Check out this sneak peek of Phantom Scars, releasing on 7.21.2020!
On an overcast Friday in March, I was probably the only girl in the junior class at Fox Lake High School who was glad to be at school instead of on an all-day field trip. Though I’d listened to my classmates planning everything from coordinating outfits to snacks for the last four days, there wasn’t a jealous cell in my body as I strolled into the library for fifth period.
The media specialist, Mrs. McHale, peeked up from scanning a stack of returned books and smiled. Her red cat-eye glasses made her bright green eyes comically huge. “Junior history trip?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I acknowledged.
“You can use any of the computer stations, or I can loan you a laptop,” she said, gesturing broadly to the line of computer stations along the wall.
“I’ll take a laptop if it’s not a pain,” I said.
“Not at all,” she said. She scanned my student ID, then handed me a laptop bag. The oversized watch on her wrist didn’t quite cover the edge of the butterfly tattoo. “You didn’t want to go on the field trip?”
Let’s see. Considering I was a magnet for the restless dead, did I want to go on a tour of Andersonville, a horrific Confederate prisoner-of-war camp where over ten thousand soldiers died in the Civil War? A place that was definitely home to lingering spirits that wanted to share the grisly tale of their torturous final days?
As tempting as it was to court disaster in front of hundreds of people with itchy social media fingers, that was solidly in the no, never, absolutely not column. “I wanted to, but I didn’t turn in my permission slip on time,” I lied. “They were pretty strict about the deadline.”
Mrs. McHale nodded sympathetically. “I get it. I was constantly calling my mom to bring me stuff I forgot when I was in high school.” She laughed. “I had to text my husband this morning to bring my lunch. Clearly, not much has changed.”
I forced a smile. “Same. Thanks for the laptop.” She flashed another bright smile and returned to her stack of books, checking them in with a steady, rhythmic pattern of beeps.
On my way to the reference section, I passed a couple of younger girls in one of the cozy reading nooks, their noses buried in thick books with outstretched angel wings arching across their embossed covers.
Bypassing a plush chair, I claimed an empty table that was twenty feet away from the closest living person. Mr. Gilbert had left us an alternate assignment to write a journal entry from the perspective of a Confederate prisoner.
Great. I really didn’t spend enough time pondering the thoughts of the dead and dying. At least I’d have plenty of inspiration.
I was testing out the impressive list of fonts when cold air tickled down my neck. My heart thumped as I checked my surroundings. Luis “Sal” Salazar sank into the seat next to me, his ghostly form doing a reasonable imitation of a living body as he folded himself into the chair.
“Hi,” I whispered. He was right on time, which was why I’d picked the isolated table over the plush chair near the bookworms.
“Everything okay?” he asked brightly.
“All good.” I’d given up on telling Sal he didn’t have to check on me every hour. Even though I knew he’d be popping in, I instinctively looked for trouble every time I felt the cold, and it took me a while to settle down afterward. And while I loved Sal, his presence was a silent reminder of Kale’s absence.
But Kale had been scarce for more than a month, ever since The Kiss. I wasn’t an expert on first kisses, but I hadn’t anticipated that mine would be dubbed “an unfortunate lapse in judgment” within twenty-four hours of its occurrence. I’d thought it was pretty freaking great.
For one beautiful moment, frozen in time, I was normal. I was seen, chosen, and cherished in a way I had never thought possible. And then the universe, using Kale as its damnably attractive agent of destruction, shattered it.
If I called for Kale, he’d come, but I wouldn’t call unless I absolutely had to. I hated this weird limbo we were in. I wished we’d never kissed and at the same time, the thought of it still sent goosebumps prickling down my spine.
Emily had waved it off. “Boys are stupid. He’ll come around,” she’d said, as if he was just a normal guy with a heartbeat instead of a centuries-old spirit.
But I was no fairy tale princess. No matter how much I wanted it, my kiss wasn’t going to bring Kale to life and grant us that fabled happily ever after. There could never be an us. Not like that.
I would have been much smarter to let it go and quit thinking about the electric perfection of his lips touching mine for the first time and…
No one said I was smart.
With Sal watching over me, I wrote half of my letter before heading to trigonometry class. There were only four of us not on the field trip, so Mr. Gilbert gave us next week’s homework early and let us work on other assignments until the bell rang.
Though I was tempted to pull out my ghost notebook to poke at a few leads, I took out the SAT workbook Mom had bought me. I really was trying to get along with her, and our relationship had definitely improved when I brought home a report card last week with solid Bs, which was a marked improvement over scraping by with C’s last semester.
