Welcome to October
CHAPTER
7
A Guest Grave
It wasn’t exactly surprising to find Mrs. Down in a panic most pressing. The more surprising thing to Nyx at least was finding her guardian up, dressed, and coming in— from having been out.
“Leila!” Mrs. Down’s call carried through the entrance empty. She threw off her coat. She did not hang it up.
Curious, Nyx thought, watching Mrs. Down run into the kitchen from the banister. “Lei-la!” Mrs. Down yelled in a manner mannerless. Curiouser, still.
Finally, after checking under the front table, inside the closet, and around all of the Down Home’s Ground Floor bends, finally Mrs. Down ran into Nyx on the stairs. If Nyx hadn’t been so confounded, she might have paid more attention to Mrs. Down’s face flushed with fear.
But Mrs. Down had grabbed Nyx’s shoulders. Nyx was more concerned with the relationship between gravity and her grip.
“Have you seen Leila?”
Nyx nodded, hoping to be released for good behavior. She wasn’t. So she added, “Downstairs.”
There was a moment in which Nyx could have sworn Mrs. Down was a statue. Her eyes bulged and her face paled. The rest of her, however, was surprisingly still.
Then Mrs. Down appeared to be dancing. She shot up, quite straight, then paced this way and that. She swung her arms back and forth, first together, then apart. She bobbed her head to some inaudible beat. She wrung her hands a few times. She turned and stomped her feet.
“Are you alright, Mrs. Down?”
“Yes I’m fine.”
Nyx wasn’t so sure.
Perhaps Mrs. Down had enjoyed herself so much last night that it seemed a shame to stand in one place for too long. She couldn’t even keep her eyes in one spot. They kept flitting fitfully between Nyx, her feet, the ceiling, and the Downstairs’ door.
Mrs. Down let out a sigh. “Oh Nyx!” she exhaled, too. She threw her arms around the now-youngest Mortimer. She spent a moment— a whole moment— breathing there. Right over Nyx’s shoulder. For a moment, Mrs. Down rubbed Nyx’s back and squeezed her tightly. For a moment, Nyx wasn’t sure what to do.
Then the moment was over and Mrs. Down turned to look over the banister, again at the Downstairs’ door. She was no longer gripping or squeezing, but she still kept a hand on Nyx’s shoulder. All this touching surprised Nyx. It was new.
“She’s definitely down there?” Mrs. Down asked the door.
It was Nyx who answered, “Sure.”
Mrs. Down nodded numbly. It took her a while to get to the door. “Okay then,” she said to no one in particular. It was curious, Nyx couldn’t help thinking. Mrs. Down continued nodding into the Tunnels, out of view.
Leila loved the Downstairs. Almost as much as she loved her sisters, the Downs, and their Home. There was something about being underground that was exciting. The Tunnels that led from the Down Home to the morgue ended somewhere no one but a mortician would care to work. It was thrilling, Leila thought, to work under the Old Mausoleum.
The morgue was clean. Sterile and cool. White walls and squeaky floors. Quiet. But the room next door never was.
Dr. D’s study was vibrant. Loud. He liked colors and noises and Leila loved them, too. She loved the whirring clocks and the whizzing machines and the whistling radios housed in Dr. D’s den delightful. They helped dim the ruckus in her head, helped calm her thoughts. Right now that’s what she needed. To not be thinking. For once.
She sat on the floor of the office, holding her knees to her chest. Jinx sat right beside her, trying to comfort her by not falling asleep. Though Jinx was fighting a losing battle, Leila didn’t exactly mind. She was glad to have the company. Sleeping or not.
Then out of the blue, someone called her name.
“Leila!” she heard Mrs. D call. She jumped. Was Mrs. D here? Downstairs?
The Mortimer matron called again. “Lei-la!”
“In here!” Leila returned, quickly. Jinx ran to the door, curious to see if someone would really be coming through.
You see, there was no protocol for what to do if Mrs. D came Downstairs. She vowed never to set foot in the tunnels. She’d never come to the mortuary before. But Mrs. D was all about protocol. She was all about order and rules. Unsure of what to do, Leila hurried to stand, brushed off her knees, and fussed at her hair. She thought back to earlier this morning. If Mrs. D had come Downstairs, she must be something frightfully furious.
For sure she would be punished. She wouldn’t be let out of the Down Home ever again. What was Mrs. D’s one rule when going out?
Behave.
And Leila hadn’t, had she.
Mrs. D entered the study looking haggard. Disheveled and undone. Leila prepared herself for a scolding scandalous. And just after visiting church. Perhaps if she hadn’t run off, Mrs. D would’ve talked with the Reverend. Perhaps she would’ve thought twice before she went on a whirl.
Oh, Mrs. D looked a sight sordid, but when she flew into the study she hardly shouted. Sorta smiled.
“Oh Leila, you’re alright!” Mrs. D yanked Leila to her chest and squished the young Mortimer into a kind of hug. “After what your father told me... The stoplight scenario... I was worried as a warthog! What if something happened to you? Never, never, never-ever scare me like that again!”
Leila had a second to gasp for air. Only one.
“Are you alright, my love?” Mrs. D wanted to know.
“I’m fine, now, just fine,” Leila assured her. But Mrs. D still rubbed at her cheeks, examining her all ways round.
“Why’d you run off on me, Child!”
Leila knew it. As soon as she told Mrs. D the truth, she’d be done for. Caput. There were no excuses for misbehavior. Not even running into the relatives of ghosts.
“I just...”
Mrs. D raised her eyebrows.
“Was just...”
Mrs. D cocked her head.
“Surprised,” Leila decided. “To see a stranger in October. That’s all.”
Mrs. D seemed unsure. “That’s all?”
“That’s all.”
“You’re sure?”
