Virtue’s Ghosts

Issue #100
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For two weeks after she moved into our house, no one could convince me that Aunt Victoria was not a ghost. With soundless steps, she drifted from room to room in a dress the same blue-gray color as the pendant around her neck. When she cried, I heard nothing. Once, as Mother tried to calm her, Aunt Victoria opened her mouth as if screaming and broke a plate against the wall. There was no sound from the glass until it hit the floor.

It was ten days past her coming-of-age ceremony when she came to live with us, after a week of urgent telegrams and hushed dining room conversations between Mother and Aunt Lily. This was a boarding house, Aunt Lily pointed out, and Victoria would take up one of the rooms without paying rent.

Aunt Victoria was bad for business. In the early days, more than once, we would find her in a room with a knife, hacking desperately at the ribbon around her throat. It never took the slightest damage, though Aunt Victoria managed to cut her fingers more than once. Other times, she would stand at her window and stare out, causing more than one potential boarder to start at the eerie sight and promptly take themselves over to the less-respectable Mrs. Harper’s. I hid behind Mother’s skirts when Aunt Victoria came into the room. I remember wishing that I, too, could move in with Mrs. Harper.

In a burst of inspiration, Mother let me run rampant in the attic as she cleaned it out for Aunt Victoria, who would be using it as a bedroom to free up the extra one downstairs. Aunt Victoria drifted up to inspect the proceedings. “See?” Mother said to me. “Watch how her skirts pick up the dust. Could a ghost do that?”

Aunt Victoria contorted her face into an almost supernatural grimace. I bravely stuck my tongue out at her.

Before Aunt Victoria, I hadn’t realized that a virtue could be a curse. In the schoolyard, my friends and I had always pretended at being grownups, putting on old necklaces of our mothers’ and aspiring to the greatness of colors we had heard of or invented—things like deep purple Valor and moss-colored Genius.

None of us were excited for the pinprick that would decide our glorious futures, but Tib’s older brother said that it didn’t hurt any worse than a vaccine. We all figured he wouldn’t lie about that, although he had gotten much nicer since he’d gotten his pendant.

There were boring virtues, like Temperance and Tolerance—and Tib’s brother’s Benevolence—which I didn’t want at all, but the world would hardly end if I were given either of them. A virtue like Aunt Victoria’s, though....

Before her coming-of-age ceremony, Aunt Victoria had wanted to be a singer. Aunt Lily was the one who told me this—Aunt Lily’s pendant was a pale yellow color that became almost clear in the sunlight, so even a small girl could depend on her for accurate information.

Aunt Lily liked to tell me that my melodramatic behavior would one day see me brought up on sedition charges, which I didn’t like at all, but when she told Aunt Victoria that she would never sing again, Aunt Victoria broke a teacup and fled the room. Later, Mother found her in the garden, throwing small rocks at the side of the house.

Life with Aunt Victoria became routine, even with her ghost behavior—until the night after the fourth of July, when she broke something in the middle of the night.

This was odd, because Aunt Victoria usually consigned her vandalism to daylight hours. If left to her own deciding, she would sleep from eight at night until two o’clock the next afternoon. As for me, I had run out of things to do at midnight and seized my chance to be the first to the scene.

The sitting room was strange in the dark, all lumpy shadows where the furniture stood, with Aunt Victoria grim and pale like moonlight above it all. Another shadow lay at her feet. For a moment, I became sure she was a ghost, and everyone had been wrong—even Aunt Lily, who could not tell a lie.

Then Mother swept in, Aunt Lily behind her, and the flickering light of the candle put everyone back to normal again. Everyone, that is, except the man sprawled on the floor.

Mother rushed to the poor soul and determined that he yet lived. “Victoria, did you break a vase over this man’s head?”

Aunt Victoria’s eyes swept heavenward, and even to my eight-year-old self, it was clear that she was not sorry. She mimed slashing off her hands at the wrists and her head at the neck.

“I hardly think he meant us such harm,” Mother protested. I, on the other hand, had feasted heartily on ghost stories and was not in the least surprised that someone might come to dismember us in the night. But I would have expected the dismemberer to be Aunt Victoria—not the young man who was now coming round to consciousness and whose face was screwed up with pain.

