In The Land of the Dead
"So, when I get in the door, here's the picture waiting for me – Mum, Claire, and Nettie absolutely covered in flour, Nora soaked from waist to shoes, and Gladys laughin' her head off over on the side. First thing I can think of to say is, 'You lot know that Halloween isn't til next month, right?'"
Lizzie giggled madly. "Oh dear. . .what did they have to say for themselves?"
"Well, Nora was too busy tryin' to dry herself off, Gladys was already cacklin' too hard, and Claire and Nettie were just about ready to bolt for the closet to hide. Mum, though, she shot right back with 'You're home so rarely you might be a ghost yourself! We're just trying to make you feel welcome!'" Bonejangles laughed. "Always knew the perfect comeback line, my mum."
"My mother's capable of some caustic wit herself," Lizzie grinned. "You should hear her opinion on Proverbial Philosophy."
"That one of those fancy-learnin' books?"
"Yes, and as dull as dishwater. One of our tutors insisted that we try it. I couldn't make it past the first chapter, and Alice fell asleep when Papa read her a few pages." Lizzie shook her head, full of fond sadness. "Of course, it was a fight to get Alice to look at any book that didn't have pictures. To her, the brightly-colored nursery volumes were the be-all and end-all of literature."
"Same way in our house," Bonejangles said, leaning back and pushing his hat over his eye. "Though for different reasons – we couldn't afford anything with 'Philosophy' in the title. I learned to read off penny dreadfuls and Dad's paper. Only my younger sisters got nursery stories, thanks to me finally bein' able to earn a shilling or two delivering stuff or sweeping people's steps."
Lizzie clucked her tongue sympathetically. "Oh dear. . .everything you tell me of your life makes it sound terribly hard. I'm sorry."
"Oh, don't be. Sure, I had to earn my keep almost as soon as I could walk, but at least I didn't get stuck on a factory floor, or down a coal mine. And you learn to make your own fun with what you got. Broom handles and dust buckets made pretty good swords and knight helmets. Plus Dad once came home with a pretty nice hobby horse for us all ta share. Pretty sure he filched it, but ya don't worry about that when you're small." Lifting his hat slightly, he rolled his eye to the other socket and winked. "'Sides – if I hadn't gotten that job in a tavern when I was fourteen, I wouldn't have tried learnin' the piano, or figured out I got a thing for music, or decided to strike out on my own with my own style. Which means I wouldn't be here talkin' to you, and since I'm enjoyin' myself. . . ."
"So am I." Lizzie leaned back and looked up at the indigo sky. "I haven't had such a nice afternoon since I could go out walking with Alice."
"Oh, so I'm like your little brother now?"
"Hardly – having you and Alice as siblings would have driven me to distraction!" Lizzie teased. "Besides, you'd have to be my big brother – I think. You are older than me, right?"
"Only just – twenty to your eighteen," Bonejangles informed her. "Though I bet I've been twenty for longer. . .died in 1852, if you're curious."
"That's three years before Alice was born! You're ancient compared to me!" Lizzie poked his shoulder. "You should be on display in a museum."
"Oi, do I look like one of those weird lizard things they've been digging up Upstairs?"
"Well, with that jaw of yours. . . ." Lizzie giggled as she dodged a swat from his hat. "Come on, you know it's true!"
Bonejangles's only reply was turning his head and pretending to ignore her. Lizzie stuck her tongue out at him and returned her gaze to the sky. Twilight as usual, with that faint edge of brightness to indicate it was day. Imperceptible to living eyes, most likely, but those dead who still had an interest in keeping track of the time learned how to pick it out soon enough, along with the slight deepening of the shadows to signal night. A poor substitute for actual sunlight and moonlight, but Lizzie had learned to make do with what she could get.
