More of the Not-Right Man here, so if you’re looking to avoid spoilers on a future Rankin Flats novel, skip this chapter, or at least the dream sequence. The frank talk about sex afterwards as Garrett and Brianna are road-tripping is actually sort of a highlight for me in this one. You don’t often actually read couples having discussions about kinks in romance-centric books. The kink usually becomes the book itself, which is totally fine. But I wanted this book to be as much about Brianna and Garrett’s exploration of each other as it was a book about Canada and ghosts and goblins. It might read as wonky, and it kind of is, but the core concept was something I probably would have kept.
Where their exit from Calgary had been sad, to Garrett, it felt like they were slinking away from Edmonton.
It was through no fault of the city, which was itself gorgeous and its people friendly. Taken individually, their experiences there had been pleasant – certainly the quickly-filling back end of their Durango was a testament to the city’s mall, and the art and shows they’d taken in had scratched a creative and intellectual itch in both of them.
But where before, the waters of their honeymoon had been clear and beautiful, now there was a skim of oil on the surface, tension where there had been only minor dapples from their tempers. Both of them were too jovial, too forcibly happy, and they could feel it in the other.
And in the early hours, as Garrett reshuffled everything in the Durango to better accommodate their now now-bulging suitcases and bags, the phantom child strolled out of the hotel, making her first appearance since the fight at the nightclub.
* * *
With three hours to kill until they hit the Rocky Mountains for the first time since leaving Waterton behind, Garrett reclined the passenger chair slightly and folded his hands behind his head. Brianna squeezed his thigh before turning on the radio, tuning in to CKUA. She’d discovered the station played an eclectic mix of music, and wasn’t disappointed when Baggage Blues started blaring after a brief fade-in of a Lusty Galavant B-side.
Garrett grinned at the fitting nature of the blues song and tucked himself in tight against the door. His eyes felt as heavy as bowling balls, but he fought sleep as long as he could, taking in every inch of his beautiful wife as long as he could before his resistance faded.
Not in some extrasensory manner, but just as a man is prone to do with a full belly and a spectacular woman at his side to see him off to sleep. For a while, he dreamed of nothing, his mind occupied by the rhythm of the tires on the road – and on a good stretch of highway, there is most certainly a soothing sense of music to the tires on the asphalt. It was their song, really, his and Brianna’s. When they needed solace, they either found it usually in each other’s bodies or in a simple drive, picking a road and just going.
But there was something else in that quiet dreamless peace, something probing at the edges of his mind. Formless, it nevertheless had presence, and he could feel its malice. Softly, he whimpered, barely feeling Brianna’s touch on a subconscious level. Murphy talked sometimes about feeling the edge of existence when he meditated. He said it was like a pulsing membrane, tantalizingly thin but impossible to breach. It brought him calm sometimes to feel it, as though he were just a hand’s span away from his lost love Jade Gibbons.
What Garrett felt was similar, but it lacked the warm, soft beat. This was manic, something pounding at the walls of his existence, begging to be let in. It scared him in its need, in its pleading. This was not something human. His mind shifted from uneasy slumber to a deep dream, wherein he ran from room to room in Ed and Rose’s beautiful two-story house. The windows. The doors. They all needed to be checked against the slavering thing wanting to be let inside. Fight as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t beat this thing. It was made of teeth and it was always hungry, always wanting.
He slammed window after window into place, latching them and checking them twice, and sprinted downstairs to make sure everyone was still okay. Ed sat in an armchair with his humongous back to Garrett, muttering something as he held Rose’s prone body across his lap, stiff as a mannequin. He laid a hand on Ed’s shoulder, but his accountant would not look up, would not acknowledge him. Brianna. Where was Brianna?
Izzie was crying somewhere in the house, quiet sobs at first that turned into great shrieks of pain and fear. Garrett broke away from Ed and Rose, trying to shout for his and Brianna’s goddaughter, but his mouth was cotton and he could not make more than a wheeze. Stairs yawned below him, stairs that did not exist in real life but took hold of his mind in their dream-realness as he accepted them as simply forgotten and raced down.
“Isabel,” he murmured out loud. “Isabel?”
Brianna squeezed his leg and tried to draw him out of the dream. Instead, her voice came through in the dream as he spotted her at the bottom of the stairs. “Garrett,” she said, smiling up at him, holding a child in her arms. It was too big to be Izzie, he tried to warn her, but he couldn’t make the words come out.
“We’re okay. Down here in the dark, it’ll all be okay,” Brianna said. The child in her arms writhed and Garrett leaped down the last five or six stairs, trying to stop what happened next. Brianna pulled back the child’s hood. It was the girl that had been following them, her teeth long and jagged slivers. Still holding the child, Brianna bared one breast, cooing as the child leaned in. Garrett reached out to pull the child away from her, but the child latched on, the teeth tearing into the flesh. Instead of pain, Brianna gave him a beatific smile, and she fell backwards, into the hard-packed earth in that hellish basement, sinking through the ground with the child.
