There are souls trapped under the floor of my grandmother's kitchen.
The tiles are clear as glass but feel like stone to bare feet and curious hands. The world beneath is pitch black, save for the weak glow of the souls themselves. The farther away they are, the dimmer their light. Whenever someone walks into the room, they flock to the top and hover around their feet like hungry fish in a pond expecting to be fed.
At night, when I was little and the house was dark, I used to sit in the living room and watch the floor. Then I would take a marble or pencil or whatever else I could reach and throw it into the kitchen. It would hit the floor with a dink or a clack or a thump and all the little souls would come rushing to the surface, their dim glow turning the kitchen into an ersatz world of shadows and varying shades of gray.
Sometimes, just for brief seconds, they have faces. But the faces dissolve into the mist and they're back to being formless wisps.
* * * * *
"Grandma?" I asked her once.
"Where do they come from?"
"People," she'd said. "Where all souls come from."
Because if they didn't come from people, they wouldn't really be souls.
"But how come they go in our floor?"
"They have to go somewhere, don't they?"
And at the time that was all the answer I got of her.
* * * * *
I've only seen my grandmother cry once before in my entire life.
I was eight years old, at the time. We were in the kitchen together, her making dinner and me trying to help by mixing a bowl of batter for biscuits (which I'm sure she only made so I would feel like I was helping), when she dropped her own mixing bowl and stared at the floor.
Two souls were at my feet, circling me frantically. They tried to hold on to their faces, but fell back into mist before I could make them out. My grandmother paled.
"Get out," she said, her voice gone hoarse. I couldn't tell if she was talking to me or the wisps until she grabbed my wrist and walked me to the livingroom. The souls followed at our heels.
"Go to your room," she said. "Don't come out until I say so."
I took one look at her face and hurried upstairs, to my bedroom. There I waited for a good fifteen minutes before curiosity got the better of me. I crept down the hall, down the stairs, across the floor to the doorway of the kitchen.
The lights were all off. My grandmother sat kneeling on the kitchen floor, weeping as the two souls flitted around her. It was the only time I'd ever seen her cry. I hadn't thought her capable of it.
I tentatively tapped the floor with my big toe. One of the wisps darted away from her and over to me. For a split second, it held a woman's face. Then it once again returned to being a vague bit of fog.
I backed silently into the livingroom, and then ran upstairs. I had known that face.
We got the call the next morning. Both my parents had died in a car accident roughly the same time we had been making dinner.
* * * * *
I didn't know much about my grandfather except for these three things: He was my father's father. He didn't get along with my parents. And he was disgustingly rich. I knew that last one because when I was young, every time my parents came across a financial bump in the road, my mother would oh-so-subtly suggest that a father-son reconciliation was in order, to which my father would promptly and very finally say, "no", and the matter would be dropped. I never met him.
So when the unfamiliar old man with the salt-and-pepper goatee kept watching me at my parent's funeral, I didn't know what to make of it.
He was dressed like the other mourners: black suit, black shoes- even his hat was black. But his eyes were bright, clear blue and all the black he wore served only to make the light inside them even brighter. Those eyes watched me for most of the funeral, since grandma and I had gone in front of everybody so she could say a few words about my parents and I could lay a flower down on each of their caskets.
He came up to me near the end and said that I'd done a good job speaking for my parents, and that he was glad to see I'd grown in to such a fine young man. I looked up at him and, with a child's bluntness, said,
"Who are you?"
He smiled the smile of someone who'd just taken a mouthful of lemon juice.
"I'm your grandfather," he said.
"I don't have one," I said back.
He crouched down, so he was level with me. His eyes were warm and very, very tired. I couldn't look away. I couldn't blink. "Yes," he said, "You do."
"No," I said, still unable to stop staring. He kept on looking at me, and I kept looking back, even though every inch of me was screaming to run in the opposite direction. "I have a grandma." And, desiring to prove it, I shouted "Grandma!"
She was there by my side in an instant. He tore his eyes from me and latched onto her, and I was free.
She glared at him, he glared at her, but both continued to smile. Even as a child, I found it striking how much malice could be carried while still maintaining a smile.
"Adelind," he said. "How nice to see you."
"Maurice. Kind of you to pay your respects."
He nodded his head towards me. "And I see I have a grandson. It's nice to know, I'd always wondered whether it would be a boy or a girl or maybe a litter of kittens. Now I know. A grandson."
I backed up against my grandmother. There was something wild in the man's eyes and in his voice that sent chills down my spine.
"He looks like John," he said, looking directly at me. "Looks just like him. The spitting image."