And what she'd gotten lately was a surprising amount of happiness and laughter. Ever since that night at the Hip Joint, not a day had gone by where she hadn't seen Bonejangles at some point. She'd bumped into him the next afternoon at the coffee shop (gulping down a cup of pure blackness to combat his hangover), and after a brief conversation, Lizzie had suggested they meet again the next day at the bench where they'd first met. Bonejangles had readily agreed, and it had been their usual haunt ever since. They spent a lot of time just telling stories about their lives, swapping tales about mischievous sisters and the best way to escape an undeserved punishment. Bonejangles had been very impressed with her tree escape from her room; likewise, she'd been fascinated by his ability to fast-talk his way out of trouble. They also brought books to share, Lizzie reading favorite passages aloud to him while practicing her new talent with Shadow Play. Even Oliver Twist was fresh and new again with the help of their silhouette actors. How'd she'd managed twelve years without the spell, she could barely imagine.
Her parents were thrilled with her developing relationship – though they'd never said anything, Lizzie knew they had worried about her shutting herself away so much. Her mother was already talking tea invitations, while her father was suggesting he show off some of his photography to the singer, just two men alone. Secretly Lizzie thought that Arthur probably wanted a chance to size Bonejangles up and make certain that he wasn't another Angus Bumby in disguise. She couldn't blame him – the imp in her head wasn't putting in quite so much unwanted commentary, but it hadn't gone completely silent either. Ever so often there was a little hiss that she needed to beware, needed to be ready. . . . Even when just sprawled on the bench like this, with him at her side, there was a faint tension to her frame – the merest hint that, if anything went wrong, she was ready to cut and run. It irritated her, but she couldn't give up the habit. Not while the memory of shining glasses and clammy fingers lingered in the back of her brain.
Right now, though, the shades of her past seemed far, far away. Lizzie glanced over to see Bonejangles still sulking. "Oh come on, you can't have taken it that personally."
"Hmph – women," Bonejangles replied, still not looking at her.
Lizzie sat up straight and folded her arms. "Now what's that supposed to mean?"
"You're the one being a brat," Bonejangles said, finally turning his head. "I'll have you know this jaw looked just fine when I was alive."
"You'll have to draw me a picture, because I surely can't get my head around it," Lizzie told him, smirking. "Your bottom teeth are at least a foot away from your front."
"The girls Upstairs called it dashing," Bonejangles said, snapping his fingers on the brim of his hat to give it a rakish tilt. "Couldn't go anywhere without somebody telling me I looked like just the guy they'd been waiting for."
And suddenly those shades weren't so far away after all. Lizzie regarded him through narrowed eyes. "Had a lot of girlfriends, did you?"
"Wouldn't call 'em that," Bonejangles replied. "You can't keep up with that kinda stuff on the road. Just, you know, flings. Or maybe you wouldn't know, guess that doesn't happen much in your part of the world."
"Not usually," Lizzie said, remembering a few of the rumors that had flown around about Ned Ferrars and Katie Winks not long before she'd died. "So no one special in your life?"
"Nah – only went after girls who didn't mind a quick roll in the hay, no strings attached," he said, waving a hand. "Never led anybody on about what I wanted, cut 'em loose right away if they started hinting about more." He noted her sour expression. "Yeah, yeah, I know – 'loose women' and 'oughta settled down.' Heard it all before, didn't care then, don't care now. Not like I got anything against settlin' down, but I never met the right girl. And–" He gave her an awkward shrug. "You know how it is. Guy gets – urges."
Urges. The word entered Lizzie's ears, traveled straight down into the center of her belly, and flashed into hot anger. "Oh yes, you lot get urges," she growled, hands tightening on her dress. "Maybe you're nothing but urges."
Bonejangles blinked his single eye. "Uh–"
"And when you get those urges, you don't care tuppence what the girl thinks," Lizzie continued, eyes narrowing to slits as the fire inside her grew. She'd really wanted to give this creeper a chance? Told you so, the imp giggled. "You just want what you want and you don't care from whom you get it."
"Is – is this some weird way of asking me if I paid for it? Yeah, fine, couple of times, what's the–"
But Lizzie was beyond hearing at this point, beyond even seeing his overly-large jaw and bowler hat. "And it doesn't matter if the girl's said no, if she's made it abundantly clear that she does not like you, that she thinks you're creepy and horrible and deserve to fall over a cliff–"
"Hey, wait a minute–"
"No, you just go ahead and take what you bloody well want and don't give a damn how it affects her even after you said you loved her because the only person you really care about is yourself–"
"What the hell–"
"You'd just hold her down and tell her she was asking for it and then threaten to shut her up as she tried to scream for help–"
"You stop right there, Liddell!"
