Last Breath

Chapter Thirteen


By the time the sun started to set, all the strangers were gone from the house. It was Michael, Shane, and Eve, and Claire, who hovered silently nearby - unseen and eternally separated.

Better if I'd died, she thought miserably. She'd never felt more alone. More completely useless.

"We have to call," Shane finally said in a voice as colorless and gray as Claire felt. She turned to see him holding his cell phone in both hands as he stared at the screen. "We have to tell her parents."

He didn't dial, not immediately. He just sat there as if he couldn't remember how to work the phone.

"Maybe Hannah's calling them," Eve said. "Maybe we should let her handle it - I mean, the police, they know how - "

"It's my responsibility." That was Michael, who stood up and took the phone out of Shane's hands. "I'm the one who let her stay here. I'm the one who told them I'd keep her safe." He sounded hoarse, but steady, and before Shane could object, he brought up the address book and hit a key. Shane slumped. Claire couldn't tell if he felt relieved, or just defeated.

But Michael frowned, checked the phone, and dialed again. Then a third time. "It's not going through," he said. "I'm getting a circuits-busy message. Hang on. I'm going to call Oliver." He did, then hung up. "Circuits busy."

Eve stood and picked up the house's old landline phone, big and clunky, hardwired into the wall. Claire could hear the discordant tones from where she drifted a few feet away. "This one's out, too," Eve said. "What's going on?"

"Check the Internet," Michael said, and Eve went upstairs. She was gone only a moment before she came down again.

"Out," she said. "No connection. They've cut us off."

"They?" Shane asked blankly. "They, who?"

Michael took out his own cell and tried it, then shook his head. "It's not just you - it's me as well, and mine's on the vampire system. Cell phones, landlines, and Internet - it's all down."

"Why would they do that?"

"At a guess, they're getting ready to leave Morganville, and they don't want anyone to be making plans for trouble," Michael said. He dropped his useless cell phone on the table. "It's probably wrong that I feel relieved right now."

They all froze as a knock came at the front door. After a silent exchange of looks, Michael went to answer it, and Claire went with him, just because it was something to do.

Outside the door was a vampire policeman, dressed in a big raincoat, and his police cap protected by a rain bonnet. It was still pouring, Claire saw. The yard outside was a sea of muddy water. "You need to bring your charges to the meeting tomorrow night, Mr. Glass," he said. "We're going house to house to remind everyone, and we'll be checking all buildings tomorrow to ensure full compliance. Everyone at Founder's Square at dusk tomorrow."

"What if we don't want to go?" Michael asked. "Our friend died today."

The cop gave him a long look, and said, "Nobody stays away. I'm sorry for your loss, but if you don't show, we'll come and get you. Orders of the Founder."

He tapped the front of his hat with a finger in an abbreviated salute, and walked away, heading for the next house.

"This is not good," Michael murmured. "Not good at all."

Claire had to agree with him, for all the use it was; she didn't want them to leave the house. Especially, she didn't want them to leave her alone. What if they never came back? What if she was trapped here all alone with just Hiram Glass for company, forever? That seemed selfish, but she was terrified at the very thought.

Michael shut the door and locked it, and stayed there a moment, head down. Then he whispered, very quietly, "Claire, if you are here, please tell us. Please. God, I hope you are, because I'm scared. I'm scared for all of us."

Michael was scared. God.

That made her even more panicked.

Think, she ordered herself. Clearly, she couldn't expect any help from the head ghost of the Glass House, who was actually kind of an ass; she was going to have to find a way out of this herself. As she thought about it, she drifted back down the hall, into the living room, past the couch where Shane and Eve sat together, silently holding hands . . . and then to the spot where her body had fallen. Come on, she told herself. Think.

She felt a warm surge of power condense around her, like an insubstantial hug. The house. Hiram had said the house liked her; clearly, the house and Hiram had different opinions. It was trying to tell her something.

It shoved her a little, pushing her toward the wall.

The portal.

No, I can't do it. It's impossible.

But if it was, what did it hurt to try?

Claire focused on the blank wall - on the textured paint, on the gray color, on every flaw and imperfection.

Come on. Come on....

She sensed a flicker of power, almost a sense of surprise, and then the portal responded.

And when it gradually misted open, she smiled, just a little, even though nobody could really see it.

She looked around. Eve was facing away, and Michael was still in the other room. Shane sat slumped on the couch, facing the silent TV. Nobody was looking at the portal, which was too bad, because at least they'd know something was odd.

This may not work, she told herself. You may not come out of this.

But really . . . would it matter? She was already gone, as far as those she loved were concerned.

If the physics of the portals had been complicated before, she'd be years working out how the potential energy of a dead soul could possibly travel through wormholes. Well, if nothing else, it'll keep me occupied with calculations for as long as I live.

