The Size of Things
Haunting and Haunted
In which Dodger angers the ghosts of his past and present.
He was little again. Not just small, but young. Very young. Perhaps ten? Maybe twelve? His mother was there too, only much younger—and not to mention alive. She’d died years ago, and yet here she was, fresh as a daisy. A fine vision of miserable beauty in her all-black attire. Which, after he thought about it, must’ve put him at twelve years old after all. For he was twelve when his father died, twelve when his mother first donned her mourning clothes, never to take them off again.
Twelve was the age when everything went to hell.
Little Rodger sat at his usual place at the table and listened as his mother gave him a speech. Not just any speech, either. Not about being good to others or not climbing the neighbor’s trees so he could get to the best apples at the top, or the simple fact that pie was not a breakfast food.
This was The Speech.
“So I’ll have to marry him, hon,” she ended.
She smiled, softly, like she did the first time this had happened. (This had happened once already, hadn’t it?) Rodger furrowed his brow at her, because he was twelve years old and didn’t understand the way things really worked. Any boy of his age would’ve done the same, because that’s what twelve-year-old boys do. His mother tried her best to explain it all to little Rodger, but twelve just doesn’t process things the same way as, say, fifteen or twenty or thirty.
A boy of twelve views life through a peculiar myopic lens. A band so narrow you can fit no more than a few hours—at the most—inside. When dealing with timelines, there are only two instances that make sense to him: days gone by and now. There is no tomorrow. There is no next week or next year or the span of a lifetime. There is only what has passed and what is happening. There isn’t even a last week or last year. Memories from a week ago are as distant as a year ago, and while there might be the oncoming holiday or birthday, those days aren’t viewed with the long scope of maturity. Six months might as well be two days in the grand scheme of things, simply because it isn’t here and now. Why worry about the sun rising tomorrow when there is so much sunlight left today?
But for Mrs. Dodger—soon to become Mrs. Bolinas—everything hinged on that fateful tomorrow. It was hard to feed a growing boy when the bank took everything you owned to pay your late husband’s overdue debts. It was tough to keep your chin up in town when everyone gossiped behind your back about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. It was difficult to find a way to make ends meet, especially when those ends were slipping through your tired fingers.
Marriage wasn’t just the easiest solution, it was the only solution.
“But I don’t like Mr. Bolinas,” little Rodger said.
“That makes two of us,” his mother said, with a sad laugh.
“Then why marry up with him, Ma?”
Her mouth formed a hard line as she considered what to say. “Because he’s a respectable man. He has money and a nice home. He can take care of us.”
“Do you love him like you did Daddy?”
She did a double-take so comical, Rodger almost giggled. “What a thing to ask! Why, I’ve a mind to-”
“Don’t you love him at all?” he asked, softer this time, the humor of the moment take away by the first sign of tears in her eyes.
His mother said nothing for a long time. She just sat and stared at him, those soft eyes so full of tears and misery and hopelessness. Just sat and stared and said nothing. After a bit of this, young Rodger started to squirm. He blamed himself for her sudden silence, feeling that he had somehow wounded her with nothing but a question. And truth was he had, but not intentionally. For the human heart is a complex thing, an ageless beast that gnaws the bones of endless yesterdays, tracks down the heady scent of tomorrows, all while keeping one hoof pressed hard against the throat of today.
They sat like that for what seemed an eternity. She staring, he squirming, neither saying a single thing. Though there was much to say, and even more that would be said in days to come. Painful words. Hurtful things. Truths that, once spoken, could never be taken back. Rodger wanted to say something now, to ease her pain. Apologize? Blame his stupid mouth or his stupid tongue? Anything to make her smile. His mother beat him to it, opening her mouth to speak. Yet instead of her sweet voice answering that single unanswered question, the sound of a whistle issued forth from her parted lips.
The whistle of a train, to be specific.
A very specific whistle from a very specific train.
Dodger awoke with a start. He sat up, soaked in sweat, and looked around his darkened room with a furtive glance. His quarters in the Sleipnir were a far cry from his family dining table. As were his mid-thirties a far piece from twelve.
A dream. Of course. It was just a bad dream.
For the fourth morning in a row.
The latest ingredient in his boiling pot of problems.
Dodger pulled apart a few slats of his blinds, just to make sure they were still traveling. The Sleipnir’s movements were so smooth, so imperceptible, that oftentimes Dodger forgot they were on a moving train until the whistle announced that they were approaching their chosen destination.
Speaking of whistles, didn’t he wake to the sound of one?
Over his thoughts, there came the muffled voice of Boon. “Dodger? Are you well?”
“I’m fine,” he croaked at the door. Dodger coughed to clear the worry from his voice. “Come on in.”
“I don’t want to disturb-”
“Yes you do. And you have. So come on already.”
The restless spirit drifted into the room, passing through the door with a light crackle and a practiced ease. “I’m glad you’re well. I was concerned.”
“What are you up to out there?”
Boon twisted the buttons of his ghostly vest between his big fingers. “I was just making a security round.”
“I’ve told you, Boon, you don’t have to do that. I’m a light sleeper. And besides, that’s why I make a security roster.”
The security roster was born of Dodger’s initial return to the Sleipnir once he decided to take the job. That embarrassing moment when he approached the driver all but sunning himself on the back of the engine car rather than keeping an eye out for danger. Danger that was, as a matter of fact, creeping right up behind the not-dead man. The roster was an exercise in compliance, a chance to teach the crew to become more aware of their surroundings by assigning them the responsibility of actually watching said surroundings for a certain length of time.