"Yes," my grandmother said. "I've seen the photos. I'm sorry for your loss, Maurice, but we have to go-"
"You can't hide him away from me, Adelind."
My grandmother's face was very carefully blank. "I have no intention of-"
"Don't give me that. You can't hide him. I've looked into his eyes. I've got a hold on him. If you run, I can find you."
"Maurice!" she said, obviously appalled. "We're at a funeral! Show some restraint and respect for the dead."
It was like something in the old man cracked. His face went as blank and as gray as freshly poured concrete. "Of course. My apologies. Go, see to your guests."
My grandmother had already taken my hand and was leading me away when he added, "But Adelind, this isn't over."
If she heard him, she didn't acknowledge it. Instead she went to console one of my mother's friends, with me trailing along behind her.
* * * * *
The house was beautifully quiet when we arrived home that night. My grandmother kicked off her shoes and sat on the couch, exhausted. I didn't feel tired, though I thought that I should have. Instead I felt empty. Hollow, a little cold, but not particularly upset about it.
I went into the kitchen and the souls of my parents went up to greet me. I could tell them apart. They both looked exactly the same as each other- exactly the same as all the other souls- but I could tell which was my mother and which was my father.
I didn't realize I was crying until a few of my tears hit the floor.
Without saying a word, I went to the adjacent diningroom and dragged a chair over to the kitchen, behind the island and up to the counter. Several more souls joined my parents in following me around. Once the chair was in the right place, I climbed on top of it, and from there onto the counter.
My grandmother, long since having learned what a destructive child I could be when I got the urge, had placed several objects of high destructive capability onto the top of the fridge under the mistaken impression that I wouldn't be able to reach them. Among a few pairs of scissors (one good pair for cutting paper and cloth alike, one dinged up pair that ought to have been thrown away, and one craft pair that made edges come out like waves), a box of crayons, a few containers of playdough, and a few other odds and ends was a little hammer that was meant for tenderizing meat, but I had found worked on rocks, flowers, and army men just as well.
I took the hammer, hopped down my makeshift stairs, and then went to the middle of the kitchen floor. More souls had gathered around me. There must have been at least twenty. But it was my parents who were directly in front of me, and they were the ones I was looking at when I took aim. I closed my eyes.
Before I could bring the hammer down, someone grabbed the head, stopping me from swinging.
"No," my grandmother said.
"But I can get them out!" I said.
"No, you can't. All you'll do is wind up hurting yourself and hurting them. Hurting all of them."
I tried to pull the hammer back, but she simply plucked it from my hand. I lashed out, only for her to come down and envelope me in a hug, holding my arms by my side. I stopped thrashing and allowed myself to be comforted. For a while we simply stayed there in silence, the souls all watching us.
"Why?" I said eventually. "Why do they have to be stuck down there? Why can't I get them out?"
She let go of me and stepped back.
"Because," she said, her voice changing from brittle glass to honey. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, they shone silver, marred only by the stark black rings that were her irises. They were the same silver eyes as the souls in the floor. "It's where we go."
Her skin started to turn translucent, almost misty, almost crystalline. She looked like a creature made of glass and filled with white smoke and silver light. Her hair changed from dishwater gray to shining silver.
"It's what we are," she said, her voice melting from the familiar one I knew and loved to a voice made from echoing cavern and flowing honey. "You, me, your mother. Even your father chose to become one of us. And the price paid is this."
She gestured to the floor.
"We are the guardians. Once we outnumbered humans three to one. Once we watched over the leylines and the nexus of power. Once kings and queens would beg us to join their kingdoms and bless their rule. Once we had power."
The light in her eyes flickered and died. Her hair went gray again, her skin back to tan. Her eyes were completely normal.
"But that was a long time ago. Now you and I are the only ones left, and we have to protect them."
The kitchen floor filled with souls, all swarming, trying to get to my grandmother. She bent down and touched the floor. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry I disturbed you."
"What do we protect them from?" I said. "How did they get down there?"
"People who would hurt them," she said. "People who would use them to hurt us. Ours was a people of power. Great, unfathomable power. Those who could would bottle us, trap us, use us for their own gain. But they're all dead, now. You ask why the souls come here, beneath my floor? Because family is all they have now. They come here because there is nowhere else to go. Heaven, hell- those are not places for us. We are not welcome there. The best we have is this."
One by one, the souls left, swimming back into the depths of the floor.
My grandmother sighed. "Come," she said, taking me by the hand. "It's time for you to go to bed."