I puzzled my way through a chapter on analogies, slamming the book shut mid-question when the afternoon announcements started. Cold prickled down my spine again as I stuffed my books into my locker. “Just me again,” Sal announced. At least he was getting better about not sneaking up on me.
“Sal, I know you made him a promise or something, but even Kale doesn’t take me everywhere,” I said into the locker, hoping my classmates didn’t see me talking to a pile of papers.
“I know,” he said. “But it’s nice to be around you. Would you rather I left?”
I whirled on my heel to see him looking crestfallen. Sal was one of the nicest human beings I’d ever known, and making him sad made me feel like a cackling Disney villain. “Of course not,” I insisted. “I just don’t want your life to revolve around me.”
“My life,” he said with a bitter chuckle. Though a smile pulled at his lips, pain lingered in his warm brown eyes.
“You know what I meant.”
“I know,” he said. He pointed to my locker. “Put on your jacket. It’s raining.”
“See, that’s helpful information,” I said. I quickly twisted my long hair into a messy bun atop my head and pulled on my rain jacket.
Down the hall, a noisy squeal pierced through the dull roar. A bunch of pink balloons bobbed overhead, their ribbons clutched in the hand of a girl laughing while a boy knelt in front of her.
I rolled my eyes. Another promposal.
At lunch, I’d watched a senior boy deliver a massive heart-shaped cookie to his girlfriend’s table. “Is this a thing now?” Sal asked as I skirted around the spectators. “When I was in school, I just asked my girlfriend to go to prom with me. I think I bought her a Coke at lunch.”
“It’s definitely a thing,” I said.
As usual, I took my phone out and held it near my mouth, like I was voice-texting. Between the freakout of my freshman year and this year’s brush with the Runaway Killer, people at my school had enough reason to think I was a weirdo. Better to not add fuel to the fire by talking to myself.
As Sal had warned, it was sprinkling rain, and I was instantly chilled. Michael Fullmer was waiting for me in the senior parking lot for a…what would I call it? As far as Emily was concerned, we were dating, but “without the fun parts.” We had been hanging out a few days a week for about a month, but it was mostly ghost stuff with the occasional normal conversation sprinkled in. I complained about my mom, and he had me read his scholarship essays for college.
Rounding the corner to the senior lot, I saw a girl laughing hysterically as she read her painted windshield. There was a red and white mushroom painted next to I’m a fungi! Will you go to prom with me?
“This whole thing is so weird,” Sal said.
“It shows someone put in the effort to make it special,” I protested.
Jealousy panged through me as I walked past the giggling girl. Ever since Valerie died and I ended up with my ability, my high school experience had been anything but normal. Some of that was inevitable, thanks to being surrounded by the restless dead.
But if I was being brutally honest, a lot of it was self-inflicted. After my former best friend humiliated me by spreading gossip about me after Valerie’s death, I’d realized I couldn’t control how others talked about me. Instead, I’d protected myself by not giving them anything to talk about.
For two years, I’d barely talked to anyone except for Emily. I’d kept my head down and avoided any kind of connection. Maybe it was safer, but it was lonely as hell behind the walls I’d built.
Part of me wanted to be that girl with the stupid mushroom on her windshield, laughing without a care in the world as her recently-confirmed prom date hugged her. She looked so happy.
“Are you going to prom?” Sal asked.
“No one’s asked me,” I said.
“What if Michael asks you?”
My cheeks flushed. “Do you think he will?” I felt silly for being so hopeful.
Sal laughed. “God, you’re dense,” he said. “And he’s no better. Would you go if he asked you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Prom seems lame.”
“You’re lame,” he said playfully. “Big fancy dress, bad dancing, awkward pictures…”
I laughed. “You’re not selling me on it.” I’d secretly been looking at prom dresses online for weeks, but Sal didn’t need to know that.
“Selling you on what?” Michael asked, intercepting me on the sidewalk. My cheeks flushed. “Who are you talking to?”
“Sal,” I told him as I pointed. Michael followed my gesture, his eyes drifting down toward the pavement like he could see him.
“Michael, ask this girl to prom,” Sal said, throwing his hands up in frustration. “Get her balloons or something.” I bit my tongue to keep from scolding him.
Michael couldn’t see Sal, but he knew about my ability and had heard about him when we called for Sal’s advice on police work. “Hi Sal,” he said, oblivious to Sal’s burgeoning career as a matchmaker.
