1. Not Your New Years Day
It hadn't even been halfway through autumn, and the holly rings were already being hung. It just didn't seem right. There had been an order to these things, a distinct set of rules once. No one remembered them anymore. The ideas of slowly watching the years passed as quickly as the new leaves of a different autumn fell. These leaves were not of the many colors they once had been, because the seasons had begun to change so rapidly that the plants didn't know how to keep up anymore.
This was your world.
Avery huddle in a soft armchair in a friend's kitchen. Remembering when the things like the solstice actually meant the turn of the seasons. The house itself was messy and decrept, slowly falling apart for lack of funds to fix it. He sat waiting for a cup of coffee. The kettle sizzled on the electric stove, and hissed sweet nothings into the air around it. Avery regarded it fondly, not bothering to shut it off.
A noise thud in the other room told him that someone else had heard the kettle. A large man with tan olive skin and dark hair hurried into the kitchen to shut off the stove. He turned briefly to Avery as if to say something and then decided against it and poured out the boiling water into a filter over a glass coffee pot.
“You know coffee makers have existed for some time now.” Avery smiled sweetly as Jonas passed him a cup.
Jonas frowned at him in response.
“Morning to you too.”
No reply. The larger man turned his back to butter toast and stick that in the toaster oven.
“So you had fun in town?” Avery asked, it hadn't been the first time he had mentioned last night, but Jonas still recoiled from the question as if it stung.
“I was lost, how many times do I need too...”
“I know you were. I'm surprised that they just took your wallet. You're coat was pretty nice too.”
Jonas glared across the table as he sat down.
“Are you going to tell me what you were doing in town last night?”
Avery kept smiling but his mind began to wander a bit. As he tried to piece together the revelries of the past evening he distinclty remembered the hum of a song swarming over a dense crowd of people. One of the celebrations he had been to this year for sure. He had been to better celebrations back home. This definitely wasn't his favorite holiday in this hemisphere, though it used to be. That song though, it hadn't been out of place, unlike all the people in plastic masks and poorly thought out evening dress. Several people had been shivering Avery had more than once passed someone petitioning a stranger for a coat. Avery ignored most of the people and revelled in the noise of the crowd. The din drowned out his racing thoughts for once. The cares and worries he carried with him almost piously difted out on the night air with the music.
Then he saw her. Or more precisouly it. Elaborated displays of gore and trickery were common today, but this was a head perched ontop of a skeleton that was not human. The long hair and round face watched everyone quietly as the long legs stepped through the crowd, nimbly avoiding contact with anyone. The bones were not white, in fact they were closer to grey or cream colored. Cream that had gone bad. She turned her head, swivelling it around on a long disjointed neck that hovered two feet above the tallest of the revellers. Bits of moss, or perhaps something far worse, hung from her bones and draped her spine and elongated ribcage in something like a shirt or tunic. It looked like someone was finally getting into the spirit of the evening, until Avery realized that there were no strings for this puppet, and no one noticed it as it walked.
This wasn't the first time Avery had seen something like this, but this was the first time it had been so unnecesarrily... movie quality. Many things bore scares from past selves or lives, this thing, aside from maybe its face, was no where near human.
The wind picked up its hair and moved it away from the two dark holes that seemed to serve as eyes. Avery did something that he normally wouldn't have, had he been thinking clearly. He looked. He looked directly into those long dark tunnels that bore back into somethings head. Then he ran.
He couldn't tell whether it was following him, or whether it even cared about what he saw. He ran and shoved and pushed his way through the crowd until he was grabbed by a police officer. It took him a second to realize that the man was actually law enforcement and not in costume.
“Sir, you alright?”
Avery gasped and eventually managed a “yes” into the cold night air.
The officer looked around Avery as if expecting more people to come running at him.
“You haven't been doing anything tonight have you?”
“You mean aside from drinking and partying?”
The man just looked at him blankly.
“No nothing like that.” Avery replied, “Besides I'm driving. Sorry just trying to find someone. Thought I saw them but I lost them.”
The officer motioned for one of his squad to bring over a K-9 unit to sniff check Avery's claim. Avery behaved nicely for the man, at least to appease them, while he looked around for the thing he had seen before. Nothing and the crowds were just as normal as normal could be.
“Alright, try to watch where you are going?”
“Thanks.” Avery said quickly as he walked hurriedly down the road.
