She switched off the TV then regretted it; the noise of the pointless quiz show was comforting. Watching ‘Derek from Sussex’ reciting all football results from 1980 was easier than watching the fireplace, the windows, the open door as she huddled into the living room sofa. The date was 31st October. Once, today was called Samhain.
The Celts measured their days by dawn and sunset; the festival would take a day, but to modern people it would seem to end on 1st November. This continued until the 9th Century AD, when the church decided All Saints’ Day should be held on 1st November and 2nd November should be All Souls’ Day, for reasons the internet hadn’t known.
The dawns and sunsets and festivals blended together, a blur of stars and sun. The dates became one date and that date was with the darkness; the three holidays combined created Halloween as it is today, 31st October, a day in which the sun set at five o clock and the air smelt of woodsmoke from fires too low to light the way home.
Halloween was the celebration of everything that made your heart race and your palms sweat. Serial killers and monsters and spiders. Ghosts. Visions. None of it scared her this year. Now that her brother was a Missing Person, nothing else seemed frightening.
Mum had asked before she left for work, ‘Are you going trick or treating tonight, honey?’
Margaret’s silence was her answer. At sixteen, she was much too old to be trick or treating. After last year, she was much too young to be out of the house alone after dark.
There was a battered file on the living room table. She tugged it open, pulling out dozens of documents all about her brother’s missing persons case.
An envelope slipped open, and postage stamp sized copies of his old school photographs fluttered like confetti. Saul was old enough that when he had his photos taken, the school still gave their parents glossy carbon copies of his face. Glossy carbon; bodies were just that, dust and water polished with the shine of life. She couldn’t imagine her brother without that coating of beating heart and electric brain and warm breath.
Yet her plan tonight hinged on him being nothing more than dust and water somewhere in the dirt.
‘Are you going trick or treating tonight, honey?’
Margaret’s silence was a lie. Normally she would have begged to go trick or treating, or to a friend’s party, or to watch a bonfire and bob apples from brackish water. This year she decided to stay home alone to wait for Saul.
It was a year since Saul vanished on the train home from university and Mum sometimes didn’t get out of bed for a day or two. Dad only returned home every night because he knew they would worry if they didn’t, so he searched the city and handed out leaflets until nine o clock every day. Once he chased a teenager down the street because he mistook him for his son. Luckily, the young man, a total stranger, was understanding about it.
All this effort and heartbreak. But nobody recognised the blond man on the leaflets. Mum never found any new information when she printed out Saul’s emails and texts, highlighted them, then printed them out again. This was the only idea she could think of that they hadn’t tried, and it was something her parents were too sane to consider, even in their grief. What did that say about her?
If Saul was dead, then this night, he might visit his home, his sister. The cloth separating the worlds of the living and the dead thinned and thinned until it frayed and allowed the spirits to drift through the gaps like moonlight through an old curtain.
She had spread a map out on the table. Beside it lay a box of pins, and she had found as many easy to write with, guaranteed to work pens as she could. If Saul was dead, she was going to ask him where his body was. Somehow, she would get that information to the police or her parents without sounding drunk.
It would be unbearable if he was dead and told her that tonight. It would be worse if he didn’t come. She couldn’t survive either possibility.
Her nail was bleeding. She had bitten down to the skin, tearing it like a leaf in a storm.
It was almost midnight. In the old stories, visions of the dead always appeared at midnight. There wasn’t long to wait. There wasn’t much time left for her to bolt out the front door.
She stood staring at the dead TV. Desperately, she switched it back on. Now it was a channel she didn’t recognise. She turned up the volume just as the screen cut to the news.
‘Hello and welcome to the news at twelve…’
He had to be here. He had to be.
Or perhaps he was still alive.
Something rattled upstairs. Her heart burst in her chest, fragments of it choking her. She found herself at the foot of the stairs and staring upwards. It could be that the sounds came from Saul’s bedroom. It could be.
There was a crash, and she bolted up the stairs and flung open the door to his bedroom. Dust gusted as the door hit the wall. Her hand slammed against the light switch hard enough to bruise.
The room was empty. She rushed to the middle of the bedroom, turning slowly. The beanbag chair was empty. His bed was still unmade and crinkled. The wardrobe was firmly closed. Her hands were pressed to her face, and she wasn’t sure if it was sweat or tears leaving her cheeks slippery.
Finally, she saw it. The window was still ajar, and the wind had blown a notebook from his desk. That was all. Just the wind.
‘Saul.’ She whispered. ‘Saul. Saul.’
She whimpered his name, over and over. Big brothers were bloody awful. They left the upstairs landing reeking of deodorant and ate the last sausage roll and stole your favourite seat on the TV. Every day she joked about how much better life was without him. The only problem was, he wasn’t there to listen to her jokes or shove her or argue that little sisters were worse.
This was the first time she had ever let herself hope of finding him. She decided it would be the last time. It was worse than losing him that first night. She couldn’t breathe.
The wind whispered, ‘Mags?’
She staggered backwards, yelling. Then her brother solidified in front of her.
‘Mags, relax, it’s me!’ he said.
She could see the rest of the room through his body. Logic told her that therefore, she couldn’t hug him, but she still tried. He bowed his see-through head as if resting it on her shoulder.
‘Where are you?’ she sobbed.
‘I’m right here. Right here.’ he said softly.
‘No- if you’re dead, then where are you, it’s important…’
‘Straight to the point, as always. I don’t have long. Tell Mum and Dad I love them.’ he said, making gestures as if he would pat her on the back.
She shook her head. ‘I need to know.’
‘And I love you too, Mags. I love you. Be more careful than I was, okay? I’m not here to look after you now.’ He said. He was speaking faster now, his body fading.
‘As if you ever did.’ She managed to say.
He smiled, and the last she saw of him was his trainers sitting empty on the carpet, before they slipped away.
‘I love you too!’ she yelled into the night.
The front door opened downstairs, and she was drowning in the hope that it was him, but then her Mum called up the stairs.
‘Mags? Who’s there?’ she shouted.
Both drowning in hope that it was Saul. She cleared her throat and forced herself to shout downstairs, before Mum was too hopeful. Slowly, her Mum headed up the stairs. The floorboards creaked as she paused at Margaret’s own bedroom. She hesitated before heading to Saul’s.
‘There you are.’ She said.
Mum crossed the room as if it was hallowed ground and hugged her. Margaret wished she had arrived just a few moments earlier. Just a few moments. Just an earlier train. So many justs and almosts and questions.
‘In here. I saw Saul.’ She managed.
‘Me too, honey. All the time. Like those visions people used to have of popes or Jesus, I see him sitting on the sofa or wheeling his bike out, and after that I can keep going another day.’ Said Mum. They hugged tighter.
‘No, he was really, he was really here…’
Mum sighed. ‘I always think he is too. But it’s just visions. My therapist says it’s normal to have them.’
‘Remember Dad and that man he chased?’ Mum said. ‘Visions. Just visions.’