Check out this sneak peek of Phantom Rising, releasing on 9.22.2020!
“Please tell me you’re not smoking, too,” Mom said. She held up my blue plastic lighter. Her expression looked like she was holding a live cockroach.
I gritted my teeth and brandished the tightly wrapped bundle of sage at her. “It’s for burning sage.”
The pale green leaves didn’t seem to set her nerves at ease. Her eyes narrowed. “And that’s all you’re smoking?”
“Yes. I mean, I’m not smoking anything. Gross.” Sage was for cleansing the negative energy from haunted places, not getting high. I had more than enough issues without adding drugs to the mix.
For the twenty-eighth time this week, I was questioning my choice to tell Mom about my side gig as a ghost therapist. It wasn’t exactly a choice, considering she had been about two minutes from having me locked up. To be fair, I told her off, stole her car, and broke into her psycho church friend’s house. I’d avoided a trip to an institution but now Mom had her nose in all of my business, instead of just seventy percent of it.
Mom circled the glass patio table and perused my neatly arranged ghost supplies. Still wearing her pale blue scrubs, she looked like she was preparing for surgery.
Trying to ignore her attentive stare, I set my laptop next to the neat bundle of flowers we’d bought at the grocery store. Mom had insisted on the blue daisies, saying they were more appropriate for spring. With the uneven striations of the artificial dye, they were gross and fake-looking. But considering Mom had been nice enough to put them on her tab, I was willing to compromise.
Sunset painted the sky in a watercolor wash of pink and orange. Nancy Walker waited patiently in the back yard, a faint smile on her face as she watched the fiery clouds melting across the sky. I wondered if there were sunsets where Nancy was going.
“Is she here?” Mom said.
Nancy’s dark eyes snapped up at the sound of her voice. Blood dripped down her translucent face in an endless trickle, but I’d gotten used to the grisly sight long ago.
I jolted in surprise and glared at my mom. “Yes, she’s right here.”
Mom looked around frantically. “Oh, hello, um…Miss Nancy. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Hello, Mrs. Young,” Nancy said brightly. Shattered glass was embedded in Nancy’s pale hands, glinting slightly as she waved. Thank God Mom couldn’t see her. It was hard enough for me, and I was used to the horror show of my ability.
“She says hello,” I said to Mom. “Nancy, are you ready? I have a really exciting update on Karina.”
She nodded eagerly as I pulled up the Healing Words website on my laptop. A few months ago, Nancy fell asleep at the wheel and forced another car off the interstate. Though Nancy had died on the scene, the other driver had survived, albeit with serious injuries. Nancy’s guilt and concern had kept her here after she should have passed on.
For over a month, I’d been monitoring Karina’s progress through her family’s posts. “Listen to this one from yesterday,” I told her. “Hi everyone! It’s Karina. My hubby did such a good job at updating you all, but I’m excited to finally post for myself. Thank you all for your concerns and prayers. I just got home and took a bath in my own bathtub for the first time in almost two months. Best bath ever!” I read the whole post to her, which detailed Karina’s prognosis and all the milestones she’d reached. Nancy’s eyes were fixed on me as I read to her. “And I want to make something very clear, since a lot of you have asked Ronnie or the girls about it. We are not angry at the other driver involved in the accident. In fact, we are sad that her life was cut short. What happened that night could have happened to any of us, so we ask that you keep her and her family in your prayers.”
Smelling faintly of decay, Nancy leaned closer. “She really said that?”
“Look for yourself,” I told her gently. “She’s going to be fine, and they’re not blaming you. They know it was just an accident.”
Nancy’s face twisted into a bloody grimace. Without a body and the accompanying tear ducts, that was her best approximation of crying. She covered her face and murmured, “Thank you.”
I was way too familiar with that guilt. Though Valerie had sworn the accident that killed her wasn’t my fault, I still heard that sad old refrain of if only echoing through my head sometimes.
“You should tell her that we all make mistakes. It could happen to anyone,” Mom said. I’d told her the story while we picked up groceries earlier.
“You can’t stay out here if you’re going to keep interrupting,” I said. Her brow furrowed, but her lips clamped together in a tight line.
“It’s fine, honey,” Nancy said gently. “It’s a mother’s nature to tell her daughter what to do.”
