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Fantasy Horror ghosts suicide bisexual protagonist

A Brief Light

By Claire Humphrey
Jul 11, 2019 · 4,040 words · 15 minutes

Photo by Ana Silva via Unsplash.

From the author: Lauren's house is haunted. Lauren gets away from it by planning to have an affair with Jo, a woman who's much more present than Lauren's chilly, work-obsessed husband. But more and more hauntings appear, and the living have to wonder what the dead are trying to tell them.

Richard woke me by leaning across to shut the window over the bed.  "Why the hell did you open that?" he said.  "It's freezing in here."

I blinked my eyes open against the cashmere of his coat.  "Wasn't me.  Maybe it was Benjamin Livingston."

He shifted back, his tie trailing past my cheek.  "Benjamin Livingston doesn't open windows."

"Does now," I mumbled, closing my eyes again.

"I've got to go.  Presenting to a new account today," Richard said.  "We're out of coffee."

"I'll pick some up," I said, huddling further into the duvet.  Richard was right, it was freezing.

"I might be late," he said, as if that would be unusual.  I heard the crisp snap of his watch-clasp, the rustle of a scarf as he draped it around his neck, the creak of the floorboards under his footsteps, receding.

Sliding back toward sleep, I thought I felt him kiss my cheek, a fresh touch of cold like he'd already been outdoors; it had been forever since he'd kissed me so sweetly.

That thought brought me wide awake, jolting up, hands to my face.  I could see my breath.  I was alone.

Across the doorway, just under the lintel, a pale bird floated.  It always went a little too quickly for me to see, but the wings looked to be tipped with grey, like a seagull's, although it never made a cry.

"Benjamin," I said, grabbing the duvet and holding it up to my throat.  "Come on, stop being creepy."

The bird didn't come back, but I still didn't know if he could watch invisibly, or if there were others like him about.  I skipped my shower and changed beneath the duvet, struggling into jeans, a silk undershirt, a wool henley, a sweater.

"Well?  I'm dressed now.  You can come out," I said to Benjamin, but he didn't appear again.  "I'm going to get some coffee," I continued, tossing back the covers, making for the front hall where my down vest and my purse hung.

Cold breath on my cheek, or maybe that was just the weather.  I stepped outside and locked the door.



My coffee shop was only a couple of blocks away, on Ossington.  I went there first, so that I wouldn't have been lying to Benjamin.  I fumbled out some change to give to the homeless guy who always hung out in the nearby doorway.  He had a couple of buddies with him today, all three of them grey with dirt and age, hands in ragged gloves wrapped around coffee cups, faces downturned over the warmth.  The regular guy accepted a toonie and thanked me, but the other two didn't even reach out for the money.  Ghosts, or just not interested in charity?  Whatever; I gave their share to my usual guy and hurried on into the warmth.

It was packed today.  I got in line, and checked my phone.  Nothing much in my inbox: a sale at Allsaints, an evite for a baby shower, a cancellation from the one client I'd had lined up today, a forward from my grandmother about her latest theory on the hauntings (most people went with "unfinished business", but Grandma seemed to like "dimensional portal").  No new Twitter mentions.

I fought with my conscience for about thirty seconds and then I gave up and called Jo.  She picked up right away.  "Pumpkin spice with whipped cream," she said.  "I have a new one."

"Sideburns Dude has a buddy?" I said.  Her ghost was an old white guy, very corporeal, unlike Benjamin.  He usually just sat by the radiator, running his hands over an old book.

"Not exactly," Jo said.  "You'll see when you get here."



Jo was hanging extra dreamcatchers in all of her windows when I got to her apartment.  I handed over her coffee, and sipped at mine, double soy latte with a sprinkle of nutmeg.  "Do those things work on ghosts?"

Jo shrugged.  "They work on white hippies," she said.  "I just got an order for another hundred from that place in the Market.  But come on, how many of us know shit about ghosts?"

"We know a lot more than we did a few weeks ago," I said, slipping out of my down vest.  It was warm here.  Jo was warm.  I sat down right beside her, close enough for our thighs to brush.