And then Claire, ghost of a dead girl, stepped through the portal and was lost in the dark.

She opened her eyes, and she was in Myrnin's lab. It was deserted, and it was trashed.... Someone had scattered books everywhere, ripped some up, and an entire lab table had been thrown all the way across the room, smashing the marble top into pieces.

So, pretty normal, then.

"Frank!" she said. She felt thinner here, almost fading, and realized that she was still connected to the house, through the portal. If the portal failed . . .

. . . She'd be gone along with it.

"Frank Collins! Can you hear me?"

She felt a sudden buzz of power, and Frank's image formed in front of her, one grayscale pixel at a time. He blinked. "Anybody there?"

Oh. He couldn't see her. Great. "Frank, can you hear me?" She yelled it, loud as she could, and Frank's image flickered, as if interference had ripped it apart for a moment.

"Jesus, Claire, turn it down," he said. "Where are you?"

"Right here!" She was so happy to be communicating she felt like kissing him - only that wouldn't work, on so many levels. "I'm right here, in front of you. I'm sort of - "

"Dead?" he asked. "I heard the chatter. Guess saying I'm sorry seems a little redundant, since you're actually talking to me."

"I need your help."

"Nothing I can do for you, cupcake. Dead is dead, although I have to admit, pretty big achievement since you're audible."

"Not for me," Claire said. "There's a gathering at Founder's Square tomorrow night. Why?"

"Can't say," Frank Collins said. His image flickered again. "Move back; you're screwing up my projection."

She floated back, just a little. "Can't say, or won't say?"

"What did I just tell you?"

"So you've been told not to talk about it." He didn't answer, which she supposed was answer enough. "Frank . . . Amelie once told me that if she ever decided that the Morganville experiment was over, she would take it all down. Is that what we're talking about?" More silence. She felt thinner and more faded, as if pieces of her were slowly streaming away into the dark. "Frank! Is she going to destroy the town?"

"She's setting the humans free, and the vampires are leaving town," he said. "Upside: Myrnin's going to turn me off, and I can get on with dying the right way, finally. Downside - well, there's always a downside."

Talking to Frank was like talking in circles. "Where's Myrnin?"

He shrugged. "He tore ass out of here to see you. Hasn't come back."

"Don't pretend you don't know. I know you've got surveillance everywhere."

Frank raised his eyebrows, and smiled crookedly. "All right. He's at Founder's Square, with the Big Cheese. I don't have eyes inside her offices, but they frog-marched him straight there and he hasn't come out."

That . . . wasn't good. Myrnin was the only real hope she had. "Frank, when you see him, I need you to tell him that I'm still here. Hanging on. That he wasn't wrong. Do you understand? He said he might be able to help me. Tell him I really, really need him now." She swallowed. "Can you call Shane? Tell him . . . tell him I'm still in the house?"

He shook his head. "Can't, sweetheart. I would if I could, but the comm system is screwed right now. They pulled fuses at the source, cut connections. I can't activate the speaker on his phone unless he comes here. I'm limited, too."

She was getting stretched too thin; she could feel the pull from the Glass House getting more tenuous. If it broke, she'd vanish like a puff of smoke on the wind.

"Frank! Please, you have to help me!"

He slowly shook his head. "You haven't thought this through," he said. "I guess that's understandable, all things considered; it's been a big day for you. Suppose Myrnin gets the message that you're still around. Suppose he comes and works some kind of crazy magic and makes contact with you. You're still trapped. Only way Michael got free of that place was to turn vampire." His rippling image stared through the air, not quite focused on her. "You ready to be a vamp, Claire? Full-on bloodsucking freak? Because I can tell you, it was the worst damn thing that ever happened to me, in a lifetime of bad things. And I don't want that for you. Or for my son. Better he lose you now. Better he not get false hope."

"But - " She really, really couldn't stay. Claire began drifting back to the portal, already worried that the cord connecting her to the Glass House was so thin. Or that Frank just might decide to cut it by slamming the door himself. "It doesn't have to be that way. . . ."

"I believe it does. Think about it," he said, as she fell backward into the dark. "Do the right thing."

"But - please tell Myrnin; tell someone!"

He shook his head, again. "It's better this way, Claire. Trust me. Just . . . let go."

Claire snapped out of the portal and into the Glass House's monochromatic living room, and energy rushed back into her. She felt an overwhelming relief, and a follow-on fear, because she hadn't realized just how weak she'd let herself become, through the looking glass.

Whether Frank was going to help her or not . . . that was anyone's guess. He probably didn't even know himself.

But as last hopes went, it was shaky, at best.