I shook my head slightly. “Nancy, if you’re ready, you can go. I’m ready when you are.”
She gazed up at the sky, then back at me. “It’s so nice here with you.”
“Thanks,” I said. Ghosts thought I was warm and bright, which was a nice change from their usual cold, gray existence. It was a nice compliment, even if it came from a weird place. “But you’re not meant to stay here. This light is just a shadow of what’s waiting for you.”
“There’s—” Mom said.
“Mother!” I seethed. “Will you go inside, please?”
“I’ll be quiet,” she said apologetically.
Trying to settle my nerves, I offered my hands to Nancy. “I’m so sorry.”
She chuckled. “It’s all right.” Cold radiated up my arms as she clasped my hands. “Thank you for being so kind and patient with me.”
“It was my pleasure.” My eyes stung as I smiled at her. “I’m happy I got to know you while you were still here. Thanks for all the help with my chemistry homework.”
She laughed aloud. “Just remember not to overthink it.” Her shoulders lifted and fell, like she was taking a deep breath for courage. “I’m ready.”
With a deep breath of my own, I let a tiny spark of energy flow into Nancy. The bloody mess of her face brightened into a vivid red. “Go in peace, Nancy.”
Warm golden light illuminated her face, like the sun emerging from a stormcloud. The light washed away the blood trickling down her ruined face. The terrible wounds faded. Beneath the gruesome marks of her death, she was pretty, with full cheeks and bright eyes. I saw the real Nancy for the first time.
“It’s beautiful,” she murmured. Her grasp on my hands loosened, her chin lifting toward the fiery sunset. Her smile spread wider and wider as her translucent form faded. There was a shimmer, then the faintest echo, and then nothing.
A gentle sigh whispered in my mind.
Nancy was gone.
The trees rustled in the dying wind, as if they whispered their goodbyes. My heart ached as I surveyed the empty back yard. The world had changed once more. No more Nancy. I’d been the last person to see her in this world, which was such a strange burden to carry.
I slowly turned, then jumped in surprise. Since she’d finally gone silent, I’d forgotten my mother was watching. Her lips parted, but she was still quiet.
“It’s all done,” I said quietly, dabbing at my eyes.
“Can I help you with anything?”
“No,” I said. I grabbed the lighter and the bundle of sage from the table.
Her eyes widened. “What’s that for?”
“It’s just sage,” I said, igniting the end and fanning the fragrant smoke. “It purifies bad energy.”
“Oh, that’s just silly,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re welcome to go back inside. I don’t come to your job and tell you that washing your hands is silly.”
“That’s not even…carry on,” she said, looking properly chastised.
Feeling self-conscious with her watching, I hurried around the house, letting the sage smoke waft around. Go in peace, I thought, imagining myself waving goodbye to Nancy. I pictured her as she was in those last moments, her radiant smile replacing the death mask I’d first seen.
My chest tightened. I’d really liked having her around. She didn’t need much attention, unlike some of my spirit contacts. She helped me with my homework, and we watched The Office on my laptop when we were done. Nancy had a high-pitched laugh that was contagious, even when I was in a crappy mood.
And she was really gone now. I should have been used to goodbyes by now, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever get there.
When I was done, I carefully extinguished the smoldering bundle of sage and left it lying on the concrete patio. I quickly packed up my other belongings, swallowing the lump of emotion in my throat.
“All done,” I finally said.
“And all of this is safe?”
“Yes,” I said.
Unless you counted the thralls, which were enslaved spirits possessed by the Speakers to attack other spirits and even the living. Or the Hillman boys, a couple of half-crazed kids who answered my attempts to help them with trying to drown me. Or a long-dead hiker who almost drained the life from me. That one was an accident, at least.
Not that my mother needed to know any of that.
I carefully stowed all my supplies into my ghost backpack and zipped it up before going back into the house.
Mom followed me inside. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You look sad.”
“I am sad,” I said, avoiding her gaze as we walked into the house. “Most spirits don’t spend this much time with me. But I cared about Nancy. She was really nice.”
Mom’s look of pity made me feel self-conscious. But instead of pressing the issue, she hugged me, letting me press my head into her shoulder. It was comforting, although a bit awkward. I’d dealt with this alone for more than two years. I might have been better adjusted with more hugs along the way, but there was a petty part of me that wanted to tell her to leave me alone, that I didn’t need her help to get through.
