That fall, the Parrington Museum’s Henry T. Meadows Scholar was a man named Claudius Winterson, of whom my colleagues had nothing good to say. Dutifully, I attended his public lecture, where I sat well to the back and asked no questions, although several occurred to me. I had not intended—duty or no duty—to go to the reception for museum patrons afterwards, but my colleague Miss Coburn caught me and would not let me go home.
There was a crowd—perhaps even a crush—and the enormous punch bowl that had belonged to Samuel Mather Parrington’s mother had pride of place on the long table of hors d’oeuvres laid out in the Meadows Gallery.
“You don’t want punch, do you?” Miss Coburn shouted in my ear.
“No,” I said. “How long…?”
“Fifteen minutes,” she said firmly. “It won’t kill you, and if you make sure Dr. Starkweather sees you, it might do you some good.”
“…I suppose,” I said. Dr. Starkweather, the director of the museum, did not like me.
She laughed. “Just imagine a debutante ball and how grateful you are this isn’t one.”
I might have shuddered visibly. Miss Coburn took pity on me and released my arm.
“I do want punch,” she said, “but I will not make you get it for me. Oh, hello, Miss Parrington.”
“Hello, Miss Coburn,” said Miss Parrington. “Mr. Booth! I didn’t expect to see you here! Did you enjoy the lecture?”
“I…er…” On the one hand, I wanted to escape from one of Miss Parrington’s endless conversations; on the other hand, as a major donor and the sister of Blanche Parrington Crowe, who headed the Board of Trustees, she was not someone it was wise to offend.
But before I could put together a coherent answer, she went on, “It’s always such a pleasure to listen to the Meadows Scholar. Such learned men.”
Miss Coburn took the opportunity of seeing a fellow archaeologist in the crowd to slip away, and I was trapped with Miss Parrington and her inexhaustible flow of words.
It was while Miss Parrington was rehashing the Meadows Scholar’s lecture from the previous year that I saw the child.
It was a boy, dressed in a black velveteen suit. He was old enough to be steady on his feet—not to say agile, as he neatly evaded the oblivious adults who loomed over him on all sides. At first, I was merely puzzled; it was not forbidden to bring children to the Meadows reception, but that was almost certainly because no one in the Friends of the Museum had imagined that anyone would.
I looked around, but saw no one who looked like a plausible parent.
Miss Parrington said something about Dr. Winterson’s command of Byzantine history (about which Mr. Felden and Mr. McGann had said other, far more mordant things), and I realized the child wasn’t simply wandering through the crowd; he was purposefully following someone—darting wide around a dowager, but then returning to the line of his quarry’s path through the crowd toward the punch bowl.
“Quarry” was a ridiculous word to choose, I chastised myself, but that was when the child turned his head toward me, and I saw that he had no face. From his hairline to his high collar was a gray blank, as if he were an unfinished drawing.
I might have yelped; I certainly recoiled. Miss Parrington said, “Mr. Booth? Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m…” I trailed off, searching for an excuse of some kind—I knew without need of asking that Miss Parrington would not see the child if she looked—and she said, “Did someone bump you? The reception really is too crowded this year, which—of course it’s a good thing that so many people come. That is one thing about Dr. Starkweather, and I’ve said so before, he does get people to come to the museum.”
The child had vanished. The crowd had swallowed him. There was no way now to guess who was the object of his pursuit.
And what I would have done with the knowledge had I had it, I did not know.
I fled the reception without seeing the child again and fully expected that to be the last of the matter, whatever the matter was. What I did not expect was to encounter on Monday morning another faceless child in the hall outside my office.
This one was female, long hair held back with a ribbon. She was waiting outside a closed door, small and patient and gray blankness beneath the hair. With a better view, I could see that she was in fact all grays and blacks, her fair hair nearly white, as if she had been clipped from a newspaper and her face smudged out—and then set free to find and follow…someone.
I froze in the act of locking my office door, but she either did not notice me or did not care. I did not approach her—I could not have approached her even if I had been ordered to—but I noted whose door she was waiting in front of and puzzled over it while I took the long way around to exit the museum.
What had Claudius Winterson done to have these small patient specters pursuing him?