The roster, however, didn’t go over well with the troops. Boon was all for the shifts—and who could blame him, for the ghost had nothing better to do. But Dodger couldn’t place the ghost on the schedule without giving his presence away, something he promised Boon he wouldn’t do. Ched agreed to work the hours Dodger scheduled him, but put little effort into maintaining that agreement. Mr. Torque laughed when Dodger asked what shifts the metal butler wanted. Dodger had no idea what Lelanea did with her copy, and he couldn’t pin down Feng long enough to ask his opinion on the matter, so that fuse fizzled out as well.
Dodger kept his hopes up, convinced all they needed was a firm hand and a good example to follow.
“I know I’m not on the roster, officially,” Boon said. “But I thought perhaps I could fill in now and again. Just for old time’s sake.”
“Wash,” Dodger said, “how is Ched going to learn responsibility if you keep doing his shifts for him?”
The ghost fidgeted under Dodger’s question. “The truth of the matter is, well, I lost the hour of patrol to him in a game of chance. I think he cheated. He was looking at my cards, for starters.”
Dodger held back the urge to remind the ghost that the only way to play cards with him was to physically play both hands. This meant you had to look at the man’s cards. How else could one hold a game with a spirit that couldn’t actually touch anything? “Then I’m going to have to ask you guys to stop using your shifts for currency. It shouldn’t be seen as a chore or a punishment. It’s just a way to-”
“I heard you mumbling from the hallway,” Boon confessed.
“Mumbling?” Dodger asked. “I must’ve been talking in my sleep.” He ran a pale hand through his wild hair. “Geesh, I haven’t done that since I was a kid. What did I say?”
“I couldn’t make it all out. Just mumbles. Like you were talking to someone about something dark, somber. In your dreams, perhaps?”
“Yeah, and it was a pretty somber dream.”
“Must’ve been a heck of dream, lad, to get you so worked up.”
Though much of it had condensed into a cool layer of grunge, Dodger realized he was still wet with sweat. “It was.”
“No,” Dodger lied. “But it was a little unusual because, well, not only haven’t I talked in my sleep since I was a kid, I haven’t dreamed since then either. I mean, I guess I dream—everyone does—but I never remember them. And I don’t think they’ve ever been that vivid.”
The ghost didn’t reply. He just stared at Dodger with a raised brow and a slight look of concern in his eyes. Or was it alarm?
“What time is it, anyway?” Dodger asked, shrugging off the spectral concern and pulling on a clean shirt.
“Six,” Boon said.
Dodger stopped dressing long enough to give Boon a stare of disappointment. “Six? I thought I told you to wake me at five.”
“You did, but I thought it would be best if you slept. Considering everything you have been through in the last few days.”
It was true that Dodger did indeed need the rest. After leaving Thad and his men behind at the farm, Dodger slipped into a routine of sleepless nights and grumpy days. But that wasn’t the point. This defiance wouldn’t do. Boon was a nice enough man—well, a nice enough ghost—but niceties weren’t what Dodger needed to do his job. Discipline. Regulation. Compliance. These were all dirty words in his realm of experience, but they were the only way to make sure the Sleipnir’s defenses remained tight. Someone needed to be in charge. In other words, someone had to be the bastard.
“Boon, I appreciate your opinion and your help. I know you like to think of us as partners, and so do I. I want you to know that I value your input. I really do.”
“Well, then, I don’t know what to say. I’m glad you appreciate my help. Thank you. It’s nice to feel needed.” Boon seemed taken aback by this sudden outpouring of affection. Which was just enough to set him at ease for the harsh words to come.
“And you are needed. Gladys would’ve killed me in that mine without your help. And your insider information about the crew has made my transition into the job almost too easy. But …” Dodger let that single word linger. “But I am the chief of security on the Sleipnir now. Not you. And it’s my ass on the line if something happens to the professor and his crew. Not yours. I consider us partners, true enough, but I also need for you to recognize when a request is not just a request, but a command. From a superior.”
To his credit, Boon received his dressing down with the air of a professional. He listened to Dodger without interrupting. And once the worst had passed, Boon tipped his head as if in understanding, as if in thanks. From all perspectives, the ghost seemed to take it rather well.
“Are we done here?” Boon asked, pausing a moment before he added, “Sir?”
Dodger sighed. “Good gravy, Wash, I didn’t mean you had to address-”
Are we done here, sir? Boon asked inside Dodger’s mind, placing an undue amount of emphasis on that last word.
“Boon, please don’t take it the wrong way. It’s that you let me oversleep every day for the past week. I usually don’t have a problem waking up before dawn, but here lately I’ve needed a little help. Your help.” He tried for a pleasant smile, but even without a mirror, he knew it looked what it was. Forced.
Perhaps your late rising is a sign that you needed the rest more than you think?
Dodger had trouble arguing with that level of logic. “Be that as it may, I have to know I can rely on you to follow instructions.”
The temperature of the room seemed to drop ten degrees as Washington Boon gave Rodger Dodger a heart-stopping glare. A glare that said, “Haven’t I already proven that by saving your life on more than one occasion?”
Dodger couldn’t be sure, but he swore he heard the sound of grinding teeth.
I’ll do as told from now on. Sir. Now if you’ll excuse me, sir, I have things that need attending to before we arrive at Sunnyvale, and I do believe Feng is almost here with your breakfast. Sir.
Feng. That mysterious man of the East was at it again. With a timing that would’ve made Pavlov weep to witness, Dodger’s stomach roiled in response to nothing but the name of the train’s cook.
“How does he do that?” Dodger asked.
But his question went unanswered, for the ghost was already gone.
“Well that’s just great,” Dodger said as he dressed. “What a way to start your morning. Piss off your friendly neighborhood haint.”
A knock rose from the door, taking his attention from the gravity of the moment. Dodger went to his door and flung it open, praying that it was Boon come to demand an apology (one Dodger would willingly give) before he remembered that the ghost couldn’t touch anything, therefore the knock was from someone else.
A certain Celestial someone.