Odd Man Out
In which Dodger isn’t the normal one
In which Dodger isn’t the normal one
“I hate to break up this little reunion,” Dodger said. “But that brings up an interesting point. If you aren’t dead, then what are you doing here as a ghost?”
The spirit gave Dodger a look of bewilderment. “I don’t claim to understand it entirely, but from what Feng tells me, my spirit has been knocked free from my body. Probably because of the violence combined with the shock of the attack.”
“That sounds sort of peculiar.”
“Actually, he says it’s more common than we would think.”
“He’s right,” Lelanea said, wiping at her damp eyes with the back of her hand. “I’ve read about such things in my studies. OBEs and the likes.”
“OBEs?” Dodger asked.
“Ah, you mean like astral projection.”
“Is there nothing you haven’t heard of, Mr. Dodger?”
“I’m sure there are a whole lot of things I know squat about.”
She gave a small chuckle. “Well, yes, it is much like astral projection, save that in this case, the spirit is forced out of the body unwillingly. Normally, the spirit returns to the body, sometimes after a brief period of wandering.”
“That’s what Mr. Feng said,” Boon said. “He claims most comatose folks are just spirits taking a bit of a walk. But since my body disappeared, I didn’t have a mortal shell to return to, so I guess I went home instead.”
“Makes sense to me,” Dodger said. “After all, home is where the heart is.”
Lelanea smiled up at Boon.
Boon smiled down lovingly in return.
Dodger tried very hard not to cover the floor with what was left in his growling stomach.
Without warning, the door to the quarters-cab swung open, and Mr. Torque stormed through the meeting cab, fussing up a storm. “Stupid? Careless? I think we both know who the real moron is here. I was not created to serve you your cuppa anyway, you over-bloated bag of hot air.” The mechanical man jerked the cargo-cab door open, then exited, slamming the door behind him.
As soon as Mr. Torque left, the doc backed into the room from the opposite door, pulling a tea trolley along with him. The cart was almost too wide for the opening, and it took the man a few ginger moments of finagling to get it through.
“I’m not ready for this,” Boon whispered in those empty moments.
“Yes you are,” Lelanea said in a soft whisper.
“Maybe you should talk to him first. I’ll just go-”
“Don’t you dare,” she growled over him. “You will stay, and you will face him.”
“I think I should go and come back once you’ve made him ready.”
“Too late now,” Dodger whispered.
The doc had spun about to give the trolley a single yank through the door as he smiled and nodded to the group. “I’m sorry it took so long, but you were right, dear. That blasted copper ninny dropped the first pot the moment we stepped out of the kitchen.”
“I told you as much,” Lelanea said. She glanced to the spirit, then back to her uncle, but the doc had returned his attention to wheeling the trolley into the room.
“Correct as always. That is what I love about you. Well, one thing I love about you.” The doc pushed the trolley against his desk. “Can you help me serve this? You know I am all thumbs when it comes to pouring.”
“Certainly.” Lelanea cut her eyes at Boon, as if daring him to disappear before the doc had a chance to talk with him.
Why hasn’t he said anything? Boon asked.
“I don’t know,” Dodger whispered. “Maybe he wants you to speak first?”
“It’s worth a try.”
Boon clutched his hat to his chest, took a step toward the doc’s desk, and said in a very low voice, “Hello, sir.”
“Now, I know Lelanea doesn’t like chamomile,” the doc said. “But I rather like it, especially after so much excitement. So rather than put on a whole pot of one kind, I just boiled some water and gathered an assortment of loose tea.”
“Sir?” Boon asked.
“That way, we can each brew our own cup.” The doc looked to Boon. “Won’t that be fun?”
Boon shrugged. “I guess so, sir.”
The doc continued to stare at the man. “Mr. Dodger? Do you not wish to share a cup? It is the very best tea.”
“Me?” Dodger asked. “I’ll have a cup. Sure.”
“Is he ignoring me?” Boon asked.
“I don’t think so,” Lelanea said.