I had to admit, it was kind of nice to think about prom with Michael. And yet, when I pictured myself in a big, glittering gown, I saw Kale looking back at me. It was Kale’s hands around my waist, deep blue eyes fixed on me like I was the only girl in the universe.
Ugh. Kale in a tux…not fair.
“I’m in good hands,” I told Sal. “We’ll be fine.”
“Fine, I can take a hint,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Call me if you need me.”
With that, his uniformed figure disappeared, leaving me alone with Michael. “Sorry.”
“No worries,” he said. “Is it weird that I’m getting used to it?”
“Weird, but inevitable.”
And then he leaned in for a grade-A Michael Fullmer Hug, which was often the highlight of my day. Strong arms closed around me, protecting me from the world. “Ready?”
“Let’s get to work.”
If I claimed I wasn’t anticipating a promposal from Michael, I would be lying. And while I’ve done a great deal of impressive lying in the last few years, even I couldn’t pull off that lie.
Who else would he ask? As far as I knew, he didn’t have a lot of friends other than me. But he probably wouldn’t go. Would he?
This was going to drive me insane.
We chatted about school as he drove us to a coffee shop close to Target, which put us close to my house in case we cut it too close on my curfew. When he got out of the car, he knelt on the sidewalk. My heart jumped into my throat.
At least until I saw him carefully retying his shoe. My cheeks flushed and I tried to not look disappointed as he stood up and opened the door for me. Play it cool, weirdo.
The rich smell of coffee greeted us as we walked into Average Joe’s and claimed our favorite table. The warm glow from the lamps made the whole place feel like someone’s cozy living room.
After ordering coffee and a giant raspberry scone to share, we got to work. To any onlooker, we were two normal high schoolers working on a class project. But Michael had a growing list of unsolved cases, and I had a notebook full of leads gathered from my growing network of the Real Ghosts of Byron County.
Chewing on a piece of the buttery scone, I checked my list. My mom thought I had no study skills, but my ghost research was well organized and color-coded. If I could remember Shakespeare the way I remembered the minutiae of my ghosts’ lives, I’d easily be valedictorian. “What did you find on Monica Nash?”
“Nash,” he murmured, swiping through his tablet. “Is this her?” He turned the tablet to show me a screenshot of a Facebook profile.
“Yep,” I said. The sight of her bright smile and warm brown eyes sent a pang of sorrow through me.
Monica had appeared to me last week in the grocery store, trailing me down a crowded aisle. While Mom perused dish detergent, I faked a run to the bathroom to talk to Monica. She wanted help finding her car, and it was only when I saw her pass right through a display of half-priced potato chips that I realized she was dead.
It took Monica even longer to acknowledge she was dead, and that was only because I reluctantly called Kale to talk to her. He’d met her already, tried to explain that she was dead, and confirmed that she was having a hard time accepting it. She displayed no outward sign of her death, which was odd. He couldn’t figure out what had happened, since even she didn’t know. As far as I knew, she was still somewhere looking for her car.
“Okay. I found several, but if this is her, she’s only twenty…four years old,” he said. He frowned. “Really young. Her social media is all locked down tight. I did some searching and found a news story in Mississippi.” He slid the tablet to me.
According to an evening news report from a few days ago, Monica’s parents had reported her missing. She’d been on a road trip and hadn’t checked in for a few days. Her last confirmed sighting was in southern Georgia, where she’d bought gas with her credit card. The police were looking for leads.
I sighed reluctantly. This wasn’t the answer anyone wanted. “I’d say we have a pretty big lead.”
“Do you think someone killed her?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “If she’s still missing, that must mean her body hasn’t been found.”
“Do you think it’s him?” His eyes narrowed.
Him was David Miles, the monster who killed Michael’s sister. In the media frenzy following the discovery of his burial ground, the media dubbed him the Runaway Killer. Miles had eluded capture because the freaking cops wouldn’t listen to my tips when they had the chance.
Not that I was eternally bitter about it.
“I really doubt it,” I said. “She’s confused, but she’s really calm. All of his other victims…” I trailed off.
“You can say it.”
“It was obvious that something bad had happened to them,” I said. I’d never told him about what his sister Natalie had showed me. She’d given me a glimpse of her death, which still woke me up at night sometimes. Her last moments had been filled with fear and despair as she stared death in the face. Michael eventually read the medical examiner’s report, but I would never speak aloud the visceral ugliness of what she’d suffered. Maybe I couldn’t fix it, but I could protect him from that. “Monica reminds me more of some of my elderly ghosts.”
“Maybe,” Michael said. “I’m going to send you this. Can you send it to the detective?”
