Chapter 8: Who Ya Gonna Call?
May 4th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
From the time he was three years old, Victor had always considered an angry Nell Van Dort to be the scariest person alive. He'd been quite certain that no one could strike fear into his heart like his mother on the warpath. But the dark scowl on Alice's face as he entered the front foyer immediately proved that assumption wrong. He lingered in the doorway, playing with his tie and resisting the urge to run back to his room and lock himself in. "Um – is s-something wrong?" he asked quietly.
Alice nailed him with a glare. "What do you care?" she snarled.
. . .Perhaps fighting the urge to flee was a bad idea. Victor took a step backward. "If I'm b-bothering you, I can go. . . ."
The glare faltered, then vanished as Alice sighed. "No, it's all right, I'm sorry," she said, voice low and tired. "I've just been having a bad day. Everything feels topsy-turvy in my mind. I keep seeing things out of the corner of my eye – worse things than usual, I mean. And I have another session with Bumby soon, which won't help matters." She shook her head, swiping a dustcloth across one of the tables. "You think my mind would give me some bloody relief on my birthday. . . ."
Victor, in the midst of struggling to find something comforting to say, stopped and blinked. "It's your birthday today?"
Alice nodded, eyes narrowed and lips set in a thin line. "Twenty bloody years on this earth, and only eight of them were any good," she grumbled. "I shouldn't have expected this one to be any different. Stuck here in the noisiest, smelliest, dirtiest place in the world, without anyone who gives even a quarter of a damn. . . ." She knocked an empty candlestick to the floor with another vicious swipe. "Would it be asking too much for my bad luck to leave me alone for a single day? Would it?"
Victor watched as she attacked the table with her cloth, violently shoving things around in her quest to eliminate dust. He'd never seen her look quite this upset. Probably because all she can think about is her family, and what she's lost, he thought. She hasn't got a single person to celebrate with, has she? The children don't care, I'm sure – they don't even bother about their own birthdays. And I can't see Dr. Bumby as the sort to wish her glad tidings. . . . His eyebrows lowered, forming a line as he frowned. It's not right. Everyone deserves something special on a day like today.
He nodded to himself, then headed for the front door. "Where are you going?" Alice asked, glancing up.
"Personal errand," Victor said. "I'll be back shortly."
Alice made a noise he supposed was acknowledgment and went back to beating up the table. Victor closed the door behind him and set off down the street, eying everyone around him warily. He'd avoided pickpockets so far, and he did not want to run into one today. Alice could be excessively blunt, sarcastic, and self-centered at times, but she'd also been the best friend he'd had here. The fact that she liked his description of the afterlife – that even if she wasn't sure she believed him, she was willing to believe his "madness" was harmless – meant a lot. She still praised his drawings to the skies (in her own special way – "You really captured the way I feared for my life here"), and she wasn't above getting the children out of the Home on some excuse so he could play the piano in peace. And she'd been a most enlightening guide to the Whitechapel streets, translating slang and telling him the safest places a nouveau riche boy like himself could linger. She's done far more than she's needed to over this past month. It's about time I started paying her back for all of those kindnesses. Victor twisted his fingers together thoughtfully. Let's see. . .what is the one thing you absolutely must have on your birthday?
You are not in the mining tunnels of the Village of the Doomed!
Alice glared as thick wooden beams tried to crawl up a wall that was starting to resemble piled, almost brain-like stone. Under her fierce gaze, the ugly green wallpaper and faded grey-brown base moulding reasserted themselves. She nodded and used the dustcloth to pick a cobweb out of the corner. She was not falling victim to her hallucinations today! Not on her birthday. It was bad enough she'd woken up this morning to the burnt-out remains of her old room – she'd nearly screamed before she realized her brain was playing tricks on her. I suppose Wonderland is an improvement over that – but not much of one, she thought grumpily, straightening the sampler on the staircase landing. "Home Safe Home" – hah, not at the moment. I bet before the day's done I'm going to attack someone with a butter knife, thinking they're a Jabberspawn. Won't that be fun?
"Hey, what you got there?" a squeaky voice came from the foyer.
"Smells like food!" another chimed in.
"Do pardon me, it's not for you–"
"Dr. Bumby always says to share!"
"Yeah, hand it over, Van Dort!"
"I will do no such thing!"
Wonderful – now she had to go rescue Victor from the brats. Like she didn't have enough to do. Grumbling to herself, Alice stalked down the hall and into the front room. Victor was trapped before the front entrance, holding a box above his head while the children crowded around him like little vultures. "It's not for you!" he protested as a few of them tried to jump for his prize.
"You've got parents! You can always buy another whatever it is!" Ollie said, grabbing at his arm. "Give it here!"
"Never!" Victor snapped, practically pressing the box against the ceiling.
"Oh, leave him alone!" Alice scolded, scowling at the children. "He's allowed to buy himself things. And to be selfish about them."
"Alice!" Victor abruptly held out the box to her. "This is for you."
