"So Leslie and I have something of an announcement to make..." Tammy began, taking a sip of her tea and waiting until she had everyone's full attention. It came naturally with parenthood. It was amazing how transferable some of those skills were to dealing with the rest of the group. Nine just smiled at her, watching on with that same warm, undemanding pride that made her heart sing.
It was Constance whose patience unsurprisingly ran out first.
"Yeah? What is it?"
"We've... bought a place. You know, out of state. Nine can work from anywhere, and the house I'm in now... well it would be easier if we sold it and split the proceeds with James. We've found a nice small town out in Michigan with a great local school, and there would be great opportunities for me being close to the major border crossings. Obviously you'll all be welcome any time but..."
"That's amazing Tim-Tam! Congratulations! When will you be moving?" Debbie exclaimed.
"D'yeh need any help with the packin' an' everything?" Rose asked.
Nine Ball reached out to cover Tammy's hand, smiling with love as Tammy blushed a little.
"Where is it exactly?" Lou asked, smiling.
"Oh it's just this little town called New Zebedee. Cute name, right?"
"That is a cute name," Daphne agreed, and Lou and Debbie exchanged a look, both frozen in place for a moment as a chill passed down their spines.
Tammy stared between the two of them.
"Are... you two okay? You look like someone just walked over your graves..." She laughed awkwardly, trying to defuse the tension, and it was Debbie who cracked first, shaking her head in an awkward jerk.
"Oh, no, no, just... I think we... road tripped there, once, or went through it, or something. Nothing important. Though I think it used to have a good diner."
"It still does! We stopped in when we were viewing the house. It's a gorgeous house, the most beautiful weathered shade of deep purple, on the main street but a little way up the hill... the house next door looks like it's straight out of the Addams Family, it's the strangest thing!"
Lou's throat felt like it was coated in sand. She swallowed, trying to conjure up enough moisture to speak as her stomach turned over.
"...Yeah. Sure sounds like it. Well you'll have to let us know when you get settled. We'd love to... come by and visit."
Moving day had been stressful, but they were finally getting things unpacked and getting settled in. Tammy had to say she was relieved by how well Derek and Ceri seemed to be adjusting to everything. And her heart skipped every time Leslie walked past her, always finding a way to steal a brush of contact. They'd spent so much time living together before, but it hadn't been... quite real, hadn't been the same as this. Leslie had always had her own place to go back to. And now... well, now they were really building something together. And Tammy still felt like a blushing schoolgirl every time Leslie smiled or winked at her.
The house was perfect, really, and the older man who lived next door had already been over to deliver a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He hadn't seemed at all fazed by the fact that they were an interracial lesbian couple - he had shown them both pictures of him and his wife, and Tammy had been surprised to see that they'd been a mixed couple too.
"She died a few years ago now, but we had a good life. I'm sure you both have a good life ahead of you too. Just let me know if you need anything."
He'd paused a little, hands on his hips, and shaken his head with a smile.
"It seems fitting really, the couple who lived there before you were lesbians too - that is the right word now, isn't it? It wasn't really what they used but language changes. They had a long happy life too, it's hard to think of a better sign."
And weirdly, Tammy thought he was right. She just wished she could shake the feeling that there was something else in the house with them, that they were being watched. It didn't feel threatening, kind of the opposite, but she was sure that things were moving that she didn't remember moving, and sometimes there was a smell of freshly baked cookies in an empty room.
They'd been there a week, and the feeling wasn't shifting, so she eventually grabbed her phone and hit speed dial.
"Hey Tim-Tam, how's the new place?"
It was amazing how Lou's laconic voice made the panic go out of her immediately.
"Hey... it's good! It's good. It's really nice, and the neighbour is this sweet old guy who makes really good cookies, but-"
"Really? What's his name?"
"Barnavelt, I think? Lewis Barnavelt. Anyway. I..." she dropped her voice, "I know it's not really something we've talked about much but I know you... and kind of Debbie... you both have a kind of... well... I think there's a presence here and I don't think it intends us harm, kind of the opposite, but it's still kind of disquieting and I don't know how to... I don't necessarily want it gone I just want to be able to kind of... make peace with it? And you... are the only person I know who knows about things like that. I know you don't... I'm sorry I shouldn't have called, I just-"
There was a long silence, and Tammy's knuckles went white where she was gripping the phone while she tried to steady her breathing.
