had kissed all those years before, hidden away in the tree, loving one another secretly the length of their lives. Then the bishop drew in her breath sharply, stealing all the air from Ruth's lungs into her own mouth, dragging all the coal and sickness and grief through their joined mouths. It -- and Alice -- poured out of Ruth's mouth like smoke, swallowed by the bishop's impossibly long inhale, until Ruth staggered backward, clean.

As the kiss broke, the bishop staggered backward and clutched at her chest, but when Ruth tried to run to her, the bishop waved her away. For a perilously long moment, the bishop bent double, holding the back of the couch for support, her eyes clenched tight. At last, just as Ruth thought she would surely pass out, she exhaled, and her breath was clear. She fumbled in her pouch and lit another cone of myrrh, then held it beneath her face, clutching it tightly and breathing in its light grey smoke like a long-distance runner at the end of a marathon. The tendrils curled up and around her face, lingering for just a moment before disappearing into the newly warmed air.

"Well," said the bishop, coughing drily as she broke the silence, "that worked."

~*~

"And they're going to keep the painting?" asked Ruth, merging onto the freeway.

The bishop, who had curled up in the front seat with a gas station cup of hot tea, nodded. "That's what they said. Now that there's no angry ghost attached to it, anyway." Her voice rasped in her throat, and she looked so tired and small; now that all the glamour of her office had been burned as fuel, she looked exhausted, and Ruth had insisted on the tea and zinc tablets to stave off any potential nonspiritual aftereffects. "It's a family heirloom, after all."

Ruth nodded. Trying to find something to fill the silence, she scanned through the radio stations, but the reception in the mountains was terrible, and she soon after turned the whole thing off. The bishop was so quiet that Ruth thought she might have fallen asleep, until she glanced over and saw her looking at Ruth, a quietly contemplative expression on her face. "What?" she asked, wondering if she should be offended.

"That was stupid," said the bishop between careful sips of tea. "The next time you think about throwing yourself in harm's way for my sake, don't. I can handle--"

"Oh, bullshit," interrupted Ruth, tightening her grip on the wheel as she eased the car around a sharp curve. "'Blah blah, I'm so awesome, it doesn't matter what happens to me, you just tell me where to aim and don't mind when the huge angry ghosts crush my bones into powder.' Well, you know what? You don't get to be the Christ metaphor all the time! If you get to take care of me, then I get to take care of you, too. My contract does not stipulate that I have to stand by while Polly Poltergeist drops kitchenware on your head!"

"You don't have a contract," the bishop muttered over her cup.

Ruth rolled her eyes. "Well, maybe I should. We should draw it up, and we can both sign it, and it'll say, whenever Party A is in trouble and Party B does something stupid to save their ass, Party A is not allowed to yell at Party B, and should instead thank Party B for saving her ass! Because I actually give a damn about you too, and everything you don't know what you'd do if something happened to me is the same everything I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you. So stop pretending like I don't have a stake in this, because I do."

They drove on in silence for several more miles, until the Denver skyline began to peek out over the landscape, and Ruth was very nearly ready to turn on the radio and sulk for the rest of the day when the bishop reached across the center island and placed her hand on Ruth's knee. "Thank you," she said quietly.

That knocked the wind right out of Ruth's cantankerous sails. "...You're welcome," she nodded, keeping the stiffest upper lip manageable. "Also, we're going to New York City."

The bishop raised an eyebrow. "Why New York City?"

"Because I've got friends there I haven't seen in a long time, and because we deserve a break. If you want me to make up some sort of ghost, we can go investigate some sort of ghost, I bet there's a lot of them." Ruth followed the signs that pointed to the westward-bound lanes. "But otherwise, I would have accrued vacation time by now in any reasonable job, and I demand some relaxation in the Big Apple."

Patting Ruth's knee in a way that might have come off patronizing were it not so damn charming, the bishop shook her head. "Well, it's a good thing I like apples."

Ruth nearly crashed the car into the semi in front of her. "Wait, what did you say?"

"Nothing," shrugged the bishop, curling back up into her seat and putting her half-finished cup of tea into the nearest cupholder. She pulled her cloak up over her body like a blanket, burying herself to her nose in dark wool. "Wake me when we make Nebraska, and I'll drive for a while."

Intending to do no such thing, Ruth nodded her assent, and the bishop closed her eyes. With the hum of the engine to keep her company, Ruth pulled onto I-76 going east, pointed their car toward the rising sun, and let the shadow of the high mountains fade into the distance behind them.


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