He tried to stick to crowds, but he remebered just how useless that had actually been in the first place. Eventually he walked down the main road toward the train station, and the water way. The water way wasn't the ocean. It did get to the ocean a little further down, but it was actually just a set of small docks and walkways over the water that crisscrossed between boathouses and buildings on the opposite side of the river mouth. A good portion of the buildings had become unstable in recent years due to harsh weather shifting the sands beneath them.
Avery brushed off his blue jeans, now mostly grey and brown, and sat on the edge of one of the docks. The hum of the city behind him and the songs of hundred of racing hearts dropped noise pollution even this far out. The ocean breeze couldn't take away the noise, and wasn't strong enough to blow away the smell completely either.
“Happy early year end.” Avery mumbled to the bubbling water underneath his feet. He had come to the city this year because it was clearly not haunted the last few times he had been here. Something had definitely changed since then. Even with haunted places, usually the ghosts didn't bother people so much more then giving them chills and occasionally stealing keys.
“I'm not doing this tonight.” Avery said, just as a pair of dark hands grabbed his feet from under the water and dragged him into the cold river.
Avery tried to yell, and started to struggle, but he knew very well he wasn't getting away. Oddly it was that feeling that calmed him. He stopped moving and just looked down. It was too dark to see under the water at night. Shapes and dirt took on slightly lighter shades of grey. Reaching down a hand, he touched the cold, stone like fingers that gripped his ankle. That was when his air ran out, and he drifted off on silent cold water.
“Something pulled you in?”
Avery looked up over his cup. Jonas hadn't said anything as he spoke until now. The older man had a crease across his brow and viens starting to stand out on his hands. Jonas had dark, kind eyes, that even when he was angry looked reassuring.
“Yes.” Avery said.
Jonas shook his head and leaned back in the chair. Fixing the collar of his shirt, he watched Avery almost warily. As if something were going to drag him across the floor and out of the house.
The night air was brisk, but not cold. Jonas had parked the car at a friend's place. It was very last minute but even now traffic was still bad enough to not be able to park in town. Jonas followed his friend into the town. She didn't live far from the main road and she had plans tonight, so she was going in anyway. He apologized for the inconveinience and went on his way as soon as he hit the Carnival. From the very start, nothing was going as planned. Avery didn't answer his cell, the crowds were far to dense to find someone without having a set meeting place, and everyone was more concerned about being drunk and running around while drunk to be of any help in finding someone. Even if that someone did have distinctly red hair with green streaks in it.
Walking briskly down the main road, past the mall and the museum, both sporting signs for haunted tours, Jonas finally gave up near a sausage and fried dough stand. He was about to turn around and head back to his car when Avery ran right past him.
It took Jonas a minute to realize it actually was the person he was looking for. The crowd had plenty of red heads, though most of them were well groomed wigs. Kicking off of the curb, stumbling, and finally managing to start a sprint, Jonas ran after the bobbing head of his friend through the crowd. He gained some ground at first but then rounded a corner and completely lost his way. He tried shouting but that just made most of the people around him stare at him angrily.
“Avery!” He tried one last time, wandering in the direction he thought he saw his friend go.
He wandered down a slightly less busy street, following in the general trajectory of the red head. The streets slowly got less and less crowded as he wandered around the winding roads. Some of them started off in one direction and then just hooked back around to go back to where they started. Others went back along themselves in ways that Jonas had never thought possible.
The fangs of winter are full of specters. Spring was the time that they sang, in summer they faded away, and by fall they hadn't really gotten around to pealing back the curtains. But they were definitely around by winter, and they made themselves known. They made the dark morning shine somehow.
Faded not-yet-light inched it's way into the room. It was cold, probably five below just in the room itself, and frost drew a map across the inside of the window. Nikolai looked at his alarm. He was going to be late, he was always late, but that was nothing new.
Throw the covers, run to the bathroom, you can't feel your feet.
Not once did he stop to look at the face in the wall. This morning he left his dark, curly hair to its own devices and resigned himself to a slice of bread for breakfast. He briefly said goodbye to his grandparents half awake faces as he ran out the door.
Struggling to keep his bag on his shoulders, and his coat fully closed, and to keep walking, Nik hurried to the road down his little side street to catch the bus into town. The neighborhood was a hastily constructed shamble of lopsided buildings. The street was a dead end, and thus quiet. Nik found it too quiet, and as he walked down the way till the edge of dawn he found he wanted nothing more than to take the bus as far as it would go in the opposite direction of here.
Away from his family's ghosts.