“Did you give the note to your teachers for Friday?” she asked.
“I did,” I said, butterflies fluttering in my stomach.
This Friday, Mom was picking me up early from school so we could drive up to Charlotte for the weekend. There, we would visit the campus of Saint Benedict’s Academy, a small private school for people like me. As in, people who saw the dead, not mediocre students with anxious tendencies and no college plans.
When I first learned about the school from my friend Marcus, it was just a distant abstraction. There was no way I’d leave home and go off to some weird school for ghost whisperers.
But after dealing with a dangerous sensitive a month ago, I’d realized that I needed the training they offered. Whether I liked it or not, trouble kept finding me, and I was tired of having to call for help. I wanted to be capable and competent like my friend Marcus, who was ten times the sensitive I was.
One of the school’s professors, Kendra Thomas, had come to help me deal with Christina Shepherd, a sensitive who abused her powers and nearly killed Kale. While she was here, she’d talked to Mom and me about coming to school.
Soon, it would be real, and I would have to make a decision. My future wasn’t going to be so gray and hazy, and that scared the crap out of me. Lying on the kitchen table was a red folder full of paperwork from the school, including a scary-looking non-disclosure agreement. Mom had gone a little pale as we read it over, agreeing that whether or not I decided to go there, I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. Signing my name on that was a big step, and this weekend was even bigger.
I absently checked my phone, which I’d left inside so Nancy had my full attention.
Fulbright: wanted to let you know before you see it on the news – David Miles is heading back to Georgia tomorrow. Call me if you need to. I can talk you through what to expect.
Fulbright: if in doubt, don’t talk to anyone. But you’re going to be fine.
My stomach plunged through the floor. My worries about Saint Benedict’s had just relocated to another universe altogether. “Mom, he’s coming back.”
“Who?” she said, flipping through the papers from the school.
“David Miles,” I said quietly. “Is the news on yet?”
She dropped the papers and hurried into the living room. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a burst of noise blared from the TV. I searched for updates on my phone, but the first site I checked hadn’t updated in a few hours.
“They’re on the weather,” Mom said. “It just started.”
With my whole body trembling, I flopped onto the couch. The woman on the screen was rambling about unusually high spring temperatures. Didn’t she realize there were more important things? “And now, back to Lenore with our main story.”
“Our main story tonight is a painful topic for the community of Parkland,” Lenore Roberts said. “After his arrest last month in Colorado, accused serial killer David Miles will be sent back to Georgia in the next week. He is expected to appear in court here in Byron County as early as Friday, when prosecutors are expected to charge him with at least five murders. Law enforcement is still determining the full scope of Miles’ crimes, but at least twenty-four victims have been positively identified.”
“He’s going to be back here,” I said, my heart pounding against my ribs. I could walk to the courthouse in fifteen minutes. The thought of him so close sent a cold shiver rippling through me.
“He can’t hurt you. The court will make sure he never hurts anyone again,” Mom said.
But I wasn’t so sure. The police thought Natalie Fullmer was a runaway, and she was brutally murdered right under their noses. Even when I found his burial ground and his hideout, no one would take me seriously. At sixteen, I’d had to interfere so my best friend didn’t meet the same bloody end that Natalie did. The justice system hadn’t exactly earned my confidence.
“They almost let Emily die,” I said quietly. “Who’s to say they won’t screw this up, too?”
She gently squeezed my hand. “Now they know who he is. With all the evidence, he’s going to rot in prison for the rest of his life. You, on the other hand, have your whole life in front of you.”
Yeah. That was the scary part.
“And then, Tyler sent me the cutest picture,” Emily enthused, handing me her phone as we walked through the school parking lot. After attending prom together, she and Tyler Eddings were officially dating. On her phone was a picture of him making a heart symbol with his hands. It was kind of cringe-worthy and kind of adorable at the same time.
I really was happy for Emily. She was practically sparkling, like the new boyfriend happiness had crystallized into glitter. Even the news about David Miles hadn’t fazed her too much. We’d texted about it last night, and she was taking it better than I was.
But seeing her fawning over Tyler also made me a little jealous. I had my own dose of lovesickness, but my particular strain had a particularly grim prognosisn.