She led me out of the kitchen. I craned my neck around in time to see the two wisps I knew to be my parents watching us go.
* * * * *
My grandfather called us the next day. I didn't know how he got our number. I still don't, in fact. I don't know what he said exactly, but whatever it was upset my grandmother to the point of light cussing- a mighty feat.
"Damn it!" she said. "Damn damn damn it all."
"That man wants to see you."
"The man from the funeral?" I said. "Is he really my grandfather?"
"Unfortunately." She sighed. "He's threatening lawyers. You don't have to go if you don't want to, but it has to be your choice."
She looked at me expectantly.
The truth was, I wanted to meet my grandfather. All this time, I thought it was just me, mom, dad, and gran. Now there was this whole other side opening up. Did I have other family? Cousins? Uncles? Aunts?
But I could tell by the way she looked at me that, while I may have had a choice, there was only one right answer.
"I don't want to see him," I said.
She beamed. She didn't say anything, other than, "I'll let him know", but that night she got us pizza and let me stay up an hour past my bedtime. The message was clear.
For two years, that was it. We didn't hear from him again. By the time the fourth grade ended, I'd almost forgotten about the old man. I probably would have forgotten him entirely, if not for the occasional prickling sensation in the back of my neck. A little shiver, a little coldness in my chest and a twinge in my eyes that would throw me back to the day at the funeral, back when he had knelt down and caught my eyes.
Whenever this feeling came, I would gasp and look behind me, certain that someone was there, watching. But there never was anybody there. Never anybody with any kind of interest in me. All the same, for those few years, every time I would look over my shoulder, half expecting to see him there.
* * * * *
One night, on the summer between fourth and fifth grade, I woke up to the sound of shouting downstairs.
"He's as much mine as he is yours!"
Something broke. Something glass. I bolted out of bed and down the hall, terrified that something had happened to the floor.
"You weren't interested in him all this time and now suddenly you're crawling out of the woodwork like the roach you are-"
"Don't you dare!" he said. A gust of cold air came from the living room. Goose pimples crawled up my arms as I crept to the stairwell.
"Don't you dare," he said again, quietly this time. "You hid him from me. You all did. And now I've found him. I want to see my grandson."
"Grandma?" I said.
The tension in the air dissipated instantly, and they both looked up at me.
"You should be in bed," my grandmother said.
"Oh no," said my grandfather. "Let the boy come out here and join us. This concerns him, doesn't it? Shouldn't he get a say in the matter?"
My grandmother glared daggers at him, but still said, "Come on down, honey."
I did, tentatively. "Hi," I said.
"Well?" said my grandfather, blue eyes blazing. "You heard it all, I suppose. Or enough. Would you like to visit?"
I didn't answer. My throat had closed up and all I could do was stand by the wall and try not to run away. My hands were behind my back and I found myself picking at the wallpaper behind me.
"You don't have to if you don't want to," my grandmother said. "Isn't that right, Maurice?" She shot him a dirty look.
"I have boxes of things that belonged to your father," he said. "Things from when he was your age. Toys, games- do you like comic books? he had a lot of those." There was the faintest hint of desperation in his voice. "Or if you don't feel comfortable going to my house, we could go somewhere else. Do you like the zoo? We could go to the zoo. I could get you a season pass, if you like."
I looked to my grandmother for help, but her face was completely blank. I knew the answer she'd want me to give, but. . .
"I haven't been to the zoo before."
And it was over. My grandmother tried and failed to not look disappointed, and my grandfather didn't even try to hide how pleased he was. "Excellent. How about Friday, after school?"
"He could have something planned already," said my grandmother.
My grandfather half-rolled his eyes, flicking them upwards exasperatedly. "We both know he doesn't, Adelind. How about it, then? Friday? I'll pick you up from school."
I couldn't do anything but give a quick nod. My grandmother was going to be furious.
"Then it's settled." He moved to leave, but stopped in the doorway. "Adelind," he said with a curt nod. She nodded equally as equally curtly back. "See you Friday, Nat." And then he was gone.
We stood there for a moment, my grandmother fuming silently, until I said, "Grandma?"
"I think it's past your bedtime," she snapped. "Go on."
I hightailed it up the stairs and hid in my room, unable to sleep for the rest of the night.
* * * * *
That is how the next Friday I found myself with my grandfather.
He took me to the zoo. I'd never been to the zoo before. We walked together, navigating through crowds of tourists and vendors selling food and souvenirs. While every other tourist seemed content with the small blurb of information in front of each exhibit, my grandfather spouted off encyclopedic facts about every single animal as though he knew each one personally.
