"I thought it was a boy at first, a school age lad wearing blue slacks and a black sweater and a fierce expression. But as it looked around and showed its face to the world I saw that it was in fact a girl wearing pants and boots, and with hair only almost long enough to touch her shoulders. She looked around for a moment like a tourist. But then she blinked and was not a tourist any more. She knew the place. She knew the back roads and shortcuts, knew the families well enough to have dirt on them and their parents.
"She frightened me not because I had never seen a person look quite like that before. It is the look of a fine chef in a kitchen, a pianist at the keyboard, a drill sergeant shouting at his new recruits. And the field that she felt so confident about was that of time.
"She had come from another time; I could tell this by the signs around her. What she was doing here I did not know, and I was a bit occupied by the attacking ghosts.
"Then the girl tried to travel away.
"She was fighting uphill against a current. The concentration of time that the Russian general had talked about was a real thing; for a time traveler in the company of that many ghosts it would be difficult to get out, like someone running up a hill or swimming against a current."
"Wait," Aunt Arridge said. "There are people who can travel in time? I have to believe in ghosts with what I just saw, but this sounds so far-fetched
"Ghosts are made of time," Kellery said. "It's a medium like anything else. Some people can move within it. Professor Quigley gets glimpses of the future sometimes, don't you?"
He looked down. "Sometimes. Not pictures; it is not like I see visions. There is no witchcraft or fortune-telling here. But sometimes the signs are written in such a way that
it is as if they are written in future tense. This "will" happen, they say.
"Do you understand?"
Hope thought that Aunt Arridge might not be believing what the professor was telling them. She had an expression of doubt on her face. But she said, "I think I do." (It would have been skeptical any way she said it, but the "think" cinched it.)
The professor continued his story. "We all sensed her trying to escape, but the ghosts sensed something new. The giant form of conglomerate spirits stopped and reeled as if it too were tipping into the whirlpool of time.
"I thought I might have been saved. I thought it might stop, frightened for some reason. But then as I stilled and the ghosts who had not made a decision to join the fight stilled and the time traveler on the hill bent a moment to touch the ground with one hand, the multitudinous spirit reached out a silver hand and took away the Russian officer."
Hope gasped. She had been picturing him as a friendly man, with a wide white mustache. (This was completely different from the sallow, oily-haired man she had pictured when he had first introduced into the story, but that is how perception works.)
"He was pulled into the being, becoming a spot on its arm. But he looked between me and the new arrival slowly and thoughtfully before his head disappeared into the miasma. He said, 'Look how she fights.'
"I could feel it. She was pulling at the soul signs, trying to get away. It was like being caught in a web with the spider walking over it and vibrating the threads. And she was making headway. It shouldn't have been possible, but there was so much raw power in herto this day I don't know who she is or where she gained such strength. She fought like a mad person and made headway, almost disappearing once.
"And the gigantic apparition spoke to me in the voice of the Russian officer for one last time. It told me that if humanity had this, humanity had something it did not understand. It would give me time, to find out whether the world could be saved without destroying the humans and transforming it all into a world of spirits.
"It has given me a lot of time, but then I do not know how the dead think. It has been over twenty years since that day. Occasionally I see signs that say the great thing that spared us all is still out there somewhere, waiting or haunting or thinking its dead thoughts.
"Sometimes I remember that we are all alive today because of those ghosts."
This did not create much feeling in Hope. She couldn't comprehend it just like she couldn't comprehend that she was alive because an asteroid had not hit the earth. It was incomprehensible.
Adam said curiously, "Why didn't the Russian officer send all the ghosts to Russia?"
The grown-ups (and Hope) thought that this was one of those continuity questions that no one every thinks about except the children you tell otherwise well-thought-out stories to.
Professor Quigley thought that it was important. Hope wanted to shush Adam for acting like this was a story, when Quigley had actually known this person and seen him destroyed just after they started to become friendsbut Quigley did not seem to mind. He said, "The conglomerate personality of the apparition took him over. Very little of him was left. Probably not enough to drive him back toward his snowy home."
"Oh," said Adam, as though this were mildly interesting.
"At first his name was Ivar," Quigley said. "This had been the name on his uniform. Then for a while I gave that name to the larger form, hoping that I could make peace with it if it reminded me of the ghost I had been willing to bargain with. But I do not really think of it as a name now; it has too many. And although I still want it to pass on to peace instead of being destroyed, I do not know how I would go about it. I do not know it's soul name as one being, or even if it has one."
"Where is it now?" Hope asked. She didn't like the idea of a giant ghost coming to the bed and breakfast looking for a heartfelt reunion-rematch with Quigley.
"It follows paths only it can see," Quigley said. "It travels around the country. The last time I encountered it, it was waiting in the middle of Stonehenge like a bird in its nest."
"Wait," Kellery said. "You never told me the Stonehenge part. What does that have to do with ghosts? Did the druids know about this?"