"...We'll come down at the weekend?" Lou said eventually, a note of something Tammy didn't recognise in her voice. "If that works for you?"
"Yeah, we should have the spare room set up by then."
"Is it the one at the front, looking out over the street?" Lou asked, her voice sounding faraway, and Tammy took the phone away from her ear and stared at it for a moment.
"...Yes, it is... How did you... did I show you the floorplan?"
"What? Oh, yeah, must have done. See you Saturday? You'll be okay till then right?"
"Yes, we'll be fine. See you Saturday. And thanks, Lou."
"Any time Tim-Tam."
Lou waited for Tammy to hang up, then took a deep breath, hissing it out through her teeth.
"Shit. DEB! WE NEED TO TALK!"
It was a beautiful Saturday evening when they arrived. It was still light, and there was only the barest hint of autumn in the air and in the trees.
Lou pulled up and shut off the engine, then looked over at Debbie, reaching to cover her hand.
"Hey. You okay?"
Debbie took a deep breath.
"I'm not sure, honestly. This is... weird."
"This is very weird," Lou agreed.
"I mean, there are coincidences, and then there's..."
"Whatever the fuck this is," Lou agreed.
"I suddenly feel like I'm fifteen again and I hate it." Debbie pulled a face, and Lou smiled despite herself.
"Yeah. Same. But I think we... owe it to them. Not just to Tammy and Leslie but-"
"Right. Yeah. No. I agree. And maybe we should... say hi to Lewis."
"You think he'll remember us?"
Debbie rolled her head around, looking pointedly at Lou.
"You don't think someone would remember two random time travelling teenagers crashing into their life for a few weeks when they were ten?"
"...Point taken. I don't know how I feel about being back here."
Debbie pulled a face again.
"Honestly? Guilty, mostly. I feel guilty. But hey. I guess we should stop speculating and go inside."
They both got out of the car, trying not to look towards either house, and then the squeak of the front gates made their heads jerk around and there was a slight, hunched figure there, with grey wispy hair and a big smile.
"...Lou? Debbie? Is that really you?"
It was Debbie who closed the gap first, with Lou close behind, and the hugs were tighter than they would have thought possible because this wasn't an occasion that words could handle.
Leslie shifted her weight, canting her hip to one side and drumming her fingers on her lips as she watched what was happening out on the street.
"What's going on?" Tammy asked on her way past, doing some last minute tidying. "Any sign of them yet?"
"Ya coul' say that..." Leslie hummed, and nodded out of the window. "Can ya think o' any reason why Lou an' Debbie woul' be havin' such an emotional moment wi' our new neighbour?"
Tammy stared, eyes wide, and slowly shook her head.
"... I have no idea."
"Well, guess we'll fin' ou'..."
"So... this is really strange, but some friends of ours have moved into... well, the house, and they were saying they thought they could feel a kind of presence, and we... haven't kept up with anything at all, not really, but... well Tammy called us and asked us to come down, and we didn't really-"
"We couldn't say no," Lou finished quietly, and Lewis nodded, the light in his eyes bringing youth back to his face.
"They're a lovely couple. I always thought that Florence and Carol would have liked that their house had so much love and life in it again."
"She said you brought them cookies," Lou managed, trying to swallow around the lump in her throat, trying for words that didn't exist.
Lewis nodded, a slight bittersweet tinge to his smile now.
"Of course I did. And yes they were. You can't improve on perfection."
"Do you think-"
Lewis considered it for a moment.
"I'm not sure I'd picked up on anything in particular, but there's nothing that worries me. I know what evil feels like, and there's nothing of that about that house. Quite the opposite."
Debbie nodded, taking a deep breath.
"Okay. Good. Okay."
His smile grew a little mischevious.
"Maybe you coming back is just what the house needs..."
"No pressure then," Lou grumbled under her breath, and he laughed.
Both of them squeezed his hands, and he squeezed back, all of them feeling as though the years had rolled back.
"...But does this mean you might come and visit more often then?"