We spent the entire day there; he made sure we saw at least half of all the animals the place had to offer and said that if we couldn't see them all today, we could see the rest next weekend.
And he was so certain there would be a next weekend.
"I'll get the courts on her if she doesn't let us," he said. "She hates them more than she hates me."
Halfway through the day, I started getting tired. We stopped at a vendor and he bought us each an icecream, which we then ate open one of the many park benches.
"I suspect you miss your mother and father," he said suddenly. He must have been thinking about this for a while to just come out and say it like that.
"Not really," I said, turning the cone so the ice cream didn't drip down the side.
"I don't miss them too much," I said again. "I mean, I miss them, yeah, but I know where they are, and I can still talk to them."
If I hadn't been too busy concentrating on the ice cream, I might've noticed the funny look that had come over my grandfather's face.
"You must go to church," he said. "Your grandma take you?"
"Sometimes." I looked up at him. "What's that got to do with it?"
He smiled and rubbed his thumb against my nose. "You’ve got icecream on you."
I squirmed away from his touch and wiped off my nose myself.
* * * * *
My grandmother was saccharine sweet when I returned that day.
"Did you have fun?" she chirped. I could smell something good cooking in the kitchen.
"Yes," I said, scrupulously honest. "Sorry."
"Don't be." She bent down and gave me a hug. "Honey, I'm sorry about what happened. This is between your grandfather and I. Just because I don't like the man doesn't mean you don't have to. I want you to enjoy yourself."
I didn't believe her, but I wanted to believe her and that was almost as good.
"Look!" I said, digging through my backpack. "I got you a monkey!" I held up the toy- one of the long armed plush monkeys with velcro on their hands. She solemnly took the monkey and placed it around her neck, so it was hanging like a necklace.
"I think it will go well with my Sunday dress," she said, posing. And just like that, we were better again. We went and had dinner.
* * * * *
From then on, an Arrangement was made. I would go visit my grandfather every weekend, provided I got all my schoolwork done while I was there. With him I went to museums and aquariums and amusement parks and ice skating rinks and water parks and all kinds of places I'd never dreamed about visiting before.
"Your grandmother's holing you away," he said when I admitted that I'd never seen snow before. "She's hiding you away from the world. I bet you've never seen the ocean before, either."
"I've never seen a lake," I said. I don't know why I said it. It was true, certainly, but it was as though some small, despicable part of me wanted him to be outraged, to feel sorry for me. If he did, then maybe he'd take me to the lake to try and fix it.
"A crying shame," he said. "We'll be sure to go next week."
I tried not to smile, but it leaked out anyways. He saw and grinned.
"Tell me, Nat," he said. "Do you like- you know. Being with me?" I could tell he was trying to sound casual about it. "We have fun, don't we?"
"Yes!" I said. Perhaps a little too enthusiastically. "I like hanging out with you."
He relaxed and the smile grew warmer, but he still didn't look at me. "Tell me, then," he said to the open air in front of us. "Would you like it if we were to spend more time together?"
Here I took pause. I enjoyed the old man's visits, true. But hanging over my head was the memory of my grandmother, who was always carefully silent before I left and ridiculously chirpy when I returned. She who, bless her heart, would make cookies and cakes while I was gone, and then upon my return casually question me about my grandfather's doings while bribing me with sweets. To say anything positive about the old man was a betrayal. But she'd raised me up to be honest as well.
"I. . . Wouldn't mind at all," I said finally, the words tearing themselves from my mouth. I imagined the heartbreak it would cause my grandmother if she were ever to find out, but it was true.
He looked my way and beamed. "Well then, Nat, how would you feel about me adopting you?"
I dropped my ice cream. It landed on the pavement with a splat. "Adopt?" I squeaked. Suddenly things had gone way over my head.
"You heard me. Face it, your grandmother, try her best though she might, isn't raising you right by half. You need a good male role model. You need to be out and about, getting a grip on the world. You need to learn."
"I learn lots of stuff," I said meekly. It was the only point I could argue with. "I go to school. I learn lots of stuff."
"School," he said flatly. "You'll never learn anything of use there. No, I'm talking about other things. More important things. Things you ought to know about." He looked at me expectantly.
"The fact that you have to ask that at all fills me with despair. I'm talking about this." He snapped his fingers and fire leapt from his nails. The flames took the form of a small bird that perched on his pointer finger painlessly.
I goggled. He laughed. The fire bird vanished without so much as a puff of smoke.
"I shouldn't laugh," he said eventually. "I'm sorry. Your reaction to such a small trick is just a sign of how woefully under-educated you are in the things that matter."
