There was not, Whitney had thought, an easy part to the restoration of the Crossroads Park. The whole thing was a challenge, and the whole thing was back-breaking work, work that ate time, hours and weeks and seemingly years passing by while she dug. The whole thing was the hard part.
That was before she got to the really hard part.
There was a corner of the park now that looked fresh and beautiful — so fresh that not only had the local newspaper taken pictures, one of the national magazines had come in to tell her story. The plantings, mostly perennials, had been picked to thrive with minimal care, the grass was trimmed weekly by a local kid who wanted something to do for a school project, and the local fae and spirits had taken to sharply … reprimanding… anyone who littered in the cleaned area or near it.
But that meant that first, the rest of the park looked far worse than it was, and secondly, Whitney was now faced with a wall of brambles where a raspberry bush and a rose bush had gone feral and started fighting over a statute of a Revolutionary War hero.
She was wearing elbow-length leather gloves, her thickest jeans, and a jacket that was too warm for the season and still not quite tough enough to handle the briars, unearthing the figure of a woman holding a musket, or at least unearthing the chest the woman-statue was sitting on, when two more animate figures came up to her.
The one on the left was a young woman, younger than Whitney, barely past her teens from the looks of her, and translucent in the way that Whitney had come to associate with a certain type of spirit. The one on her right was a young man, solid but slightly sparkling, the ears under his hat pointed and ragged.
He spoke first. “There are things that should not be dug up,” he warned her.
“There are things that ought to be dug up,” the ghost countered, “but carefully.”
Whitney raised her eyebrows at the woman. It wouldn’t be the first time she had dug up bones here. This park had a complicated history, some of it very dark.
“Oh, it’s not me.” The woman flapped her hands. “I died here, but I didn’t actually die until I got to the hospital. My friends tried,” she added sadly. “I keep hoping that they’ll come back, so I can tell them it’s okay, but they never have.”
Whitney was about to speak, to ask her who her friends were, if she remembered names or faces or identifiers. That, too, wouldn’t be the first time. The city was so thick with ghosts, sometimes she wondered how the living walked.
The fae beat her to it, and she was not unwise enough to interrupt a fae. “This place, why were you here?” he asked — not Whitney; everyone knew why Whitney was there.
“We’d heard, Ben had heard, that if you came to this park, you got the best highs. That there were special places — we had to clear away briers, even then, but we sat here,” her hand went through the thorns and patted the chest, leaving a trail of very excited, green-sprouting path of briers. “We sat there and we smoked, and Ben was right. It was the best high. But then…”
The sparkling man cleared his throat. “When you open your eyes too wide, there are passages that you find. And some of them are benign and some are malignant and some don’t care at all for the rules of humanity and the dirt-world.”
Whitney stepped back and considered the statue, considered her companions, considered their faces. “While you tell me more, tell each other more,” she offered, “if I trimmed the roses and raspberries down to the height of the chest, I think they could be coaxed to grow thick enough to keep people off the statue base but still let the lady be seen.”
They shared a glance between them that was heavy with thought, and then the fae man nodded. “Aye. Aye, I think Elspeth would like that. Her and her bear. I think that would suit them, prickly as they were.”
And their bear. Whitney was about to ask — there was a story there, she could tell — but the ghost perked up. “The bear! Yes. There was this moment…” Both of her hands sketched in the air. Whitney stepped aside, clipping carefully at the twined briers, while the girl talked.
“I closed my eyes, took in the smoke, the way you do. I passed the joint, and then I opened my eyes and I was — I was in the chest, somehow.”
“It holds memories now, the way the statue does, not as it once held a living being,” the fae man murmured. Whitney’s eyes took in the chest, wider than a coffin but about as long, made in stone but looking like wood that had simply been touched with the White Witch’s spell or Medusa’s gaze.
Had it? The city had held stranger tales.
“There was someone — there were someones — there were legions in there with me. They were there and they were everywhere and then Ben, Ben fell in too.”
Her voice caught. Whitney worked at the briers, snip, snip, cut through vines as thick as her thumb and thicker.
“It’s become a trap for more than the one it was made for.” The fae could not reach through the tangle, but the edge of the chest seemed to sparkle for a moment. “Did it hold you then?”