It got late. Eve made sandwiches, which the three living housemates ate in silence - or rather, Michael and Eve ate them. Shane just picked at his, and then left the table without a word. Michael and Eve watched him go, silently asking each other what to do, and then Michael said, "Better let him go."

Claire wasn't so sure that was the right thing.

She drifted upstairs - easy, since all she had to do was concentrate on going up, and suddenly she was passing between floors and seeing all the old wood and wiring and rat droppings and spiders hidden in the walls, and ugh, that wasn't the best trip ever. She was relieved to be floating in the silent upstairs hallway. We need an exterminator, she thought, but that really wasn't the biggest problem any of them had at the moment, truthfully.

Shane's door was open, and he wasn't inside. She looked in, checking the other side of the bed, and even drifting into the closet, but unless he was hiding under the leaning pile of laundry, he hadn't come here for his solitude.

The bathroom was empty. She didn't bother with Eve's room, or Michael's; she knew where he was, after she thought for a second.

She drifted through the closed door of her own bedroom, the one at the end of the hall, and found herself standing in twilight stillness. Outside, the sun was setting; this side of the house was already facing the night, and the sky beyond the window was a deep, dark blue.

Shane was sitting on the floor with his back against the bedroom door, in the dark. His knees were drawn up to his chest, and his head was back, resting against the hard wood. Somehow, she expected him to be crying, but he wasn't, not even silently; he was just sitting, eyes open and dry, staring off into the darkness. She hadn't made her bed, she realized; it was still a mess, sheets and blankets twisted from the last time she'd bounced up from it. Stupid to be embarrassed about that now, or about the laundry sitting in the corner, or about the nightgown she'd left flung on the floor when she'd gotten dressed.

"Shane?" she said. She didn't try to scream it; she knew that wouldn't get her anywhere except in Hiram Glass's bad books, again. "I'm so sorry. I wish I could do something to let you know that I'm here. I didn't want to leave you like this; it was stupid and - "

She froze, because his head had turned, and he was staring right at her. Joy bolted through her, but then it turned gray and faded as she realized he wasn't looking at her but through her.

At the nightgown lying on the floor.

He got up and grabbed it. For some bizarre reason she expected him to fold it up, maybe put it on the bed, but instead, he returned to the door, sank down in exactly the same spot, and held her nightgown in both hands.

He put it to his face and drew in a deep, shaking breath. "Help me. Please. I can't do this anymore. I can't. God, Claire, please." She'd never heard Shane like this before. He sounded . . . broken. Worse than when his father had died, worse than when he'd discovered what use Myrnin had made Frank into for the lab.

It didn't sound like Shane at all.

She settled in next to him, wishing she could touch him, hold him, make it right.

Finally, Shane sighed, as if he'd made some decision, and took something out of his jacket pocket. She didn't see what it was, not at first; it was just an angular shape in the dark.

And then, as he raised it to look at it, the shape turned into a gun. A semiautomatic pistol.

"Shane, where did you get a gun?" she blurted, and realized that was so not the question; his dad would have had them, and probably supplied him with an arsenal back in the bad old days. He'd always had a surprising amount of weaponry, but she'd never seen the gun before.

The problem wasn't where he'd gotten the gun.

The problem was that Shane was sitting in the dark, with a gun, and he was holding her nightgown to his chest.

"No!" She bolted upright, as much as an insubstantial ghost could, and faced him straight on. "No, you listen to me, Shane Collins, you can't do this. You can't. You hear me? This is not you. You're a fighter!"

He was staring at the gun, turning it to catch the dim light as if it were some beautiful jewel. There was no particular expression on his face, but she could sense the suffering inside him. This was real. As real as it got. He wasn't trying to get attention and sympathy; it wasn't some cry for help.

It was despair.

"I'm tired," he murmured. "I'm tired of fighting. And I want to see you again."

It sounded like he was replying to her. She knew he wasn't, but she couldn't stop herself from trying. Her whole insubstantial form was vibrating with terror and panic. "I know; I know you are. You've fought for all of us, for so long, and you keep losing us; I know. But you can't do this. I'm still here, Shane. I'm still here for you and I will always be here - please. . . ."

"You're not," he said. This time, there was absolutely no doubt that he was replying to her, although he didn't know he was - it was as if he was talking to himself.

He thought he was imagining her.

"You're not here, and you'll never be here again," he was saying in that dull, empty voice. He checked the clip on the handgun, racked the slide with a harsh metallic click, and then sat quietly with it held in his hand. "You're just in my head."

"I'm not." She knelt down facing him and concentrated on making him feel her presence. Believe her. "I'm here, Shane. I'm trapped in the house. Please tell me you can hear me."

