Silas frowned, craning his neck in an attempt to determine who Winnie was talking to. With a sinking feeling, he saw that there was no one else in the cottage. He also realized she was looking directly at him. “You can see me?” It came out as more of a yelp.
“Of course I can see you! Who are you? How did you get in here!” She pushed herself to her feet, keeping her distance, and a wary eye on the stranger. Trying not to attract his notice, she slipped her hand into her back pocket, reaching for her phone. “You need to get the hell out of here, right now,” she snapped, “or I’m going to call for help.”
He spread his hands in a show of helplessness. “I would if I could, but I’m afraid that’s not really an option.” He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, then muttered, “How is this even possible?”
“What do you mean not an—”
At that moment, Ginger wandered into the room, attracted by all of the noise. She twined around Silas’ legs and then Winnie’s, causing her to shiver, before jumping up onto the bed, moving through the bench at the foot of it in the process.
“What?” Winnie’s eyes whipped back around to the man, who seemed not at all fazed by the ethereal cat. She took a moment to actually look at him and realized with a start that he, too, was not completely solid. If she tried, she could make out the sofa in the main room behind him. Then there was also the fact that his clothes and hair practically screamed that he was not of this era. He wore an off-white button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, but the cut and material didn’t look modern, nor did the suspenders holding up his dark pants which definitely looked like they’d been made before the time of zippers. His short, dark, wavy hair was shorn closely on the sides and left a little long on top, slicked back and parted in what she could only think of as “banker hair.” She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. When she opened them again, the man and the cat were still there, the former watching her with open curiosity. The latter had curled up and gone to sleep, ignoring them both. “Would you mind terribly,” she managed in a shaky voice, “telling me just what the fuck is going on?”
Silas winced at her use of profanity but didn’t comment on it. Honestly, he conceded, given the circumstances, I think she’s justified. She continued to stare at him and he shrugged. “I can try,” he said after a moment, “but I don’t know that I’ve got much in the way of answers.” He glanced around, noticing how tense she was, and decided a change of location might help. “Maybe let’s sit down, and try to figure it out together?” He gestured for the table.
Winnie thought about objecting, but decided that sitting down might be for the best. At least, if he was incorporeal, he probably couldn’t hurt her? She swallowed. I hope. “Okay. You first.” He nodded and moved to the table, just sort of sliding through the chair until he was sitting in it. Winnie blinked and shook herself, then moved to pull out the chair across from him and sat as well. “Let’s start,” she said, “by you telling me who you are.”
He nodded. “Of course. Forgive me. Silas Keye, at your service.” He dipped his head to her.
“Silas Keye,” Winnie murmured, her brow furrowing. “I know that name.” She drummed her fingers on the table, then looked up. “You were the last lighthouse keeper for the Hillis family, right? You died in the fire.”
“What, you didn’t know that?”
Silas shrugged. “The last thing I can be sure of doing while alive was preparing my evening meal. I had sliced some bread and then everything just went…dark. I woke up in my bed and smelled smoke. I checked to make sure nothing here was on fire, and then tried to go outside, but I couldn’t get the door to open. I was so worked up, I ran right through it without realizing. I could see the light of the fire at the manor, smell it burning, but I couldn’t move past my front steps.” He rubbed his face. “After that, people came to the cottage. I thought they were looking for me, but they couldn’t see or hear me. No one could, except Ginger and—”
“My cat,” he said, smiling as he pointed toward the bedroom. “She’s been the one playing with your keys, by the by. I do apologize. I try to to stop her from disturbing you, but it isn’t always easy for her being cooped up here.”
“So you, and Ginger, have been, what, trapped here in the cottage since the night of the fire?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“But you don’t remember being in the fire?”
“I had no reason to go to the manor that night. I was,” he cleared his throat, “expecting company.”
“Emmaline Hillis?” Winnie ventured a guess. “That’s who the pendant and letters are from?”
Silas nodded. “She requested a new garden be installed for the manor when she returned from her studies. I was in charge of building it, and we became close in the process.”
Winnie felt a pang of sadness at the wistful tone in his voice. It was a sweet story, although one that obviously had an unhappy ending. A thought occurred to her. “You were here in the cottage when you, er, lost track of things, right?”