He dove at the ground, tried to dig for her, but she was already gone. Still he dug and dug, his fingertips coming away bloody stumps. From upstairs, Ed sighed heavily, and there was the thump of feet as he headed for the front door. “It’s time you came in,” Garrett overheard him say, and then came more gnashing, meat being torn from the bone as whoever had been out there let themselves gorge on Garrett’s best friend.
Rose stumbled to the top of the stairs, trails of tears streaking her cheeks. “There’s someone to see you,” she said simply, and stood aside to let the intruder down the stairs. His face wasn’t visible, only his shoes and a glowing snaggle-tooth pendant visible, but the man reeked of the sickly sweetness of death.
A scrape of a match against a box, and the man’s hands glowed. His fingers were caked in black dirt, his fingernails cracked and bleeding. “Thanks for watching her for me,” the intruder said, and Garrett woke, gasping.
Brianna cast a worried glance at him. His cheeks and forehead were even redder, and his hair was slicked in sweat. “How bad was it?” she asked quietly.
Garrett pushed his seat back upright and grabbed his sport bottle of water from the center console. Once he’d had a drink, he muttered, “Bad,” and unscrewed the top to splash some on his face. “Know that tweener I’ve told you I’ve been hallucinating?” Slowly he filled her in on the dream’s details, and she frowned.
“Jeez. That’s… dark. And creative.”
Garrett snickered despite himself. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Do you think she means anything? In a Freudian sense?” The question was wary, tentative, and she stared pointedly ahead when she asked it.
Garrett reached behind the seat and dug in the cooler for a plastic container full of carrots, celery, cauliflower, and broccoli. As he fiddled with the seal, he said, “I don’t know. I keep circling the idea she’s some kind of representation of Rowen, but ever since I saw her and Jade down in that cave in Hamber, it’s… well, it’s not like my guilt is gone, but it’s not as bad. So I don’t think it’s her.”
“That’s not really what I meant.”
Garrett finally managed to weasel the wrapper off the veggie tray and popped it open. “Then what?”
“I… never mind.”
This was getting annoying, but he tried not to let it show. “Come on. Talk to me.”
“It’s going to piss you off.”
“Hon, talking around it is going to piss me off even more.” He snapped into a carrot, and she reached over for a bite of cauliflower. “This honesty thing is a two-way street.”
“All right.” She nibbled on the cauliflower, thinking about it, and turned down the music. “Are you really ready for kids?”
“We’ve been over this. A few times now.”
“I know. I know. But you keep thinking about Rowen, but your dream… I mean, that’s not exactly subtle imagery.”
“You think her tearing your boob apart is my subconscious saying I don’t want kids?” Garrett frowned as he crunched half of a mini-carrot. “Huh.”
“I know I was the one who pushed kids early on. I guess… I mean… if that’s what it is, and you didn’t want kids, I guess I wish you would have told me. If that’s what it is.” She shoved the rest of the cauliflower into her mouth and said around it, “I’d love you anyways. But I-”
“I know I’m being crazy but-”
“No. I mean it. I’m love the idea of having kids with you. I’m worried about them having my sight, but fuck it, we’ll figure that out together. It’s not like it’s the worst thing in the world.”
“But maybe it scares you deep down because, you know, it’d mean you and Murphy stopping the vigilante thing.”
When they’d first started talking about their long-term relationship hopes, Garrett and Brianna had determined pretty quickly that should she become pregnant, he would put a stop to his vigilantism, at least for the child’s first five years. Similar to his recent six-month hiatus, that didn’t mean Murphy and Garrett’s other spectral friends would stop chasing down criminals – it not only helped protect the living, but it gave the ghosts a hobby, something that was quite rare in the afterlife. While he became the primary child-rearer, Garrett would call crimes in, either to their cop friend Monica or their FBI contact Annalise Fox.
Quietly, he said, “Don’t forget, I’m the one who tried to quit in the first place.”
“And I told you, if you didn’t want back in the life, I’d support you no matter what.”
“No, I know. That wasn’t a dig. I’m not trying to argue. I’m trying to tell you I’m perfectly okay with having a kid.” He finished off the last of the carrot and cleared his throat. “Actually, uh…”
His cheeks burning, it was his turn to be coy. “Ah. Nothing.”
“No no no. Talk to me or I get to pull your whole grumpy bit on you.”
“The thing is… uh. Thinking about you pregnant? Kinda does it for me.”
“Mr. Moranis,” she gasped in a mockery of shock. “Not only are you a little bit of an exhibitionist, but you’ve got a pregnancy kink too?”
“All right, all right, you don’t have to make fun of me.”
“Oh come on, it’s cute. And I’m totally using it as ammo.”
“Yep, should’ve never said anything.”
“You just gonna sit back and knock one out thinking about my big ol’ belly?”
