Forgotten, by Abby Hall. 2019.
The room was dim in the midday light of fall in Illinois, but one rosette window illuminated the room in a ghastly gray glow. A desk sat against the window, and an easel was situated on the left side of the desk. Watercolor papers and canvases were scattered across the floor and desk, along with pencil sketches on thick paper, and a stack of metal-ring notebooks. To the right, there was a disheveled bed holding the sleeping form of a man in snowflake pajama pants and a stained gray t-shirt.
The three stood in silence. Ada took a deep breath, filling her lungs to expand her rib cage. She was calmer than before, but tense, and the feeling made a small anger flame in her chest. “Hello?” she said, more irritably than she had intended.
Hector groaned and rolled out of the bed slowly until he hit the floor. Ada wondered for a moment if he, too, was a ghost, but realized that wasn’t possible—he was an immortal painter. Dole wouldn’t have sent her here if he were dead.
The man struggled to his feet and yawned loudly. His dark brown hair was pulled back in a tangled ponytail at the base of his neck, and the hair reached down to the middle of his back. His eyebrows were dark and bushy, and his teeth the yellow of someone who smoked and drank and didn’t brush his teeth as often as he should.
“Hello,” he mumbled. “Pleased to meet you, Ada and friends. May, right?” He pointed to Maeve, and she shook her head. “Mage? Maven?”
She shook her head again and whispered a shaky, “Maeve.” Hector nodded, scratching at his back under the shirt, and lumbered toward them, extending his other hand. Maeve took it gingerly and shook it once. He then turned to Ada and shook her hand with a limp grasp that, somehow, made her even angrier.
With a slight sleepy limp, Hector moved toward his desk and scraped his chair across the wood floors with a scree. He sat, crossing one leg and leaning forward on his hand. He looked to Ada like a vulture with his neck bent, contorted on his perch. “And Pretty?” Hector enunciated the t sound enough for Ada to have to correct him, spelling Priddy’s name out loud.
“Dole tells me you want to discuss the painter business.” He yawned again. Large, blue bags hung under his pale eyes, and Ada saw some sort of innate sadness in him; it wasn’t a laziness, but a hopelessness that made him lumber and slink around the room.
“I want to talk about your contract, and anything you know about me. I’ve lost my memory,” Ada said. She shifted the backpack straps on her shoulders and watched Maeve out of the corner of her eyes, unsure about what the girl would think.
A wave of his hand, and Hector told them to sit wherever they pleased. Maeve ended up scooting onto the floor with Priddy by her side. Ada stayed standing.
“To begin with, I know nothing of your past. You and I have never met. I only know what Dole has told me—she helped you make your contract. She helped me, as well.” Hector looked out the window at his side, which guided Ada’s eyes in the same direction. She saw a group of dogs, various breeds and sizes and colors, chasing after a single white rabbit in the yard. It looked playful. She guessed the animals were no longer alive.
“Dole helped you make your contract?”
Hector nodded, still not looking Ada’s way. “I was a man of only thirty something at the time, and terrified. I was a child during the first World War, but my father was sent away and died in Europe. Of course, we couldn’t bring his spirit back here. When the second War erupted, I ran. I left home for a few years, evading everyone, living alone in the woods. My mother was the only other one at home, and she was ill enough for the draft to believe her when she said I was dead somewhere. They found a badly burned body in a meadow near here and took that as enough proof. I haven’t existed since then.” A slight breeze blew through the attic and tickled Ada’s hair against her face. She wondered how Hector could stay up here in the winter. “By the time I got back, she was—nobody ever came out here, so I have no way of knowing how long—” He turned further toward the window to hide his face. “It was sometime during my leave that I met Dole. I was a terrified, death-fearing wreck faced with war and illness and madness. She helped take that away.”
Something hot and feral coursed through Ada’s muscles, and she tingled with the desire to throw her backpack across the room. The anger built until she was grinding her teeth hard enough to hurt. Dole had introduced Hector to him, the painting creature, only a few years before she introduced Ada, both when they were in their most vulnerable states. One second. Two seconds. Ada took even breaths until her head no longer felt like it would explode. She didn’t like these new feelings of intense, violent anger, but they were becoming more and more frequent as she slowly woke up, gaining more and more memories as the days passed.