My initial plan was to do nothing. It was no business of mine, and Dr. Winterson seemed, from what I could tell, to be taking no harm from his followers. His arguments with Mr. Felden were loud and vigorous, his footsteps in the corridor the same. And if I kept seeing small, black-clad, faceless figures in the hall, then perhaps that was just a sign that I needed to leave my office less frequently. I did notice, although I tried not to, that the number of children waiting in the hall increased from one to two and then from two to three: two boys, either of whom could have been the child I saw at the reception, and the one girl. Once, as I was coming down the Parrington’s front steps, I saw them trailing doggedly after Dr. Winterson, who strode briskly across the street, clearly oblivious to their presence. They seemed to be keeping their distance from him, never coming closer than ten feet even when they could, and I told myself that this was further proof I need do nothing and that indeed there was nothing to be done.
But then Dr. Winterson’s behavior changed. His arguments got louder and shorter, and instead of staying in the Parrington until midnight, he started leaving before sunset. But it was still no business of mine—and it was not as if I would have had anything helpful to suggest—and I did my best to ignore Dr. Winterson, followers and all.
That strategy worked well enough until the afternoon he appeared in my office doorway and said, “You’re Mr. Booth, aren’t you?”
I had a momentary, useless urge to deny it.
“Yes,” I said. “What can I…is there something I can help you with, Dr. Winterson?”
He stepped inside, closing the door behind him not quite with a bang. He said, “I understand that you’re the museum’s expert on occult esoterica.”
“Er, yes. That is, I suppose so.”
He was silent for a long moment, fidgeting like a boy called before the headmaster. Then he came up to my desk, leaned across it, and said in a harsh whisper, “You can see them, can’t you?”
I found I had leaned back in my chair. “Who?” I said.
“No, no,” he said. “Don’t play that game with me, Mr. Booth. You’ve seen them. You know they’re outside. In the hall. Waiting.”
“You must be deranged,” I said, but it was a feeble effort.
“I won’t tell anyone, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
It had not been, but now I was imagining what he might say to Dr. Starkweather if he chose. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said desperately.
He leaned closer still and said, “The children.”
I crumbled under pressure. “Yes! Yes, I have. Who are they?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dr. Winterson said impatiently. “How do I get rid of them?”
“I don’t know,” I said, my mind immediately jammed with thirty competing theories about what the children were and how they might be dispersed.
“Oh, come now, Mr. Booth. You’re an expert in these matters. You must have some idea.”
“What are they? Are they ghosts?”
“You could call them that.”
“But is that what they are? If…that is to say, if they’re really demons, calling them ghosts won’t help.”
He stared at me blankly, as if he had never truly imagined having a discussion of the children beyond the fact of their presence. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never…”
“It doesn’t matter. Yes, they are ghosts.”
“Then the question,” I said apologetically, “is, why do they haunt you?”
“I don’t know!” said Dr. Winterson, but I knew he was lying.
I said nothing.
He said, “It was years ago. There was a fire in the hotel I was staying in. The children…didn’t make it out.”
“Are they…that is, are you their father?”
“What? Good God, no! That’s what I was telling you. I never even knew their names.”
“Then why should they haunt you?”
“I don’t know!” he said again, but he was still lying. He knew perfectly well.
He straightened. “The thing is, they’re getting closer.”
“Since I first saw them. A week ago, they were ten feet away. Now it’s only six.”
“Did you only start seeing them a week ago?”
“What do you mean?”
“I…that is, they were following you at the Meadows reception. I…I saw one of them.”
“That long ago?” He seemed stunned.
“When was the fire?”
“Ten years ago,” he said impatiently. “Maybe more.”
“Then what changed? Why did you suddenly start seeing them?”
“You mean you think they’ve been following me for ten years?”
“Perhaps. But the important question now is: what changed?”
“I tell you, I don’t know!” I thought he might still be lying. But he went on, “What do I do to get rid of them?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and we stared at each other for a long beat of silence.
“You must know of something,” he said.
“Are you Catholic? Were they?”
“Presbyterian. I have no idea about them. Why?”
“You might try lighting candles for them, but I’ve no idea if it will work.”
“Can’t you just exorcize them?”
