And so another update manages to sneak out for this story right as October rolls around. I'm sorry about the long waits, but that is the way things go sometimes. But hopefully this chapter will make up for it.
"I am a little surprised that this spell works on ghosts," Lila admitted. "You would think the dead would be beyond such torments."
Looking over the unconscious figures while trying to decide on an appropriate destruction for his enemies, Desmond said, "That's actually the interesting part. Ghosts rarely remember their lives. So being trapped in nightmares of their most painful memories? That's going to hurt even worse?"
Casper was too tired to shake beneath his blankets anymore, though he seemed trapped between chills and the fever burning him alive. His body ached. He couldn't breathe and every cough that tried to clear his lungs only made his chest ache more. It didn't help. He just kept rasping, exhausted and sore from days of this.
He was sick. Very sick.
A cool damp washcloth returned to his forehead. The boy opened his eyes and saw a blurry figure. Dad. He'd been there the entire time. He'd wanted to take his son to a doctor as soon as the illness struck hard. But the unpleasant layer of snow perfect for sledding transformed into a blizzard that trapped the family in the house. The only help for his sickness would come from his relatives.
His eyes slid back shut. Casper couldn't remember ever feeling this tired. And his mind felt so foggy. He couldn't even remember what day it was. There was yelling earlier, someone trying to convince someone else not to do something, but it could have been minutes or hours ago. Time seemed to move funny as he drifted in and out of consciousness during the entire illness. He just felt awful all over. And it didn't seem to be getting any better. Only worse.
Coughs racked his body again, choking and harsh. It lasted so long that Casper was afraid it would never stop. He could barely get any air. Only when his chest burned and ached so much his eyes watered did it finally ease off. But even when the coughing stopped, he could barely breathe.
"I know it's hard, but we'll get through this," his father's voice said soothingly. "Steven went to get a doctor. If anyone can get there in this weather, it'll be him. Just stay with me, Casper."
Most of his tone was calming, but he couldn't completely hide the sadness and fear. His father was worried.
Casper wished he could reassure him properly. After all, his uncles might not always be the most affectionate to the boy, but they wouldn't let their family down. He wanted to help his father believe that everything would be fine. Casper wanted to open his eyes again. But the boy could barely think. Even his breathing, labored, shallow, and slowing, took too much of his waning strength.
"I can't lose you," he continued, his voice starting to shake. "I can't lose you too."
This wasn't right. His father shouldn't be so sad and desperate. Casper didn't want him to be like this.
The washcloth was pressed to his forehead again, but the sensation felt more distant than before. Was he drifting back to sleep again? It felt similar, but not quite. Casper couldn't really describe it.
His father took his hand, pressing his fingers to the boy's wrist. But Casper felt more and more detached from everything. Even the aches in his joints and his chest seemed far away. After feeling awful for so long, it should have been a relief. He didn't think he could stay awake much longer.
"Casper?" he said. Tears choked the man's voice now, something he never wanted to hear. "Casper?" He cupped his son's face. "Please don't leave me."
Twin impulses managed to get through the strange and dull fog of his mind. Everything seemed to be slipping away and part of him wanted to just go with it. Somehow Casper knew it would end his suffering. He knew the sickness would no longer torment him. But part of the boy resisted.
Even though his hearing seemed to be fading away, he knew his father was still there. Casper couldn't go anywhere. It would hurt his dad too much. Everyone said he nearly shattered apart when Mom died. Casper couldn't leave him too. He couldn't do that.
So when everything grew quiet and still, Casper refused to go where he should. He resisted the pull of whatever was happening. He couldn't leave his dad alone.
But even as he clung to the idea, everything else seemed to fade. Memories slipped through his fingers like smoke. He could barely hold onto his own name, let alone why he wanted to remain.
…This was wrong. This already happened a long time ago. He remembered this. He remembered.
"So what do you intend to do now?" Lila asked. "You have returned to the world and your enemies lie at your mercy. Shall they be plunged into the Mystic Abyss?"
Gesturing dismissively at her, Desmond said, "It need not concern you."
"But if I do not know your plans, how will I be able to assist you further?"
Stepping over the unconscious figure of the blonde witch, he said, "Simple. Do as you have always done. Just obey any instructions perfectly and without question."
Lila stared at her cousin, trying to control the anger bubbling up. The teenage girl's words swirled around in her head. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. Not after she'd proven herself.
"Cousin, I was hoping you could trust me with more. You have seen what I am capable of. I know I can do more. Please let me know enough to be a proper partner."