Lizzie's mouth snapped shut. Bonejangles was abruptly right in her face, the shadows hiding his skeletal smile. "Don't you goddamn dare accuse me of that shit!" he snarled, eye smoldering. "Every time a girl and I had a tumble, it was because we both wanted one! If she said no, I backed off!" A long finger jabbed itself into her ribcage. "You forget I have eleven sisters? You wanna know how often I was scared half to death I was gonna come home and find one of them cryin' – or worse – 'cause some asshole decided he was gonna take advantage of her? I cut half my trips outta town short just so I could check on 'em! In fact, that's the whole reason I was in that stupid thunderstorm that sent me down here! And the main reason I was so pissed off about dyin' wasn't so much that I was dead, as much as now my sisters and Mum had to fend for themselves! And yeah, Mum was tough as nails, but there's always some scumbag – I had nightmares for a week after hearing Emily's story! Terrified Claire or Nora or Gladys or even June was gonna end up the same way! Still am, honestly! And now you're gonna sit there and accuse me of being like that bludger?!"
"I – I – I–" Lizzie babbled, clinging to the arm of the bench. Oh God, her feet wanted so badly to run. . .maybe that would be better, he was bloody scary when he shouted. . .she'd already ruined things, why not just leave. . . .
"God damn it, I thought we were gettin' along!" Bonejangles continued, finally leaning back. "But no, one bad word. . .do I really look like the kind of guy who'd–"
Silence struck like a knife as his expression went from furious hurt to thoughtful. . .and then a slow, sympathetic horror. He ground his teeth together. "Oh shit. . .uh, Liddell? Something – something you didn't tell me about the way you died?"
It was the way he said it, she decided later. That tone, so genuinely concerned and sad. . .it just brought it all whirling back. She stared at him for what seemed an eternity, trying to master the swell of emotion inside of her. Then she burst into tears, burying her face in her hands.
For a while, there was nothing but the stabbing hurt of her own grief and pain, still so sharp even after just over a decade. Then she became aware of a light, hesitant pressure on her shoulder. Sneaking a peek through her sobs, she saw Bonejangles resting his hand there, more awkward than she'd ever seen him. Part of her appreciated the attempt at comfort, to the point of wanting to throw her arms around him and soak his ribs straight through. But the other part – the part the imp lived in – was intensely sensitive to the fact that he was a man, and was equally enthused with the idea of shoving him off the bench and watching his bones clatter everywhere. She settled on remaining where she was, concentrating on getting the flow of tears to dry. "I'm – I'm sorry," she whispered as she finally regained some measure of self-control. "I d-didn't mean to. . .it's only that. . .I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Bonejangles told her, pulling his hand back to scratch his skull. "Uh – I'd offer ya a hanky, but I stopped carrying one around the time I stopped needing clothes. . .and I don't think my hat would do your face any favors if ya tried to use it like that."
Lizzie surprised herself by laughing – weakly, but still. "I'm fine," she assured him, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "This – this display hasn't happened since – well, it hasn't happened in twelve years. As you might have guessed."
"Look, ya don't hafta tell me anything," Bonejangles said, pushing his bowler so far forward she could barely see his eye. "I just – it hit me all of a sudden you were talkin' like it. . .it ain't any of my business."
Lizzie almost took the out – then she thought about his rage just moments before. "No," she said, straightening her spine. "It is. Or, at least, I made it such with those cruel accusations. I'm so sorry, it's just – as you might expect, certain words tend to set me off."
"Yeah, my fault for usin' 'urges. . . .'" Bonejangles tipped his hat back up a little. "You're sure you're okay with tellin' me?"
"I wouldn't use 'okay,' but – well, you've more or less guessed what happened anyway, haven't you?"
Bonejangles sighed, the air hissing through his bones. "Bastard who burned your house down?"
