Lander took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and stretched his back, reaching his arms as high as he could. He felt his spine crack, and yawned demonstratively. He’d put in a few good hours of writing and for the first time in the last few weeks he felt like he was finally getting some work done.
Writing for ten-year-olds wasn’t as easy as it sounded. The story had to be educational enough to entice their parents to buy the book without making it too obvious to his readers, who expected a good story with lots of suspense, mystery, and adventure—and a healthy dose of escapism.
Escapism was just what had brought Lander to this old Victorian house owned by his great-aunt, who’d recently been moved to a convalescent home. He’d needed a nice, quiet place to focus on his writing. Too bad this creaky old house was far from quiet, despite sitting on a hill overlooking the small town below with no neighbors close enough to throw a stone at.
His first night there, he’d just settled himself on the couch with a good book when he’d heard a commotion upstairs. Despite his somewhat geeky appearance, Lander wasn’t the fearful type. He’d ventured upstairs only to trip over the suitcase he’d deposited there earlier. After struggling off the floor, he’d managed to find the light switch and discovered a window had blown open. After a few days he knew there was something wrong with that particular window because it seemed to open itself of its own accord every time Lander turned his back, including once in the middle of the night… although Lander had told himself it was the howling wind that had made the latch click open.
The stairs had a knack of creaking and Lander was sure there were mice in the place, although it could have been rats too, something he preferred not to think about. To drown out the noises in the house, Lander got in the habit of turning on the radio as soon as the sun set. It was an ancient thing that had never heard of FM, so the only station he could pick up without too much static was a local classical station that played Mozart and Bach and Handel. Somehow, this helped Lander concentrate. On the few occasions he wanted to return to the twenty-first century, he took out his MP3 player, but then he would never get much writing done.
He’d just finished a particular hairy chapter, where his protagonist had engaged in a race with his friends through a haunted house while being chased by bloodthirsty ghosts. Now that they were safe again, Lander decided he deserved a cup of tea. He hummed a tune to himself as he filled the kettle and smiled at the noise the old pipes made. This house certainly had its charm, but he doubted he could live there full-time. He was, after all, a city boy, and he thought the quiet of the country would drive him bonkers if he stayed there too long. For now, though, it was the ideal place to write a ghost story.
Lander dipped the teabag into the scalding hot water until it looked just the right color—still transparent, but a little darker than the average pee—and then grabbed two cookies and his mug before turning around. He almost dropped his cup when he saw a flash of something move past the door to the living room. This was ridiculous. He’d only been there four days and he was already seeing things? With some trepidation, Lander walked from the kitchen into the living room and almost tripped over his own feet.
In the chair next to the fireplace a young man was sitting with perfect posture, his legs neatly together. His long, dark hair was tied low at his neck and his clothes looked positively ancient.
Lander was a history major, so he didn’t have a hard time recognizing the clothes as Victorian. He tried to think of a reason the stranger would be walking around in fancy dress, but all he could come up with was that this young man must have gotten lost on his way to a costume party.
“Excuse me?” Lander asked. “How did you get in here?” He was sure he’d closed the front door and as far as he knew, everything else was sealed tighter than a drum.
The young man looked over at Lander and rose from the seat. Before Lander could take a good look at him, he bowed with a straight back until his nose almost touched his knees.
“Young master. I beg your pardon. I hope I did not startle you. I expected Miss Angie to be here. I always visit her Saturday evenings.”
“And you are?”
“Again, I offer my apologies for my bad manners. I am Squire James St. John Fortiroy-Smythe. Are you related to Miss Angie?”
Lander smiled at the way the young man said his intricate name without even blinking. He must have practiced in front of the mirror quite a few times, because he played his role perfectly.
“Welcome, James,” Lander replied, deciding to play along. “That still doesn’t explain how you entered this house. Most of it was boarded up when they took Nana Angie to the hospital.”
“Oh, dear. Is she not well?” James’s open and smiling face had turned tense and lined with concern. “I hope she will recover?”
Lander tried to convey his sympathy. “She’s old and needs someone to take care of her. She couldn’t stay here by herself anymore, but before my family sells this place, they offered me the chance to stay here a while, to make sure it doesn’t stay unoccupied.”
“I see,” James replied softly.
Lander wasn’t sure what had made him divulge such information to a complete stranger, but there was something endearing about James’s concern. Despite the distrust bred into him by years of living in a big city, Lander felt comfortable talking to James.
“I will miss her dearly,” James continued. “Miss Angie was a wonderful lady. She told such imaginative stories, about large birds that carried hundreds of men and women to far-off lands and about waterfalls and rivers with water rushing through them and splashing up delightfully.”