My Guardian, Kale, loved me. He’d come right out and said it after months of trying to keep me at a distance. When my prom night was cut short, he’d danced with me in the moonlight and told me, “For the first time in hundreds of years, you make me wish I could be alive again.”
What girl wouldn’t want to hear that? That practically ruined me for normal boys. And I’d admitted that I loved him too. And wasn’t that the perfect happy ending, or better yet, the happy start of something incredible? But this wasn’t a fairy tale where being honest about our feelings was the catalyst for a miracle.
Kale was dead. Powerful as he was, he was still an incorporeal spirit whose physical body had died long ago. And unless I could somehow kiss him back to life like some necromantic Disney princess, there was nothing that would change it. While I was willing to give the kissing thing a serious effort, it wouldn’t matter in the end.
So we were stuck treading water in this terrible limbo, knowing that there was something beautiful and impossible between us. At least we were speaking again. Having Kale around was better than the opposite, even if it made my heart ache.
Emily and I beat the morning bell for once. Hundreds of students gathered in the cafeteria, filling the open space with a loud roar. We retreated quickly to a quiet corner to talk.
“So what’s the deal with this road trip? Just you and your mom?” Emily asked.
My stomach flip-flopped. “Yeah,” I said. “Um, I’m going up to that school I told you about. I’m just getting a little lesson.”
She looked skeptical. “Like private tutoring or something?”
“But you’re not going there yet,” Emily said. “You’re waiting till college, right?”
“Yeah, definitely,” I lied. “We just wanted to check it out so I can decide if I want to go up there for real.”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell Emily that I was seriously considering attending next year.
No one was pressuring me. Even Kendra, as intimidating as she was, had told me it was my choice. But there was a quiet whisper in my mind that urged me to go. You know you have to. Considering I was terrified of change, I was inclined to listen to that little voice if even it was in favor.
After speculating about the ratio of hot guys at Saint Benedict’s, Emily and I went our separate ways for class. I promised to send her pictures for documentation of our hotness hypotheses.
With the upcoming trip consuming my thoughts, it was hard to pay attention in chemistry class. Considering my live-in tutor Nancy was gone now, I needed to stay focused so I could finish the semester with a decent grade.
But with big changes on the horizon, did any of this even matter? If I went to Saint Benedict’s. would I still have to take chemistry? Or would all my classes be about paranormal and supernatural stuff? They probably didn’t give a crap about my GPA, though Mom certainly would. I should have just kept getting crappy grades and let her standards stay nice and low.
Second period was gym class, which thankfully required minimal focus. The boys’ coaches were setting out basketballs along the sidelines for drills, which meant the girls were going outside. After changing quickly, I ran out to catch Michael.
Apparently we had the same idea. Michael was sitting on the bleachers when I scurried across the polished wood floor, sliding in my sock feet. I plopped down next to him to put on my shoes. “How are you doing with the news? I got worried when you didn’t reply last night,” I said.
“Sorry about that,” he said with a frown. “We spent a while on the phone with the police. After that, I called my aunt Tonya to see if Mom could stay up there for a few days until the media craziness blows over. Then my battery died-“
I leaned into him and bumped him with my shoulder. “You don’t have to apologize. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” Michael was one of the nicest living people I knew. Ever since Natalie’s brutal murder, he’d been taking care of his mom. It was hard on him, especially when he had lost just as much. I tried to be there for him without suffocating him. “How are you doing?”
He sighed. “Okay, I guess. I don’t know if I want to go to the arraignment. The lady didn’t know how many charges they’d actually bring, but she’s sure Natalie is one of them. With her being the most recent, there was a lot of evidence. Since her body…” He trailed off. I took his hand gently. “But she warned me that his lawyers will drag Natalie through the mud. And I love my sister, but there’s a lot to drag. I don’t want people to judge her.”
“Yeah,” I murmured. “If you decide to go, I’ll go with you for moral support.”
He squeezed my hand, a faint smile on his face. His green eyes were soft as they searched me. “You know he’ll be there, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, my heart leaping into my throat. “But he can’t hurt us. And maybe I can give him the finger from the audience. And there’s nothing he can do about it.”