Dawn never fully came. The grey clouds captured the half-light of morning in a jar that they hung over everyone's heads. It wasn't actually foggy today, but the way the light hung in the air it almost looked like it. Watching the sidewalk run past on the bus Nik found himself nodding off again. Just as he was about to finally fall asleep again, a voice nudged him awake.
"Can I have this seat?" A firm voice asked him.
Nik looked up to see a girl in what looked like a woman's dress suit. She looked very young, although she didn't sound like it, and didn't wait for him to answer before starting to sit.
"Sure." He mumbled, readjusting himself against the window.
The girl continued to watch him, hazel eyes, cinnamon hair, and all. There was a small noise that seemed to be coming out of her bag, but Nik paid little attention to it. He turned back to the blue-silver landscaped sliding by. The trees and squat houses had given way to fewer trees and larger buildings. Bus stops came more frequently and the lurching sent nausea running through his guts. It felt as though the day was going to take forever to just give up and lie down. It took so long to get to his stop that he had begun to imagine his favorite atheletes, and even a few childhood book heroes, running down the side walk next to the bus window. When he finally did get to step off the bus he had to hurry to the corner of a building and wretch.
There goes the bread.
"Do you need a hand?"
It was the gir- woman from the bus. She tossed the thick strands of hair to one side of her head as she asked this but did not extend a hand. It was at that moment that Nik realized she was wearing black gloves. He isn't sure why he thought that was odd, but he did.
"Nah, I'm fine thanks." He said, wiping the corner of his mouth on his jacket sleeve.
"Not really, but if you say so."
"Sorry?" He asked.
"Nothing." She replied. "Good luck then."
She turned, clicking her black heels like a soldier, and walked off elegantly down the frost covered walkway. Nik watched her go, even if it was only for the view, and the pulled the hood of his parka up against the chill. When he finally got to the shop he had lost feeling in his fingers and ears as well. He said hello to Jeff, the old white guy they had stuck on the front desk because he wasn't good for much else, and headed back into the garage. Everything till lunch was frozen fingers and cold steel. Nik wasn't expecting it to get any better until he had a visitor at lunch.
Jeremiah, who most people shortened to Jer because he didn't like Jerry, stuck his head into the break room just as Nik had sat down.
"Got a friend of yours out here." He said
"Really?" Nik asked, though in a more sarcastic tone than he had wanted to. Jer glared at him but didn't reply right away. Nik stood up.
"Well she says she is."
When the door swung back Nik half expected the stranger from the bus. It wasn't, but it surprised him almost as much.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Perci stripped off part of her winter coat, revealing black hair and coal colored eyes that were speckled with shards of light like diamonds. She had one of those smiles they wrote songs about, or greek epics. Papu would have compared her to Helen or something if he had met her. Nik watched her as she sat down across from him. Perci then starred at Jer until he looked embarrased and left.
"How've you been love?" She asked as if she didn't know.
"Pretty good." He said, not bothering to asked back.
Perci smiled the smile she used when she knew someone was lying. She did that a lot.
"What brings you here?" Nik mumbled through a mouthful of old soup.
"Need your help with something. Figured you hadn't quit yet so I stopped by here. Besides you need the money right?"
"You're going to get me in trouble again aren't you?"
Perci smiled, "What makes you say that?"
She didn't say no.
After work Nik didn't head back to the bus stop. Instead he waited outside in the cold for what seemed like hours. Eventually a car pulled up and Perci waved from the drivers seat.
"You really need another bouncer for this event?" Nik asked skeptically.
"Of course. I wouldn't bother you if I didn't need the help." She said as the car swung onto the road.
"Meaning you didn't have anyone else to ask."
Perci looked at him for a moment and then smirked, "I always have people I can ask hun."
Nik couldn't stop himself from smiling a little. Even when he saw the line of trucks pulled up to the back of the bar he wasn't worried. For once the cold didn't seem to get through the coat he was wearing. Hopping out of the car he said quick hellos to the rest of the crew and then helped them unload. He didn't even know what the event was until it had already started and he was just getting into uniform. The uniform was a black T-shirt and pants of course, but it was fancier than most things he wore on a daily basis. He was even slightly enjoying the music for once, even if the crowd wasn't exactly the kind of people he usually liked to deal with. Perci was head bartender at the gig, which had some type of fancy foreign name that Nik couldn't pronounce.
