This is a series written and illustrated by JJ Lee.
The story so far: When Oscar moves to a shunned neighbourhood with a dark history, he is sure his meagre social life will become completely dead. After a fatal tumble, he makes friends with the child ghosts of Havenholm. All of their souls are stranded on the hill because a soul-sucking monster swims the supernatural waters that surround Havenholm.
Oscar, being a ghost, did not need sleep. Sometimes, however, when he settled into a corner of the sunken library, he could fall into a nothingness without dreams. Time could slip by without his reckoning.
“It’s just weird that the leaves were falling and now there’s snow,” he called out to the darkness of their stuffy refuge.
Willa stirred from her corner. “That’s ghost time.”
“It’s nearly Christmas, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “You can see it from the big tree. They’re stringing up lights on Main Street. You should take a look. It’s pretty.”
Oscar had avoided going up the tree since the day he became a ghost. The tree stood taller than any tree in the world of the living. It grew so high that no ghost had ever reached the top. From its high branches, you could see farther and further than normal. Oscar saw his body from the tree. His lifeless form lay in the tall grass across from his home.
“I don’t know.”
“You should go up. I see your mum and dad sometimes.”
“Yeah. Your dad goes to the college and your mum goes to the hospital.”
“Is she sick?”
“I don’t know. She goes every morning that I’ve seen.”
Oscar’s heart ached. He already felt terrible when he imagined how his death affected them, but the possibility of his mother dying plunged him into misery. Bleak thoughts washed over him like waves crashing over a boat in a storm. If his mother died, would he get to see her? Did he wish his mother dead? Would the monster get her? It wasn’t supposed too. It only wanted children. But what if its appetite changed? And even if her soul was allowed to go where it was meant to, where was that place?
“I don’t want her to die.”
“She looks more sad than sick. Don’t worry.”
Willa rose and searched under the library’s desks, tables, lecterns, benches, and chairs until she found the twins, the ghosts of three-year-old Virginia and Andrew. They had stacked books into the shape of a canoe. They paddled with imaginary oars. “We are crossing the river.”
“That’s very nice,” said Willa. “But try not to make a terrible mess. Tough Tom gets cross when he can’t find a book.”
“We won’t,” they replied in unison.
Oscar asked, “Where does Tough Tom go?”
“He keeps watch.”
“Over what? The monster?”
“No. Not the river or the monster. He watches the man who lit the fires that killed Virginia, Andrew, and me. He watches the man who wants our souls. He watches Maurais.”
The twins started to whimper but Willa seethed and ignored their distress. “He was here when my mum and dad worked here. He was the groundskeeper. And he was more than that. My parents worried that Maurais was around when Havenholm was a school for the deaf and blind. He was here when Tough Tom was a boy. He tended the gardens and paths in the woods from Tough Tom’s time until the day I died. But he also dug holes and tunnels into Havenholm looking for something.”
“He killed your parents?”
“Oscar, he killed everyone.”
The twins huddled at the bottom of their boat of books, overcome with unwanted memories. Willa knelt down and hugged them. She whispered into their ears. Words Oscar could not catch. The twins calmed. Willa stood up. “If you’re ready to know more, we should talk outside.”
Brilliant winter daylight streamed into the library when Oscar opened the door. Willa managed the crumbling stairs with ease. Oscar slipped and scrambled until he emerged among the giant roots of the great tree. Through its crown, Oscar saw a cold, clear blue sky. If he was alive, steam would have come from his breath. Willa pointed north to the other side of the hill. “Maurais lives over there. In a house. On our side.”
“I thought all the buildings on our side of the road… river…whatever, are gone.”
“They all are, except his. He used to creep out at night and roam the forest. At least that’s what my mum and dad believed. After the second fire when Tough Tom saved me and the twins, he wouldn’t let Maurais wander the hill anymore.”
“Why doesn’t he just get him?” Oscar asked. Oscar knew, living or dead, the ancient ghost was the most powerful being he had ever seen. Tough Tom was like The Hulk or Superman trapped in an eight-year-old’s body.
“Tough Tom chased Maurais from most of the hill but he can’t get into his house. Something keeps him out.”
“Can’t he break the door, or a wall?”
“Maurais is a wizard, I think. He uses magic to keep us out. The same magic that makes the road into a river and the monster.”
Oscar remembered the last day he played with Simon. They brought balls of mud, bricks, and rocks to the overpass in his old neighbourhood and dropped them onto passing cars. “If I could throw like Tough Tom, I’d pick up a boulder and chuck it at his house and squish him.”
Willa barked a harsh guffaw. “We tried that. It bounced off. Anyhow, I want him to come up to the hill.”
Willa gave him a look that sent shivers down his spine. He knew what she wanted. Tough Tom said it plain and simple the first day they met: “vengeance.” Willa’s only wish.
“I don’t understand why you wanted me. That night I saw you in the tall grass, you kept pointing at a spot. What did you want?”
“There hadn’t been a child on Havenholm in years. When I saw you, I thought you could help. I can barely do anything.”
Willa swiped at a low branch hanging from the great tree. It hardly moved. A few snowflakes fell. “I’m not like Tough Tom. I can open a door or blow some curtains if I try hard enough, but I can’t dig. And Tough Tom has to keep an eye on Maurais. I thought you could help me, but then you fell.”
She cast her eyes downward. “I’m sorry about that.”
Since that day, Oscar had time to think about the circumstances of his demise. Willa had frightened him, but she also saved him from the river. If he felt anger, it was at the water and the soul-sucker and being trapped on Havenholm. From being kept from speaking to his mother and father one final time, letting them know it would be okay (even if it was a lie) before passing into the land of the dead. Whatever lay across the water, wherever, and whatever Death was, it called to him. So, yes…anger, now that Oscar thought about it.
When Tough Tom explained that Willa sought vengeance on Maurais, he shuddered. The emotions seemed reasonable on one level. Oscar understood a child could have terrible tantrums (he had a few of his own), but vengeance seemed too deep for someone as young as Willa. Then again, Willa was older than Oscar’s parents, wasn’t she? Time was different on Havenholm. Oscar felt hundreds of years old. Maybe it had to do with staying beyond your time, and having no choice.
In the ghost stories Oscar had heard, the phantoms were always frustrated and hateful. Oscar felt frustrated and hateful. Maybe he could not heave rocks like Tough Tom. Maybe he could not flit through the underbrush and trees like Willa. But he could do something. Oscar swatted a branch. It whipped back and forth. A clump of snow and ice fell to the ground.
With his face set with a grim expression beyond his years, Oscar declared, “I can help.”