Desmond met her words with laughter. Not a slight chuckle, but a full-force laugh of someone witnessing something absolutely hilarious. And that left Lila infuriated.
"You? A partner? Don't be ridiculous," said Desmond. "You serve me loyally, but we must be honest. Those Pact Witches were worthier of that title and you saw how little use I had for them once they served their purpose. You should be happy you remain beneficial to me."
"I am not some maid. I am your cousin. Family," she snapped. "I may not have magic, but look at what I accomplished. I brought you back from the Mystic Abyss. I did that. Without me, you would still be trapped. Is that not enough to earn your respect?"
He wasn't laughing anymore. Now he looked mildly annoyed. But that was nothing compared to Lila's emotional state. She'd reached the full heights of her temper. And she refused to stop.
"And it is not as if you are perfect, dear cousin," she continued with a sharp tongue. "Remind me again which of us was defeated by children and their guardians?"
Desmond's eyes narrowed dangerously. But it was too late for Lila to take back her words. Not that she would apologize anyway. She would not take any more disrespect from anyone. Never again.
"I have given you a lot of leeway because we are family," said Desmond in a low voice. "But you have just exhausted my benevolence and patience."
His hand shot out and Lila was flung back. She didn't even have time to scream before the woman hurtled through the portal into the Mystic Abyss.
If Desmond was a sentimental man, he might have felt something when he betrayed a family member and sent Lila into the Mystic Abyss. But no one ever accused him of being sentimental. Ruthless and powerful, yes. Sentimental, not a chance.
And while Lila Chandler certainly proved to be a surprisingly competent, loyal, and useful servant, she was never more than that. He used their family connection and meaningless praise rather than fear to control the woman. But at the end of the day, she wasn't a witch and she'd pushed her luck too far. It wasn't like the rest of the family would complain too much.
Stepping around the cringing unconscious cat that clearly had a very unpleasant transformation spell on him, Desmond properly studied his enemies now that there were no distractions. Which of the nightmare-stricken annoyances should he deal with first? The three older witches would be the most dangerous when it came to magic, though still not enough to truly be a threat. The trio of ghosts were the ones responsible for his time in the Mystic Abyss. And of course there was Wendy herself and the little ghost that helped spark off that prophecy in the first place. So many wonderful options to start with and he had all the time in the world to dispose of them.
Though in the end, it didn't matter. All of them would be sent into the Mystic Abyss. Even the ones he'd never met before.
He'd start with the girl and her little ghost friend, he decided. Disposing of the two of them would be supremely satisfying and he'd earned himself a little reward.
Desmond prepared to lift Wendy's unconscious figure with magic. But before he could act, something hit the back of his knees and knocked him to the ground with a yelp.
Grimacing in pain as a welt started forming, Desmond looked up. The teenage girl was stumbling to her feet with a fireplace poker in her hand. She'd broken through his spell already. He'd be impressed if he wasn't in so much pain.
"News flash, jerk," she snarled. "My dad's alive and safe."
"I saved Dani," said the teenage boy, also waking up from the spell.
"Max saved me. They're gone."
"That was the past. Three hundred years ago."
One by one, they were shrugging off the spell. Far more quickly than he could have predicted. The only good thing was that the older witches and the ghosts were still trapped in nightmarish memories.
Seeing one of his younger brothers in the loony bin was something Steven McFadden never wanted. He'd known for years that J.T. was on the brink of being locked up. They all did. J.T. just couldn't keep his mouth shut like the rest of them. One rant too many about being haunted by the spirit of his dead son and his intentions to revive the boy was all it took. One rant while the other three brothers were away and neighbors managed to have J.T. committed.
"You really outdid yourself this time," he said finally. "For someone so smart, you can really act dumb."
J.T. stared at his three brothers, his expression somewhere between worried and resigned. None of them reacted to the distant screams and crying of the other inmates. They didn't have much time before they would be forced to leave. Steven wanted to smack some sense into the man for continuing to sound so crazy in front of everyone even now. Only the fact they came from a wealthy family and the three brothers cut an intimidating set of silhouettes allowed them even this short visit.
Those who ran the loony bin feared J.T. was too great of a crackpot to allow much contact.
"I couldn't help myself," said J.T. "Every whisper about 'that poor man' and 'how he lost everything'… I couldn't keep quiet."
