Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 45

     Grief is a quiet emotion which happens in the little moments. There’s no room in the noise and the chaos of the storm for hearts to heal. Only once the chaos has died down and everything else is as it should be does loss truly sink in, slowly and with sudden, silent fury. Jack leaned against the passenger side window and watched the once familiar woods fly by as Stan drove them back to the Goodbody family home. With his sister gone, Jack had nothing which linked him to his family anymore. It wasn’t familiarity which drove him back home, but a desire to take a few days to put his head back on straight. Time had left his home untouched, as though it was mired in the past. For once, he didn’t think he would mind that too much. Keeping his sister’s room closed meant her smell would linger. Walking through her doors would be like walking through a portal to the past where she still lived. With a start, Jack realized he understood his father better than he realized.

     All hopes of peace and quiet were dashed the second Jack passed the gates leading towards his family home. The years of debris covering the road in a thick mat had been removed meticulously. The long dormant house was full of noise and laughter. In all the worry about his sister, he had forgotten it. The family meeting was a semi-regular event, which only happened when the head of the Goodbody family called for it. When that happened, all the stray Goodbody’s who had left the family home returned like desperate little birdies escaping the storm. It also called in those smaller families which served the Goodbody family in the field. Each one of them had their own family homes, in imitation of the Goodbody house, only with less bad blood.

     One of the skills Jack had perfected with his sister was the ability to duck responsibility like a well-honed machine. Why waste time talking for hours with people who pretended to like you when you could be training or working? With that in mind, Sam had come up with a path through the house which would avoid almost all the confrontation and get them to the study. The footsteps echoing down the stairs spurred Jack into action. Walking through the hall, Jack took a little used door directly to the left of the werewolf. That led to a hallway which ran the circuit of the left side of the house around to the servant’s quarters. Ignoring the looks Jack got from the staff, he climbed the stairs to the second floor.

     Halfway down the hall was a little room reserved for Uncle Reginald. He never used it, so a younger Jack and Samantha had used it to store things they bought at a novelty shop in town. To Jack’s surprise, they were all still there, useless pieces of junk that they were. It took him one trip to realize what took Samantha dozens. Nothing they ever bought from Remy would work. Still, every time she went, she would browse the store with breathless enthusiasm. Stashed away in a corner was a supply of alcohol from the days when Sam had begun to grow up faster than Jack. A ladder stood in the middle of the room, directly under a hole they had meticulously cut into the ceiling. It led to a room on the third floor right next to the study.

     Climbing the ladder, Jack hopped out into the empty room and closed the hatch behind him. Exiting the hallway, Jack found himself face to face with the one person he needed to see the most, though he would never admit it. Aldea Demois was the current head of her family, and the woman Jack loved. It wasn’t exactly a forbidden love, but he refused to acknowledge it because they were distantly related. She wore a white sundress which came down to just below her knees. She had woven a crown of wildflowers into her light brown hair. The amusement at finding Jack exactly where she thought she would find him twinkled in her blue eyes as she watched him falter in his tracks. That expression quickly turned to concern as she saw the state Jack was in.

     “You look like a wreck, Jack. What happened to you?” That voice was sweet, forbidden music to his ears. “Everyone’s been wondering where you were.”

     “Aldea, I would rather not talk about it right now.” Jack looked at his feet and shuffled back slightly, hoping she would let him pass.

     Cupping his chin, Aldea gently tugged it up to meet her eyes with his, “I’ve known you entirely too long for that nonsense, Jack Goodbody. You tell me what’s wrong right now.”
Unable to avoid the truth when faced with her eyes looking directly into his, Jack blurted out the truth, “My sister is dead.”

     Aldea pulled him into a tight hug, holding him close and refusing to let him go. When she did let go, tears wetted her cheeks. .He knew Aldea and his sister had been close, “What happened to her, Jack?”

     “She was taken from me while we were tracking down a cult in Maine and…” Jack’s thoughts wandered to his father, “Is my father home? He was gone last time I left. Everyone seems confused.”

     Aldea pulled away from Jack and spared a glance for the stairs, “Your father is still gone, and everyone is confused. He called a family meeting, and then he simply vanished? That doesn’t make any sense. With him gone, there’s nobody left to preside over the meeting. If nothing happens soon, people are going to start leaving. I heard Mr. Warden talking it over with his wife this morning.”

     That wasn’t entirely true. Jack was there. He would have argued Julian would make a better leader than him, but Julian valued his freedom and his art enough to throw Jack to the wolves. Maybe he had been running away from this his entire life, but now he had run out of places to hide. He was the de facto head of the Goodbody family, at least until a warm body with more rights to the job than him came along. He thought back to the ride up the mountain, and how willing he had been to wrap himself up in a thick blanket of nostalgia and mourning. The world didn’t need a Goodbody family obsessed with the past. It needed one that was looking forward and thinking about the future.

     Seeing Jack lost in thought, Aldea hugged him again gently, “I’ll let you go into the study. Do you have anything you want me to do, Jack?”

     “Open all the windows. Clean out every room, whether it’s being used or not. Bring in more food and set up the dining room table. I want the whole family in one room for dinner tonight. This is a new Goodbody house, so it can’t keep looking like the old one.”
Aldea walked him to the study door and let him enter alone. Jack took the opportunity afforded by the stunned silence to enter the study and lock the doors. He sat in his father’s chair, which was now his chair, and fell into a deep sleep. It must have been the deepest sleep he’d ever fallen into, because when he woke up, everything had changed. The curtains against the wall had been pulled aside, and the windows left open. The night air came flowing in, dispelling the sickly sweet smell of his father’s long stay in the room. From where he sat, Jack could make out the stars twinkling in a cloudless sky.
One more addition to the room, which Jack certainly hadn’t requested, was his cousin Julian. He had set up his easel in the room, and worked away painting at it while Jack watched.