Alice blinked, startled. "Me?" she said, hesitating a moment before reaching out and taking it.
Victor nodded, a shy smile on his face. "H-happy birthday."
This was a present? He'd – he'd gotten her a birthday present? In shock, Alice pulled the lid off the box.
To see a single slice of chocolate cake waiting for her.
Cake. He'd gotten her cake. He'd gotten her the most delicious slice of cake she'd ever seen in her entire life. She stood like a statue in the middle of the room, unable to stop staring at it. Actual moist, sweet-smelling, mouth-watering cake.
"Is it all right?" Victor's voice seemed to come from a million miles away. "I thought, it's not really a birthday without cake, and. . .you do like chocolate, don't you?"
"It's fine," she said, finally managing to tear her eyes away from her present. "Victor, I–"
And then she saw it, lurking in the corner. Her eyes narrowed as annoyance wiped away her pleasure. "Oh hell, not one of you!"
"W-what?" Victor said, retreating a step.
"Not you – that," Alice said, pointing at the Boojum hovering nearby. She knew he couldn't see it, but at least he'd know she didn't mean him. "Go away, you blasted banshee!" she added, glowering at the creature. "I don't need to go deaf on top of everything else!"
The Boojum just bared its teeth at her in a skull's grin. Its glowing eyes fell greedily on the cake held in her arms. "Oh no you don't – this is mine!" she snapped, holding the box as tight against herself as she could without squashing it. "Get your own!"
The children still gathered around Victor giggled. "Afraid the big bad Boojum's gonna eat your cake?" Reggie teased.
"Invisible things just looove sweets," Abigail added mockingly.
"Be quiet!" Alice snapped, starting to back away. The Boojum followed her, its tattered black-and-white robes undulating behind it like ocean swells. "Stay back – I mean it!" she snarled. "I'll find something to hit you with, you see if I don't!"
The Boojum was unmoved by this threat, coming to a stop in front of her. Its rotted jaw opened wide, and Alice braced herself for the scream no one else would hear (lucky bastards) –
"You – you heard her! Go away!"
The Boojum stopped mid-inhale. Both its head and Alice's swivelled around to see Victor frowning hard at the Boojum, arms folded. No – he's frowning at the empty space that I see filled with Boojum, Alice reminded herself. Except – why is he telling it to go away then?
The children seemed equally puzzled. "Uh, there's nothing there," Abigail said, arching an eyebrow.
"Alice clearly sees something," Victor said loyally. "And it's bothering her, and – go on with you!" he added in the Boojum's general direction, flicking his hand. "It's her birthday! She shouldn't have to deal with – whatever you are! So get!"
Alice had not been aware Boojums could gape. The look on the damn thing's face was just – just – Alice felt something bubbling up inside of her, something wonderfully light and warm, something she hadn't felt in over a decade –
And then she was laughing. Laughing at the shocked expression on the Boojum, and the too-serious expression on Victor, and the utter ridiculousness of the whole situation. Someone was actually arguing with one of her hallucinations! And the best part was, he seemed to be winning! She clutched her cake tightly against her middle, letting the laughter spill out of her in a joyous stream. This was completely mad – mad and stupid and the best thing to happen to her in years. It was just perfect.
The Boojum, realizing whatever menace it had possessed was well and truly gone, sulkily floated away, disappearing through a wall. The image of it stomping out like an upset child triggered a new explosion of giggles from Alice. She could feel everyone staring at her like she'd lost her mind (again), but she couldn't bring herself to care. She felt better than she had since she first stepped foot in Rutledge. "It's g-gone," she managed to say between snickers. "I'm fine, I r-really am. . .d-do excuse me. . . ."
She fled to her room, still giggling wildly. Oh, she knew she'd have to pay a price for all this mirth. The children were going to tease her for days over this. And it was likely both she and Victor would get a lecture from Dr. Bumby on not engaging anyone's hallucinations when he caught wind of it.
But it had been worth it.
Victor watched Alice flee the room. Well – she seemed happy enough, if that laughter was anything to go by. And apparently he'd been successful at chasing away her hallucination. Which was good – he'd felt rather silly yelling at an empty patch of floor. He'd just gotten so frustrated that his good deed was being interrupted. . . .
He became aware that all the children were staring at him like he was some sort of wizard. "What?" he asked, looking down at them.
"She never laughs," Charlie said, voice hushed. "Never ever."
The other children nodded along, eyes wide. Victor stared back at them. Never laughed? Was that even possible? Then again. . .she'd told him he was hilarious before, but he'd never actually heard one good giggle out of her before today. Goodness, even a real smile was a rare sight. And the children had known her far longer than he had. "Really?"
"Really," Abigail said. "Not even at us. How'd you do that?"
"I – I haven't the slightest idea," Victor admitted with a shrug. When he'd started lecturing the Boojum, the last thing he'd expected was Alice falling into a fit of laughter. All he'd wanted to do was lend a helping hand to his friend.