"Even with us trying our best to keep them from hearing about your doohickey and him," Steven hissed. "You knew. You knew what would happen, Wisenheimer. You knew and you kept running your mouth anyway."
He smiled weakly at the childhood nickname and said, "You can't protect me from myself, Stretch. None of you can, even if you've been trying for years."
Steven shook his head tiredly and dragged his hand through his hair. All four brothers spent more of their lives calling each other by nicknames than by their actual ones. While not always complimentary, the descriptions were always accurate.
As Steven was the oldest, he'd always been the tallest. But by the time he'd reached adulthood, he towered over most of the people in town. Long arms, long legs, and even a long nose, his entire body looked stretched out. Even when he left for New York City for several years, he rarely encountered anyone close to his height. And the longer reach certainly came in handy when heated competition gave way to violence over a good-looking broad, which happened plenty during his time in the city.
The next oldest, John Thomas McFadden, was a more reasonable height than his big brother. But even before he began proper schooling, he clearly had a bright mind. He was always thinking and always inventing. J.T. could be scatterbrained at times and didn't always appear to have the sense he was born with, but no one could deny his brilliance. Calling him a Wisenheimer came naturally to all of them. Even his late wife, Lizzie, sometimes used the term affectionately.
And while Steven was tall and lean as a scarecrow, the brother currently standing to his right appeared as his physical opposite. He ended up stouter and rounder in shape. Gregory's fondness for sweets and his curvier shape left him with the less flattering nickname of Fatso. But his brothers never meant harm with their words and he never took insult. He accepted it in good humor like he did all things. Besides, there was some strength buried beneath those layers of fat. Anyone outside of the family who tried mock him growing up learned to fear Gregory's retaliation. Assuming his brothers didn't deal with it first.
And the youngest of the siblings, Walter, could have been nicknamed for almost any feature. From the bucked teeth to his status as the baby of the family, there would have been plenty of options. But between the foul stench from his diapers as an infant and all the messes he got covered in throughout his childhood, there was no escaping his brothers calling him "Stinkie." Not even moving away from Friendship managed to change that.
They'd all gone their separate ways upon adulthood, but they returned home when J.T. needed his family. When Lizzie died and J.T. was left alone with his young child, his brothers came back to Whipstaff Manor to help. Steven knew his little brother could barely take care of himself sometimes. Raising his son would be impossible without someone to keep the scatterbrained genius at least a little grounded. So for the past several years, the four brothers lived together. They watched over J.T. and he raised Casper.
Then everything went wrong. The boy got sick right as a blizzard swallowed up the entire town. Everyone ended up snowbound while J.T. grew more and more frantic. And when his nephew continued to worsen with no sign of improving, Steven chose to risk the dangerous weather and managed to reach a doctor in Friendship. But by the time they made it back, it was too late.
What happened next led straight to J.T. ending up in the loony bin years later. Steven, Gregory, and Walter thought initially it was simply a reaction to grief. They thought it was denial, just like everyone in town did. But then they caught sight of the same thing, scaring the three brothers until J.T. reassured them that the pale figure was… Well, it was who he'd been saying it was the whole time. And while the three could keep quiet, J.T. was a different story.
He latched onto the tiny fragile hope, not wanting to truly lose his son completely like he did his wife. Even if that wispy and transparent figure didn't seem to remember much, J.T. still treated him as his child. And when he wasn't playing with the young spirit, he was in the lowest chamber of their home working on a machine. He'd been obsessed with the idea of reversing the natural order of the world. He was determined to undo death itself. He wanted Casper back, no matter how impossible.
He put so much time and energy into his creation. Years passed and J.T. seemed to grow more desperate to do what even his brilliant mind couldn't achieve. Nothing they could say or do would dissuade him, so his brothers did what they could to minimize people noticing what was happening. Even the Great War, which America only joined near the end, was not enough to dislodge them from their home. Money and family influence could buy many things. It bought them some protection for their brother over the years.
J.T. barely left Whipstaff Manor. His entire world was within those walls. All he needed was his brothers, the young spirit that continued to linger, and his work in his underground lab deep below. And when he did leave their home, one of his brothers would always try to go with J.T. and keep him from saying the wrong things.
They did everything they could to keep their family safe and together. But it wasn't enough. J.T.'s reputation deteriorated. People whispered. And then the brilliant and creative man was locked away.
"We'll get you out of here," said Gregory. "Between all of us, there should be plenty of money."
"You know how it is," Walter said encouragingly. 'We make a few donations and talk to a few people in power.