He said a word that made Aunt Lily cover my ears and had Mother insisting that I go back to bed immediately. I pleaded with her not to make me leave, but her scowling attention was solely on the young man. He noticed and smiled at her. But then he swore again because Aunt Victoria kicked him.

“My name’s Brandon,” he gasped, looking warily at Aunt Victoria, even though he wasn’t speaking to her.

As soon as she heard his name, Mother sprang into action. “Lily, take Rose to bed!” she ordered. “Victoria, you too.”  With that, she whisked the unlucky thief into the study, where there was nothing of value besides the letter opener with the pearl handle and the locked drawer that I was never allowed to touch. She kept letters in that one, the ones that came without a return address.

Brandon claimed he had really only come for the silver. Mother, with her virtue of Kindness, must have taken pity on him, because he was at breakfast the next morning, between her and Aunt Victoria.

They put me next to Aunt Lily, who looked fit to have a conniption. Brandon seemed oblivious to her ire and complimented Mother on the sausages, slicing each one into small pieces before eating it. He had somehow failed to understand Aunt Victoria’s virtue, because he addressed her directly after he swallowed his first piece. “Unusual hue, that pendant. You must have gotten it recently?  I’m afraid I’m not quite up to date with anything outside the reds—although people normally pick me out for Charm right away.”

“It’s a new color,” Aunt Lily explained for Aunt Victoria, who seemed to be trying to tear her napkin to shreds in her lap. “It’s Silence. The chaplain had to consult two books to find it when the mage brought in this year’s batch. He mistook it for Sympathy; it took another three days before they could understand why she went mute when they put it on her.”

Even the mages who make them don’t know what a person’s virtue will be, not until the stone is finished. They bring them in on racks for the ceremony, all labeled. We always try to guess from the color, although it’s hard to see from a distance. They sell pamphlets for a penny with the most common colors. I hadn’t needed mine in years. They were for babies, I had decided, who were too young to know the difference between reds and blues—although usually people with a son or daughter in the ceremony would buy them, too, as a keepsake.

Aunt Victoria made an angry gesture and savagely sliced her toast into two halves, buttering them with a fury that suggested she saw the mage’s face in one and the chaplain’s in the other.

Aunt Lily scowled. “I wish it had been Sympathy, too, dear—you could certainly do with a bit of it. They should really have a woman reading the colors; men have absolutely no eye for them. Everyone knows that sympathy is lavender.”

“I didn’t know that,” Brandon volunteered, to which Aunt Lily responded with a knowing look and a case-in-point gesture with her fork.

“Our grandmother was Sympathy,” Aunt Lily said. “Loveliest woman you’ve ever seen, if a bit melancholy. Very popular with the neighborhood. She always said that it was for the best; she’d been a cold and calculating child.”

Aunt Victoria bit into her toast and chewed it, staring grimly over my head as though I were the ghost and she the haunted one.

“You always were too loud,” Aunt Lily told Aunt Victoria.

Victoria thrust herself away from the table and, without pushing in her chair, left the room. Her dress caught on the doorframe, but she paid it no mind and let the fabric tear.

Aunt Lily sighed. “That silk will run, and so much for another month’s rent.”

Mother looked ready to burst thunder and lightning; her pendant almost seemed to glow.

“It isn’t as if I said something untrue,” Aunt Lily said. Her voice shook a little.

Brandon looked between Aunt Victoria’s second slice of toast and the door. He snatched the toast so fast that I was the only one who saw. This was our new boarder, and it seemed he had his bright Charm pendant to thank for it.

He had no funds with which to pay rent, and with Mother off during the days for suffragette rallies and meetings with the Women’s League, she soon hit upon a solution that Brandon found completely agreeable.

“What do you think?” she asked me, having sat me down on the floral explosion of a sofa in the sitting room for this purpose. “How would you like Brandon to stay with you while I go out for the day?”

I certainly wasn’t opposed.