“But was your body here when you ‘woke up’ later?”
Silas tilted his head, appearing to give this consideration. “No,” he said after a moment. “Not that I recall. As I said, I thought the people who came to the cottage were looking for me, but I soon realized they weren’t. They were looking around the building itself, and discussing what was to be done with it. They didn’t expect to find me there.”
“Because you were listed as having died in the fire,” Winnie mused. “I looked up the cottage’s history at the library today. I didn’t find much, but came across the articles about the fire in the process.” She tapped her fingers on the table. “But you’re stuck here. Your body wasn’t here, but it sounds like you died here. So, what, someone killed you and then carried your body to the manor?”
“Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“You really don’t know? Don’t have any ideas of someone who would want to kill you?”
“I suppose if someone had found out about my affair with Emmaline…but we were discreet. I confess I find it very odd that someone would go to the trouble to kill me and then move my body.”
“Convenient, too,” Winnie muttered, “for the fire to have been the same night.” Silas looked taken aback. “Sorry. I’ve been reading too many murder mysteries. But as far as I could tell, the source of the fire was never discovered. Maybe it’s connected?”
“Goodness, that’s a disturbing thought.”
“I can’t say I disagree.” She sighed and rubbed her face. “So, the cottage is haunted after all. I cannot believe Gary was right about that.” She shook her head and glanced up, biting her lip. “You really can’t leave? Do you want me to go? I’m guessing that’s why you’ve driven out all of the others?”
Silas looked offended. “I’ve done no such thing! Well,” he amended, “there was one truly awful fellow right after the fire. But I was still new to this whole ghost business, and hadn’t really let go of this place being mine yet, if you know what I mean. I try to stay out of the way of the living as much as possible.” He sighed. “Sometimes, however, it is inevitable they become aware that Ginger and I are here. But, truly, I don’t wish you to leave. We like having you here. You make the cottage feel like a home again. I can understand if you no longer feel comfortable, however. I realize how unsettling my presence can be. Now that you can actually see and hear me, I can only imagine that amplifies the feeling.”
Winnie slouched back in her chair. “I mean, yeah, it’s weird as hell. But…unless I want to leave the Bluffs altogether, I’m not sure I can afford to move out. I can’t get a car, and the Bluffs doesn’t have much in the way of a bus system. The only other rentals are nowhere near close enough for me to walk to work.” She rubbed a hand over her forehead, trying to stave off an oncoming headache. “I mean, I guess it’s better to know you’re here, although I don’t know why I can suddenly see you.”
“I admit, that is confounding me, as well. You walked right through me when you came home.”
“I did?” She blinked, recalling a chill as she’d barreled through the front room. So intent on pulling out the pendant and letters, it barely registered. “God, I’m so sorry. Does that hurt you?”
He chuckled. “I’m beyond pain at this point. It does feel strange, although I suspect it is more of my mind expecting it to than any actual physical sensation. Generally, as I’ve said, I can stay out of your way. It does not happen often. But you were…focused when you returned. I didn’t have the time to move out of your path.” He shrugged.
“Wait,” Winnie said, a thought occurring to her. “That draft I always feel at ankle height! Is that—?”
“Ginger? Yes. I think she likes you.” He smiled.
“Oh. That’s…that’s good.” She let out a soft laugh. “My rental agreement definitely has a ‘no pets’ policy, but since she was here long before it was drawn up, I guess it doesn’t apply to her.” Winnie grew up with cats, but Nick hated them. She hadn’t had one in years. It was nice to think about having one around now, even if she was a ghost kitty. Returning to the matter at hand, she asked, “What changed then, between me coming home and you speaking up in the doorway?”
“Did anything unusual happen?” At her arched eyebrow, he added, “Anything aside from suddenly becoming aware of the ghosts here, I mean.”
“I don’t think so. I moved the baseboard. I got out the box. I’d done both of those before—wait. I scraped myself though. I got blood on the pendant. Do you think…?”
Silas tilted his head. “Maybe. That and the letters are the only of my possessions left in the cottage. I didn’t even realize they were still here, but they have strong emotional attachment for me. When my emotions are running high seems to be when I’m most able to interact with the physical world.”