"Named Angus Bumby," Lizzie confirmed. "He was one of the undergraduates at Oxford – and easily the most arrogant of them. We met for the first time at a tea my father held. It was love at first sight for him, loathing at first sight for me. I was his obsession within days. I did everything I could to dissuade him, but he just kept coming back for me, insisting that we were 'soulmates,' 'meant to be together. . . .'" She shuddered. "Once he even followed me into the ladies' toilet at the train station! My parents were dears and tried to help me, but. . .well. After Papa told him in no uncertain terms that I was never going to be his by choice. . .he decided I'd be his by – by force."
Bonejangles clenched his jaw. "So he–"
Lizzie nodded, gripping her skirt so tightly she was surprised her fingers didn't rip right through the cloth. "Snuck into our house one cold November night and took me by surprise. Held me down, had – had his – had his w-way with me. . .and then, when I wouldn't stop trying to fight back. . .he s-strangled me to death. My last memory before waking up down here is g-gasping for air like a beached fish while he glared at me and called me a tease." One hand rubbed her exposed spine. The memory of his fingers there was still so clear. . .what good was getting rid of the marks on her body if she couldn't destroy the ones on her mind? "Then he stole my sister's nightlight and – and set the house ablaze to kill the rest of my family and cover his crime."
"Damn," Bonejangles mumbled. "And you said he got away with it, right?"
"Managed to trick everyone into believing our cat Dinah was responsible," Lizzie said, voice low and disgusted. "Though I suppose it's better than them accusing Alice, as they were going to. . .he's a doctor now, can you believe it? He actually passed his exams, and – God, I don't even want to think about how many lives he's probably ruined with those clammy hands and that swollen ego."
"Me either," Bonejangles growled. "Damn, and here's me thinkin' Eddie-Barkis-whatever was the worst of the lot. . .they thought your sister did it at first?"
"Apparently – our own family lawyer said something about her playing with matches," Lizzie grumbled. "I can't believe they might have actually put her in gaol. . . ." She bit her lip, fingers drumming out a beat on her wrist. "On the other hand, maybe it would have been better than the alternative."
"Better than an orphanage?" Bonejangles asked incredulously, tilting his hat to give the appearance of a raised eyebrow.
"No – better than Rutledge Asylum."
"What?! Wait just a damn second, you said she was, what, eight when you died?"
"And nine when she went there," Lizzie nodded, each word like a knife in her heart. "They do put children in there. Children are born there – there's a former patient here in town, I can take you to meet her if you like. We met her when we went there on our second anniversary dead, and – and she told us Alice either just stared at the ceiling or – or shrieked about how it was all her fault and that she should have died too. . . ." She squeezed her eyes shut against a fresh wave of tears. "My poor little sister. . . ."
"I'm not complainin' about how I died ever again," Bonejangles declared, putting his hand back on her shoulder. "That's just – wow. But she – she can't still be in there. . .right?"
"That's the thing – we don't know!" Lizzie cried, finally meeting his eye again. "What papers we've been able to find have been silent on the subject, and Oxford's not close enough to the asylum to hear anything from the newly dead. . .and I don't think I could set foot on the grounds again. You think it's hard not knowing about your family? I'd give all the flesh left on my body to have a chance to go up there and check on her! Make sure she's gotten the life she deserves!" She clamped her fingers around his wrist. "You're sure the only way up is beyond our magic?"
"I heard it from Elder Gutknecht himself, and he knows about this sorta thing," Bonejangles told her. "Tower fulla books and a lifetime of studying this stuff behind him."
"But – it's not fair," Lizzie said, voice choked. She turned away, taking a few deep breaths to master her emotions. "You got to go Upstairs again. Why can't I?"
There was silence. And then, suddenly: "Yeah. Why can't you?"
Lizzie blinked and looked back at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"If the Elder was willing to send all of us up for a wedding, surely he wouldn't mind sending just you up to see your sister, right?" Bonejangles said, pushing his hat straight on his skull. "I mean, ain't like you're plannin' on going on a rampage, just seein' how she is!"
"I – you – you really think he would?" Oh God, she was trying not to get her hopes up too fast, but the traitorous flame was already fanning itself into a proper blaze. . . .