"It's a bullshit lie. Just because Myrnin said it doesn't make it true."

"No, it is true, and as long as there's even a chance that I'm here, that I can come back, you can't do this, understand? You can't."

"Claire." A very faint curve of a smile touched his lips, and his eyes shone - not with happiness, she realized, but with tears. "You got in my head, you really did. And my heart. And I'm sorry."

He raised the gun.

"No!" She screamed it, and lunged at him, into him. "No, Shane, don't!"

She felt a surge of white-hot power ripple through her, felt the same world-ending snap of lightning that had ended her life, and suddenly -

Suddenly she was sitting in Shane's lap, holding on to his hand with both of hers, forcing the gun up and away from his head.

Sunset. It was sunset, and she had just . . . for a moment . . . become real again.

Shane yelled, and his hand opened. He dropped the gun, which bounced away on the carpet, and for a frozen second he just stared at her.

She let go of his arm, and he slowly lowered it, still staring.

And then his arms went around her.

Or tried to.

They went right through her.

She was fading again.

"No - " He grabbed for her. "Claire! Claire!"

"I'm still here," she shouted. It came out as a thin whisper of sound, but she knew he heard it; she saw the flare of life and hope in his eyes. "Don't give up!"

He reached out again, and she reached, too. Their fingers caressed. Hers looked like a faint outline in smoke. "God," he breathed. "You are here. The crazy fool was right; you are here. Claire, if you can hear me, I'm going to get you back. We're going to get you back. I swear."

He lunged to his feet and realized he was still holding her nightgown. He kissed the fabric and put it on the bed, laid his hand there in the hollow where she'd slept, and then grabbed the gun up from where it had fallen on the floor.

He pulled the clip, racked the slide, and caught the bullet as it ejected. Then he opened the top drawer of her bureau, moved some things, and put all three things - gun, clip, and bullet - inside.

He shut the drawer and said, "You saw all that, didn't you? Sorry. I'm sorry. I just - Claire, if you can hear me, can you do something? Make a noise?"

She concentrated. Maybe it was the fact that the sun was down that had changed things, but by working really hard, she managed to bump a small china cat that was sitting on her nightstand, a ridiculous yellow thing with a fake feather tail that Eve had bought her at a garage sale. It tipped over and rolled.

Shane turned that direction, and his fierce smile flashed like a blade. "Damn," he said. "You really are here. I didn't just make that up."

She drifted closer to him, close enough that if she'd been flesh and blood, they would have been embracing.

And he shivered. The smile didn't waver. "Oh God, Claire, I wish I could hold you. God. Look, I just - it was too much, with my dad and my mom and my sister. I felt - I just couldn't - "

"I know," she said. She wanted more than anything to be solid again, to hold him and kiss him and give him the hope he so desperately needed. "Can you hear me?"

"I - think so. It's like I'm imagining you. Not words, exactly, but I hear you." He laughed shakily. "Michael had this down, but I guess he had practice, right? You're learning on the job."

"You can't live for me," she said, and meant it. "It's important, Shane. You can't live just for me, and you can't die because you lost me. I need you to be stronger than that. Do you understand?"

He was silent for a moment, and she wasn't sure she'd gotten it across at all. There was a strange expression in his eyes, and his smile had faded to a memory.

"I know," he finally said. "I'm sorry. I got tired of being strong, Claire. I don't want to be alone."

"You're not alone. Michael and Eve are here, too."

He nodded and took a deep breath. "And you're here," he said. "Somehow. You're here."

"I'm not leaving you."

"Then that's enough. We're going to get you back." He was silent for a beat, then said, "You - won't tell them what I tried to do, will you?"

"Not unless you try it again."

"I won't," he said. He looked down, just as he would have if he could have actually seen her pressed close. "You're right there, aren't you?"


His arms slowly came up and around where her body would have been, holding her.

Holding air.

"Then I'm not letting go," he said.

And despite everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, that felt . . . peaceful.

Convincing Michael and Eve of her continued existence was more difficult than Claire had expected.

"Oh, come on, dude, you were a ghost when I moved in here!" Shane said. They were standing downstairs in the dusty parlor, with Claire floating unseen in the corner (which, by the way, really needed vacuuming). "Totally missing during the day. And you don't believe that I just saw her?"

"Shane - " Eve stepped forward, hands outstretched, looking distressed but determined. "Sweetie, you really have to understand that you're under a lot of stress - "

"Oh, you didn't just call me sweetie. Eve, it's me. Shane. You've called me a lot of things, but sweetie? Knock it off." He swung around toward Michael again, who had his arms folded, head down. "Seriously, can you not just believe me? Because it's true. I can hear her!"

"I don't hear her. And it's after sunset. If she's been saved by the house, why isn't she here?"