She grinned, and laid her free hand on my knee.  I held still and kept on talking.  "I think I'm pretty much used to them already--"

A great big pelican flapped across the room, right in front of me.  I flinched and yelped and slopped latte over my hand.  The pelican turned into a woman, a middle-aged black woman with a long elegant build and hollow cheeks.  She stood in the doorway to Jo's kitchenette and lifted her hands, beseeching, unbuttoned cuffs sliding down bony wrists.

"Whoa," I said.

"Guess the dreamcatchers are a bust," Jo said, but she didn't move to take them back down.  Sideburns Dude phased in just then, in his usual spot, head bent over this dark old book that might have been a Bible.

The woman in the doorway turned back into a pelican, and flew upward through the ceiling.

"Great.  Now she's in my bedroom," Jo groused.  "I was hoping to take you up there."

"I think being haunted is kind of a mood-killer," I said shakily.

"There's always something," Jo said.  "Fine.  No, no, it's really fine.  Give me a hug to hold me over until you can make up your damn mind."

So I straddled her sturdy lap and wrapped my hands into her coarse black hair and pressed my cheek against hers until the pelican flew in again, calling hoarsely with the force of its wings, and then I just clung to her, chills chasing up my back as I watched, over Jo's shoulder, the woman lifting her hands, the terrible grief in her eyes and the lines of her body.

"Come hang out at my place," I said, pulling away.  "Richard's got a big presentation today, he won't be home until late."

"Your ghost is creepy," Jo said.  "And freezing."

"We have lots of blankets--"

"From the bed you share with Richard," Jo said.  "I haven't been doing this whole other-woman thing very long, but I'm pretty sure that's not cool."

I shook my head.  "I'm being such an asshole."

"I'm not making it any easier," Jo said.  "Come on, help me call around and see if the hotels are opening up at all yet.  I don't want to stay here with this sad lady."

We booted up Jo's laptop and got on Tripadvisor, but the first seven hotels we called only had haunted rooms open.

"How about family?" I said.  "I know your mom's gone, but…"

"So are my grandparents," Jo said.  "Both my grandmothers died in the same year, right before we moved south.  I have cousins in Wahnapitae still, but I haven't talked to them in ages."

"How are we supposed to do this?" I said, the words coming out of my mouth before I realized I was going to speak.  "When is it going to go back to normal?"

The pelican lady was opening all of Jo's cupboards, weeping silently as she failed to find whatever she was looking for.

Jo raised her eyebrows.  "No offense, but you're not who I'm worried about here.  I mean, look how she's feeling."

I didn't want to look.  It seemed like an invasion.  The lady was so distraught.  Tears dripped from the point of her chin and vanished in the air.  Strings of saliva stretched between her distorted lips.

"Do you know her name?" I asked.

Jo shook her head.  "Haven't found anything online yet.  Not going to stop looking, though."

My phone buzzed.  I glanced at the screen.  "Richard's mom," I said, wincing.

"Take it," Jo said.

"Mrs Montgomery?" I said.

"Thank God," Richard's mother said.  "Richard wasn't picking up.  Where are you?"

"Visiting a friend."

"I'm at your house."

"Oh," I said.  "Richard didn't tell me you were coming today."  I made a horrified face at Jo, who covered a smirk.

"I'm staying for a bit," Mrs Montgomery said, her autocratic voice weirdly harsh.  "Martin has appeared."

"Oh.  Oh," I said, which was totally inadequate, but what do you say at a time like that?  "I'm on my way," I told her, and we hung up.

Jo was hesitating in the doorway of the kitchenette, right where the pelican lady had been standing.

"Richard's brother," I said.  "Killed himself last year.  His mom was the one who found the body."

Jo put a hand over her mouth, and came over to hug me.  "Every time I think I hate Richard and his family," she said, "you tell me something that reminds me they're people, and then I hate myself for trying to take you away from them."

"It's not like that..." I said, shame pinking my face.