Aunt Lily flipped open her lace fan, waving it to better supply herself with air. “You’re hiring a man as a governess. Justine, you have gone out of your wits.”  Aunt Lily had been gifted with Scrupulous Honesty, but I heard someone mention once that she had always been cantankerous. That part wasn’t from the virtue. The virtue just kept her from lying.

“And I should leave her with Victoria?” Mother suggested angrily. It was the one time I heard her lose patience with her younger sister.

“The man has no morals.”  Aunt Lily sniffed. “Are you sure they didn’t give you Gullibility?”

Aunt Lily might have been more fun if she lied sometimes. I had to ask Brandon what “gullibility” meant. I didn’t like the answer.

For reasons I didn’t understand, Aunt Victoria always stayed around while Brandon and I played. She did have a tendency to drift into rooms with people in them, and given that her other option was Aunt Lily, I shouldn’t have been surprised. She was unusually well-behaved around Brandon—that is, she wouldn’t direct her ire at anyone else as long as he was in the room. He would include her in our conversations, as though she were sitting down to play games with us and not standing in a corner looking eerie. It wasn’t long before she did start sitting with us.

We were drawing that day, and I was practicing horses while Brandon told me a story that ended in him getting away with quite a lot due to his natural charm. He had a whole repertoire of those stories. “I hope I get a virtue like that,” I said, when he finished.

It was then that Aunt Victoria reached out and knocked my pencil box from the table. My usual response to such behavior was to stick out my tongue and go pick up whatever it was of mine that she’d displaced.

Brandon’s chair scraped against the floor as he lurched to his feet. “For God’s sake, Victoria!”

She launched into a series of sharp gestures that proclaimed her innocence and blamed me.

“She hasn’t done anything!” he said. “And even if she had, you could try to tell her—you can write, can’t you, if it comes to that?  I think you just like making a show!  You can’t perform in a concert hall, but by God, you can have fits to excess around your family!”

Aunt Victoria drew back her hand as if she would slap him, and I shrieked, because there had to be some sound made. Otherwise, it would be like nothing at all had happened.

She did not slap Brandon, but spun around so only I could see her eyes grow wet, almost to tears.

“Don’t yell at her,” I said to him. “Show me how to draw a horse again.”  I offered him my pencil and paper, but he was too much taller than me to notice.

“I’m right, Victoria,” he said.

She flung her arm out, pointed at me. I pieced this together the only way I could. “I can too read!” I cried. I read very well for my age, having practically devoured books of all the most sensational ghost stories I could convince Mother to buy for me. Until Aunt Victoria came, of course; then my habit was discouraged.

“None of these people have done anything to wrong you,” Brandon said. “I haven’t—”

Aunt Victoria was not impressed.

“Oh. The—right. Look, maybe I was going to take the silver, but I haven’t, have I?”

While staring at Brandon, Aunt Victoria stood on one foot and made a sweeping motion at his legs. You haven’t got a leg to stand on.

I giggled. They both sighed, and Brandon laughed—Aunt Victoria joined in, in her spooky way. Brandon stopped laughing and, in the silence that followed as she fought to control herself, simply watched her.

She must have thought he had a point, after all, because after that, she rarely knocked anything over at all.

Aunt Victoria guessed before I did that something was amiss with Brandon, although at the time, I was convinced that she was sweet on him. She had taken to following him around at times when he wasn’t watching me, often dragging me along. She would press a finger to her lips, then grab my wrist and pull me after her.

There were small sounds that I had never quite appreciated before Aunt Victoria started the Let’s Spy on Brandon game. The crush of dewy grass underfoot, the sound of my own breath—so long as Aunt Victoria held onto me, these vanished.

I wasn’t sure how much I minded. I had developed my own fascination with Brandon, the kind of idol worship that is specifically set aside for eight-year-olds to do with as they please. I never truly suspected we’d catch him at anything. Aside from his unorthodox arrival, he had never done anything the least bit criminal.

One morning, just as Mother was leaving to do her work with the Women’s League, two men approached the door. One of them showed a badge that was not local police but some higher-up authority in the government. They introduced themselves as Inspectors Loughton and Lee, and they were looking for a particular young man.