Michael laughed, and a genuine smile broke through the tension on his face. Hearing him laugh made me feel like I had superpowers. “That would be nice. I’ll let you know what I decide, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
He leaned into me just a little. Even though I’d decided our relationship would be strictly friendship, I enjoyed being so close to him. Maybe it was a little pathetic, but I just didn’t get that much human contact. Even with Kale and Sal around, they couldn’t touch without draining my energy. Michael was warm and real, and I relished it. “Are you excited about your trip?”
“That’s one word for it,” I said, letting out a sigh. “I’d also accept nervous. Or terrified.”
“It’s going to be great,” he said. “Do you think they have secret passwords to get into the building like in Harry Potter?”
I laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“That would be awesome,” he said. “Do you have to decide this weekend about staying?”
“Not yet,” I said. “I guess this is kind of the equivalent of a college visit.”
He nodded. “I’m glad you’re going. If you get your super ghost whisperer license, I’ll get my criminal justice degree, and we’ll be an unstoppable crime-fighting team. I’ll work for the FBI and you can be my secret weapon.”
“Young and Fullmer,” I said with a laugh.
His eyes narrowed. “Fullmer and Young,” he corrected. I gave him a stern look and bumped him again. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Girls, line up to go outside!” Coach Holley barked from the door.
“Text me if you get bored.” He glanced up at the coach, then gave me a quick side hug. I breathed deep and said a silent thank you for a friend like Michael. We’d been through hell and back together, and I was glad I hadn’t scared him away with all of my weirdness.
“Fullmer! PDA!” Coach Lente yelled. “Get over here for drills!”
He flashed me a bright smile as he jogged over to his class. A couple of the boys gave me a strange look, like they were trying to figure out why Michael was chatting up the weird junior girl. I sighed and went to join the girls lining up to go outside.
The girls had to run a timed mile, which was not my idea of a fun morning. But my burning lungs gave me something to think about other than my growing apprehension, which was a bonus.
Mom picked me up just after third period, still wearing her work scrubs. After checking that I’d picked up my assignments, we drove home to get our bags.
As I walked into the house, Kale materialized at the top of the steps. His translucent form radiated a pleasant light like a beacon as I walked upstairs. “Hey,” I said quietly. His gentle smile filled me with tingling warmth.
“Huh?” Mom asked. “Bridget?’
“Just saying hello to Kale,” I said loudly.
“Oh.” I winced as she shouted, “Hi Kale!”
Drifting down to watch her bustling through the living room, Kale chuckled. “This is still weird. Tell her I said hi.”
“Kale says hello to you too!” I called as I hurried up the stairs and into my bedroom. “Eyes.” Kale obediently looked out my window while I changed into comfy yoga pants and a loose shirt for the car trip. “All done. Anything I should know about when I get there?”
“Just be polite,” he said, turning to regard me. With the midday light pouring in behind him, he looked even more angelic than usual. “And quit worrying so much.”
“I’m not worrying.” Liar, liar pants on fire.
His eyebrow arched. “How long have I known you? It’s all over your face.” He tapped his forehead. “You get this little line right here.”
The thought that Kale knew me well enough to pick up my emotions just from my face was weirdly comforting. “What if they don’t like me?”
“They want you to come there,” he said. “They already like you.”
“It’s not the same. They want me to come because of my power, not because of my personality,” I reminded him.
“They’ll like that too as long as you don’t lose your mind,” he said wryly. “You’re quite charming when you want to be.”
I laughed. “I choose to not read into that statement so I can take it as a compliment.” I double checked my duffel bag. While I’d remembered to pack a small container of salt, a full bottle of holy water, and a length of thin silver chain, I’d forgotten my toothbrush and my phone charger. Priorities, right? “Will you come up there with us?”
“Just call for me when you arrive,” he said. “I’ll be there.”
More than anything else, that reassurance was what I needed. “Good.”
After half an hour of Mom chattering about our upcoming visit, she finally settled down and put on an audiobook, which kept us both quiet. This was the first time I’d ever gone on a trip alone with my mother. Colin was staying with his friend Jeremy, who’d been around when the Hillman ghosts attacked the house. Hopefully they didn’t play with a Ouija board or try to open a portal to hell. Idiots.
We listened to Mom’s thriller book for half an hour, which cut a bit too deep with the crafty murderer stalking his next victim, a young college student. Mom winced when the narrator described the murderer grabbing the woman, duct-taping her mouth, and throwing her into the trunk of his car. She paused it. “Do you want me to change it to something else? I wasn’t even thinking.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Maybe it’ll give me ideas on how these jerks think.”