"He's a real nice guy, our Elder," Bonejangles grinned. "Didn't have to let the whole party go up, ya know. Coulda just been Victor and Emily and him – though I guess that wouldn't have worked out for anybody in the end. . . ." He shook off the brief dark cloud passing over his face. "Ain't the point – he can be strict, but he's got a soft heart. You tell him even half of that story, and he'll be pulling out as many phoenix feathers as he can find, I bet."
The fire leapt up in joy. "Oh Bonejangles!" She flung her arms around him, making him start. "Thank you! Thank you!"
"Eh, eh, don't thank me yet – we gotta see the guy!" Bonejangles told her with an awkward laugh, patting her back.
"Oh, right, right – how long do you think it would take to bring him here?" Lizzie asked, pulling away and straightening out where her dress had snagged a little on his bones.
"Er – well, it took us a few months to wind our way up here, but we were taking the long road," Bonejangles admitted. "Probably wouldn't be more than a month going straight up and back. . .but, uh, ya know. . .would be a lot quicker if I took you to him."
"Oh. Yes, it would, wouldn't it," Lizzie said, fiddling with her wrist again. "I'm sorry, I – it's just – I haven't left Oxford in so long. . . ." She looked around the park. "Honestly, this is the most I've been out of my house in years."
"Ain't sayin' you gotta go alone – I'm willin' to let your mum and dad come along for the ride," Bonejangles assured her. "And if you really don't wanna pull up your roots, I ain't got no problem draggin' him here. The Elder's one of those old, crusty skeletons, but he don't fall apart that easily."
Lizzie chewed the inside of her cheek, considering her options. On the one hand, the idea of leaving Oxford was frightening. The first thing that popped into her mind was that decade-old trip to Rutledge – and Earl's bloated face, smirking at her at the end of a darkened corridor. There's all sorts of Earls and Bumbys out there, the imp reminded her, stalking around her skull. All sorts of men who don't give a damn what a woman thinks. Maybe you got lucky with this one, but how quickly would your luck run out if you left? Do you want to be ripped apart and left to rot once again?
But I wouldn't be alone this time, she argued. I'd have Mama and Papa and Bonejangles and the Bone Boys! They'd protect me from anyone who wanted to hurt me! Hell, I'd protect me! Don't you remember what I did to Earl the moment he started leering? Any man who comes near me with bad intentions isn't going to know what hit him!
Having Mama and Papa near didn't deter Bumby.
They were asleep! We were all asleep! And the bastard kept me from screaming! Don't you think Papa would have come running if he'd heard? And we'll have five other men traveling with us besides – and if Bonejangles was a pub musician in life, surely he knows a thing or two about brawling! She huffed slightly. Maybe I'd feel different if we were headed to another city, but we are going to a little village in the middle of nowhere according to him. There cannot be that much danger out there.
Except for the murderer who visited twice. Why do you want to trust this man?
I've been over this before – he's nice. He treats me just the same as everyone else. He listens to me. He's taught me something that makes all those hours reading in my room so much more fun. And now he's offering me the chance to see Alice again. I don't care how scared you are – I'd be a fool to turn that down. "I'll go," she said firmly, looking him right in the eye. "We'll have to ask my parents, but – even if they turn you down, I'll go." She smiled nervously. "Besides, I always wanted to see more of the world beyond Oxford and London. Maybe we could stop by Brighton on the way – we were supposed to take a family vacation there the summer after we died."
Bonejangles snorted. "I've been there – it ain't that great. Boardwalk's fun, though." He twisted his neck from side to side. "Okay! Let's go see your folks, and then I'll tell my Boys we're shippin' out."
"Sounds good to me," Lizzie said, standing. "They won't mind leaving, will they? I'm not interrupting any shows?"
"Uh, no." Bonejangles coughed and looked away. "We played our last gig at The Hip Joint three days ago. Chauncey's been on my back to get movin' again, but – um – I've been having such a good time with you. . . ."
All right, she had to be blushing this time, no matter how impossible it was. "I see." Well, that was an – interesting confession. If any of the undergraduates had said something like that to her, she would have cut them dead with a derisive snort and a comment about how their talents were being wasted. But now. . .looking at his surprisingly shy expression, hat low over his face again. . .it made her stomach flip over in a strange, but not entirely unpleasant, way. He really liked her that much after a mere week? Then again, I'm willing to travel to a strange village with him after the same amount of time. . . . "Um – thank you?"