Te Ponui, the Great Night, was what one of the menus said to him as he looked around to occupy his thoughts with something else. There was a stylized man standing on one side of the words and a woman on the other. Both looked as if they were embracing the title, although thought might be a more polite way of putting it. Nik double checked some of the back corners he had been assigned to again, as the menu reminded him too, and kicked a few people out of one of them to go buy more drinks. It was a hell of a mess and this bar had way too many nooks and crannies. No wonder Perci needed more staff. The nice thing about working occasional nights is he could at least get his pay under the table. That was if he didn't end up under the table first.
Then there was darkness, and silence. Nik woke on a floor that felt like it was made of jagged stones. Finally, after trying to pry open his eyes for several minutes, the goop sealing them shut gave way. He looked around, in a state of calm that he hadn't felt in a while, and saw the woman from the bus kneeling over him. Behind her a hooked, sickle shaped object hung from a belt that looked old, worn, and completely at odds with anything else she had been wearing. Her pale skin looked translucent, unhealthy, and you couldn't see any of the blue veins that normally webbed their way across fair skinned faces. Her eyes weren't hazel any longer, they were honey colored and gleaming with devilish ire. She looked as though she were about to drink from an invisible bowl of soup over Nikolai's head when he sat up, rolled to one side, and scrambled away from her.
"Devil!" he shouted, but it came out as more of a hoarse whisper.
She stopped, staring at him with a completely placid expression. Slowly her brow furrowed and her eyes drained of their bright sheen.
"You were supposed to be dead."
"Fucking hell." Nik looked around for something familiar and found himself unable to comprehend the landscape around him. It was the street behind the bar and yet not the street at the same time. It was a field, with mountians to the left and a valley to the right, but then it was also an old road in a town with too many dusty sunsets. A gnarled tree bent over under a bright sun that was also in the same place as a street light. The edges of the area blurred like a dream, accept unlike in a dream Nik felt the pounding of blood in his head and the ached in his limbs from the cold.
"Well this is your lucky day."
He turned back to the woman standing under the sun/street light and watched her. She looked the same, no matter which set of scenery seemed to surround her. Even when her business suit was out of place it didn't seem to matter.
"What's going on?"
The woman didn't seem to care much for anything he said. She kept giving him the bored expression as if there were nothing in the world he could do to interest her.
"You're an atheist aren't you?" She mused.
Nikolai nodded, though his thoughts immediately went to all the Sundays his Mama had dragged him to church and all the uncomfortable feelings of guilt and loneliness he had endured under gilt vaulted ceilings. Bless her, she had tried but Nik never managed to pick up the kind of religion she had hoped. He had tried his hardest to be, and he still wore a cross to show he was still trying.
The woman in the suit reached into her pocket and pulled out a cup. Not a normal, sit on your kitchen table everyday because you can't bring yourself to bother with the dishes, cup. This was more like a goblet or chalice. It looked to be made out of clay, and the blue and purple finish swirled with flecks of brighter colors that mimicked a night sky. There was no water in it when she had removed it from her pocket, but as she held it out to him it slowly filled with liquid.
"I'm not drinking that." Nik said. "Not unless you explain."
The woman heaved a sigh and dropped the cup as if it had suddenly disgusted her. It shattered on the stone floor and stayed there, two eyes glaring up at Nik. Why did it have eyes?
"Look things are only going to get worse if you keep refusing to forget."
"Sorry?" Nik shoved his hands in his pockets as he waited for an explanation. One that he was pretty sure he wasn't going to get, but wanted anyway. It wasn't everyday someone offered you a drink right after being confused that you weren't dead.
"You see this right? All of this? I know you don't see it the same way I do but let's pretend you're close to that for a moment. All those places? Those things you see wandering the place that aren't quite people? They are going to get worse unless you forget them. Trust me on this you want to forget, it is a lot more forgiving than the alternative."
"I'm seriously high right now aren't I?"
The woman rolled her eyes, "Actually you're just insane. But that's to be expected living in the place you are. What use is three dimensions really? Your view point is so staggeringly limited."
"Look, I'm not a scientist but I can get the metaphysics referene ok. You're supposed to be some type of higher being come to collect my soul."
Flicking her wrist to one side a bracelet unwound itself into something like a long velvet cloak. "You're thinking of a psychpomp, and no I have a slightly different job."
Before Nik could ask she continued.
"I'm a wraith, on the lower end of the cleaning crew when it comes to the ideas cleaning business but we have plenty of interesting jobs nonetheless. Your idea of nonexistence is what I am here to fulfill. Think of it as your subconcious giving you an explanation of death in a slightly nicer form than what it is going to be."