“No. That is, that’s what you do for demonic possession. Not for ghosts.”
Finally, reluctantly, he said, “I got this in the mail after the reception.”
It was a newspaper clipping, brittle yellow with age. The headline was THREE CHILDREN DIE IN HOTEL FIRE. Beneath it, in smaller type, “I could do nothing,” said horror-stricken bystander. The expression on Dr. Winterson’s face told me he had been the bystander. Before I could read further, he had snatched it back and shoved it in his pocket. But I had seen the photograph beside the headline, the photograph with its subject neatly clipped out.
“Who sent it?” I asked.
“I don’t know!”
“Someone must think—”
“I know what they think!” he shouted. “But it’s not true! I couldn’t have saved them if I’d tried!”
“…oh,” I said.
He stared at me, his eyes getting wider and wilder as he realized what he had admitted. “It was a terrible fire,” he said, now almost pleading. “There was no way…”
“Then why do they haunt you? Why does someone send you newspaper clippings?”
He shook his head angrily. “I just want to get rid of them before they…”
“Before they what?”
“Before they get too close,” he said, whispering again as if he was afraid the ghosts would hear him. “Please. You must know something.”
I wanted him out of my office. I said, “There might be something in the stacks, but it’s much too late to go looking tonight. The sun’s almost down.”
That made him jump, as I had expected it would. “Tomorrow?” he said. “You’ll look tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I said, “although I may not find anything.”
He waved that off. “There must be something. We can look tomorrow.”
I wanted him out of my office more than I wanted to argue with him. I said nothing. He said, “Good night, then, Mr. Booth,” and finally left.
I dragged my belongings together, shrugging into my coat as I got out my keys, and was in the hall in time to hear the snick of his office door closing behind him.
I locked my door, clumsy with haste, and was starting down the hall when I realized something was wrong. The hallway was empty.
But if the hallway was empty, where were the children?
That was when Dr. Winterson screamed, his voice sharp and wordless, full of terror.
I hesitated; the door across from mine banged open, and Mr. Kimball said, “What in hell was that?”
Trapped, I turned to him and said, “I, er…that is, I think it was Dr. Winterson.”
“Dr. Winterson?” said Mr. Kimball, as if doubting that Dr. Winterson could ever make such a noise. He hurried to Dr. Winterson’s door and knocked on it. “Dr. Winterson? Are you all right?”
There was no answer.
Without wanting to, I came closer.
“Dr. Winterson?” said Mr. Kimball again. He tried the door.
It was not locked.
“Dr. Winterson?” Mr. Kimball tried to open the door, but there was something blocking it. “Come here, Mr. Booth, and lend me a shoulder. I’m afraid something may have happened to him.”
There was no “may” about it, but I did not say so. I joined him, longing every second to be running the other way, and together we managed to shove the door open enough that we could see what the obstacle was.
It was Dr. Winterson.
“Oh, God,” said Mr. Kimball. “I’d better call for an ambulance. You stay here!” He pounded off down the hall toward the exterior phone.
Dr. Winterson was dead, and there was nothing I could do to help him, but I stayed, staring at his shoulder, which was all I could see of him, and wondering about that newspaper article he would not let me read. A terrible fire, three children dead, and a bystander who said he could not help them. I wondered what it was Dr. Winterson could have done and did not do. I wondered who sent the clipping and if that neatly disemboweled photograph had anything to do with Dr. Winterson’s patient, silent followers. Had they been following him for ten years? Or had they found him at the Meadows reception?
Something made me look up.
The children were perhaps ten feet away, standing in front of the alcove that held the bust of an early donor. They were standing quite still, heads turned toward me. The two boys were holding hands. As I looked at them, the girl waved solemnly, and the three children vanished.
The haunting of Dr. Claudius Winterson was finished.
“Even if I’d agreed to look tonight,” I said to Dr. Winterson’s corpse, “I wouldn’t have found anything except anecdotes and superstition and increasingly outlandish theories. I couldn’t have helped you.”
But she had waved, as if to a friend. Or a co-conspirator.
And Dr. Claudius Winterson was dead.
(Editors’ Note: Sarah Monette is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2022 Sarah Monette