"Maybe blackmail a few people," muttered Steven under his breath.
Walter continued, "And then they'll turn you over to our care. It'll take a little while, but we'll get you home again. You'll see."
J.T. shook his head slowly, his grin both resigned and quietly satisfied. Seeing his younger brother in this place made his stomach churn. It had only been a few days and J.T. already looked worn out and wan. A loony bin was not healthy for any man. It was a place to lock someone away and forget about them until they died, any talk about treatment and healing nothing more than meaningless words. They couldn't leave J.T. to rot. Steven wouldn't allow it. None of them would.
"We all know I won't leave here alive," J.T. said. "Not after everything that I've talked about. But it doesn't matter." J.T.'s grin grew a little brighter. "I finished it. The Lazarus. He'll have the second chance at life that my son always deserved. He just needs to take it."
"Keep it down," hissed Steven, glancing around to make sure his words only reached family. "We're trying to get them to let you go, remember?"
"I need the three of you to promise me something," he continued firmly. "Promise me that no matter what happens, don't leave him alone. Don't leave my son alone and forgotten. If I can't be there to take care of him, if I fail him as a father this final time, then you must do it for me. Please."
"Wisenheimer," said Gregory quietly.
"You'll be home soon," Steven said firmly. "You can watch over him yourself then. Besides, you know we've never been that close or good at dealing with the boy even before he… Look, we'll get you out and everything will be fine. You won't fail him. He's better off with you than us anyway."
Grabbing his elder brother's arm, J.T said, "Promise me. Promise me that you'll take care of Casper. That you'll be there for him when I can't be. Promise me, please."
Steven took a moment to look at his other two brothers on either side of him. They didn't have much choice on the matter. The desperate expression on his face made it clear that J.T. would accept nothing less. And until they brought him back to Whipstaff Manor, they needed to keep him calm enough that people might believe that J.T. wasn't crazy. If that meant reassuring him that his dead son would be taken care of in the meantime, then so be it.
"All right," Steven said finally. "You have our word. You don't have to worry about him."
"He'll be fine," said Gregory.
"Nothing will happen to the little fellow," Walter said.
"We promise, Wisenheimer," Steven said. "We'll take care of Casper."
J.T. visibly relaxed at their words. He looked so peaceful compared to his normal frantic and wild genius. Knowing that his son would be cared for no matter what happened, it was as if a heavy burden had been lifted. Years were wound back and left him looking younger.
"Thank you," he said quietly. "That's all I need. My family, safe and sound."
"And waiting for you to get out," said Gregory.
Whatever else they might want to say, they couldn't. The short visit that they'd managed to wrangle came to a close as those who ran the loony bin shuffled them out of the building. They were lucky to have had as much time as they did. None of them were happy to leave J.T., but getting out of the oppressive atmosphere did the trio a world of good.
Steven climbed into the driver's seat of their car while Walter tried to squeeze into what little space Gregory didn't take up. The loony bin wasn't particularly close to Friendship. It would take a few hours to get back. Especially with the old and twisting road that followed the seaside cliff line and the falling darkness.
They rode in silence for a while, none of them able to find any words. There had to be a way to get J.T. out. They'd been pulling strings and using all the possible influence their family name offered to keep him out as long as possible. Steven didn't even know if there were any favors left. And the offer of money might not be enough to get him released.
But one way or another, they would get J.T. home.
The crescent moonlight danced across the waves far below while Steven tried to navigate the curving road in the darkness. It wasn't exactly easy. It was an old road and the cliff that it ran alongside was crumbling in places from disrepair. Someone really needed to work on it. Taxes were supposed to be used for things like this. He honestly didn't trust the road, but it was the only way back from the asylum to Friendship.
As if his thoughts on the matter was a warning, everything went wrong within seconds. As they moved through another sharp curve, the car started tilting sideways. Shouts of panic nearly drowned out the grinding of tires trying to find purchase as the road crumbled away. Steven wrenched at the wheel desperately. He did everything possible to force the car back onto stable ground. But more of the road fell away beneath them and the vehicle slipped over.
The sensation of falling, the way your stomach seems to float a little while gravity pulled you along, lasted only a second before the first sharp impact. The car crashed and rolled as they tumbled down. Everything became little more than noise, chaos, and pain. It lasted for far too long before the car landed with a splash.