He laughed, breaking the tension. "Hey, thank you. You're the one who's good company, Liddell."
She grinned. "You're not so bad yourself." He really wasn't. . .she mentally snapped her fingers, making a decision. "And you know, you don't have to call me by my last name. Almost everyone Upstairs called me Lizzie. Except my parents when they're angry and – well – him."
"Lizzie, huh?" Bonejangles rolled his eye into the other socket. "Nice. . .but you look more like a 'Liz' to me."
"Liz?" She giggled, then contemplated it more seriously. "You know, I think I actually like it. Liz it is." She jerked her head toward the road. "Now come on, Bonejangles – the sooner we talk to Mama and Papa, the better."
Lizzie blinked, caught off guard. "What?"
Bonejangles was in that awkward pose again, hat now nearly covering everything but his lower jaw. "Sam," he repeated, back to sounding shy. "That's the name I was born with – Samuel Thatcher. Well, it's my middle name, but my first is so stupid I don't ever go by it. So – yeah." He shoved his bowler back up and shrugged. "Since – you know – you're Liz now."
Lizzie got the feeling she'd been let into a most private club. A pleasant puddle of warmth filled her belly. How the hell could she have ever considered him anything like that arse Bumby? If only you'd been alive when I was – and closer to my age, she thought, sighing softly. It would have been so nice having male company around the house that didn't disgust me. . .but that's life – and death – for you. "All right – Sam." She offered him a hand. "Let's go see how my parents feel about your idea, why don't we?"
Bonejangles took it and hoisted himself to his feet. "Sounds like a plan, Liz."
"All right – let me get this straight. You know someone that, despite all laws of nature, can send us back Upstairs."
"Just for a little while, but yeah," Bonejangles confirmed, tipping his head slightly.
"And he lives back in your hometown and doesn't usually leave."
"He's pretty ancient – mostly keeps to himself in his tower."
"But you're willing to provide transportation should we want to go plead our case before him."
"We got plenty of cash, and we're used to hiring big cabs," Bonejangles nodded. "Adding three more to the list wouldn't break us."
"And you're sure that we'd get there by the end of August?"
"Probably sooner – ain't like any of us actually need to stop to eat or sleep or – well, the other big thing," Bonejangles censored himself with a chuckle. "And we'd be going direct, instead of hitting every little town on the way."
"Okay then." Arthur clapped his hands together, expression very serious. "One final question."
"Why on earth are we not packing already?"
Lizzie burst into laughter, and Bonejangles snorted. "You'd have to tell me, Mr. Liddell."
"Even the dead can't do two things at once," Lorina answered her husband with a bright smile, before turning it on their guest. "Oh, Mr. Bonejangles, I don't know how to thank you!"
"Aw, it's nothin' – Liz told me a little about how you guys cacked it, and – well, I'd feel like a real heel for not offerin', ya know?" Bonejangles said with a careless wave of his hand. "And you don't have to call me 'Mr.' Bonejangles – does it really sound like a name that needs that?"
"I don't know – I think it makes you sound like a proper gentleman," Lizzie teased him.
"All the more reason not to use it," Bonejangles chuckled. "But yeah – after I heard the story, I – it – what happened to you guys. . .'specially poor Liz. . . ."
Arthur and Lorina's amused and excited expressions faded into shock. "What – did – Lizzie, did you tell him?" Arthur asked, turning to his daughter.
"He kind of guessed," Lizzie said, fidgeting and pinching the loose skin on her wrist. "The subject of his own romantic life came up, and – I went off on him unfairly."
"Blame me using a stupid word," Bonejangles said, fiddling with his hat brim. "But, uh, yeah, I know as much of the whole pile o'shit as she decided to tell me. Never thought I'd hate anybody more than the guy who killed Emily, but this blower takes the cake."
"I hope you understand that that information is meant to be a family secret," Arthur said, straightening up with a severe frown. "And that if any of your band members get any ideas–"
"I'll bang him over the head myself," Bonejangles informed him, bringing down a fist for emphasis. "Swear on my honor as the older brother of eleven girls. Shouldn't be an issue, though," he added, ignoring the way Arthur's eyebrows shot up at the word "eleven." "Teddy and Danny were married and haven't had their heads turned again yet, Chauncey's a self-proclaimed bachelor for life – and death, and Raymond – well, he's like Chauncey, but for a different reason, I think."