     “It’s nice of you to watch over me while I slept.” Jack shifted in his chair and finally noticed a plate full of food sitting on the table next to him. Digging in with abandon, he realized it had been a long time since he had eaten regular meals.

     “After your insistence that everyone eat dinner in the same room, there were a lot of people who were quite insulted that you never bothered to show up.” Julian didn’t look up from his easel for a second while he responded to Jack.

      Jack stopped eating just long enough to ask Julian, “Who exactly was upset with me?”

     “The Warden family in general, because they feel very important. Aldea, because she loves you, and a host of others out of misplaced concern showing as anxiety and anger.”

     Jack sputtered out a mouthful of food, coughing in shock, “She doesn’t love me!”

     “Yes she does, and you know she does, you doofus. I heard about Sam, by the way. Nobody is mentioning it specifically, which naturally means everyone is talking about it whenever they get a chance.”

     “It’s my fault, Julian. She’s gone and it’s my fault.”

     Julian stopped painting, “She’s not dead, Jack. At least, she’s not dead yet.”
Racing to Julian’s side, Jack grabbed him by both arms and shook him, “Don’t you lie to me!”

     As Julian shook back and forth, he pointed a violently waving finger at the canvas he had been working on. It was a painting of Samantha, sitting on the ground against a wall. Her left eye was bruised and swollen and she seemed to be nursing a broken arm, but she was otherwise unharmed. It took Jack a minute to realize what he was looking at.
“Of course, even though this is live, it doesn’t tell us much about where she is. I can only see her and her immediate surroundings, so that doesn’t leave us much to go on.” Julian set his brush down and gently pried Jack’s hands loose.”

     “How do you know your hunting magic means she’s alive?” Jack watched as his sister flicked off some unseen person.

     “Because if she was dead and I had attempted to use hunting magic to track her down, it would have killed me. I was willing to take that risk for this family.”

     “Julian, that was crazy. The last thing I needed was to wake up and find you dead on the ground. What would Raul say?”

     Chuckling weakly, Julian tried to brush aside the concerns, “That’s not his name, and we’re taking an extended break. Apparently, killing monstrously giant spiders really kills the mood in a way that you can’t come back from.”

     Jack watched the portrait of his sister move around slightly every few moments. She was alive. That’s all he could think about, until a lurking thought of his father came along which he couldn’t shake, “Say Julian. You know my father up and left, right?”

     Julian shook his head, “I know what you’re going to ask, but no such luck. Hunting magic only works if I have something to tether the painting to the target. I need a hair, some blood, something I can put into the paint. Your sister left enough hair in her room to line the nests of the most liberal minded song birds in creation, with room to spare. I could find no evidence that your father existed in this room. There wasn’t a speck of him. I tried anyways, and the results weren’t good. You can take a look if you like, they’re in the corner.”

     Facing the wall was a stack of portraits. The canvas was turned away from them so that only the rear of the work could be seen. Jack crossed the room and turned over the first portrait before hurriedly replacing it. Whatever his cousin had painted, it wasn’t human. Horrible, blackened fingers grasped out towards the viewer, as though the figure in the painting wished to drag you away never to be seen again.

     “What the hell is that?”

     Julian turned white, and his hands shook a little as he spoke, “I have no clue. I’ve never failed completely, even without materials, to the point where my painting fails to show my target entirely. Either your father is very good at avoiding being tracked, or…” he trailed off, but Jack knew what he was saying. What kid of monster was his father, really?

     That left the matter of the family meeting. With Samantha currently dangling in the wind, it left the meeting in a secondary position. Returning to his seat, Jack sat back and closed his eyes. How does one stop a meeting which has already been planned? Abandoning his sister was out of the question, canceling the meeting was also impossible.

     “Why don’t you just ask them for help, Jack?” Julian’s words cut in through his thoughts like a knife. Of course, he had considered that. The resources he could bring to bear as the head of the Goodbody family were considerably greater than his own. To ask them for help, at an official meeting, meant accepting his position as head of the family. In truth, Jack had only considered himself as warming the seat that belonged to his father until he returned. Ordering the families to do his dirty work would be as good as admitting he was the heir. The alternative was to deny himself the chance to rescue his sister, and that was simply out of the question.

     “Julian, are you willing to help me find my sister?”

“Of course. Just tell me what you need, Jack.”

     Jack paused for a long time before he responded, “We’re having the meeting as planned. I’m going to ask for help finding my sister and my father. Normally, I would ask my sister to come with me to the meeting as my second. With her gone, you’re the only full relative I have left. Will you sit by my side and help me argue we should look for Sam?”

     Nodding, Julian began to pack up his supplies, “I can do that, Jack. I wouldn’t want you to have to face off with the families on your own. Without your father here, I bet some people would even rather deal with my father right about now.”

     Jack hardly heard his cousin as he spoke. His mind was already on the upcoming meeting. Family gatherings were rare in the Goodbody family, and they only happened when the head of the family called them. That his father had called a meeting and the promptly vanished raised many questions, which he wasn’t present to answer. Varnes Goodbody never did anything without a reason. Maybe if he asked the right questions at the meeting, he could find out for himself why the meeting was called.