“That sounds awful,” Ada said, but her voice was strained. She still had no memory of her mother, and no idea whether she suffered in her death the way Hector’s mother did. For a moment, Ada thought she heard a sniffle from Maeve’s direction, but when she looked over, the girl was simply hugging her knees with her arms, Priddy’s head leaning against her shoulder. She made eye contact with Ada and scrunched her face, frightened and tired.
A silence passed between the four of them. “It was. I know there is nothing you could possibly say, so thank you for simply listening.” Hector heaved a heavy sigh and closed his eyes for a moment as he turned to face Ada again. “Unfortunately, I don’t know much about him outside of the first time we met. I know from Dole that you have met him since you woke up without your memories, too, so I’m not sure how much I can help you.”
Ada shifted on her feet; they ached from standing and walking for so long in so many places. “I only want to know what you know. Anything about your contract, or about the creatures that collect the souls.” Her voice died down at the last few words, anxious that Maeve would panic—after all, the creatures were after her, too.
But Maeve did not speak. She began rocking slowly on the floor, almost imperceptibly. Instead, hector spoke, his voice as even and tight as a taut piece of thread. “Aptly called Collectors, you know. They did visit me once.” He looked at Ada from under his big eyebrows, and she recognized that look. She’d seen it in the mirror. “I missed a payment—the thirty year ones—I was two days late. I had no plan to gather the soul; it was my first one after the contract. Dole had moved back to New York years before, and I never left this house after I came back to it. The Collectors blasted down my door like a cold wind, and a voice whispered constantly in my ear, You have one more day.”
Ada wasn’t sure what to do when Hector suddenly burst into tears. Priddy, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do. She moved slowly away from Maeve and toward the man, resting her head on his knee. He reached outa hand without thinking and laid it on her head until he could catch his breath. “That night, I could barely think, I was so scared. I went out to town and challenged to a duel a young man I knew who liked to pick fights. He once slandered my family’s name, although he wrongly thought I was the grandson of Hector Mellis, also named Hector Mellis—my cover story.” Hector held his face in his hands while Priddy licked his elbow gently. “But I cheated! I used my family’s magic to win. Never, never have I left this house since that night. I gave him what he wanted, and I have ever since.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Hector continued. “I use my home for hospice care every thirty years or so. I take in around five patients, care for them, let them walk out into the brisk air, and, when someone dies, I deliver their soul to him. It’s harmless.”
“But their souls—you’re taking their souls,” Maeve choked out. She squeezed her knees tighter to her chest.
Hector groaned low and long. “Souls, spirits—they’re all the same, and I’m damning all of them to an eternity of pain. My poor grandfather! My cousins, my aunts and uncle! Every family pet for the last one hundred and fifty years!” He pointed out the window at the now sleeping pile of dogs and rabbit in the yard, and, for a moment, Ada was excited that she had guessed correctly. The moment passed quickly.
“All of us have made mistakes, Hector,” Ada said, and she moved closer to rest a hand on his shoulder. She felt a sort of cool warmth rush through her hand, and she saw the man relax his shoulders. “We all have sins to atone for, you and I especially. But we can change that now. That’s how I lost my memories; trying to change that.”
Again, Hector rested his head in his hands, and the words cam muffled through his fingers. “You and I, Ada, are killers, even if not in the classical sense. We doom people for our benefit. We hurt others.”
Ada’s fingers curled around his shoulder as the anger rose again, but she quelled in before she burst. “There’s no use in continuing that hurt, at least. Can you tell me anything you might know about keeping the Collectors, or him, away?”
Ada had to ignore Maeve’s heavy breathing from the floor. She tried to focus hard on Hector, tried to will an answer out of him. “Mirrors,” he said finally. “They were confused by my mirror in the hall. And my dogs, too. I was able to run all the way upstairs before they got to me, and even then, they just frightened me. They clouded around me and it felt as if I were lost on a misty sea, that’s all. The voice—his voice is what really sent a chill down my spine.” He shivered as he spoke, and Ada removed her hand.
“Would you ever consider breaking your contract?”
Hector sat up and laughed out loud, but it sounded nearly like a sob. “Break it? My dear, I’m much too afraid to die. I’m too afraid to live, too, as you can see; I spend my time in between. Talking to the dead and avoiding the living, but blood still pumps in my veins.”
Ada clenched her hands into a fist so tight that her fingernails dug into her palm, but Hector kept speaking. “Please, spend the night here. I’m sure Cousin Millie and Grandpa Mellis would love to have someone around to speak to. And, Ada, feel free to look through my sketches; I haven’t painted the collectors, but the vision looms constantly in my mind, so I’ve sketched it out many times.”