He groaned. “Now you’re just making it weird. I mean… the idea of making you pregnant. It’s really, really… yeah.” There was a little pause while he picked out another carrot and chewed for a while. “And an exhibitionist? Me?”
“Baby, think about how many times we’ve done it this trip where people could maybe see us.”
Confused, he did think about it and ticked off fingers. “The other night when we went dancing.”
“What are you talking about? We didn’t…” It dawned on him. He’d liked taking her up against the glass. A lot. “Oh.”
“Uh huh. That morning outside the diner.”
“Well, we didn’t really have sex, and we had time to kill.”
“And how many pictures of me have you taken this trip?”
“Um. I take it you don’t mean touristy ones?”
He finished off another carrot, thought about it, and muttered. “Well, that’s more voyeurism, but… fuck me, I’m an exhibitionist.”
She laughed. “No, you’re not. Just parts of it turn you on, I think. Being dangerous in a safe way, you know as opposed to the secrets you absolutely have to keep? Think about it. Someone catches us having sex, what, they get a little red-faced? That’s the part I think you like.”
Another pause. “Huh. I think you’re right.”
“It’s not that uncommon. We did a whole big thing on turn-ons in a psychology class I took in college. It was really interesting.”
“Is that… I mean, are we okay? I don’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable.”
She eased up on the accelerator as she passed a slow-moving semi. The four-lane highway west of Edmonton was split by a grassy median, and had been flat and easy-going. It was a perfect stretch of road to really just chill like they were, and she felt her cautious worry about him being afraid of kids slip away as they lost themselves in the conversation. “It’s fine. Really, and it’s kind of hot in a lot of ways knowing you want me that much. I don’t think I’d let any other guy take pictures of me, but with you… I feel like we’re safe. So long as you let me do the uploading of our vacation pictures to Facebook.”
He grinned. “I probably would screw that up. Be a fine way to give your mom a heart attack.”
“So what are yours?”
“What do you mean?”
Garrett waved a sprig of broccoli at her. “Your kinks. I mean, I know you like a little spanking now and then.”
“Oh, um… yeah. That one’s kind of weird. It’s not like I’m into S and M or anything, but I don’t mind a little pain, I guess. Just a little, though. You’ve got my pleasure centers down to a science.” She shivered thinking about their crazy sex after the bar. “Yeah. Definitely good there.”
“So what else? Got anything you might want to try?”
“This is going to sound weird, and maybe it’ll change later, but… not really. I like making love. That sounds corny, I don’t know, but it’s true. I like the more physical stuff too, don’t get me wrong, but what gets me going up here,” she tapped her breast and her head, “is just kinda plain Jane you on top or me on top. I like it simple.”
“Okay. If you ever feel like things are getting dull, just tell me.”
“Why?” She glanced over, arching an eyebrow. “Are things getting boring for you?”
“Not even close. You?”
“Oh hell no,” she said, a huge grin spreading across her face. “Nope nope nope.”
“Sure you don’t want to swing back to Lethbridge on our way home, see if those swingers aren’t still around?”
She punched his arm, laughing. “You’re the only one I’ll ever want in the sheets.”
“You are too.” He stared out at a grove of nearly-bare aspens, trying to ignore the child in the back-seat riding atop Brianna’s overnight bag. “I don’t think… if something ever happened to you, I don’t know if I could move on.”
She glanced over. “You damn well better.”
“You think I’d want you mopey and depressed all your life? Why the hell would I want you to suffer over me?”
“It wouldn’t be about suffering. There’s no one-”
“Don’t say that. Because if something happened to me, I’d want you to find someone amazing in her own right, someone who deserved you just as much as you deserve her.” She sniffed, but she wasn’t crying. “You don’t just help people by beating the shit out of criminals, Garrett. You’re good for people, whether you know it or not. You make them a little braver. A little more… themselves. And I’d want that for someone else. If you met the right person.”
He watched her for a while, not really thinking, not really knowing what to say to that. He could try to placate her, but it would be a lie, and he knew the truth. He’d already experienced the madness that thinking his wife was dead could bring. If something happened to her – the real Brianna – there would be no healing. No coping. Not that he would kill himself, but the suffering would haunt him more than the ghosts he saw. “If something happens to me first, I’d want you to be happy too and find someone,” he finally said. That much was true.
“Oh, I would. Got someone already in mind,” she said brightly.
He laughed. “What?”
“It’s like you’ve never heard of Bradley Cooper. I don’t even think I’d make it to your funeral. It’d just be a jet ride to Hollywood, a little ‘heeey, let’s ride this Cooptown train,’ and then we’d be bumpin’ uglies on a yacht in Jamaica.”
He spat out little orange bits of carrot and brushed off the dashboard, still snickering. “Good. Yeah, perfect. I like that plan.”
“Should probably just off you right now and go for it.” She thought about it. “Eh, it’d be a shame to let your sexy butt go. You do make excellent mac and cheese.” “I knew you kept me around for something.