Shane took in a deep, calming breath. "She is," he said. "Claire, help me out, here. Say something. Do something."

"They can't hear me," she said. She'd been trying everything, but whatever power had zipped for her at sunset had been temporary; she couldn't make them understand, and even with all her concentration she couldn't touch physical objects anymore, much less tip something over. "I don't have enough power, I guess. But you can hear me, and that's what's important. Keep believing, Shane. Please."

Michael was talking over her. "Look, man, I want to believe you. I do. I'd be happy if there was anything left of her, even a ghost . . . but she's not here. It's my house. I'd know."

"Bullshit!" Claire shouted, and Shane laughed.

"She just called bullshit," he said, when Eve and Michael both gave him worried looks. "Honest. She did."

"I'm - really spooked about you, honey," Eve said slowly. "Seriously, you can't hear her. You can't."

"Because she's dead? Don't call me honey, or baby, or sweetie, or chocolate-covered marshmallow doughnuts, or whatever the code-word-for-crazy phrase of the day is, because I am not making this up!" Shane shouted it this time. "She stopped me - " He paused, course-corrected, and said, "She knocked over that damn yellow cat thing in her room. I asked her to do it, and she did."

"Maybe you should get some rest," Michael said.

"Maybe you should stop treating me like I have brain damage! Look, for once, just trust me. You know how much it makes me want to vomit to say this, but Myrnin was right. The house saved her - it's just that she's not as strong as you were, or the connection's not there, or something. I know she's here."

Michael stared at him, a frown forming on his forehead, and as Eve started to say something, he reached out and silenced her with a hand on her arm. "Wait," he said. "What time was this?"

"I can hear her now, man."

"When you saw her. When she knocked over the cat."

Shane thought about it a moment, then said, "Sunset. Around then. It was already dark in her room."

"Sunset," Michael repeated. "You're sure."

Shane shrugged. "I wasn't exactly watching the clock, but yeah, I think so."

"What?" Eve asked. She sank down into one of the faded parlor chairs and stared up at him with a mixture of dread and hope. "What is it?"

"Sunset was when I manifested in physical form," Michael said. "Maybe - if he's right - that's when Claire can make herself known. A little. Shane, you're sure - "

"If you ask me if I'm imagining it again, I'm going to punch you out, Dead Man Walking."

Michael raised his eyebrows and glanced at Eve. "He doesn't sound crazy."

"Er," she clarified, "crazier. He sounds like he's back to normal, which is baseline crazy."

"Says the girl dressed up in formal Goth mourning," Shane said. "Seriously, who buys a black lace veil? You keep that on hand for special occasions, like prom and kids' birthdays?"

Claire felt a laugh bubbling up. This . . . this was what she'd wanted. Life. Normal life, even if she wasn't connected the way she had been.

That's next. I'll make it back. I have to make it back.

Eve swept back the filmy net covering that had been over her face. "Excuse me, but my best friend just died, right here in our house! And you're mocking me?"

"She's not gone, Eve. And that is one cracked-out fashion statement, even for you."

Michael wasn't getting sidetracked, Claire realized. He was still watching Shane, and even if he believed, he was still wary. "You said she stopped you. From doing what?"

Shane's body language changed. His shoulders squared, and hunched forward a little, as if he was protecting himself from an attack. "Nothing."

Michael knew; Claire could see it. He'd known Shane a long time; he'd seen him hit bottom even before Claire had met the boy. He'd been there when Shane had been dragged out of his burning house, screaming for his sister.

If anybody could guess what Shane had been about to do, it was Michael, and from his expression, Shane knew that, too.

"You're not going to do nothing again, are you?" Michael asked. "Because if you are, come talk to me. Please."

Shane nodded, one short jerk.

"What?" Eve asked, mystified.

Shane changed the subject, fast. "Claire? Look, can you try again? See if you can make some noise. Anything."

It was almost midnight, and Claire was heartily sick of trying, but she concentrated, again, and pushed at the dusty vase sitting on the even-dustier table nearby.

It shivered, just a little.

Just enough to make a soft scraping sound.

Eve cried out and jumped out of her chair, staring at the vase; she'd been the closest to it. "Did you hear it?" she asked. She picked up the vase and put it back down. "It moved. I heard it!"

"Eve, chill," Michael said. "If she did move it, that wasn't much. It means she's really weak, if that's the best she can do even at night."

"And?" Shane asked. He took a step forward. "What?"

Michael shook his head. He picked up the vase, ran his fingers over the dusty surface, and put it back down. "Claire, if you can hear me, do it again. Try."

She concentrated so hard it felt like she might collapse into a tiny white dot, like a dying star, and the vase shivered and rocked. It wasn't much, but it was enough.