"How did you do that?" I said. "Are- are you like my grandmother?"
His face darkened. "No. I'm nothing like that- woman. The talent runs through our family. Your father had it in spades. He could have made something of himself if he hadn't given it all up for that blasted girl."
It took me a moment to realize the girl he was referring to must have been my mother.
He must've realized how that sounded, because he coughed and said, "So how about it? Just say the word and I can arrange to have you move in by tomorrow. She wouldn't be able to do a thing to stop me."
I stared at my feet and didn't answer for a long time.
* * * * *
"Hello, honey," said my grandmother when I got home. "Cookies are just cooling. White chocolate macadamia nut-"
"He asked me if I want to live with him."
"And?" Her voice was higher than usual. A little too airy to be casual. "What did you say?"
"I told him no."
She relaxed. Almost imperceptibly so, but the air around us suddenly became a little less cold. "Good boy."
"That's not all. He wants to teach me magic."
She snorted. "I bet he does."
"I want to learn."
The sudden silence between us was heavy and thick.
"Do you really?"
"Yes. He said my dad used to do it, before he met mom."
"That he did," she said quietly. "That he did."
Silence stretched out between us for a minute that felt like an eternity until she finally said, "Well, I suppose there's nothing for it." She got to her feet.
"You'll let me learn?"
"Well I'm certainly not going to stop you." She creaked her way over to a cabinet in the corner. "In fact. . ."
Out of the cabinet came a small wooden box. Ornately carved, with patterns of leafy ivy woven through and polished to a high sheen. From the box came a shard of crystal on a silver chain. My grandmother held up the charm and smiled.
"This was your grandfather's," she said, handing it to me. "Not that one. My Jehoel's. And his father's before him, and his mother's, and her father's, and so on. Passed down through his family for ages."
"What's it do?" I said.
"Nothing on it's own. That's where you come in. Come on," she said going to the dining room. "Hang up your coat and then go sit at the table. We can discuss this over the cookies. I'll tell you everything."
* * * * *
From then on, it was an arms race between the two. An unspoken competition to determine who could teach me the most the fastest. Weeknights with my grandmother were spent sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, surrounded by the souls of our ancestors while she tried to teach me the magic of her people. This usually involved spending hours into the night trying, and failing, to make that blasted crystal light up. Usually while I did this, she would recite various great deeds done by our family, or retell history I already knew from school through a pair of eyes that had been there to see it. That part wasn't so bad. But that stupid rock. . .
The crystal being lit would indicate that I was, as she put it, 'opening (my)self up to the ethereal network (her) people created'. The network was their source of power, webbed across the globe, lines connecting the entire planet, crossing eachother in places of particular significance. The biggest point on the planet was under our floor. It was like a pin in the ground that kept all the lines from going crazy; a spike jabbed into a tarp to keep it from flying away in the wind.
But, again: it mostly boiled down to me glaring at that rock until I got a headache and she sent me to bed.
Much preferred were my grandfather's lessons. Those involved quite a lot of leather bound books written by hand (most of which I didn't understand but enjoyed anyways), memorizing ingredients and patterns for simple spells, and gratuitous displays of flashy magic from my grandfather to keep my attention. These lessons were only on the weekends, but they were usually all-day affairs with the occasional break to go to the beach or something.
With weeknights filled by my grandmother and weekends by my grandfather, I suppose it's unsurprising that my more mundane education should suffer.
"Don't worry about it," said my grandfather when I showed him my report card and the concerned note from my teacher. I had shown him before my grandmother because I knew he wouldn't get mad. "It's no big deal."
"Grandma won't think so," I said miserably.
"Who says she has to know?" He tapped the card and handed it across the table back to me. All of them had been raised by two letter grades.
"Won't the school still have my old ones on record?"
He waved a hand. "I'll take care of it. Show that to your grandmother and don't worry about a thing."
I grinned. "Thanks, grandpa."
"No problem. I'll teach you how to do that one next week so you can do it yourself. It also works for forging field-trip signatures, too. For now, though,” he poured some water into a bowl in front of me and said, “I think it’s about time you learned to scry.”
* * * * *
From my grandfather, I learned how to play with fire and scry in water and little household magics that kept mice away from cupboards and fleas away from blankets and spiders away from everything (to the point that one day my grandmother came home and found I had put up spells all over the whole house and complained, at length, that the white-noise they made that only she could hear was giving her a headache and I had to take them all down).