Debbie blinked, surprised.
"...You mean... you'd want us to?"
"If you'd want to?" Lewis asked, looking hopeful. "I never forgot you, you know. I don't think any of us did."
Debbie swallowed and nodded.
"We never forgot you either. Any of you. And... I'm pretty sure we've been spotted, so we should probably head in, and try to come up with some kind of explanation as to why we just had an emotional moment with our friends' new neighbour."
"I'm just a friendly guy?"
"I don't think that's going to cut it somehow..."
"You'll come up with something."
"Hello! Hi, we're here, we made it!"
They were trying for normal when they finally knocked on the door and were invited in, it was easy to scoop up Ceri and Derek and laugh along, using them as convenient shields to avoid any awkward conversations.
It was Leslie who managed to get a moment with Lou alone.
"Ya gonna tell me how you two seemed ta know our neighbour so well?"
Lou paused, considering it, though part of her was grateful that Leslie was just tackling it straight on.
"...That's a long story that might need to wait depending on how the rest of the evening goes."
"Okay I guess I can accep' tha', so, what's your plan?"
"I guess probably dinner with the kids and then put them to bed, and since we're trying to figure out if there's an energy or a presence or something, probably hold a seance. Nothing super formal or creepy, but the easiest way is to ask, right?"
"Righ', that makes sense," Leslie agreed.
"So I'm guessing Tammy's told you about her suspicions then?"
"O' course she has. An' I ain' about ta tell her she's wrong abou' it either."
Lou nodded, and Leslie met her eyes steadily.
"So this story, this have anythin' ta do wi' how you know wha' our house looks like inside?"
"Can' wai' ta hear all abou' it."
"Are you okay with the plan?"
"It's the bes' we got. An' it makes sense. You got my backin' on this, for wha'ever tha's worth."
"Okay so what do we need... do we need a ouija board or anything?"
"No we'll be fine with the piece of paper. It's got the same layout and everything. We can start with knocks and things anyway. We just need a candle, and then we can turn the lights off and sit in a circle."
"Are you sure about this?" Tammy asked nervously, and Debbie tried for her best, most reassuring smile.
"Yeah. Don't worry, it's gonna be fine."
"Yeah but you lie. You lie a lot."
Lou snorted and lit the candle while Leslie turned the main light off.
Debbie glanced over at Lou and whispered in an undertone, "Are you sure about this?"
"No, but what choice do we have? Are you doing this, or-"
"No it's all good you can do it."
Lou sighed and settled back in her seat.
"Alright everyone, sit in a circle and join hands. Focus on the candle and just think about keeping the energy inside the circle. Don't break the link. I don't think anything's going to go wrong, but if it does, it'll be easier and safer if we keep it inside the circle. We'll think quietly for a few minutes, and then I'll... open the connection and see if anyone wants to join us."
"If there's anyone to join us," Tammy muttered, and Debbie's eyes flicked to Lou.
"...I'm pretty sure there'll be someone to join us."
"Spirits of this place, we greet you. Tonight we gather to seek guidance from the spirit world. We wish to know you, and make peace with you. If there is any spirit present, please make yourself known."
An unmistakeable knock sounded from the middle of the table, and several pairs of eyes flew open to stare first at it, then each other.
Lou looked around them all, a warning in her face as she took a deep breath and continued.
"Welcome spirit. Thank you for revealing yourself to us. We are here because among us there are the new owners of this house. They can sense your presence and wish to communicate with you. Are you part of this house?"
"Are you willing to listen to them?"
Another knock, and Lou nodded at Tammy.
She took a deep breath, and when she spoke, her voice shook.
"Um... hello there... you have a lovely home... and we're hoping we can share it with you... I... my name is Tammy, and the kids... the children upstairs are Derek and Ceri. They're my kids. It's... nice to meet you?"
She glanced at Leslie and Lou nodded. Leslie picked up the cue seamlessly.
"I'm Nine Ball. I got another name too, bu' I prefer Nine Ball. Guess you'll hear the other one bein' aroun' the place though. We don' mean you no harm, an' if we can come to some agreemen', then we ain' about ta kick you out either. So I guess tha's wha' we wanna know firs'. Do you mean us any harm?"
