Welcome to October
CHAPTER
4
A Drop Dreadful
X was a letter Nyx knew very well. It was a sort of marker— a marker for an end. Like the end of a relationship or the end of her name. Or the end of an individual. Thanks, Nyx was sure, to extenuating excuse.
Mrs. Down was ending. Nyx could see the X on her, clear as day. Ex-busybody, ex-funeral director, exceptional recluse. Nyx barely got the chance to talk to Mrs. Down who spent the past month malevolent sleepwalking about the Home, here for a moment, and then gone. Like the dead. Having dealt with death, Nyx did not believe in ghosts. Not exactly. But the absence of Mrs. Down and Clara in the Upstairs was haunting her horrifically. So much so that seeing Mrs. Down appear in the doorway of the Display Room startled her half to death.
Nyx had been sleeping in one of the caskets. It’d been custom made and inspired by Clara: a suitcase. To send one home. But perhaps sleeping in coffins did something terrible to one’s mind. Perhaps it brought you a little too close to the other side. So close you thought your guardian to be an undead host.
Nyx scrambled out of the casket and slammed it certainly shut. But when she turned to the door frame, no one was there. Perhaps she’d been working too hard, Upstairs alone.
She thought, for a moment, she’d imagined things.
But then she heard a shuffling of slippers, a sniffing of snot. So she turned. And she saw the X.
“Good morning, Mrs. Down,” said Nyx approaching a Stained Poplar model, similar to the one carrying Clara. The sound of rain rinsing the roof of the Down Funeral Home gave Nyx a drop of courage. She went for a smile. It did not feel right when she did it— never did— but Mrs. Down looked at her for a moment, just long enough to catch her in the act.
She smiled sort of, too.
“Good morning, Nyx,” said Mrs. Down aloud.
These were the first words Nyx had heard her speak in thirteen days. Nyx had counted. And Nyx was counting the time Mrs. Down had bumped into her and mumbled, “Sorry.” So Nyx tried something else she wasn’t very good at.
She tried to have an actual conversation.
Looking at the ceiling as if she could see straight through it to the storm-infested sky, she said, “It’s lovely weather we’re having.”
Mrs. Down’s smile fell. “Mmm,” she concluded.
Nyx pointed to the coffin before them. “Last week, at Mrs. Things’ service stressful, it was raining quite a bit. But this was the make of the casket she was buried in. It’s very good.”
Mrs. Down had been running her hand along the lining. But she stopped.
“Very good,” repeated Nyx.
Thunder echoed off the hills of October as both Mrs. Down and Nyx looked at the doorway, and then turned, in sync, to the coffin again. The silence between them was long and palpable. Thunder roared just to break the barrier. Nyx cleared her throat and tried to talk. Again.
“Leila and Dr. Down have gone out to fetch Mr. Mann.” It’d been a while since they’d left and with Evie sleeping at all hours odd, it was up to her to mind the Home. But that wasn’t news these days. Mrs. Down barely nodded to confirm that she’d heard what Nyx had said. Nyx played with her hands, rubbing them together restlessly.
“They’ll be back any moment,” she reported. For a moment, Mrs. Down didn’t move. “Won’t be long now,” added Nyx to the ceiling somehow see-through.
But when she looked down again, Mrs. Down was gone.
Mr. Mann had had an accident awful. Reading, he found, could be decisively dangerous. Especially while driving on a road near a cliff.
Mr. Nu hadn’t seen him as he couldn’t see around bends. And one moment, both cars were in the one lane; the next, one car wasn’t on a lane at all.
For a moment, Mr. Mann had been flying.
Then gravity helped him to the ground.
“Detective Abe called it ‘an event egregious,’” finished Leila.
Dr. Down chimed in, finally ridding himself of all of his wet things. He picked up a towel and used it to dry Leila’s hair while she took tea from Evie. “I believe Detective Bee offered ‘a fall flabbergasting.’”
“Let me guess,” added Evie while serving Nyx. “Detective Abe countered ‘a goof grave.’”
The three of them laughed, but Nyx couldn’t quite bring herself to join in. It’d seemed a drop dreadful. And only she knew how hard it was to put a body in the ground.
After the collective laughter had died, Evie sighed. “At least his is an injury intriguing,” she said as she poured herself a cuppa. Nyx and the others turned to Evie, curious as to what she meant, but too uncomfortable by the words themselves to ask. Unfazed, however, Evie bit into her first biscuit. She looked either thoughtful or entirely empty-headed, depending on the angle Nyx glanced up at her. “ Finally,” expressed Evie, “I’ll have to actually put some effort into something. And I’ll show you...” She sipped her plain, black tea, with a pout. “I’ll show you just how useful it is to have me.”
Leila pulled a face at her sister, but Nyx knew behind it, she was smiling. “ Right,” she groaned. She ruffled Evie’s hair and Evie practically screeched trying to stop her. “What in the world would we do without you?” Leila asked without letting up.
Dr. Down sipped his own cup of Earl Grey with milk and two sugars, which Evie had set out especially for him. “I don’t know...” he started sneakily, “but she does make a fine cup of tea.”
Then, for the first time in weeks, the Down Home was LOUD. Evie demanded apologies, Leila refused to relent, the two of them began running and chasing and shouting, and there was laughter. Laughter loud and loose and laborious from Dr. Down and the two Mortimer miscreants. And even Nyx let out a snicker when Leila fell on top of Evie and Jinx meowed to referee. But she was afraid to give much more than her crooked smile, certain they were breaking some rule or other by having the slightest bit of fun when Clara was out in the rain somewhere and Mrs. Down was—
Right behind her.
At first the others didn’t notice, but Nyx could sense the X. The hairs on her neck went prickly as a shadow fell over her like a shroud.
Thunder roared over the hills of October as Mrs. Down in her slippers silent and nightdress neckless placed both hands on Nyx’s shoulders. Stein barked and Nyx stifled a scream by merely jumping. The others finally looked over and up.
“What on Earth is going on here?” demanded Mrs. Down.
The morticians Down and Mortimer were faint and four, and they all turned to Mrs. Down, out of breath and smiling. Nyx’s smile was forced and falling, but she tried to blend in so Mrs. Down wouldn’t care to single her out.
But Mrs. Down had already picked her as the spokesperson special. Mrs. Down tapped her foot as Nyx slunk slowly away to join the others.
Well?”
Nyx played with her hands, twisting them this way and that. She thought of her favorite coffin. “We, um...”
“What,” snapped Mrs. Down. She crossed her arms and her face followed. “Spit it out then, go on.”
Dr. Down’s smile slipped slightly, too. “Constance, Darling,” he started. He made toward her, but her glare stood him still. The mood had been extinguished. He straightened his glasses. “Would you like some tea?”
Mrs. Down and her demeanor disapproving did not want tea. “I’d like some quiet if you don’t mind,” she said. She sniffed like she smelled something funny, or was trying really hard not to cry. The rain beat against the roof, crying in protest. Mrs. Down turned to leave. “So loud in here today...”
Nyx and her sisters exchanged uneasy looks with Dr. Down as his wife shuffled slowly back toward the stairs. And when Mrs. Down stopped for a moment, silence stayed among them as they watched her— all aware most abjectly of the X.
Thunder roared filling the sea of stillness. A steady pit, pat of rain seemed to leak into the Down Home turned quiet house. For a moment, they all stood listening and watching Mrs. Down stare at the base of the step.
But thunder roared again.
Then the pit, the pat, and Mrs. Down were gone.
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