I learned the grade-changing trick and how to forge signatures and found that the same trick could be used to forge money and banknotes, if I really wanted to. I could freeze water and make it rain indoors and I could almost get my pencil to do homework on its own, but the answers it wrote down were always wrong, so I had to give up on that.
From my grandmother, I learned that I’m really not good at her ghostly kind of magic. All I ever managed to do was give myself migraines until I finally stopped trying entirely. I would just sit down and daydream while the spirits on the floor gathered around me. It didn't matter that they'd see me do this every day; I think they had very short memories. I don't know when it was my grandmother figured out that I didn't care for her magic. A few weeks after I started faking, she cut the lessons short, going from the original two hours of meditating to just an hour, then a half hour. Eventually she was satisfied if I sat quietly for fifteen minutes of the day, and I didn't have to be in the kitchen to do it. I think she may have given up on me. At the time, I didn't care.
"At least keep it with you," she said, pressing the crystal into my hand. I had left it on the sofa and forgotten about it.
I quit playing with the diagrams my grandfather had given me. I was practicing making circles, which is a lot harder than it sounds. "Aww, grandma, you know I'm never going to get it to work."
"You might," she said. "You never know. It could just click for you. Maybe if you really concentrated-"
"Grandma. . ."
"For me?" she said.
I sighed and draped the thing around my neck. She beamed.
"Thank you, Nat."
* * * *
The summer I turned sixteen, my grandfather finally let me look through my father’s things. I had been dropping hints left and right, but the old man always managed to wriggle out of it; either he’d already have something planned for the day that didn’t involve going to his house, or he’d claim to have forgotten the boxes in storage, or they were still in the attic (he never was consistent on where the boxes were, just that they were always not here), or that I would definitely get to see them next weekend for certain.
Finally, he said, “the boxes are upstairs in your dad’s room.”
I took off the crystal and stuffed it into my pocket. I knew my grandfather didn’t like to look at it. “You’re letting me look through them?”
“Yes. You'll probably want to go through them yourself-"
He was right.
"But if you change your mind, though, I'm just in the study. Feel free to holler. Just . . . be careful, alright?”
“I will, I promise!” And I tore upstairs to my dad’s old bedroom.
I’d only been in my father’s bedroom once before and hadn’t stayed long then. It has the dead air of a room nobody lived in and just standing inside it felt like trespassing. Now there were six huge cardboard boxes spread around the room, each half as tall as me. The closet door was open just enough for me to see that it was completely empty: the boxes had probably been in there the entire time, my grandfather just hadn’t wanted me to look through them. I immediately tore into the closest box.
My father, it seemed, had been an avid collector and reader of comics. Three of the boxes were nothing but comics I had never heard of, mostly science fiction with rockets and robots on the covers. Despite supposedly being futuristic, the designs struck me as definitely out of date. The other boxes contained books, also rocket and robot adorned science fiction.
I spent hours looking through my father's things. He wrote notes and stuck them inside books, most of which I couldn't make heads or tails of; either the writing was illegible or the subject was just too arcane. “He’s got a squid in mouth" "One thousand fish notwithstanding" "lobster cthulhu" and so on. Things that probably made perfect sense to him but were complete gibberish to me. All the same, I saved each and every one of the notes in my bag.
A few hours in and I began to have the prick-neck feeling of someone watching me. When I turned to look, there was indeed, someone watching me. My grandfather was standing in the doorway with a faraway look in his eyes. He wasn't just looking at me, but beyond me into somewhere else entirely.
"Grandpa?" I said.
"Yes, John?" He blinked a few times. "Oh. Sorry," he said, sounding embarrassed. "I didn't mean to. . . It's just, you look so much like him."
"Don't be. It's not a thing to be sorry for. Come on, it's time to get you back to your grandmother's."
“But I’m not done. . .”
For a brief second, a look of intense pain flickered across his face. “You can take one,” he said. “One box.”
I put all the books I’d taken out back into their boxes while he picked up one of the smaller boxes I hadn’t gotten to yet and loaded it into the car.
* * * * *
We pulled to my grandmother's house, parking in front even though the driveway was clear. As I unbuckled, he said, “Will you be able to carry the box inside? It’s kind of heavy.”
I got out and went around to get it. “I don’t know.” I tried lifting it. After only a few seconds my arms started to shake. He quickly got out and took the box before I could drop it.
“How about I walk this to the door?” he said.
“You can go inside,” I said, going on ahead to unlock the door. “She’s not home. Her car is gone.”
“Do you think she’d mind me being in the house?”
“Definitely,” I said, letting us both in.
“Good.” We stepped inside.