"And if any of them were inclined to chat me up, I think one look at you would stop them in their tracks," Lizzie commented, ignoring the imp rattling the bars on her brain. Never stopped Bumby, never stopped Bumby!
"I would hope so," Arthur growled, then relaxed. "I'm sorry, Bonejangles, but under the circumstances–"
"Totally understandable," Bonejangles assured him. "I ain't never been a father, but – like I said, older brother. Can't imagine it's much different."
"I would guess not – especially with eleven sisters, good God. . . ." Arthur stared into the distance for a second, then shook his head. "All right, so – where exactly is this Burtonsville of yours? The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I know I've never been there."
"Isn't that where the fish cannery is?" Lorina asked. "The one that was getting so popular about the time we died?"
"Couldn't tell you about that – I probably kicked it before it was built," Bonejangles said. "But if you get me a map, I can show ya."
As Arthur fetched an atlas and Bonejangles began outlining his preferred route down to the village, Lorina rose and tugged at her daughter's hand. "Could we speak in private for a moment, Lizzie?"
Puzzled, Lizzie allowed her mother to pull her over to the other side of the room. "You're really all right with going on this trip?" she asked quietly, hands on Lizzie's shoulders and eyes full of motherly concern. "He hasn't coerced you in any way? I – I know it's a chance to finally see Alice again, but – this is rather out of character for you."
"Being friends with him in the first place is rather out of character for me," Lizzie retorted. "But all he did was make the offer – even said that if I was too uncomfortable with the idea of going with him, he'd go and bring the Elder to us. And he was the one to say that he was happy to bring you two along. I know it's a bit strange of me, but – he's different, Mama. He's – he's the sort of man I wish we'd had hanging around the house instead of those rotten undergraduates. He listens to me, he jokes with me, he doesn't leer or make – well, he makes rude comments, but not about me. Even after our bad moment, I don't feel particularly scared of him. He's got a frightening shout, but – he's also got a very comforting hand." She smirked. "Besides, I thought you liked him already."
"I do, but – it's a mother's prerogative to worry, especially when her daughter. . . ." Lorina sighed. "I'm still having trouble believing you told him the whole story."
"Well, I didn't get into detail, of course. . . ." Lizzie rubbed her leg under her skirt. "But – he'd already gotten an inkling, and I felt bad for accusing him of being much the same. . .and he was friends already with a girl who lost everything thanks to a cruel and wicked man. He's probably the only man besides Father I'd trust to know. Actually, he's probably the only man besides Father I trust period."
"M doesn't count?"
"M and I had a working relationship – and besides, it's rather different when the other party is a maggot," Lizzie pointed out. "Not to mention he never actually asked about the bruises. He may not have had the best manners, but he likely considered it too awkward."
"I would." Lorina tilted her head, lips pursed thoughtfully. "You know, at first I was a little concerned with you keeping company with a man who sang in pubs, but – you've practically been aglow this week, Lizzie. Out of the house every day, laughing and smiling. . .back to your old self."
"Almost," Lizzie replied with a grin, tapping her exposed spine for emphasis. "But it's been wonderful. I've missed having someone my own age to talk to. Even if technically he should be twice that. . .but no matter. He makes me feel – alive again. It's – nice."
Lorina smiled back warmly. "Just nice?"
Something about the way her mother said that – tone just a little too tender – set off an alarm in Lizzie's head. "It's not like that," she protested, the imp making gagging sounds. "We're friends. That's all." She gave her wrist another quick twist. "He hasn't tried anything at all along those lines, and – I'd certainly be hiding back in my room if he had."
Lorina's smile faded. "True enough. . . ." she mumbled. "My apologies, Lizzie. It's just – even twelve years dead, a few motherly instincts are still going strong."
"It's all right, Mama," Lizzie said, giving her a hug. "I understand. But you'll have to be content with a gentleman friend who's simply that."