Michael steadied it, and smiled. A real, warm smile of relief. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them and said, "Thank you."

"I was right, wasn't I?" Eve suddenly shrieked and jumped like a cheerleader, waving her hands in the air. The black mourning veil floated in the air behind her like a cloud. "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

"Excuse me, you were right? I've been yelling at you guys for half an hour while you gave me the sad eyes and counseling!" Shane shouted back, but he was grinning now. He ran at Michael and hugged him fiercely, then Eve, catching her in midair as she squealed in delight. He spun her around. "She's here. She's really here!"

Claire wanted to collapse on the couch, but being insubstantial, collapsing was sort of theoretical. She settled for hovering close to it, and moved quickly as Shane threw himself in a relieved, boneless slouch on that end of the cushions. He covered his face with his hands for a moment. When he looked up again, his eyes were bright with tears. "She's here," he said again, more softly. "Thank you, God."

"Claire? Do it again, with the vase," Eve said. She knelt down and stared intently at it. "Go on, do it!"

She reached deep again, but there wasn't anything left, really . . . and then she felt a dim, whispered trickle of power. Of course. The house had power, loads of it. She might not be a Glass, but she was something to it - it had saved her. And if she was careful, maybe she could siphon off just a little....

She could actually see the power running through the boards and beams now, a close-knit cage of light. There, right in the middle, was a particularly bright, pulsing thread, like . . . well, like a blood vessel.

She touched it and got a shock, a small one, not the kind that hurt, but a feeling of stability and warmth.

Then her fingers sank into the flow of power, and the vase flew off the table and bashed into the wall and shattered into pieces, and Eve gasped and fell back, staring. She shot to her feet and did a victory dance. "Yes! Yes, that's my girl!"

Claire felt a ripple of power, and when she looked back, Hiram Glass was standing behind her. "Stop," he said. "Take your hands off that. Now."

She did, and the sudden removal of that surge of energy left her feeling even weaker and less real than before. Claire felt all the joy in her melt away, even while her Glass House family was celebrating.

Hiram was angry.

"You stupid, stupid creature," he hissed. "Don't ever touch my lifeblood again. Do you understand? You are not a Glass. You don't belong here, no matter what the house thinks. It's a dumb beast. A pet. It has no intelligence. I say who lives and dies, not the house, and I don't choose to help you."

"I'm sorry," she said. She hoped Shane couldn't hear her now - or hear the dread in her voice. There was something awful about Hiram now, something cold and black and violent. "I didn't mean - "

Hiram gave her a vicious, dry smile. "You won't last," he said. "You're already beginning to feel it. You're like the afterimage of the sun - a ghost, burned in for a moment, but after a few blinks it's gone. The house might have saved you temporarily, but you're just a memory without my help. And memories fade, Claire. They fade."

No, that couldn't be true. It couldn't. She looked at Shane, laughing, knuckle-bumping Michael. Eve was twirling in delight, catching Michael in her arms and kissing him.

This couldn't be temporary. It just couldn't.

Hiram gave her another bitter little smile when she said it, shrugged, and rippled into nothing.

He didn't even bother to convince her.

That, more than anything else, made her sickly sure he wasn't lying.

Nobody slept. Claire couldn't move objects anymore, no matter how hard she tried, and the effort exhausted her - but ghosts, apparently, didn't need unconsciousness like humans did. She stayed awake, drifting, watching as her friends broke out the cherished stash of Shiner and each had a beer in celebration.

"This is weird," Shane said, swigging one as Michael popped the cap on his own. "I mean, seriously. She died today. We should be - "

"She's not dead," Michael said. "And we'll get her back. You convinced me, man." He held up his hand, and Shane high-fived it. "But we need Myrnin. He's the one who said he could do it."

"I have his cell number," Eve volunteered. "Claire gave it to me. We could call?"

"Phones are out," Michael reminded her. She looked crushed. "I'll have to go get him."

"What about the portal thingie? Can you go through - Wait." Eve turned to Shane, frowning. "You went through, didn't you? How'd you do that?"

Shane shrugged. "Don't know exactly. I'm not sure I could do it again."

"Okay, Michael?"

He shook his head. "I don't have the right stuff, I guess. I've tried. Even if I get it to open, it's just black. Congrats, butthead; you can do something I can't."

"I'll add it to the list," Shane said loftily. "So, you want me to give it a shot?"

"It won't do any good," Claire said. She had to concentrate harder than before, and she wasn't sure Shane heard her, so she repeated it. He jerked and looked off into empty air, not remotely close to where she was floating. "Myrnin's not there. Amelie has him at Founder's Square."

"Say that again," Shane said. "Something about Myrnin?"