“Just put the box on the table,” I said, pointing to the kitchen. “Oh! I’ve got something I want to show you while you’re here. Hang on a sec-“
I ran upstairs to my room and retrieves a box I had made in shop class. It wasn’t particularly impressive, but I had worked hard on it and it was stained a nice, dark color that reminded me of the furniture in his house. I wanted him to have it.
“I made this the other day,” I said, coming into the kitchen. “I thought you might-“
My grandfather was looking at the floor with an odd expression on his face. Swimming around him were several of the souls.
“Oh,” I said. “Don’t mind them. They just get curious. They don’t see a lot of guests.”
“Nat, what are they?”
“Souls, I think. At least, that’s what grandma says. She said they were all her family.”
He bent down and touched the floor. “And they all come under here? Why?”
“I don’t know. I never really understood that part. I think it’s because they don’t know where else to go.”
"How long have-" He gasped. One of the souls had turned into my father's face.
"It's okay," I said quickly. "He's not hurt. He's alright."
"You knew," he said, nearly choking on the words. "You knew? How long have you known?"
"Since they died. My mom's in there, too." I slowly backed away, afraid to be near him.
"Get me an axe," he said.
"An axe!" he roared. Lightning flickered around his fists and in his hair, causing it to stick out. "An axe, a shovel, a steel pike! Get me something to break them out."
"We've got a shovel in the shed," I said, too afraid to argue.
"Well then bring it!"
When I approached the house, I heard yelling through the windows. In the time it had taken me to retrieve the shovel, my grandmother had come home, and she and my grandfather had started a shouting match.
"You haven't got the right!" she shrieked.
"Me!" bellowed my grandfather. "I haven't got the right? You have the gall to tell me-" he cut himself off when I came inside. "Nat, give me the shovel. We're settling this once and for all."
"Nathaniel, don't you dare," said my grandmother. "Don't you even think it."
"Nat, it's not right and you know it. You've got to know it. Help me. Give me the shovel."
“I- I-“ I didn’t know what to do. I held onto the shovel and stood, frozen, unable to move. Both were looking at me and I could feel their wills fighting eachother and fighting over me, like tug-of-war. My grandfather made a disgusted noise and made a come-hither motion with his hand. The shovel suddenly flew away from me and went to him.
"Maurice, if you don't get out of my house this instant I will call the police-"
My grandfather snapped his fingers, and the phone on the wall sparked and blew off the wall, clattering across the floor. My grandfather smiled grimly. "Try," he said. "This is between us, Adelind. And I'm getting them out."
"You can't," she said, blocking his way.
"I think I can."
"You're not stopping me, Adelind. Why are you trying to stop me? Your daughter's down there! Your mother and your sisters and any poor sods who married into the family are down there! You should be helping me!"
"But the node-"
"Forget about the nodes!" he hollered. The force behind the shout was enough to knock both me and my grandmother back a few feet, scrambling to retain our balance.
"Forget about the ley lines and the power structures and anything else that's been drilled into your head since your kind first learned they could die. None of it matters. My son is down there, and you aren't going to stop me."
"Maurice, I can't let you." She had changed into the crystalline creature with the silver eyes, basked in light. Behind her, all the souls had swam to the surface, curious as to what was happening.
My grandfather paused.
"No," he said a moment later, thoughtfully. "I suppose you can't."
He dropped the shovel and made a grabbing motion in the air. My grandmother was picked up and flung into the living room, where she hit the stairs. There were several cracks as aged, brittle bones broke. Her head, now at an odd angle, fell limply back and I could see the silver light in her eyes dim down to black.
I ran to her, but there was nothing to be done.
"Old harpy," he said, hefting up the shovel. "Should've gotten out of my way."
"You killed her!" I tried to hit him. "How could you?"
He shoved me away like it was nothing. "You of all people should be thanking me. Help me break them out. Help me."
"I can't," I said. "They need to be there."
"Your parents are in there."
"Where they should be!" I screamed. "Where we all go!"
"No." He didn't shout the word. Didn't even raise his voice. But there was enough power packed behind the word to knock me back into the wall. "Where you all go. Not us. Not me. And not my son."
He came over to where I was wiping blood off my lip and knelt down beside me.
"My son was human. Your father was human." Tears were welling up in the old man's eyes. "Those bitches did this to him. They changed him when he married your mother. I told him not to. He didn't listen." He choked. I think it might've been a laugh. "Of course he didn't. They tricked him. If he'd known what was waiting for him, if he'd known what would happen-"
I sat up. "He would have done the exact same thing anyways. He loved my mother."