"It is for me," Jo said, and she kissed my cheek and brought me my down vest.  "Go look after her.  We can talk later."

I would have kissed her back, but the pelican flew across again then, making that desolate sound.



Mrs Montgomery was waiting in a limousine with the engine running.  She'd been sitting there racking up the meter while I made my way back across town on the subway.  Typical.  She paid off the driver while I carried her bags in.

I had to close the bedroom window again, and the one in the guest room, too.

"The house is a bit cold, I'm afraid," I said, taking Mrs Montgomery's coat and handing her a chenille throw.  "Benjamin Livingston's been at it all morning."

"Why do you call him that, Lauren?"

"He looks like Jonathan Livingston Seagull from the cover of the book.  And this."  I showed her the printout from the website, the only information I had found online.  Benjamin Kendall, carriage painter, d. 1899, our address.

"But you don't know for sure," she said.

"No.  And he doesn't tell us anything, he just appears and flies around, and sometimes he makes it cold."

Mrs Montgomery sat down hard on the sofa.  "Martin appeared," she said, as if she had not told me before.

"Would you... like to talk about it?"

She motioned with her hands, flat and quick.  "Some tea, please, if you don't mind."

So I made tea, and we watched Designer Guys and then a show about yoga, until finally Richard must have checked his voicemail and texted me to say he was coming home.



Mrs Montgomery said she didn't need company, but Richard talked her into calling one of her book club friends who lived nearby.  We waited until the friend arrived, made sure she knew how to use the coffee maker and not to be shocked by Benjamin, and then Richard and I got in the car.

We sat for a moment, Richard with his hand on the garage door opener, me with my hand on his knee.

"You don't have to go," I said finally.

"Unfinished business," he said.  "What if it's with me?"

"Look, I'm sure he had some," I said.  "People do.  It doesn't mean it's your problem."

"My mother can't be in her house," Richard said.  "You don't want her living with us forever, do you?"  He laughed, but it wasn't his usual charming laugh.  He had trouble dropping the charm usually, even alone with me.  That he couldn't summon it up right now was unsettling.

"I'm here for you, whatever you want to do," I said, which wasn't really what I wanted to say, but I had to get back somehow on the Good Wife side of the ledger in my own mind.

So Richard started the engine and we glided out through the lane and turned uptown toward his mother's house.

The sun had just set, but the city was bright, brighter than it had been before the hauntings began.  More people were back in their homes now--for the first few days, Dundas Square had been a tent city of terrified refugees, while we all figured out what the ghosts were capable of--but everyone was sleeping with the lights on.

"The last time we talked, he called me Dick," Richard said.  "Just to be mean."

"Was that right before Christmas?"  We'd spent the holiday in California with my grandmother last year, only to come home early when Richard's mother called to give us the news.

"I gave him a package of sessions with a trainer, remember?" Richard said.  "I thought he'd be happier if he was more active.  He thought I was commenting on his weight."

I winced.  I'd forgotten about that.  "But that's not enough to count as unfinished business, surely?  I mean, don't all brothers piss each other off sometimes?"

Richard shrugged.  On the wheel, his hands were perfectly positioned, his platinum wedding band shining expensively; only the tight bloodless knuckles betrayed his tension.

"I never had any other brothers," he said.



The Montgomery house felt cold, almost as cold as our place.  I kept my vest on.  We stepped carefully through the front hall.  Richard's hand found the bank of light switches and flicked them all on.  He did not pause to remove his brogues.  He squared his shoulders and marched up the stairs.  I followed.

At the top of the stairs he stopped and turned to me.

"You don't have to see this," he said.

We squeezed each other's hands.  I had my mouth open.  I was going to keep following, I was.  But he patted my shoulders and turned away.

I shifted from foot to foot.  In my vest pocket, my phone was on vibrate, picking up a series of messages, thrumming against my ribs like my own trapped heart.  I watched Richard pad down the plush carpeted hallway toward his brother's room.

He stood in the doorway.  He said, "Martin..."