“Why can’t he have a cup?” the doc asked. “He didn’t take any medicinal compounds. I think it will do him good.”
“He is,” Boon said. “He’s ignoring me.”
“It isn’t that,” Lelanea said.
“Then stop mothering him,” the doc said. He looked to Boon again. Or rather, through Boon, to Dodger, sitting behind the spirit. “I have chamomile, Earl Grey and a nice Darjeeling I picked up in India a while back. What do you prefer?”
Dodger hesitated, unsure if the man was addressing him or not. “Earl Grey, please.”
“Earl Grey it is. And Ludda? What will you have?”
“The same,” she answered.
“Good. Then you pour, and I will fill the strainers.” The professor began to fuss over the tea and cups.
Dodger stood, joined Boon at the edge of the desk, and whispered, “I don’t think he can-”
“Sir?” Boon asked over Dodger’s whisper. “Please don’t do this to me. I’m sorry I kept myself hidden. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I thought I was helping.”
The professor continued to ignore him.
Lelanea gave the spirit a desperate look.
Before Boon could plead any further, the cargo-cab door opened again, and this time, Ched passed through. He closed the door behind him and threw his hand up to the group. “That rusht bucket shaid there wash drink waitin’ for me.”
“Of course,” the doc said, fetching a bottle from the bottom level of the tray. “I almost forgot. Here you go. For a job well done.” The professor handed over the unmarked bottle of some amber fluid to the not-dead man.
Ched snatched it up, uncorked it and took a long swig before he held it away and eyed the contents. “It ain’t whishkey, but it’ll do.” The cab resounded with a loud belch from the driver.
“I am glad it meets your rigid standards of comparison.”
Having taken the brunt of Ched’s gassy discharge, Lelanea waved her hand in front of her nose. “Do you mind?”
“Shorry, misshy,” Ched said. He belched a second time, discreetly, into his handkerchief. “How’sh the cook?”
The doc glanced to Feng, who was still sleeping on the couch across the room. “He is well enough, all things considered.”
Ched grunted. “I hear he took quite a beatin’.”
“That he did,” Dodger said. “And an electrocution or two.”
The driver took another long pull from his drink before he pointed the neck of the bottle to Boon. “I shee you got the ghosht thing shorted.”
“Um,” Lelanea said. “Not exactly.”
“What ghost thing?” the doc asked.
“Whatcha mean, what ghosht thing?” Ched asked.
Lelanea began to hiss and click her tongue, trying to get Ched’s attention.
“He’sh right there, for Pete’sh shake,” Ched said, either ignoring Lelanea or completely missing the signals for silence.
“What are you going on about?” the doc asked.
“Why ish he ignoring you?” Ched asked.
“He isn’t ignoring me,” Boon said.
“No, he isn’t,” Lelanea said.
“He isn’t?” the doc asked. “He isn’t what?”
“He can’t see me,” Boon said.
“Or hear you,” Dodger added.
“Hear who?” the doc asked.
“Ah,” Ched said, understanding at last. “My mishtake. Shorry. Shoulda kept my trap shut.”
“I wish you would stick to that motto,” the doc said. “Now, someone tell me what in the world you three are going on about.”
And that confirmed it. Why address three when there were clearly four in the room? Well, five if you counted the cook, but he was fast asleep.
“Uncle,” Lelanea said. “I think you should sit down.”
“I don’t want to sit down,” the doc said. “I want you to tell me what this is all about.”
“No,” Boon said. “It’s best if he doesn’t know.”
“I think he should know,” Dodger said.
“Know what?” the doc asked. He grabbed the sides of his head with both hands. “Oh my, I’m so confused.”
“I agree,” Lelanea said. “I am just trying to break it to him gently.”
“Break what?” the doc shouted.
“Please don’t tell him,” Boon insisted. “It isn’t fair for him to know I’m here if he can’t see or hear me.”
“We can’t just pretend you’re not here,” Lelanea said.
“Pretend who isn’t here?” the doc asked.
“Well, we could,” Ched said. “But it would sheem kinda shilly.”