"I think she likes you," Ollie said, with a rather inappropriate grin for an eight-year-old.
Victor blushed and shook his head. "Oh no," he murmured. "I don't – s-she couldn't. . . ." Someone like her would never fall in love with me – especially not after a mere month, he thought, squeezing his hands together. And even if she did, it wouldn't last. Every time I fall in love with someone, they end up finding someone or something else that makes them happier. I don't want to have to go through that again. Not now, not ever – and particularly not with her. Abigail was right – that rehearsal was a sign that love is just not for me.
"She doesn't like anybody," Charlie said, rolling his eyes. "Even Dr. Bumby said so."
"And besides, why would she like him? He likes dead people," Abigail pointed out.
"I don't like dead people," Victor snapped, wishing this would stop coming up nearly every time he was in the room.
"Sure you don't," Abigail smirked, the other children laughing. "That's why you tried to marry one."
Victor decided it wasn't worth getting into another argument about how the whole Emily situation had actually worked. The children were getting too much pleasure out of his supposed "appetites" to listen. "I'm going to make sure Alice is all right," he said instead. "That hallucination did look rather upsetting."
He left behind the snickering children and entered the hall. Alice's door was ajar, revealing her curled up on her bed next to her cake, shoulders shaking. Worry stabbed him in the gut. Had something happened in the minute she'd been gone? Had he embarrassed her by that display in the foyer? He knocked on the edge of the doorframe. "Alice?"
Alice lifted her head. Her eyes were a little teary, but she had a big smile on her face. "Hello," she said, a giggle still in her voice. "Sorry, I needed a moment to calm down." She wiped her eyes, then straightened her apron. "You should have seen the look on its face," she added, eyes glittering with amusement. "I wasn't aware those screamy bastards had expressions other than 'about to eat you' and 'about to burst your eardrums.'"
Victor smiled, relieved. He'd so wanted to turn her frown from before upside-down – it was good to know he'd succeeded. "You'll have to tell me more about them later," he said. "I could draw you another picture."
"Maybe – but really, you've done more than enough for me already," Alice said, lightly patting the cake box. "Did I say thank you for this?"
"I believe your Boojum – is that right? – interrupted."
"Right. Well then, thank you. I haven't gotten a present for my birthday in years. They don't tend to celebrate them in Rutledge." She looked down at the box. "And I haven't had cake in forever," she added, the want clear in her voice. "It's my favorite."
"I should have guessed – I still remember the way your eyes lit up when I first told you about my wedding cake," Victor chuckled. "I just – I saw how miserable you were earlier, and you've always been so kind to me. . .I wanted to do something nice for you."
"Kind? I can think of at least two occasions when I've been nothing but nasty to you. You're better than I deserve, Victor." Alice got to her feet and walked over to him. "But really – getting me that cake, and then scolding one of my hallucinations. . . ." She smiled again. "That's the sweetest thing anyone's done for me in ages."
"I was happy to do it," Victor said, feeling warm all over. On impulse, he added, "You should smile – really smile – more often. You have a lovely smile."
"I could say the same for you." Alice tilted her head. "Speaking of which – when's your birthday?"
"Oh, you d-don't have to do anything for me–" Victor began, rubbing the back of his neck.
Alice poked him in the chest. "You've known me for a month. You should know by now I don't like being told what I can and can't do," she told him, her smile turning into a playful smirk. "Birthday. Now."
Victor laughed. "Yes ma'am. It's June 9th. I'm about a month younger than you."
"June? Really?" Alice squinted at him. "I would have sworn you were a winter child. You're too pale for summer."
Victor shook his head. "We all look like this in Burtonsville, Alice. I don't know why."
"Obviously, your village has forgotten what the sun looks like." Alice nodded. "June 9th. I'll remember. Even if I forget everything else, I'll remember that." She made a move like she wanted to embrace him, hesitated, then extended her hand for a handshake instead. "Thank you again. You're – you're a really good friend."
Victor shook, feeling another wave of warmth from the contact. "So are you. Happy birthday, Alice. And enjoy that cake."
"Oh, I will. If the vultures don't come circling first," Alice said, looking around him. Victor glanced back to see a few children peeking into the hall, greedy gleams in their eyes. "You saw how they were when you brought that in. They'll be begging me soon for 'just a taste. . . .'"
"I'll keep them distracted," Victor promised, turning away from her. He clapped his hands together. "Would you all like to hear about the Ball & Socket?"
Greed turned to curiosity. "What's that?"
"It's a pub Downstairs. . . ." Victor started as he herded the children back into the front foyer. It felt rather weird to volunteer himself as storyteller. And he had no doubt this latest tale would just get him teased even more for loving dead people. Plus a lecture from Dr. Bumby, should he catch them. But. . .he looked over his shoulder and saw Alice give him one last, brilliant smile. He grinned back. To see her look so happy –
It was worth it.