Professor Quigley dismissed its importance. "There is a powerful convergence of time energy around the Stone Henge; sometimes it feels as if the whole thing might pack up and travel away. But it has never done so. It simply lasts
and maybe that is its power and its primary trait. But this is going into extensive chronographical theory. There are few enough people who can sense time for it to be much of a science."
"So we can't, say, trap the thing in Stonehenge."
"I would not know how to start. And why would we want to? It spared our lives. It is the gallows, but it chooses not to drop on us."
The moment got a bit shadowy.
Adam brought it back to the light. "How many people do you know that can sense time?" He asked. "Just you and that girl?"
"One other," the professor said. "He was my mentor, a man I met at the university. He convinced me that I was not crazy to talk about these things." Quigley smiled.
Hope wanted to know more about the girl. "So, why was that girl at your grave yard? Why was she wearing pants?"
Aunt Arridge said, "There are some women who do, dear, but they do not show themselves in public."
"She must have been someone very rebellious," said Quigley, and glanced at Aunt Arridge to make sure this was all right. Hope had, however, not as much interest in fashion as in the rest of the story, and Professor Quigley took all her attention when he wisely decided to change the subject. "She was also someone who could bend time and soul-signs to her will. The next thing she did is something I am still confused about today."
"Oh, she did something else?" Adam asked. "I thought it was over."
"Not quite yet. I was still very surprised and shocked from the loss of the Russian officer and his words, and the conglomerate ghost was moving very slowly away, discovering its own existence as other ghosts started to flee the place. Then she stepped forward, and although most people walk straight through soul signs without seeing them, not being disturbed by them or disturbing them, she passed her hands through them and it was as if a young child had found its parent's letter and started scrawling all over it, pretending to write. She made one sweeping motion purely by mistakeor so it seemed to me; perhaps she had some motive I do not know. Perhaps she was out to destroy me as well, but I had never seen her or her kind before.
"Whatever the reason the girl had, the soul signs I had been working with, some ghosts that I had been busy sending to the afterlife as the engulfing one first formed, were broken in half by a new, nonsense form. The world crackled as if trying to find out what to do with itself since it had been given a command in a language it could not understand.
"There was a backlash. I realize now that it was a snap, like when you jump on a bed and the mattress sinks back down and then flings you up again. Reality did that. There is no way to say it except that time snapped back to its proper place and the souls I had been weaving struck me in the face as they flew by to who-knows-what half-alive destination and I was physically thrown backwards a meter or more. The girl disappeared. The hill was empty. The graves were standing up or leaning like teeth, and the moon was not quite full. I do not know where the spirits I had been working on went. I had been stricken across the face with the frayed, trailing edges of souls."
Adam peered up at him, looking for scars.
Hope hugged her knees to her body. She had been caught up in it, in the press of ghosts and the strange girl form with its mix of purpose and purposelessness, and Professor Quigley's descriptions of the teeth and the moonlight had just added to the dream. She was frightened, felt as if something might come out of the woodwork to attack her at any moment. But at the same time, it was an exciting fear. It was one she would remember fondly.
"You won't find scars there," Kellery said.
"No?" Adam's inquisitiveness switched to her, then back to Professor Quigley when the cheesemonger declined to comment.
"The scars are not physical," he said, and then, "This is one thing I do not want to tell you at the time. What it feels like to be struck by a soul and partially responsible for it is a frightening thing. Not for the end of an afternoon."
He looked up, and Aunt Arridge and Ms. Bide shook their heads as if waking up from a dream.
"He's right," Aunt Arridge said. "Maybe we should start heading home."
"Right," said Kellery. "You just go back out into the world after hearing all this."
"They'll sleep well tonight." Professor Quigley fixed her with a stare. Hope wondered if their relationship wasn't always as friendly as his casual visitation had suggested. "You all now know that there are no boogie men, no dragons, no evil things There are all classes of spirits, but I know them. I will protect you and teach you to protect yourselves. Is this a life you want to live?"
"It is," Hope said before she realized that everyone else thought the question was rhetorical.
That little bit of awkwardness brought her back to the feel of a normal day. She could think of the professor's past as a story, although she wondered where the graveyard was where all this had happened, and she wondered where the Russian officer was now and what he had been like before he died, and she wondered what kind of scars the Professor bared and whether they could be read in his soul signs.
And she was a little bit disappointed that she couldn't see those signs themselves; she would have to be with Quigley to even see the forms of ghosts.
Kellery offered them the untouched food again but Aunt Arridge insisted that they go and Ms. Bide politely agreed that her family would be wondering where they were. She did accompany Kellery up to the counter to buy some cheese for her troubles, leaving Hope and Adam to climb off the window sill and stretch near the skirts of their caretaker.
Professor Quigley walked through the store, watching out for any remains of things that had broken during the
Hope didn't really think of it as the poltergeist's attack any more. During the poltergeist's visit. She watched him for a little while before following Aunt Arridge and coming to heel at her skirts.
On the way out, Hope felt it would be appropriate to be quiet. Adam was of the opinion that it was appropriate to bounce around and pretend to tie invisible ghosts in knots, but no one felt the need to stop him so she just let him go.