Louise hurried down the ladder from the roof and paused to listen. The castle sounded the same, full of vague, distant echoes of movement and the hint of voices—which, now she paused to really listen to it, seemed eerie to her. She padded down the stairs, pausing to listen every so often, and turned to keep descending at the next landing.
And there was Mick, grinning, coming up the stairs, two steps at a time.
It was only when Mick passed through her outstretched hands that she realized Mick was really beyond her. After ghost-Mick had gone out of sight, up the stairs to the next floor, she stood clutching herself hard, wondering if she dared let go for fear that she would simply fly apart.
She sat down on the step under her and wept—like an old woman, she thought in her spare moments between tidal griefs, silent except for occasional moans of pain. She remembered her grandmother weeping like that after her grandfather died, while her father’s sisters had been noisily torrential in their sorrow. The law of conservation of old women’s energy, she thought.
She didn’t know how long she sat there, rocking with virtual tears dripping off her virtual chin. She didn’t know when Deniece arrived on silent bare feet, to crouch on the step next to her and put an arm around her shaking shoulders. And she didn’t know at what point she had turned her face into Deniece’s slender neck, half desperate to avoid any repeats of the ghost’s passing by and half just wanting to block out this construct of their collective unconscious.
After Louise had pulled herself together and lifted her face out into the light, Deniece said, “I saw her too. I’m so sorry.”
Louise nodded, and swallowed a hiccoughing sob. “I… guessed. She told me, last night, that she probably wouldn’t be here. It’s just so… horrible that there’s still this shadow walking the halls. Ghoulish.”
“I suppose,” Deniece said, keeping an arm around her. “Though you could look at it as a gift. A photograph. A bit of video.”
“Maybe,” Louise said. “Maybe in a while. Someday.” She sighed and shuddered a little. “Still, I suppose it’s better to remember her like… like that than as she actually was, at the end.”
“I wish I’d had something like this for my girl,” Deniece said, sighing and looking around. “She was so sick there at the end, she didn’t look like herself.”
“Yeah,” Louise said. “I’m kind of glad Mick got to see me like this instead of in my real body.”
Deniece nodded. They sat in silence for a while, Louise resting her head on Deniece’s shoulder.
Finally, Louise remembered her original purpose, inhaled deeply, and said, “Mick told me not to come back, you know.”
“She told me that,” Deniece said. “Because that crazy-ass Sheila wants to off you.”
“Do you know why?” Louise said, sitting up and watching Deniece’s face.
“Nope,” Deniece said, blinking her big hazel eyes at her.
Louise reached into the pocket of her cutoffs and found a handful of pen-shaped objects there. She pulled one out and examined it. It looked like an old-fashioned clickable ballpoint pen, but she could see a spray aperture just opposite the pocket clip. It made her feel very James Bond.
She held it up awkwardly, her index finger on the button and thumb under the tip, to show it to Deniece, who looked at it curiously. And then Louise pressed the button, feeling guilty about it despite knowing it was best, and the spray hit Deniece in the face.
Deniece reeled back, cursing and wiping at her eyes, then paused. Her virtual self froze, and even flickered, for a few seconds, like an image in a stalled video.
When Deniece’s image reanimated, she shook her head. “That was not cool.”
“Sorry,” Louise said with a sheepish half-smile.
“Still, I suppose it’s better than not,” Deniece said, putting a hand to her forehead. “There were programs in my head to make me do the whole monster-of-the-night shit?”
“Yeah,” Louise said, grateful that Penelope had, at the last minute, included what she called a “read me” file in the vaccine that provided a basic outline of what happened to the woman whose brain had been liberated.
“You got more of those things?” Deniece said.
“Yeah,” Louise said, bringing a handful out of her pocket.
The alarm bell started to ring in the distance. Louise was pleased to note that she felt absolutely no compulsion to run toward it—that suggested that Penelope’s work was holding. But she stood up. “This’ll be a good opportunity to spread the joy, I guess.”
“I’m down with that,” Deniece said.
Deniece trotted downstairs a little ahead of her. Louise cringed inwardly every time they turned the stair, half-expecting to see Mick running up past them, but no more data ghosts haunted her.
At the first floor, Deniece stopped cold, turned, and said, “Shit, girl, give me some of those things and run.”