“Okay.” Winnie nodded. “So I guess that’s our working theory, at any rate.”
“May I ask what prompted you to take the cache out again?”
“Oh, well. Like I said, I was researching the history of the cottage—or trying to. Gary insisted that it was haunted but Jacob and Ronnie say it’s just an old building. I was more inclined to believe the latter, but I’ve a background in history. All of the talk got me curious about the place. Anyway, that led to me reading up on the fire. There was a picture of the Hillis family, and it showed the younger daughter—Emmaline—wearing that pendant. I thought they were the same but I wanted to be sure. I also wanted to look at the letters again to see if they were maybe signed by her.”
“They are,” Silas confirmed. From his countenance, she thought he might have been blushing, had he still been alive.
“I didn’t read them,” she assured him, reaching out a hand toward him. “I could tell they were private.”
“I know. I saw you find them. I don’t suppose there’s anything particularly racy in them by today’s standards.”
“That doesn’t make them less personal.”
“No. I suppose it doesn’t.”
“So…you saw me find them?” Of course he had. He couldn’t leave the cottage, he’d said. It would make sense that he’d been there, and she’d been acting a bit mad. He’d probably been curious. But still, it raised a concern. “Um. How much, exactly, have you seen since I’ve moved in?”
“I’m not sure what you—oh.” The confusion on his face cleared, replaced by indignation. “I’m not that sort of ghost, madam, I assure you. The bedroom is your domain. I don’t, as a rule, go in there. When you’re home, I give you as much privacy as is possible. I promise, I have not seen anything untoward.”
“Well,” she said, swallowing in relief, “thank you. I appreciate that, especially since I’m the one intruding on your home.”
“I don’t see it that way,” he said with a sigh. “The cottage that was my home has long since ceased to be, and this place is now the domain of the living.”
“Okay,” she said with a laugh, “well, I don’t know any other ghosts, but something tells me you’re unique in that. You’ve been here a hundred years, Silas. This place is definitely yours. I appreciate you being willing to share. At least now that we can talk, it will hopefully be easier to do that. Speaking of, what do you do? To pass the time, I mean?”
“I have my amusements. I listen to the radio,” he nodded toward the device on the mantel.
“I knew I heard music the other night!” Winnie, vindicated, couldn’t help but interrupt.
“Ah, yes,” he chuckled. “I hadn’t realized it was so late, or I would have already turned it off.”
“I watch Ginger play. She likes to chase the dust motes. Sometimes I’ll sit on the front steps and listen to the woods, watch the birds. Mostly, I read.”
“What do you read?” She blinked, resisting the urge to look around for a pile of ghostly books.
“Whatever is in the cottage. Usually the people who stay here in the summer bring some sort of summer reading, and often they’ll leave it here while they’re out doing things. Sometimes books get left behind, and if they’re interesting, I hide them before the cleaning service comes by.”
“You can interact with physical objects that well?”
“Oh, it takes quite a bit of concentration,” he admitted with a laugh, “but if the book looks worth it, I make the effort. I confess, I have been reading your library books, during the day and at night. It’s nice to get a steady influx of new reading material.”
“Ha! I thought the books were moving around.”
“I do try to put them back.”
“Well, I guess you don’t need to worry about that anymore.” She gave him a considering look. “Let me know what you like to read, or if there are any specific books you want. I’m happy to get you a few of your own the next time I go to the library.”
He beamed at her. “Thank you! How wonderful. I have to say, I’m glad we can talk now. I feel that it will make the confinement much more bearable.”
Winnie was surprised to realize that she was as glad as Silas. It would be nice to have some company—and not to have to worry about every weird little thing that happened in the cottage. Still. “I think it will work out, although we should probably hash out some roommate rules. You really don’t know why you’re stuck here? Why you didn’t pass on?”
He shrugged. “I really don’t.”
“No unfinished business from your life that needs resolving?”
“I was fairly content in my life, aside from having to hide my relationship with Emmaline. Even that, we both understood was necessary.” He sat back, looking thoughtful. “I wish I knew how I died, I suppose. I often wonder just what happened that night.”
“Okay,” Winnie said. “I mean. I get that. I think it would bother me too.” She smiled at him, reaching out across the table. “Maybe we can find out.”