I wasn't expecting him to hit me, but I guess I should have. I fell back again.
"You're just like them," he said. "Just like her. You look like him, but you're just another one of them on the inside, aren't you?"
He held up the shovel like a foreman about to break ground at a construction site and infused it with power. It burned white-hot, and he jammed it into the glass. Then, when that had no effect, he tried again. And again. On the third try, the floor began to crack. He started to laugh. “Yes!” he crowed and struck the floor again.
The souls, who had been floating frantically around my grandfather until this point, suddenly turned and left, going back into the depths. Only they couldn’t; the crack was sucking them to it like a vacuum.
The ground shook. Outside, dogs howled. The sky rumbled like thunder, but a thousand times louder and much, much closer. A soul was sucked through the crack and squeezed through. It screamed. It had no mouth, but it screamed. The noise of it shattered all the thin glass in the kitchen. My grandfather doubled over in pain. A puddle of blood sprouted around his head. I felt something wet drip onto my neck. I touched it and found my fingers stained with blood. My ears were bleeding.
The soul screamed until it burst into flame. It was quick, like burning chemical cloth. One moment here, the next gone. But more souls were at the crack, being forced out of the floor.
"No," I said. I crawled over, unable to stand, and put my hand over the crack to try and stop them. It didn't work. One more slipped through the floor and through my fingers. It burned in the air like the last one, shrieking in pain all the while.
I tried everything I could think of to stop them. I tried freezing them in place through the glass, but the spell couldn't get through the floor. I tried melting the glass itself to seal the crack, but nothing happened. None of the spells my grandfather taught me could touch the floor. In desperation I dug the crystal out from my pocket and slammed it onto the crack, hoping it would do something- anything- to fix this. It didn't.
"Work," I said. Another soul was being dragged out.
"Work!" Another soul gone and another on the way.
"Work, God damn you! Do something!"
I hit the useless crystal against the floor over and over until like the floor it cracked. I kept on hitting it. For a brief, shining moment, it flared with pure white light. Then it crumbled into dust. The dust flew to the crack and melted into the floor. The noise outside stopped. The ground was still. When the dust had finished, there was no sign the crack had ever been there at all.
The souls fled back to the depths where they would be safe. I sagged, exhausted.
"John?" My grandfather sat up. "Johnny?"
"No," I said.
"Get out of my house."
"Nat, where's- where are any of them?" He rose shakily to his feet. Blood was still trickling down both our faces from our eyes, ears, and noses. The old man's goatee was now salt and pepper and scarlet.
"They're gone," I said, remaining on the floor. "Some of them for good. You killed them twice, and I think that was it for them."
"No," his eyes were wide and panicked. "John-"
"Might be gone. He was near the top when you cracked the floor open. Maybe my mother is gone, too."
"Nat-" He tried to place a hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged him off.
"Get out of my house," I said again.
"I'm sorry, Nat-"
"Get out now!"
I burned. Like a fever that wouldn't break, I burned. When I looked down at my hands, I saw them as silver and crystalline. I choked. Suddenly I was back to normal. Shaken, pale, and finding it hard to breathe, but otherwise normal.
"I can't leave you like this, Nat," he said.
"I think you've done enough." I got to my feet, moving away when he tried to help me. "Get out."
I remained in the kitchen when he left. He went to the door, passing my grandmother's now entirely human looking corpse as he did. I didn't look at her. I couldn't. Not yet. It hadn't happened, yet. I could pretend it hadn't happened. It was a lie, but I couldn't handle the truth.
He stopped on the porch and looked back. "Nathaniel-"
"Don't come back."
"You need me. You're still a minor."
A minor who can magically forge signatures and bank notes. "It's no longer your concern."
Before he could say another word- and I know he wanted to- I flicked my wrist and the door slammed shut on him. The deadbolt slid to locked, and I was alone. I sank to the floor.
There would be funeral arrangements. It was dark and she fell down the stairs, the poor old woman. Her grandson found her the next morning. Such a sad state of affairs, but no need to send him to a home; he's got a paper saying he's emancipated and owns the house.
I couldn't leave the house. Not ever.
She was gone now, and somebody had to watch out for the souls. I curled up right on the floor and rested my head on my arm. One solitary soul flitted up to meet me. It switched faces for a second, and I laughed even as tears finally started to make their way from my eyes.
Alright, perhaps she's not entirely gone.
A flock of souls came to join us, hovering anxiously. I smiled tiredly and fell asleep. The last thought I had was,
Alright, perhaps I'm not entirely alone.