He didn't reach for the light, but I saw a flash from within the room, bright on Richard's face for a millisecond.  Richard's shoulders flinched.  His feet stayed rooted.

"You had to make it irrevocable, didn't you," he said.  Not to me.



On the way back down the stairs Richard stumbled, just a little.  His hand caught the railing, fingers whitening.  He stopped.  He looked back up the stairs.

"Martin always felt inferior," he said.  His mouth twisted.  "Now I think he was right."

Richard kicked at the newel, and continued down the stairs.

I ran after him, my shoulderblades pricking with my back to the top of the stairs and the open door up there.  I caught up with him at the front entrance.  He bulled through, didn't hold the door for me.

Outside, our car waited.  Richard fumbled in his pockets.  His breath kept catching.  I took the keys from him, opened the door for him, went back to make sure the Montgomery house was locked up.

By the time I settled myself in the driver's seat, Richard had his professional face back on and his breathing was back to normal, but when I shut the door, he flinched.  He watched me adjust the seat to my shorter legs and bring the steering wheel closer.

"I'm sorry," he said.  "I shouldn't have said that.  It wasn't... kind."

He didn't look at the house, but I did.  The window of Martin's room looked out on the south side, and just before we pulled out, I saw the momentary flash again.

Somewhere around Spadina, Richard shivered once, full-body, and then he reached over and laid his hand on my knee.  Usually it was me doing that to him, while he was driving.

"We got the account," he said.  "I forgot to tell you.  The presentation went really well."

"Congratulations," I said, and maybe that was all the normal we could manage, because Richard didn't speak again.



No one wanted dinner.  Mrs Montgomery went to bed as soon as her book club friend had departed.  Richard settled in his study with a bottle of scotch and a blanket and a Ken Follett novel, and only shook his head vaguely when I asked if he wanted company.

So I took my phone and sat by the fireplace and read Jo's texts.

Call me.

Call me.

Call me.

I called her.

"Lauren, oh my God.  My people are coming back."

"What?" I said, voice down.  I kept thinking of the stiffness in Richard's shoulders as he stood looking into his brother's room.

"My family," Jo said, and I heard the thickness of tears in her voice, and then it sunk in, what she was telling me.

"I'm going tomorrow," she said.  "My grandmothers are there.  Both of them.  And they're talking.  Not, like, conversations with the living.  They're just talking.  Speaking our language."

The breath went out of me.

"I don't know if you can even understand this," Jo said, crying openly now.  I clutched the phone closer, feeling the answering prickle in my own eyes.  "What I missed... I can get a piece of it back."

"You're going to Wahnapitae," I said.

"I'm going home," she said.  I could hear the joy in it.

"How long?" I said.

"As long as it takes for me to learn what they have to teach me," she said.  "I just... this isn't goodbye, you know--is that what you're thinking?  I just wanted to share this."

"It's wonderful," I said.  "It's wonderful."

I almost asked her if I could come.  I thought she almost asked me.  But I was so conscious of Richard in his study, on the other side of the wall, and I didn't want him to hear.  And finally my phone was running out of battery, and I had to let her go.



Mrs Montgomery stayed.  After the first week, she got her cleaning lady in to supplant ours, and bought us a bigger espresso maker, and then she replaced the living room rug we'd chosen only a year ago.

Richard was annoyed about the rug, but when I asked him to do something, he said, "She just needs time."

I didn't think time was going to make it any easier to live in a house where your son kept reenacting his own suicide.  I said so.

"Martin was always going to inherit that house," Richard said, with that twist to his mouth.  "I just didn't think he'd get it before Mom passed."



Benjamin Livingston kept leaving the windows open.  The heating bills got ridiculous, but money wasn't a dealbreaker for us.  And with Jo up north, learning from the ghosts of her grandmothers, I didn't have anything to kick me out of our new routine: morning lattes with Sandra (who finally asked me to stop calling her Mrs Montgomery); occasional clients; cocktail hour; then we'd have dinner, and I'd make risotto or quinoa while Sandra poached some salmon or something and Richard chose the wine.

