When Lionel had been a boy, he’d had the misfortune of enduring the most tedious, miserable, long-winded tutor. Seated in his schoolroom, with the old windbag, droning on and on and on, Lionel had distracted himself by staring at his inkwell, and blinking first his left eye, and then his right. With every blink, the positioning of that crystal set had faintly changed.
He’d been endlessly fascinated by how something as simple as the sweep of one’s eyelashes might capture an entirely different angle; so very slight, but also so very significant.
This moment, with this Evie felt remarkably like that trick-of-the-eye game he’d played with himself.
With that lady, silent and solemn beside him, Lionel stared out across the street at the residence…taking in all those details that had previously escaped him.
The sisters and parents all attired in black. The bombazine that hung over the gilded portraits that had, be it the candle’s glow, or the moon’s beams, or sun’s rays always glimmered.
And yet…somehow, he’d failed to note that there’d been a member missing among that family’s numbers. That the three daughters ensconced in that music room had become just two and the devoted parents hovering near, had become sad-eyed; their faces wreathed in sorrow.
Mayhap that was because he’d only see that which he’d wished; that which had been easier…a joyous tableau of a loving family.
Now, he saw a family, in the throes of pain that came with the loss of a child…or a sibling. He knew it, because he’d seen it for so long with his own family. Even after all these years, he saw it, still. Not quite as often as those first days, months, and years, after his death, but neither had the sadness completely faded from his mother and sister and friends.
“Nothing witty or mocking to say?” the lady finally asked without the usual bite to her question. Nay, there was a tiredness there.
Lionel pulled his gaze away from the windows, and looked to the delicate lady beside him. “No.” The absolute absence of people to speak with made that word emerge rusty; it rolled awkwardly off his tongue in the form of a single, meaningless utterance. “I didn’t realize,” he added, in quiet, solemn tones.
“And why should you have?” she shot back. “You don’t know me. You don’t know my family.”
But…he did. On the surface, and from a distance… It had been easier coming here to witness this family, rather than his own. Similar in their love of one another, and yet different in that they were strangers, so the pain of missing out on the continuation of one’s family didn’t have quite the same pang. He couldn’t quite say as much. He couldn’t say as much, at all.
The screech of a cello indicated one of her sisters had resumed playing.
Evie froze; her eyes stricken, and then with the graceful, sweeping movements of the ghost she in fact was, the lady drifted across the street; taking a place near the front window where her sister strummed the strings of that large wood instrument.
He followed close behind, but he may as well have become invisible all over again, including to this woman before him. Fear knocked around his chest, as for a moment, still as she was, he believed that was precisely what had happened. That she had ceased to see him.
“You were the pianoforte player,” he called out.
As if he’d cued up that memory, and the fates lent an orchestration to this moment with Evie, the words came tumbling forth. “You would come down before the household had risen, draw the curtains back yourself, and just play. And play and play. Until your sisters joined you, and tugged you off.”
Evie went absolutely motionless, and it was when he knew…she was with him, still.
She looked slowly back. Silent…she just stared at him, with an unreadable glimmer in her striking brown eyes.
Lionel rocked on his heels. “You are the best pianoforte player among them,” he said before he thought better of it. Before he could call it back.
He braced; waiting for the wounded affrontery she’d showed at his mocking of her sisters.
This time, however, a wistful smile stole over her lips; that perfect bow-shaped flash tilted up, and dimpling her cheeks. “Thank you.” She paused. “Though, that isn’t saying much.” Her lips twitched, making her smile wider, and oddly, a heart that hadn’t beat since the night he’d drawn his last living breath, thumped…hard, and he stared, captivated by her heart-shaped face, lit by the moon’s glow.
And he had to tell his mind to tell the muscles of his mouth to form a matching grin. Because, in that moment, he was—
The lady sank onto the front of her family’s townhouse steps. “You…came here often.”
“I did,” he admitted, joining her on the makeshift bench she’d turned the stone steps into.
Fortunately, she didn’t press him as to why. Words he didn’t want to explain because of the intimacy of them.
“I’ve seen you,” she admitted.
He stilled. “You’ve seen me…” And she’d not…said anything.
“At first, I thought you were…”
“Living still?” he helped supply.
She nodded. “Yes, that. You would call out to passersby, as though you knew them. Good-mornings. Good afternoons. Words about the weather.” She furrowed her brow. “And then you’d get affronted when they should ignore you; calling them out.” Evie toyed distractedly with a curl that hung about her shoulder; twisting it around her finger. “At first, I thought you were someone who’d fallen out of society’s good graces. Then, I wondered if you were mad.”
His speaking to the living; people who couldn’t see him, and passed right through him, had been a method and mechanism with which to cope with his transition from the living to…whatever this in-between was.
“You seemed rude, and I didn’t want to engage you” she explained.
In time, she’d grow desperate, too. She’d realize the hell that was being entirely alone in the hereafter; a ghost in every sense of the word.
Evie dropped her chin atop her knees. “I don’t want to be you.”
“Well, that makes two of us,” he muttered. It was hard to say which crimes he’d been so guilty of that he’d been stuck in this void.
“I want to go back,” she carried on over his droll response. “I want to live my life. I want to have my Season.” As she spoke, her voice grew increasingly strident. Agitated. “My full London Season, and I want to play instruments with my sisters and talk about our futures and our future husbands and children and— ”
He stroked his knuckles along the curve of her pale cheek; soft like satin. God, how he’d missed feeling. So denied the glory of that unappreciated-until-death sensation, he reveled in it now for the gift it was. Her lashes; dark strands that were forever-long, fluttered, and she leaned into his touch, as though she craved it, as much as he hungered for the smooth feel of her.
Then she spoke. “I want it all, Lionel,” she whispered; her voice breaking, and her lashes lifting. “I want it back.”
And he had, too. He however, had come to find…there was not returning to the place they most wished to be.
“You’re never going to do those things, Evie,” he said gently. “Not again.” Not in the way she believed. Now, she’d exist only on the periphery of life; observing, and secretly longing to take part.
She stared unblinkingly at him; shock and hurt in those endless blue depths giving way to a slow-burning rage, and it was the moment he knew the connection between them was broken, and he wanted to recall his words back, to restore them to a place of ease and teasing…because he’d desperately loved that place they’d been. A hiss exploded from her teeth, as she stormed to her feet.
“How dare you?” She didn’t allow him a chance to answer. “You don’t get to come here and tell me what I’ll not have. They are my sisters,” she pounded her chest with her fist; emphasizing that possession. “I know they feel me. I might not be…be…part of the same world that they belong to, in the same way, but I can tell they know I’m there.” Her eyes glittered with the force of her fury. “And I don’t have to say goodbye. I don’t have to cease being part of my family. Yes, it’s different, but it doesn’t have to be…nothing.”
Nothing…which is what they were. Mere memories that existed in the minds of those they’d left behind, that which the passage of the time, became less and less frequently thought about.
Evie recoiled; as if she’d heard those unspoken thoughts from Lionel. She edged away from him; looking at him like he was a monster, and she was plotting her flight.
And then she was…whipping about.
“Evie…” he called after her swiftly retreating figure. “Evie, come back.” Please. “I didn’t mean…” To speak the truth? Actually, he had. And the lady needed to hear it. But selfishly he wished he’d said nothing.
The lady, however, didn’t break stride; she continued on at the break-neck speed she’d set; her pale skirts fluttering and whipping.
“Evie!” he shouted; his voice echoing in the empty London streets; while her sister’s cello whined in the background.
And then as quick as Evie had come into his life, she was gone, and Lionel found himself precisely as he’d been for so many years—alone.