She composed herself and tried again. It was getting harder. Maybe that was just because Hiram had spooked her so hard, but she didn't think so. "Myrnin's at Founder's Square," she said again, very distinctly. She looked at the hot, burning lattice of power that ran through the walls of the Glass House with real longing, but she didn't dare try to touch it again. Hiram would know.

"Founder's Square." Shane had shut his eyes to listen, and now he opened them and looked over at Michael. "Claire says he's at Founder's Square."

Michael tipped the bottle and drank about half of it in three long gulps, then put it down. "I can't take the easy way," he said. "I have to go in person, get him, and bring him back."

"But - what if he won't come?" Eve said, wide-eyed, as she anxiously turned her unsipped beer in her hands. "Michael, what if Amelie won't let you come back, either? Don't go. I have a wicked bad feeling."

"I'll come back," he promised her. "How could I leave you?" He kissed her, long and sweet. It left her breathless, with splashes of color high in her pale cheeks.

"Maybe we should go along," Shane said. "Strength in numbers, man."

Michael smiled at Eve and shook his head. "After she bitch-slapped the Founder? Not a good idea. The two of you don't just have baggage with the vampires - you've got baggage trains. I go alone, and I come back with Myrnin."

He went into the kitchen, where he picked up his keys, and then he looked around and said, "Claire? Are you here?"

She tried doing the cold-spot thing, but clearly, she wasn't powerful enough now to pull it off. Even moving through him didn't work.

"I didn't want to tell them, but - if I don't come back, Claire, you have to find a way to stay with Shane. Somehow. Understand? And take care of Eve. I need you to promise me."

He wasn't confident now, not like he'd been in front of the others. He knew it was dangerous, going out there. Deadly dangerous.

"I will," she said. He still couldn't hear her. Even though it was not a good idea, she reached out and touched the house's power line, soaking up energy. She heard her voice actually ring and echo here in the black-and-white world as she said, "I'll do everything I can, Michael. I love you. Take care."

He heard her. She saw the relief wash over him, and he smiled, and then he was gone.

Claire let go of the pulsing latticework of power, and immediately felt exhausted. Thin. Faded.

She saw a flash of color - color, in this black-and-white world - and pirouetted in midair to face it.

Leaning against the closed kitchen door, cutting her off from Shane and Eve, was Hiram. The color came from the red brocade vest he was wearing, and the gold gleam of a watch chain. He looked almost real, almost more real than her live friends in their black-and-white world.

"I warned you," he said. "I warned you not to touch that again."

"Michael needed to hear me."

"He's running off on a fool's errand, and if he dies out there, I can't save him again," Hiram said. "That's your fault, girl. He's hell-bent on saving something that ain't even real anymore."

"I'm real!" she snapped. "More real than you."

He looked down at himself, in all the glorious Technicolor, and Claire felt stupid saying it. Of course he was more real, or at least had more power. "I said it before: the house likes you. Doesn't mean I have to like you. It's all instinct. I'm the brain, Claire. And I've decided you're dangerous. You keep blundering about, touching things you're not allowed to handle. You're a toddler in a room full of glass."

"Don't you mean I'm dangerous to you?" she asked.

Hiram smiled, but it was a terribly cold kind of thing. "I should have ripped you up and thrown you out when you first crossed over."

Claire backed off instinctively. There was something real about him, even though he was a ghost, just like her. Hiram had power. More than she'd thought. What had he said? Something about his bones in the foundations and his blood in the mortar . . . ugh. But that would make him very strong, she guessed. And very territorial. He was part of the house, but the house was still something else, with its own will. The house had saved her, and Hiram didn't agree.


He was drifting in her direction, even though he wasn't seeming to move. Claire hesitated for a second, and as she did, he rushed at her. She had the absolute certainty that if he touched her, got hold of her with those strong, grabbing hands, he would rip her to pieces.

Claire shrieked and dropped straight through the floor. It was all she could think of . . . and suddenly she was falling through wood, dirty pipes, a totally startled rat, a freak-out number of cockroaches, and into the dark, creepy basement, which, with the lights out, was super-awful creepy.

It was also dangerous. She heard Hiram's soft, bodiless laugh. "I'm in the foundations, girl. You think you can fight me better down here?"

Claire wasn't actually sure she could fight him at all, but he was absolutely right: this was the last place she wanted to try. Instead, she arrowed herself up, fast, blurring through the floor, through the parlor, up again into the second floor, and . . .

. . . Into the secret room, which was directly overhead but on the attic level. This was Amelie's retreat, from when the house had originally been built (Hiram, she guessed, had been around even then). It had always been Claire's special retreat when things got intense, and now she hesitated there, trembling, waiting for Hiram to come screaming through the walls after her.