Lander couldn’t help thinking what an amazing actor James was. His voice had a sort of cultured old-English flavor to it, with lots of antiquated words, but it was also in the way he held himself: his feet close together, back totally straight with his shoulders squared and his neck elongated and proud. He cocked his head when he spoke and didn’t gesture with his hands at all; in fact, he held them slightly behind himself, as if he’d been taught to stand that way. His clothes, though old, looked better than any costume Lander had seen, since they looked like they were actually worn and not kept in a garment bag filled with mothballs for most of the year. James’s straight dark hair framed a very handsome face with sparklingly bright midnight-blue eyes, and he sported a hesitant smile.
It wasn’t until he noticed James’s patient demeanor that Lander realized he was staring at the young man. Most guys he knew would have something to say about a man staring at them and almost none of the comments would be nice, so Lander averted his eyes and put his tea mug on the coffee table just to have something to do. Although Lander could feel James’s eyes on him, James remained silent.
“Would you like some tea?” Lander eventually asked, his own patience not quite up to par with James’s, especially because James remained standing.
“No, thank you,” James answered. “But thank you for your kind offer.”
“Very well,” Lander said, feeling decidedly uncomfortable. He stared at the now murky liquid in his mug and decided to walk back to the kitchen for a fresh cup. On the way there, his questions returned. James hadn’t answered how he’d gotten inside the house. Where did he come from? As inconspicuously as possible, Lander tried to look back into the living room. James was seated again, this time on the edge of the couch as if he might need to leap up again as soon as someone reentered the room. Again, the way James was sitting caught Lander’s eye. He knew nobody who sat so rigidly straight, knees together and legs at a right angle, with his hands on his knees. The pose just wasn’t of this time.
Maybe James wasn’t of this time? Lander shook his head. Any explanation along that line was ridiculous. How could he not be of this time?
The whistle on the old-fashioned kettle brought Lander back to reality. At least James was polite and seemed harmless, although wasn’t it considered bad manners in Victorian times to decline an offer of tea? Lander shook his head and smiled. Maybe he’d found a flaw in his visitor’s research after all.
When he returned to the sitting room, James was gone. Lander put his cup down and turned on more lights, expecting to find the stranger lurking in some darkened corner, but the room was empty and the rest of the house eerily quiet. Just to be sure, Lander checked the countless locks and latches and found them all untouched. With some trepidation, he went back to his writing desk and opened his laptop to write, completely forgetting his tea.
Although James didn’t reappear over the next few days, Lander had a hard time forgetting him. Eventually, he gave his great-aunt a call.
“Nana? It’s Lander.”
“Land.… Oh, Lander! Hi, darling. How’s my house doing?”
Lander chuckled. No questions about his well-being, just about her dear house. “Everything’s fine, Nana.”
“You are keeping all the doors and windows locked, aren’t you, dear?”
“Yes, Nana, and I’m here to keep any intruders at bay. Don’t worry. I just have one question. Do you know a young man named James?”
The other side of the line went quiet. “I don’t think so, no,” his great-aunt replied in a rather flat voice.
“He’s about my age, I think. Dark straight hair tied back with a bow and in Victorian clothes?”
“What is it, Nana?”
“You met my ghost.”
“Your… ghost?” Lander swallowed. There was no such thing! And weren’t ghosts supposed to be see-through or even invisible? Dammit, what was he thinking? Ghosts didn’t exist!
“Yes, dear,” Nana Angie replied. “James died more than a hundred and fifty years ago. I’ve lived in that house all my life, and ever since I can remember, he’s visited me on Saturday nights. At first he would come to my room, but later on, after my parents had died, every Saturday night he’d appear in the sitting room.”
Lander swallowed again. This couldn’t be true. “That’s where I saw him. He said he was a squire?”
“Yes, I believe he came from a good family. Didn’t have a very good life, I’m afraid, but that’s not for me to tell. You should ask him. I wouldn’t want to betray his confidence.”
“Come on, Nana, if he’s been dead for over a hundred and fifty years, I don’t think he’d mind.”
When Nana Angie didn’t immediately answer, Lander could almost see the smile she sported when he didn’t understand certain things that were obvious to her. She’d always been a bit eccentric, he thought.
“Lander, darling, even ghosts—or should I say, especially ghosts—deserve our respect. He could teach you a few things about manners and etiquette, if you ask me.”
“Yes, Nana. So how are you doing?” Lander asked her out of politeness, although he knew she would go on and on about how much she missed her house. After ten minutes or so, she ended by telling him that there were ways to rid a house of ghosts, but that she had never done so, because a benevolent ghost was much better than no ghost at all. In fact, she admitted that James was the reason she missed her house so much.