Leila nodded. Her guardian exhaled deeply. Relieved. Oh Mrs. D still looked sad Leila noticed. But not as sad as she had this morning, yesterday, or the day before. And after a moment, Mrs. D did something completely out of recent character.
Mrs. D smiled.
Perhaps Leila wouldn’t be punished after all.
“Good,” said her guardian in a tone terribly taut. Mrs. D smoothed her skirts and her eyes followed her hands until she suddenly looked Leila dead in the eye. “‘Cause I’ve invited that boy to dinner. May we be strangers no more.”
Leila’s heart must have stopped. She must’ve turned a purple plum.
Mrs. D’s eyes searched hers.
“Are you alright, Child?” she wanted to know.
“Yes I’m fine,” said Leila testily. She hoped, for the first time, that Mrs. D would ask after her tone. But if Mrs. D noticed, she didn’t question it. Only nodded and held her hand out to the now-shaking Mortimer.
“Fine,” said Mrs. D. “Let’s go.”
Evie could not remember the last time they had a guest who wasn’t dead or crying. She also could not remember the last time she’d seen their Leila mad. But for the first time in what must have been forever, Mrs. Down had cooked dinner. A boy was sitting beside her at the table. And Leila looked livid.
Evie tried to get an answer from her sister. An answer to the unspoken What’s wrong? floating ‘round. Mr. Mrs. Down seemed worried while Nyx looked on intrigued. Only Mrs. Down and the boy seemed determined to politely ignore Leila’s silence sore.
Mrs. Down seemed to thrive off of questioning him. Evie hadn’t seen her so active since the morning of Clara’s collapse. She didn’t seem normal— not busy and bustling like their mettlesome Matron Down— but definitely determined to finish the interrogation. Definitely something. But whether that was “suspicious,” “elated,” “curious,” or something entirely else, Evie was want to know.
If the boy thought the Down-Mortimers odd, he was certainly well-mannered enough not to say so. He worked on second helpings whilst Nyx blinked blankly at his face, whilst Mr. Mrs. Down kept throwing furtive looks between Leila and Mrs. Down, and whilst Mrs. Down showered him with query after query... Evie was not as well-mannered, though. She stared down her family gape-mouthed and squinty-eyed.
“Are you the only child?” Mrs. Down wondered as she cut into her poached.
The boy refrained from eating his fork full of fish. “I am the only surviving Graves, yes.”
“But your mother—”
“A Thorne, mum.”
“She never took your father’s name?”
“Thought it sad, mum.”
“And she never remarried?”
“Not as of yet.”
“Is she here in town with you?”
“No, mum.”
“So you came with her permission?”
“She couldn’t exactly permit it, mum. My mother is quite ill.”
Suddenly, Mrs. Down fell silent. The boy ate his fish.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mrs. Down conceded.
The boy wiped his mouth with a shrug. “I inherited two things from my grandparents apparently: a lot of money, and a little resilience. Mum says that’s all I need.”
Mrs. Down seemed to sober from whatever had possessed her to ask after his grandparents, his father, and everything short of his favorite type of sweet. Evie could see her fading. And though Evie did not support feeding strangers, she couldn’t bear to see sullen Mrs. Down resurface. At least, not yet.
Evie thought back to yesterday. Perhaps the music had caused Mrs. Down to sort of snap. But perhaps snapping wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. For today, she wasn’t sulking. What had actually changed that? The music? Or the comfort of having something to join in?
“Why did you come to October?” Evie wondered as she poked a carrot cut. The boy frowned at his water and cocked his brow at it. When he didn’t answer, Evie pointed her ill-mannered fork at him. “If your mother is sick,” she restated, “why aren’t you Elsewhere? Why come here?”
Mrs. Down looked up from her skirts again. Somewhere around Nyxie, Jinxie meowed. Even Leila seemed interested in hearing his response. She still seemed rather sour, but for the first time that evening, she actually looked in his direction.
If the boy was upset by the question, he was certainly well-mannered enough not to say so. With a pout pondering he gave it some thought.
“I’ve been bored living Elsewhere,” he said finally, “but I haven’t been bored for a second in October. Is that odd?”
Leila rolled her eyes and Evie snickered, despite herself. Nyxie smiled, too.
“Yes,” said the Mortimer Girls in three very different tones.
“Erm, where will you be staying until the repairs to the Graves Home are done?” Mr. Mrs. Down gave the sisters a most meaningful look. What it meant exactly, Evie didn’t rightly know. She was still snickering too much to pay it any mind, but she caught that the boy was staying indefinitely at Wutsitz’s Inn.
“Of course,” the boy was saying, “it’s awful lonely since Mr. Wutsitz claims there are never any guests.”
The Downs exchanged a look that only grown-ups understood.
“How old are you, Sweetheart?” asked Mrs. Down with care.
The boy should not have answered her. “I’ll be 12 in two months time.”
Suddenly, Mrs. Down grew red. She clasped her hands to her face, but they couldn’t muffle her sobs.
“Excuse me, so sorry! Dunno what’s come over me! Wei, he... I—”
But Mrs. Down never finished. She fled from the room.
Mr. Mrs. Down, solemn and stony, excused himself, too.
The boy finally looked astounded. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Have I said something rude?”
Leila scoffed and pushed her seat away from the table. She stormed Upstairs. Evie did not know what she should do.
“You’re in her seat, there, at the head of the table,” Nyxie explained with a sigh.
The boy pointed at the untucked chair Leila’d left behind.
“Her seat?” he asked. The Mortimers looked through him. Neither replied.
But Evie shook her head a few times. The more she shook, the more she felt herself fading to black. She poked another carrot. Stein whimpered up at her and then lied down and covered his eyes. The boy became serious and Jinxie, very still.
They all took in a deep breath as Nyxie Nyx sighed.
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