She frowned. “Oh, Bridget. You’re too young to worry about all of this twisted mess.”
It was a little late for that. When Natalie appeared to me, bearing the marks of her horrific death, I had seen true evil. I’d even experienced an echo of her final, horrible moments. A creepy book couldn’t even touch that experience.
“This twisted mess falls in my lap on a regular basis.” I gently pushed her hand away from the phone. “Leave it on. I bet he gets caught in the end. Happy ending.”
She let out a sigh of defeat, but let the book play again. The gruff older detective with a protective streak reminded me of Fulbright. He and his partner had just discovered a fresh corpse when we emerged from the dense traffic of downtown Charlotte and got off the interstate. Mom silenced the audiobook to listen to the GPS, which directed us down a state highway. We drove another fifteen minutes through a small town that gave way to rolling fields dotted with isolated houses.
Mom nearly missed the last turn onto a narrow, winding road. A green sign read Saint Benedict’s Academy: Private Property. The two-lane road disappeared into a dark canopy of trees.
“Isn’t this pretty?” Mom murmured as she slowed down to take a wide curve. Just ahead, the trees thinned out to reveal the sprawling grounds. A red brick wall surrounded the school. Beyond tall wrought iron gates, an imposing brick building rose toward the overcast sky.
That had to be it. My heart thumped in anticipation.
On the archway above the gates, metal script spelled out Saint Benedict’s Academy. Beneath the arch were two security guards in heavy black jackets. Mom pulled up to the gate and rolled down her window. One guard approached Mom, while the other peeked in my window. Both carried guns on their hips. Holy crap. They weren’t playing around up here.
“Ma’am, this is private property,” the male security guard said politely. “You can turn around right here.” He gestured to a gravel path that looped back around to the road.
“Oh, we’re here for a visit,” Mom said. “Ms. Thomas said you’d have my daughter’s name on your list. Bridget Young.”
The man tilted his head and met my eyes. My mouth went dry. I didn’t know how to feel about my name being on a list. It felt more Most Wanted than VIP. “Just a moment.” He stood up straight, and there was a staticky burst of a radio. “Sparks, I’ve got a visitor named Young. Got it.” He leaned down again and smiled broadly. “Yes, ma’am, you’re cleared to come in. Turn left as soon as you go through the gate and park there. Someone will be there to meet you.”
The gates swung open silently as the guard stepped away. Mom followed his directions, turning left onto a narrow road that curved around the edge of the school. My eyes widened as I took it all in.
I wasn’t sure what I’d expected. Bones and ritual circles? Gothic gardens full of black roses and moss-covered tombstones? Instead, Saint Benedict’s reminded me of one of the private colleges Valerie had visited in her senior year.
At the center was the big brick building we’d seen from the gates, but within the brick walls, a dozen smaller buildings spread over the well-kept campus. In the distance, a boy and a girl jogged close to the wall. Several other students strolled toward the smaller buildings. In jeans and t-shirts, they could have walked right out of my high school.
Phew. I was afraid there was a goofy uniform. My legs were way too pale for plaid schoolgirl skirts.
At the edge of the property was a small parking lot that currently hosted a dozen cars. Two people waited in an empty spot. The man raised a hand in greeting and stepped aside as Mom pulled into the parking spot.
A wave of relief hit me. It was Marcus Alder, the sensitive who had come to help me several times with difficult cases. He waved as we got out of the car. “Hi Bridget,” he said. “Mrs. Young.” I smiled shyly at Marcus, not sure where we stood. Were we hand-shakers or huggers?
“Hi,” Mom said, slowly looking around.
“Bridget, this is Nora Kuriko,” Marcus said. “She teaches here.”
Nora was a pretty Asian woman, who was absolutely rocking the pristine white jacket and red scarf. I suddenly felt self-conscious about my outfit, which was picked for peak road trip comfort, not impressing fashionable teachers.
She shook my hand gently. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Bridget.”
“You too,” I said, hoping my hand wasn’t sweaty and gross.
She gestured broadly. “Welcome to Saint Benedict’s Academy. I’ll show you around.” Ms. Kuriko led us along the narrow path and gestured to the big building I’d seen from the road. “That’s the main school building, Noble Hall,” she said. “That’s where all academic classes are conducted, as well as some of your paranormal studies that don’t involve lab work. The building is within a very powerful sanctuary to prevent any mishaps.”