Lorina squeezed her, then gave her hair a playful ruffle. "Even still – a gentleman friend is a big accomplishment for you." She held her daughter at arm's length again. "I'm proud of you, Lizzie. Even if he is a pub singer, he's a good man, it seems."
Lizzie took her mother's hands in hers. "I'm glad you approve." Then her expression turned wicked. "And trust me – should any of his Bone Boys try something, I'll snap them apart and scatter them to the four winds."
Lorina smirked. "Now that's my girl."
"Well, it looks reasonable enough to me," Arthur declared, getting their attention. He beckoned them over to look at the route Bonejangles had sketched in pencil. "A little twisty-turny in spots, but it still should get us down there before the summer's out."
Lorina frowned curiously, tracing the line with a finger. "We're skipping London entirely?"
"Yeah – figured you guys wouldn't want to get caught up in anything from the big city," Bonejangles said, tilting his head and rolling his eye from left to right. "Why, you wanna stop in?"
"Maybe just for a day – London is – well, it's where Rutledge is," Lorina admitted reluctantly. "And it's the source of most of our newspapers. It might be a good idea to ask around the asylum if anyone's heard anything." She looked up. "After all – what if there's a time limit on how long we have Upstairs? I don't want to waste a moment looking in the wrong place."
"Oooh, yeah, good point. Elder was talkin' about having to be back by sunrise for Emily's wedding. . . ." Bonejangles picked up the pencil and adjusted their route accordingly. "I don't mind stopping by. Anybody else?"
"Not me – that is a good idea, Lorina," Arthur nodded. "No stone left unturned."
"So long as I don't have to set foot in that nasty building again, I've no objections either," Lizzie agreed, repressing a small shudder. "So when do we leave?"
"First thing tomorrow, if you want," Bonejangles declared, rolling his eye left to right. "Not like me and my Boys have much to pack."
"Neither do we, honestly," Arthur admitted. "Shall we say about seven?"
"Eh, seven-thirty might be better," Bonejangles admitted, voice a touch embarrassed. "Chauncey takes a bit to get movin', especially if he's had a few the night before."
"Seven-thirty then." Lizzie succumbed to impulse and gave him another hug. "You really are the best man I've ever met."
"'Course I am," he said, putting his jaw in the air. "Surprised it took you this long to figure out."
"I'm a slow learner." Lizzie gave him a squeeze, then stepped back. "'Til tomorrow morning, then."
"See ya then, Liz." Bonejangles tipped his hat to Arthur and Lorina. "And you guys too. Thanks for having me over. And don't worry. Sam" – he winked at Lizzie – "will take good care of her."
With that, he ambled out the door. Arthur and Lorina exchanged a puzzled look. "Sam?" Arthur echoed.
"Well, you didn't think his Christian name was Bonejangles, did you?" Lizzie asked, giggling. "Sam Thatcher. He told me it right before we came here."
That suspiciously tender look returned to Lorina's face. "Did he. . . ."
Lizzie rolled her eyes. "It's not like that, Mother," she insisted.
"I'm sure it isn't," Lorina said, smiling. She clapped her hands. "Well – if we're leaving straightaway in the morning, best to get our packing done now, right?"
"Capital idea," Arthur said. "Won't take more than a minute anyway, I've just got to throw an extra suit or two in my bag."
"I'd better figure out which books I haven't read to death," Lizzie said, heading for her room. "And choose a halfway decent dress."
"Have you still got that blue one that matches your eyes?" Lorina asked.
Lizzie paused in the doorway, eying her. "The one you had made when we were discussing my first proper foray into the Season?"
Lorina shrugged, grinning. "You want to look nice for the Elder, don't you? And perhaps a few other people?"
"Oh Mama. . . ."
"It is the gown that survived the fire best," Lorina said, a little more seriously. "Really, Lizzie, you looked lovely in it. You should give it another try."
"I'll think about it." Lizzie shook her head with a sigh as she escaped to the stairs. Mothers. . .ah well, I suppose I can stand a little wittering. Just so long as she understands it's all for naught. Bonejangles may be nice, but – friendship is all I'd ever want from him.
. . .That said, she does have a point. That dress probably is the best I own for visiting. . . .