Mother said she had not seen anyone of that sort. But that night, after I was meant to be in bed, I sneaked down the hall for a glass of water, only to find that Mother and Aunt Lily were awake, sitting at the kitchen table with a lamp lit between them. “They’ll come back to ask me, if they think of it,” I heard Aunt Lily say, “when their other leads run dry. I say, send him along.”

“Where?” Mother asked. I heard the soft, dry sound of her hands wringing with worry.

Aunt Lily sighed. “You’re the one who can lie, Justine. Not me.”

I realized then what I should have known from the outset. There are plenty of thieves in the world who come to steal silver, but they steal silver because, for some reason, they need it.

Brandon had come to us with neatly trimmed hair and a shirt whose only damage came from climbing through the sitting room window. He just wasn’t the sort to become a burglar.

After that night, I began to notice other things, like Aunt Lily, and how she wasn’t saying anything about our lack of new boarders. I noticed the small things that Brandon did every day: how Mother had given him a room at the back of the house, how he would stay slightly away from the front windows, how he never went outside. Brandon was a criminal, but we weren’t letting him stay simply because of Mother’s kindness or because everyone thought I needed looking after. Maybe his arrival hadn’t been an attempted burglary at all. We weren’t sheltering a clumsy thief. We were harboring a fugitive. Someone who had done something worse than stealing.

In a way, Aunt Lily might have had a point in her sermons about gothic novels leading to a depraved mind. The conversation I had overheard led me not to fear and nerves, but to a kind of romantic fascination with this figure in our household who had taken on a new air of mystery. Now, I became a willing partner in Aunt Victoria’s game of Let’s Spy on Brandon—more than that, I would instigate it. I wanted to know what he had done.

The morning we found out, it was because of me. I pulled Aunt Victoria into the backyard to spy with me through the window. It was relatively early, but Brandon was already awake.

He didn’t notice us; he was looking in the mirror on his wall, performing a routine in which he would run his fingers through his hair, and then scowl and repeat the exercise. Aunt Victoria was unimpressed. For me, I hadn’t realized that looking like a charming rake was something one had to work at.

Then, quite casually, he unfastened his pendant and laid it on the bedside table.

I expected Aunt Victoria to fly at him, flinging silent insults and possibly small objects, but she didn’t.

She dropped down onto the grass with no mind for her skirts. I protested without a sound that she was twisting my arm, until she abruptly let me go and my voice rang out into the morning.

“—toria, why hasn’t he got—”

I gasped and ducked beneath the window, but it was too late. We’d been seen.

Brandon leaned out the window, not even bothering to replace his fake pendant. “You two can now have me put in prison for years, did you know?”  He was trying to be his usual self, but his voice had a tension in it that belied the attempt at lightness.

This was, I thought, because he was not really a charming person at all; he had not gone to his coming-of-age ceremony and was still a child, carrying his worst flaw uncorrected. I couldn’t even formulate words to describe the magnitude of this deception. “You lied,” I said at last.

Aunt Victoria stared off across the yard, biting her lip.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Brandon said quietly.

“We already knew you were a criminal,” I said. “So, don’t worry, it’s not—”

“It’s not your fault,” he told Aunt Victoria. “I had my parents’ help; I was fourteen—you couldn’t have done anything to prevent—”

She shook her head. Everything she’d ever cared about had been taken from her, and now she knew that if she’d been someone else, somewhere else, she might have had a choice.

The inspectors returned, just like Aunt Lily said they would. This time, they came into the house without asking permission. “We have reason to believe that you’re sheltering a criminal, ma’am,” said Inspector Loughton, while Inspector Lee handed her the search warrant. “We won’t trouble you far. We’d just like to ask one question of Miss Lily Howell. If she answers to our satisfaction, we needn’t even bother following up on the warrant.”

Mother’s reply was cool and reasonable. “If there is a question to be asked, you may just as well ask it of me. I am the owner of this house, as your warrant should show.”  She turned to me; I was frozen in place at the foot of the stairs, having come down when I heard the knock at the door. “Rose, go upstairs and fetch your aunt Lily.”