But he didn't. She listened, she extended her new and very awkward senses (this being-dead thing took work), and she sensed . . . nothing. It was as if this room existed in a different house altogether. It even felt different . . . and, she realized with a sudden shock, it definitely looked different, because the lights were on, and she could see the dusty red velvet of the sofa, and the brown wood, and the colored jewellike glass of the Tiffany lamps.


When she closed her eyes, she could actually feel Hiram, but he was outside the room. He'd hit the floor and bounced off, and now he was circling around like a shark, looking for a way inside.

Somehow, Amelie's influence made this a refuge not just on the physical level but on this level, too.

She was safe, as long as she stayed here.

Not only that, but she could actually see herself, like a very faint transparent image, and when she tried sitting down on the couch, she actually felt gravity.

It was as close to real as she'd been all day, it seemed, and she curled up on velvet she could almost feel, and closed her eyes.

Michael will be back, she told herself. Soon. And Myrnin will be with him.

She was going to get out of this.

She had to get out of this.

Claire didn't sleep, exactly, but the stillness and soft peace of the room made her . . . drift. When she heard the snap of the lock on the door, though, she came bolt upright on the couch in terror.

Hiram had a way in.

Only . . . he didn't. It wasn't Hiram at all. She heard footsteps on the stairs, and then Shane was standing there in the room, saying, "Claire?" He sounded anxious. "Claire, are you here?"

"Yes," she said.

His head snapped around, and his eyes widened. He heard me. No, he sees me!

"Claire," Shane said, and the relief in his voice was intense. He hesitated for a second, then pointed at her. "Don't move." He clumped down the stairs and yelled, "I found her! She's in here!"

"Okay!" Eve yelled back. "Um, do you want me to come up, or - ?"

"No," he said. "Not right now."

"I'm taking a shower, then."

Eve, Claire thought with a smile, always showered when she was nervous and worried. She was probably very worried about Michael.

Shane closed the door to the hall and said, "There goes the hot water." He walked back up the steps and looked at the couch, at her. "I can see you," he said.

"Really? I'm solid?" She looked down at herself. She wasn't, really, at least to her own eyes. More like a genuine ghost - there, not there.

Shane reached out slowly and touched her arm, and where he touched . . . where he touched, it felt real. Looked real. "Yeah," he said. It sounded very soft, and not very steady. "Solid." He sat down on the couch and, before she could even think about moving, grabbed her and hugged her close. Where he touched her, where her body pressed against his, everything felt right again, as if he was anchoring her back into the world. He kissed her, and it was just exactly right, all the sensations, all the tastes, the warm velvety feel of his lips . . . so amazing.

She didn't exactly know how it had happened, but he was stretched out on the couch, and she was lying on top of him, and it was so delicious and sweet and wonderful. His fingers stroked through her hair, and it swept down to brush his face.

"You make me real," she said, in wonder. "It's you."

He didn't say anything. Not with words. It was all just a blur after that, beautiful and strange and perfect, and she didn't want to let go of him, not ever.

But when she finally opened her eyes again and looked, she realized that there was something wrong. Shane was asleep next to her, curled tight against her, but he was . . . faded. The colors of his skin, his hair, they were pale now. Almost as black-and-white as they had been downstairs, out of this room.

And she was brighter. More vivid.

She'd taken it from him.

Claire stood up and backed away from the couch. Shane mumbled and reached for her, but she stayed where she was, at arm's length. "I can't," she whispered. "It's - the room, it's Amelie's room; it's doing something to us. . . ."

"It's making you real," he said. "It's okay."

"No, no, it's not. You're fading, Shane. And I can't do this."

She looked real now, and felt real, but not at this cost. Not ever.

"Claire . . ." Shane tried to get up, but he was weak, and he almost fell. He sank back on the couch, looking pale. "Whoa. Dizzy."

"You have to go," she said. "You have to leave me here. I'll be okay until Myrnin comes. Please, Shane. You can't stay."

"I'll go," he said. "But only if you give me one last kiss."

She didn't want to, but she couldn't help herself, either. He stood up, braced himself, and walked toward her. She backed away, but the wall behind her stopped her; if she went beyond it, Hiram was there, waiting.

Shane kissed her. It was hot and lovely and full of promises, and then he stepped back, smiling.

But he looked even more faded.

"Go," she whispered. "Go now, Shane. Please. I love you, and you have to go."

He picked up his jeans and stepped into them, grabbed his shirt, and threw it on as well. "I'm not losing you," he said. "I'm telling you that. I'm not."

She smiled at him, and watched him go.

Then she stretched out on the velvet couch, in the ghost of his warmth, and just for a while, she closed her eyes and dreamed.

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