Two knocks this time, and Debbie could have sworn they were somehow more emphatic.
"Okay. Then I guess we ain' got a problem. Don' suppose you got any treasure or anythin' hidden somewhere you migh' wanna be pointin' us to?"
Two knocks again, though there was a brief pause before them, and Debbie could have sworn she could hear whispers on the edge of hearing.
"Well thanks anyway, guess i' was worth a try."
"Oh it certainly was,"
The head popped out of the centre of the table, and all of them jumped back in their seats, though Lou and Debbie held on to both sets of hands with white knuckles to keep from breaking the circle.
"Well I must say it's nice to see you girls again. We thought we might never see you again, until the afterlife. I mean technically for us this is the afterlife, but still-"
The head was pulled suddenly out of sight, and the whispers on the edge of hearing became clearer.
"You're being ridiculous, stop messing around with them like that, it's not nice."
"Oh and I suppose it was nice of them to never so much as look us up or try to call?"
"They had their own lives, that was all we ever wanted for them!"
Debbie and Lou exchanged looks, and Lou managed a half smile.
"Starting to wish I had a hand free to facepalm right now."
"That makes two of us."
The head popped back out of the table, followed by the rest of the body, and Carol floated down to sit between Debbie and Tammy, patting Debbie incorporeally on the arm. She was quickly followed by Florence, still looking exasperated as she floated to sit between Leslie and Lou.
"It's so nice to meet your friends! We really couldn't have asked for a better couple to get the house, and it's so nice to have children around the place again. It really is a great place for children. You're very welcome here."
"We're very sorry for disturbing you, we certainly don't mean you any harm. We'll do our best to watch over you and the children until it's time to move on."
"Right," Tammy said, nodding vaguely, her voice distant, "Right, and when... when will that be exactly?"
Carol and Florence exchanged glances and shrugged.
"Probably when these two catch up with us.
"Have you seriously been waiting for us this whole time?" Debbie burst out, suddenly feeling guilty beyond words, and Carol's expression was gentle but tinged with sadness as she tilted her head to regard Debbie.
"We just wanted to know you were safe."
"That's what parenthood is," Florence agreed, and Debbie ducked her head, a lump suddenly in her throat.
"...Would it be okay if we visit sometimes then?" Lou asked, and both Carol and Florence nodded. Then Lou looked at Tammy and Leslie for permission, and Tammy nodded too.
"I suppose that'll have to be enough," Carol sighed, and Florence chuckled a little.
"That same lament has been sung by every parent since time immemorial. It would be nice of you to visit sometimes, and we'll take good care of your friends. Perhaps you should introduce us in turn now?"
"Right, yeah. I knew I was forgetting something. Tammy, Leslie, this is Carol Aird, and Florence Zimmermann. I guess you live in their house now."
"We live in your house now," Carol corrected, and Tammy looked grateful.
"It's nice to meet you," Florence agreed,"And I'm sure we'll get along swimmingly. Now, perhaps we had better be going, I think you might have some conversations of your own to have now."
"Nice to meet you," Tammy nodded, and Leslie agreed.
"Yeah. Lookin' forward ta talkin' ta you again soon."
Both of the ghosts waved and then stepped away, disappearing into nothingness.
The light came back on overhead without any of them touching the switch, and Lou leaned forward to blow out the candle, flexing her fingers and shaking out her hands as they finally released their handholds.
"Well that went well," Debbie said with a bright smile, and Tammy turned slowly to stare at her, eyes wide. Debbie shrugged. "Well it did. You're haunted but by nice people who will probably just make sure you're all safe. What's not to like?"
"What, and I say this with the deepest amount of respect due to the age of our friendship, the FUCK."
"...Well this is going to be a long night," Lou sighed, and Leslie nudged her, tilting her head in the direction of the little home bar. Lou nodded, accepting the offered drink with something that migh thave approached dignity. "Okay, so this kind of started back in the 90s..."
"Part of it," Debbie cut in, and Lou nodded.
"Right, part of it started in the nineties. The rest of it... well... let's have a drink, and we'll try to make sense of it."
"I hate you both so much."
"Love you too, Tim-Tam."
"We love you too."