“They have a point,” Dodger said.
“Who in the bloody name of Hades are you lot talking to?” the doc asked.
It was the first time Dodger had heard the man employ such language. As far as expletives went, the word bloody was baby talk in comparison to some of the things Dodger had heard in his lifetime, and nothing compared to the things he had said himself. Yet somehow, out of the doc’s mouth, it sounded like the filthiest of cuss words, scraped free from the tongue of the wildest of wild men who roamed the open range of the western front.
Lelanea blinked in shocked silence at the man’s words, but before she could reprimand him for his foul language, the doc’s eyes sprang wide, and he gave a soft gasp of realization.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” the doc asked. “You are talking to someone, aren’t you? Is it him? Is it … Boon?”
Dodger grimaced, as did Lelanea and Boon.
Ched may have cringed as well, but it was hard to tell with his face locked in that eternal, eerie grin.
A cloud of emotions passed across the professor’s face in a matter of seconds: loss, uncertainty, a touch of confusion, and then delight. He smiled. “Then Feng was correct? Boon is alive?”
“Yesh,” Ched said. “Well, short of alive, that ish.”
The smiled slipped. “What do you mean by sort of?”
“From what we understand, he’s not dead,” Dodger said. “But he isn’t exactly entirely in the alive way.”
The doc recoiled with a sudden thought. “Blessed Quan Yin, he isn’t like Ched, is he?”
“No,” Lelanea said.
“Thank the gods for that. Well? Where is he? I’d like very much to see him.”
Lelanea crouched before her uncle, taking up his hands once more. “He’s not here in body, Uncle. He is here in spirit.”
“Really? How curious.”
“Only you would shay that,” Ched said.
“All that aside, spirit or body, I am just delighted he has returned to us. Is his form visible?”
“Shure,” Ched said. “We can shee him. And he can shpeak with ush ash well.”
“We can speak with him? This is most exciting! When do I get to see him?”
“Yes, well,” Lelanea said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. He’s here right now. He’s been here since you returned with the tea.”
The doc glanced around the room. “Where?”
Dodger cleared his throat and motioned to the spirit at his side.
The doc stared hard at the space, clearly not seeing the specter. “I don’t understand. Is this some kind of joke? Because it isn’t very funny.”
“No, sir,” Dodger said. “It isn’t a joke. He is standing right here.”
“But I don’t see anything.”
“I can’t stand this,” Boon said. “It’s going to break his heart.”
“He’s mad at me,” the doc said over the spirit. “Isn’t he? He’s not showing himself to me because I forbade him to go into Celina alone.” The doc’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“No, no, no,” Lelanea said. “It isn’t that at all.”
The doc wasn’t listening to her. He was lost to his own grief. “I tried to warn him of the danger of traveling alone, or at the very least without weapons. But he wouldn’t listen. He just wouldn’t listen.” He wiped at his damp eyes and sniffled. “I tried to tell him how dangerous it was. But he insisted that he couldn’t do what needed to be done armed to the teeth like that. I have no idea what was so important to him that he was willing to risk his life for it.”
Dodger wondered the same thing. He made a mental note to ask the spirit at a later date, until he saw the way the driver quickly looked to the floor at the mention of Boon’s reasoning. Perhaps it was best to get the pair of them together and hash this whole thing out.
“This isn’t fair to him,” Boon said.
“He shaysh it ishn’t fair to you,” Ched said.
The doc sniffled back a nostril full of sorrow and asked, “Did he?”
“Tell him I’m sorry,” Boon said. “I wish like heck he could see and hear me.”
Ched relayed the message, at which the doc sniffled more and nodded his understanding.
Mid-nod, a curious look overcame the professor, and he all but leaped to his feet, his head still bobbing as he stood. His mouth fell open for a moment, as if he wanted to say something, but either couldn’t remember it or just didn’t have the courage.
“Uncle?” Lelanea asked.
“I have to … I need to …” the doc stammered, and then shoved his niece to one side as he fled from the room.