Steven tried to open his eyes, his head swimming with pain and making complex thought impossible. He must have hit it on the way down. Along with his chest, his left arm, and his legs. He couldn't move his legs, his lower body crushed and pinned by the damaged to the car. Agony radiated up in sharp waves. But even while his injuries tried to drag him into unconsciousness, Steven felt something cold and wet.
Double vision struck hard as he opened his eyes, but he managed to make out dark water flooding in. The car was sinking into the ocean. Panic fluttered past the pain and confusion, making him desperate. Steven tried to rip himself free, but agony from the attempt made his vision go white and left him gasping. His trapped legs felt like they were on fire even as the ocean froze them. Moving wasn't an option. He couldn't get out. He couldn't escape.
He managed to twist his head a bit to the right. What little light there was revealed Gregory next to him, the stout brother unconscious and part of his face covered in blood. Steven suspected he was also heavily bleeding. The pain in his head made it seem likely. And he hoped that Gregory was only unconscious rather than anything worse. Maybe Gregory would wake up in time. Maybe he and Walter wouldn't be too hurt to escape and swim to safety. Wrestling Steven out and saving him was less likely though.
He tried to call their names, but instantly collapsed into coughs that tore at his injured chest and left a coppery taste flooding his mouth. Even the cold salt water lapping at chest level didn't ease the pain that wracked his body.
At least the way the car was sinking was putting him on the deeper side. It gave his brothers a little more time to wake up.
His head felt murky and he couldn't think through the pain. He could barely hold onto awareness. But he needed to wake up his brothers. They needed to get out before it was too late.
While his left arm felt broken, Steven tried to reach for them with the other. But as he tried to make his body respond, a wave hit hard enough to jostle the sinking car and cause Walter to slump forward enough for him to see. And even his fuzzy mind managed to realize the angle was wrong. The unnatural way Walter's head lolled could only have one explanation.
His baby brother's neck broke during the crash.
Walter was dead. Gregory was at least unconscious if not also dead. And Steven was hurt, trapped, and up to his neck in cold water. Suddenly J.T. seemed like the lucky one.
He wasn't going to escape. None of them were.
His head started slumping forward. He was too tired, too cold, too hurt, and too weak to keep awake any longer. Copper and salt filled his mouth, no matter how he tried to spit it out. He would probably pass out before he drowned. That might be better.
He couldn't do anything. He couldn't take save his younger brothers. He couldn't even keep that dumb promise to J.T. about Casper.
Choking on blood and sea water, the unfairness of it all flashed through his fading mind. The road that crumbled beneath the car, Steven literally driving his family to this fate. Everyone turning on J.T. and locking him away, the entire town guilty by association. Even the little ghost hanging around and making J.T. look mad, starting off this disaster just by existing. Anger and frustrated powerlessness tried to rise up in him against it all.
It wasn't fair. The town. Casper. Even Steven's failure to keep the car from crashing. He hated it. Everything was destroyed.
Can't save Gregory or Walter. Can't get J.T. out of there. And can't keep that final promise. Even as his body spasmed and fought for air it could no longer reach, his mind drowned in panic, guilt, pain, and fury.
But even that faded as darkness tried to swallow him like the ocean did. It was impossible to tell with the pain from injuries ended and the pain of desperate lungs began. He couldn't breathe. He… couldn't…
But… they… promised…
He promised. He promised a long time ago.
This wasn't real. Not anymore. It was a memory. One he'd forgotten, but a memory nonetheless.
But if this wasn't real…
No. This wasn't real. He had to wake up.
Casper was in danger.
So who wants to discuss timelines? Because we have a bit of an issue when it comes to the timing for things. Whipstaff Manor has architecture that looks like it belongs between 1810 and 1840, which is fine. It could be a family home that was built before the Ghostly Trio and J.T. McFadden were born. The photo in the newspaper, the clothes, and the steam-punk type of inventions all point towards turn of the century at a minimum and the 1920s at most. I can work with that. That timing works out fine for me. But the baseball is where we hit a snag. Duke Snider's career would have been 1940-1962.
All I can really come up with for that is the idea that Casper acquired the baseball later and put it in the vault with the baseball glove. Sometime after he was already dead. After all, there's no reason why he couldn't have been a fan of Duke Snider as a ghost. As for how he got an autographed baseball, I don't know. Maybe his uncles snagged it during one of their haunting excursions…
So I'm going for Casper being born in 1900, dying in 1912, and then his uncles dying in the early 1920s. And I have also touched on the mystery of what the unfinished business of Stretch, Fatso, and Stinkie might be…