“But—” 

She interrupted me, and Mother never interrupted me. “Go, Rose.”

Aunt Lily was not upstairs. She was in the pantry, making the list for the week’s shopping, like she always did on Sunday evenings.

I bumped into Brandon at the top of the stairs. He had been telling me one of his stories when the knock had come at the door, but he knew better than to go down with me. He had heard everything, though, and he knew as well as I did what they were going to ask Aunt Lily, and Aunt Lily couldn’t lie. “Upstairs,” I whispered. “Go hide with Aunt Victoria.”

He looked warily up at the stowed ladder that led to her attic bedroom. It was the only place I could think of. I hoped Aunt Victoria was still awake.

I ran dutifully to Aunt Lily’s bedroom, checking under the bed and in the closet so I could tell Mother and the inspectors that I couldn’t find her. “I looked everywhere,” I said.

“Where could she be?” Mother said, but the inspectors were on to her.

I didn’t like the look of them at all, so much taller than even Mother and dressed in suits of black. I tore back up the stairs and followed Brandon into the attic, clambering up the ladder as fast as I could to slip in before either of them lowered the trapdoor.

Aunt Victoria closed the door behind us and gestured for  help moving a trunk over it. A brief, silent argument ensued wherein Brandon maintained that this would only get everyone into more trouble when they found him. She suggested the window, but there was a third inspector outside, waiting with the carriage they had come in.

For a moment, the silence was so loud that I understood why my aunt would break plates to escape it. Brandon sat down heavily on the floor next to Aunt Victoria’s bed. I scrambled over to sit next to him, not knowing what else to do. There was nowhere else to hide.

Brandon suddenly began to speak—under his breath; he already knew how dangerous it was, but something in or beyond this moment seemed to compel him. “I was fourteen when my parents sent me away,” he said. “I lived with my grandparents for two years, and they pretended I was younger—I was small for my age; it was easily done—and when my father came to fetch me back, he’d had the false pendant made. We told everyone I had come of age out in the country, which was true, and everyone simply assumed.... I made a mistake, telling someone; I thought she...but she didn’t. They wanted me to go through the ceremony the next year. I couldn’t stand the thought of that weight around my neck, never being able to take it off.... And I’m sorry, to both of you—”

Though I tried to be quiet, I was still at the age where I was too small to help crying, and Aunt Victoria wrapped her arms around me so that I didn’t have to. Brandon fell silent as well, and for a little while, the only sound was his breath in the darkness.

The stairs creaked, just once, and then—  “That is my sister’s room!” Aunt Lily cried. “Gentlemen, I ask you, just what are you implying?”

Aunt Victoria let go of me and leapt toward her writing desk, where she scrawled something in pencil, following it with one vehement mark, an underline. She shoved the scrap of paper into Brandon’s hand. He read it, and as the trapdoor swung open, he squeezed his eyes shut.

The paper fell to the floor. I read it later:

It does not determine who you are.

The arrest was quiet. Brandon went down the stairs between the two men, and he left the house in front of them. As they rode away, none of us said anything, not even Aunt Lily, though it was perhaps an opportunity for a word about morals.

Soon after that, Aunt Victoria disappeared. She took a single bag with her, leaving behind most of her things and a cryptic note for Mother, about not letting what she’d said be a lie. One of our neighbors later claimed to have seen her at the train station, carpet bag at her feet, notepaper and pencil in hand.

Aunt Lily was the first to notice, on Sunday, that the silver candlesticks were missing.


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Amanda M. Olson is a St. Olaf College graduate who has recently taken up residence in Wisconsin. She is a former student of Alpha Writer's Workshop. This is her first published story.

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1 Comment on “Virtue's Ghosts”

One Response to “Virtue’s Ghosts”

  1. Robin Praytor says:

    I love everything about this story (and, in first person no less). I read so many short stories through online subscriptions and rarely find prose so uniquely charming and delightful as “Virtue’s Ghosts”. Each character is exquisitely constructed and fascinating. I smiled throughout and laughed aloud at the last line.

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