A cool sensation trickled down my spine, and I turned to see a dark figure approaching. Marcus raised a hand in greeting. “Abigail, please meet our guest,” he said. “A potential student.”
As he spoke her name, the spirit’s blurred form resolved into an older woman in a long dress with a full skirt. She looked like she’d gotten lost on her way home from a Civil War reenactment. “Oh, hello.”
Mom looked around, her eyes going wide as she realized we were talking to a ghost. As she fiddled with the zipper on her jacket, I realized for the first time that she was the odd one out. I wasn’t the weirdo for once.
“Hi, Abigail,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Bridget Young.”
“What a polite young lady. Abigail Saint James is how I was known before my demise, but you may call me Miss Abigail,” she said, giving me a bright smile. As she approached, I clenched my jaws tight to keep the smile firmly affixed on my face. A deep wound sliced down one side of Miss Abigail’s neck into her chest, like someone had hacked her open with an axe. Blood stained her white blouse. Despite the bloody evidence of her death, Miss Abigail’s eyes were clear green. “Shall I help with the tour?”
Ms. Kuriko glanced back at me. “Maybe tomorrow,” she said. “Bridget’s here to speak with the headmasters today, but she’ll be coming back for lessons tomorrow. Perhaps afterward, you could tell her a bit about the school.”
“Wonderful,” the ghostly matron said. She looked me over. “I shall look forward to it, Miss Young.” Then she turned to Marcus. A frown of motherly disapproval crossed her pale face. “Marcus, have you been eating properly?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, clearly suppressing a smile.
“I don’t think so. Your face looks too thin,” she said. “Skinny like when you were a boy. Should we tell the cooks to make sure you get enough to eat? You mustn’t let yourself get sick.”
He chuckled and held out his hand. Without speaking, Abigail grasped his hand, and a faint burst of light shone in her chest. The bloody wound seemed to close slightly, and a flush of color bloomed on her full cheeks. “Miss Abigail, I promise I’m eating enough. But I appreciate your concern.”
“If you insist,” she said, giving him a sidelong glance as she smoothed her skirt. “Bridget, I look forward to conversing with you later. Do enjoy your visit.”
“Okay. Me too,” I blurted, watching as she bustled off and hoping I hadn’t offended her. She flickered down the path, clearly headed for the pair of students running around the edge of the campus.
With a faint smile, Marcus said, “Miss Abigail has been here as long as the school has. If she likes you, she’s a good friend to have.”
My stomach flipped. “And if she doesn’t?”
His lips quirked into a knowing smile. “Don’t worry. She’ll like you.”
Ms. Kuriko stepped ahead of me. “This way, Bridget.” We took a curving path that skirted away from the main building. Beyond the dozen smaller buildings, there was a pale stone building at the edge of a dense wood. “The lower school here is currently home to about eighty students from all over the world.”
“Whoa,” I breathed. “Eighty people like me?”
She smiled brightly. “Based on our statistics, we think that’s a mere fraction of people in the world like us. Some may never realize their ability, while others never get trained because they don’t know about us. But with medical technology that can restore heart function and workplace emergency training, we’ve seen an increase in people developing extrasensory abilities.” She gestured to a two-story brick building just ahead of us. The white window frames were bright against the rich red brick. “This is the girls’ dormitory.” She pointed to a nearly identical building across the lawn. “That’s the boys’. Inside each dorm, the rooms are organized in suites that share a bathroom and living area. Each student has a small private room, but you can still socialize in the common areas.”
“That sounds nice,” Mom said brightly.
Ms. Kuriko nodded to her. “Both dorms have a laundry room, with a small kitchen on each floor. Students are expected to keep all their spaces clean. We do not provide maids or janitors in the dormitories, and there are weekly inspections to ensure everything is properly maintained,” she said. “You’ll find that much of what we do here is to prepare you to take care of yourself as an adult.”
I glanced at Mom, who looked like she was going to burst with joy at the thought of me taking care of myself. Never mind that I already did my own laundry and kept my room clean. It was Perfect Angel Colin that was a walking biohazard, not me.