I think that was why it took me so long to understand.

What finally did it was this.

It was a Saturday.  I got a text from Jo, who'd driven into Sudbury; she sent me a selfie from in front of the No Frills, her bright black eyes smiling under the woolly band of a hockey toque.  Snow dusted her hat and her hair.  My mouth watered.

Then I read the text.  It said, Staying a while longer.  Going to help my cousin at the school.  Wish me luck!

And I wanted to wish her luck, and I wanted to show her my own smiling face, only it didn't seem lucky at all to do it with Richard's mother's new curtains in the background.

That was when Benjamin opened the windows behind me, all three of them, the ones facing onto the street.  I saw the dim flash of his wings across the light.  He went north to south.  Winter air swirled in, shockingly fresh against the scents of Holt Renfrew candles and bay rum aftershave.

I went to the southernmost window, hands on the sill.  The snow was melting here, much earlier than up north.  The first stubborn buds were pushing up through it already, crocuses and tulips, even though it was only February.

I took a funny selfie for Jo, leaning out upside down with my hair brushing the crocuses.

Then I went to find Richard.  He was in his study, watching a hockey game on his laptop, even though the television would have looked better.

"Hiding from your mom?" I said.  "Or me?"

He looked up, with his professional face on, all his charm.  "Why would I hide from you?"

"Because you hide from everyone," I said.

"Okay, fair enough, I guess I do hide from my mother," he said, laughing a little, spreading his hands.

I didn't laugh with him.  "I do, too.  But I don't think it's how we should be."

"Well, she does make it a little difficult--"

"I'm not her," I said.  "And I get lonely."

"You're cheating on me, aren't you," he said, perfectly flat.

"No," I said.  "I wanted to, but I didn't."

He carefully closed the lid of his laptop, pressing down until it clicked.  The buzz of the hockey game shut off.

"Why didn't you?" he said.

"Unfinished business," I said.  "We married each other for a reason, only I don't think we know what it is yet."

He was doing that thing again, with his breath catching in his chest.  "You're not leaving me?"

I shook my head.  "Not without giving it a really good try, anyway."

Richard lurched forward and buried his face against my chest and squeezed me around the hips.



Some of the ghosts stopped appearing, after a while.  Benjamin Livingston didn't.  If he was even Benjamin, I mean; if you went back far enough, a whole lot of people had died just about everywhere, and you couldn't always assume your ghosts were recent.

Anyway, our windows and doors kept opening, long after the day I made my choice.  Maybe it hadn't been a message meant for me.

Maybe none of it was a message meant for anyone.  Not Martin's suicide, not the pelican lady's desperate grief, not even Jo's grandmothers talking in Ojibwemowin about their family history.

But it seemed to me it was the job of the living to read messages in everything.  To make meaning from accidents.  To change, since we still could.

We left the Montgomery house to Martin, but we found a nice condo for Sandra near her golf course.  She took her rug and her espresso maker with her, and we got our old cleaning lady back, and Sandra and I still meet for lattes once a week.

Richard wouldn't drive near the house for a while.  I didn't notice right away, but on our way out of town for a long weekend, I saw him ignore the instructions from the GPS and take the long route around the neighbourhood.  He saw me looking, and he let his professional face drop, and he looked sad and scared and ten years younger, so I reached over and squeezed his hand.  And when we got to the B&B, instead of checking his email, he actually went to bed with me.  We didn't sleep very well because we'd gotten so used to it being chilly in our room, but it was also great to make love without being under a mountain of blankets, so there was that.

I haven't been up to Sudbury to see Jo.  It feels so far.  We still text each other, but the tone has changed; I think she's seeing someone.  She's given up the lease on her Toronto apartment.

Jo and I, we have some unfinished business.  I don't know when we'll get to it; maybe never.  I said I'd give it a real try with Richard, and that means both of my feet rooted to the ground, no more leaning half out the window.

Aaniin, she texts me, though, and I text back, Hello!


This story originally appeared in Interzone.