As the sun slowly moved downward in the sky, Hector slipped on his slippers and showed the women to their rooms—one each, across the hallway from each other, with Priddy agreeing to sleep in Maeve’s room for the night—and ordered pizza from the closest possible restaurant, which was still nearly twenty minutes away. The delivery person was delighted and surprised to see other humans in Hector’s home, and they said so. Ada tipped them a little extra for, as she assumed, coming out here frequently enough to know that Hector was always alone.
After they’d eaten, Maeve retreated to her room with Priddy and a hushed “good night” to Ada and Hector. The two remaining moved upstairs to the attic, where hector said no ghosts reside. “I like it because it’s quiet,” he explained, “and not a constant reminder of the harm my family has done.”
Ada leafed through his pencil and charcoal drawings the detailed the attack from the Collectors on Hector. They came in waves, a dozen or so of them at once, and floated through his house at amazing speed. The drawings had a heft of shadow and light, depicting the Collectors as cloudlike creatures with deep, dark eyes.
“These are amazing,” Ada said, thinking about her own inability to paint lately.
“Well, we all made the pact for a reason, right? We already had something artistic about us.” Hector sat on the floor atop a woven rug in his attic bedroom.
“I suppose I painted before the pact,” Ada said, sitting herself across from him as she held his drawings. She was feeling more comfortable now, almost as if she had not been frightened out of her wits earlier that day. “I don’t know how to paint anymore. When I erased my memories, I suppose everything to do with painting went with it.”
“So you don’t even know your magic? I can feel it on you. The magic, I mean. It’s old, and distant, but it’s strong.”
Ada thought back to Ostra, in the corn field, and the warmth spell that kept Ada from ever being cold and wondered if that was what Hector sensed now. “I don’t know about my magic. I don’t know much of anything.”
There was silence between them, but it was gentle. Ada looked at the pictures, and hector stirred in his spot on the floor. Finally, he spoke, and Ada looked up at the grubby man. “I think I can help you with that. The not knowing.”
Carefully, Ada stacked the drawings and narrowed her eyes at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I can talk to the dead. The deceased. The passed-over. And your mother, she is dead, right?” Hector raised his eyebrows, and Ada nodded. “And, this magic I feel—it’s strong, like I said—I think I can teach you my methods. It’s been passed down to each member of the Mellis family for generations, so much so that it’s in our blood, but we can still teach it, too.”
Hesitation wrapped around the witch like a vice, and she worried that somehow, her choice would end up badly. Regardless, Ada could not think of one downside to talking to her mother aside from wishing she was alive again, and she already did that quite enough. “Please, hector. I would love that.”
And so Hector taught Ada how to speak to the dead. They held hands, and closed eyes, and she felt an energy course through her like the cool rush of a glass of water down her throat. Hector told her to breathe, and to focus her energy—all that energy of the ages, all that power she held so deep—onto her mother. He held her hands tight and told her to let go. To relax. She did, and then the bell-like voice of her mother rang in her ears.
Child, she said. Dear child. Dear child, my Adathis. The voice repeated these words, but, like in a dream, Ada knew the voice was that of her mother. The sound faded after a while, but the resonance continued in the back of Ada’s mind for some time.
“Your powers,” Hector said as he let go of Ada’s hands, “are weak from disuse. Practice, and strengthen them, and eventually you’ll hear more, and then see more. I didn’t have anything of your mother’s besides your vague memory, so, unfortunately, I could not conjure her.” He stood and lit a candle, stretching his arms above his head. He looked more alive than Ada had ever seen him, standing up straight and with color in his cheeks.
“What was I hearing?” Ada whispered, shaken. She felt warm tingles of comfort and something like sleep in her neck, so much so that she didn’t want to move so as not to disturb the feeling. It was the same feeling, she suddenly remembered, as getting her hair brushed carefully by her mother.
“Those were her last thoughts. I should have warned you, really.” He looked sheepish as he spoke, and smaller than his height—the same, nearly, as Ada’s, only a smidge shorter—truly allowed.
Ada nodded, and told him not to worry. She thanked Hector and excused herself to her room, telling Millie “goodnight” along the way. Once the door was shut and Ada was under her new quilt from Belèn, she allowed herself to cry.
My dear child. My Adathis.