The girl tilted her head. “I don’t think that’s the question.”
“It’s the question I’m asking now, though, isn’t it?” He’d grown an inch, a hand-span, half a foot taller and broader to boot.
“I think the question is, does it hold you?” Her voice had lost all of the sleepy mellowness it had held before.
Whitney’s clippers fell quiet. The fae man was a foot taller than the ghost now, and his mutton chops were something to behold.
“It was built for me. Elspeth built it. But now, now — does it hold you?”
“Ben didn’t make it out. He fell in and he freaked out, and he was grabbing at me, and at everyone else in there, and I tried, I tried so hard to get him out.” Her voice broke. “I tried to get them all out. But they wouldn’t come, they couldn’t get through the door—”
“You saw a door?”
Through the opening she had carved in the canes, Whitney studied the chest. There were runes she didn’t understand carved all around it, and patterns, flowers and vines, fruits and a couple vegetables so suggestive she was certain she was blushing.
“I tried, I tried to get him through the door. But he wouldn’t come, he wouldn’t—”
“And your body died, and his, while you were still trying to haul his soul out of the trap.” The fae man bowed his head. “You should not have died.”
“Bad trip.” The girl shrugged. “I was dumb; I didn’t know where the weed had come from. I didn’t know what I was putting in my body — me! A vegetarian! I grew food on my balcony! But this weed…”
“Your heart was strong, but stronger than your body.” He shouldn’t have been able to touch her, but the fae’s hand brushed over the ghost’s shoulder. “And because of that, your body failed you. Not your heart. Not your mind. You chose to try to save someone who, unfortunately, could not have been saved. That was not the way your life should have ended.”
She shifted back and forth. “But I just—”
“Did what you could. It was not your fault that it was not a possible thing to fix. I can’t fix what was done—” the man began, and the girl looked at him oddly.
“You said the box was made for you.” It was as if the smoke came and went in her vision. With more and more of the briers gone — they seemed to be falling away from Whitney’s clippers now, and it was possible that they were, in this place — she could see that the runes made a full loop around the box. “You said it was made to hold you. But here you are. Who put you in a box?”
“Ah.” The fae sighed and leaned against a tree that Whitney could’ve sworn was five feet further north. Landscaping around fae could be a challenge. “Ah, and that is its own long story, but suffice it to say, my Elspeth put me in a box, and I offered her riches and health and a forever life, but in the box I stayed — and by her side I stayed, until the day she died, because stubborn woman would accept no fae gift but me. She’s in there,” he added. “It’s her statue, and it’s her strength, and it’s her power there, and so here I am.”
“And the box?”
“Suffers not fools who play with things beyond their ken, suffers not those who come into the part with ill intent. It’s best,” he added to Whitney, “if you leave a wide margin of the flowers and berries. Else this park will see deaths that will not aid in your project.”
Whitney nodded, but her eyes were on the ghost. “You remain here,” she murmured. “I remain here. Some time has passed.”
He looked, for a moment, like he belonged in the statue’s era, his clothing shifting, the mutton-chops coming back. “Some time has passed,” he agreed.
“More time will pass.”
Bones, spirits, both took a long time to let go, Whitney had learned. If the fae was bound here by his Elspeth, if the girl was bound here by her death —
“Much more time will pass,” he agreed.
“Let me show you my favorite place. She hasn’t found it yet, but I think we can get there.” The ghost offered the fae a hand.
He smiled, a sad thing that still had hope, and put his hand in hers, although spirits, as far as Whitney had learned, were untouchable. “And then perhaps we can throw coins in the wishing-well, and whisper stories to the passer-bys of wishes they shouldn’t have made,” he offered, and in turn, the ghost giggled.
Whitney finished a job that should have taken hours, and wondered how long had actually passed. On the dais, the Revolutionary War hero smiled her enigmatic smile and aimed her musket, crouched so that the carving of a bear rested at her feet.
“You’ll let go eventually,” Whitney told her, although she had no proof nor reason to believe that. “Eventually.”
She looked at the expanse of park she had left to go, the park to which there were no easy parts, and wondered, if only for a minute, how much time would pass.
Then she picked up her hoe and removed a weed, and another, and another. The sun hadn’t set yet, and she had many weeds to go before she slept.