At the girls’ dorm, a pair of girls sat on the covered porch reading. One of them looked up, her eyes following me as we walked past. Then she tapped her friend on the shoulder. I tried not to cringe. Don’t let them see your fear, I thought, like they were lionesses on the hunt. I smiled. Both girls waved, but started whispering as I passed.
Beyond the dorm was another brick building. Ms. Kuriko gestured to it. “Our library contains both academic texts and paranormal research materials. If you want to study journals of other sensitives or Guardians, you’ll do it here. There are also several work rooms where you can summon spirits or practice your abilities. More complex work is carried out in the Sanctum, which is heavily protected.” She pointed to the pale gray building toward the back of the property. “Students are only allowed to work there with supervision from a professor.”
We continued the tour, with Ms. Kuriko pointing out a small gym and the mile-long loop surrounding campus. Great. We’d still have PE, I supposed. Beyond the gym was a row of small, neat cottages where the professors lived. Several staff members lived in town, but most of them lived here.
After pointing out a well-kept garden near the professors’ cottages, Ms. Kuriko checked her phone. “Ah, it’s time for your meeting with Mrs. Thomas and Mr. Garcia. Follow me.”
“Ms. Kuriko, could I ask you a few questions?” Mom asked.
As Mom peppered Ms. Kuriko with questions, I gently tapped Marcus’s arm. “Thanks for coming with us.”
“Sure thing,” he said. There was a gentle crease around his eyes. “This place can be intimidating. I would have liked a friend when I first got here.”
“A friend,” I said quietly. “Are we friends?”
“We are,” he said. “But in a not weird, I’m way too old to have a seventeen year old friend, way.” He gave me a broad grin. Marcus was painfully serious, which made me feel proud when I could make him smile.
“Cool.” Having a cool older friend reminded me of walking into my first day of high school with Valerie next to me.
My heart pounded as we reached the front doors of Noble Hall. Ms. Kuriko took a key card from her pocket and slid it through a reader next to the door. After a quiet beep, the right door swung inward.
As I crossed the threshold, something jolted me, like I’d touched a live wire. I let out a quiet gasp and ran my hand over the back of my neck. Every hair on body stood on end.
Marcus nudged me. “It’s the school’s sanctuary. Nothing gets in or out of here easily.”
Holy crap. Whoever made that had to be crazy strong.
Cool air billowed out of the building, smelling faintly of cinnamon. Inside, the foyer was decorated with dark-stained wood and old-fashioned furniture. If you’d told me “stuffy old private school,” this was exactly what I’d have pictured. A huge oil pointing dominated the back wall, of a woman in a dark blue dress flanked by two men in suits.
“These are the founders,” Ms. Kuriko said, gesturing broadly to the painting.
Just past the foyer was an open sitting area, with huge couches and chairs. Half a dozen students were there studying. Two of them wore headphones and read on tablets, while a third was typing on a laptop. They looked completely normal, but it was stunning to realize that this room contained more people like me than I’d met in my entire life.
“Classes run from eight until six. That probably sounds like a long day compared to your current school, but you’ll have breaks throughout for studying or extracurriculars as you choose,” Ms. Kuriko said.
One of the girls with an iPad waved. “Hi Kuriko-san!”
“Hello, Sasha!” Ms. Kuriko said brightly. She planted her hands on her hips. “How did you do on your math exam?”
The girl sighed. “Ninety-one.”
Sasha wrinkled her nose. “I can do way better.”
Ms. Kuriko laughed. “Yes, you can. I guess you’ll have to study harder for the next one.”
The girl just nodded, setting her jaw as she returned to whatever was on the iPad. A boy looked up from his book to wave to Ms. Kuriko, who returned the gesture. They were all so comfortable here. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d really felt at ease.
“Many of our students find that coming here improves their grades. Our ability brings some difficulties, as you well know,” Ms. Kuriko said. She gestured to Sasha, who was already intently working again. “This building is heavily protected. Unless they are expressly invited, no spirits may enter this building, even friendly ones like Miss Abigail. You can work and learn without worrying about interruptions.”
She led me past several classrooms with heavy wooden doors and frosted glass panes. One was empty, but two were in session, with small classes inside. There was a burst of laughter from one class, while the other was working quietly.
At the end of the hall was an open door. Ms. Kuriko poked her head in, then gestured back to me. “They’re here. Come in, Bridget.”