“Yep.” After giving him tips on two cases that he couldn’t solve, I met with Detective Tom Fulbright every few weeks and passed him the information that Michael and I found. So far, we’d helped find a missing child who’d wandered into the woods in his neighborhood and determined that an unsolved homicide downtown was the result of a meth deal gone bad.
And while no one had given me a well-deserved cookie for it, we’d done it without putting ourselves into danger. It was all thanks to Sal and our network of spirit contacts. Detective work was easy when you could walk through walls and move around town entirely undetected. “Who’s next?”
We worked for another few hours, going silent for long stretches as we researched and took notes. After we finished going through our list, Michael smiled shyly and pulled an envelope from his backpack. “I have news. Not ghosts this time.” He slid it across the table, watching with a faint smile as I removed the letter.
Was this it?
The red and black UGA logo across the top made my mouth go dry. Not a promposal, but definitely a confirmation that I was becoming dangerously self-absorbed. “Dear Michael,” I read quietly. “We would like to congratulate you on…” As I skimmed the rest of the acceptance letter, my eyes went wide. “You got in! I told you that you would!”
“I know,” he said, smiling proudly. “Keep reading.”
“Blah, blah, scholarship offer. Full tuition?” I blurted. “Michael, that’s amazing! Congratulations! I knew you would get it.” The smile on my face was genuine, but my stomach twisted into a knot at the thought of him leaving.
“Thanks. I’m still considering staying here to go to Parkland State so I can be close to Mom, but…”
I nodded. “I think she’d want you to go, though. This is a full ride!”
Selfish Bridget wanted Michael to stay in town, but Better Bridget wanted him to go. After the crap life had dumped on Michael in the last six months, he deserved to be a normal guy at college, dorms and parties and all.
“I’m sure she’ll want me to go. The real question is if she’ll be okay alone.” He shook his head. “Sorry, not going down that road today. I haven’t told her yet, but I hope she’s happy about it.”
“She will be. She’ll be so proud of you.” Despite the good news, I recognized the grief-shadow that cast a pall over his smile. I wondered if he was thinking of his mom or Natalie. There was nothing I could do to help, so I pushed past it. “So here’s the big question…dorm or apartment?”
Michael had me in the driveway by six forty-eight, well before Mom’s ridiculously strict curfew. As he always did, he opened the car door for me and escorted me to the front door.
Mom’s silhouette appeared beyond the gauzy curtains in the kitchen window. I opened the door to the scent of something savory and the protesting shouts of my little brother, who was playing video games in the living room.
In the kitchen, Mom leaned against the counter and played a game on her phone. Two oven mitts lay on the stove. “I’m home,” I announced.
Michael stepped out from behind me. “Hi, Mrs. Young,” he said politely.
Mom looked up and smiled. “Hi, sweetie,” she said, setting her phone down quickly. “Michael! Perfect timing. Do you want to stay for dinner? I’ve got a chicken pot pie coming out in about ten minutes.”
“That sounds good, but I told my mom I would bring something home for her,” he said.
A flinch crossed her brow, but she recovered fast. “Then I’ll cut you both a piece and wrap it up,” she said. “It’s no trouble. Go sit down, it won’t be long.”
As part of her letting me hang out with a senior boy on a regular basis, Mom had insisted on meeting Michael personally. Never mind that we’d been partners in crime on solving the case of Natalie’s murder and had snuck out to find missing kids together, all before she even knew we were really friends.
Fortunately, she liked him. It was nice to feel like I wasn’t always hiding from her. And it was weirder still to have her approval on something.
“Sorry,” I murmured as we walked into the living room together. Mom’s quiet piano music was a bizarre accompaniment to Colin’s thrashing and button-mashing.
As Michael sat on the couch next to Colin, my brother startled. Shifting the headset from his ears, he offered Michael the controller. “You wanna play?”
“No, I suck at this game,” Michael said. “Go ahead. I’ll watch you.”
Those were magic words to Colin. “Check this out.”
For the next ten minutes, Colin regaled Michael with a performance of all his armored character’s special dances. While Michael entertained Colin, I set the table and let my mind drift to the evening ahead.
Jerry Corcoran, a kindly local spirit who’d helped me find two missing students at Christmas, was supposed to stop by to chat. I had to eat, shower, and get done with whatever else I wanted to do by nine, because Jerry was a talker and demanded my full attention.
I hesitated with a fourth plate. “Michael, do you want to stay?”
“I do, but I really should go home,” Michael said. “Maybe next time.”
A few minutes later, the oven buzzer sounded, and Mom bustled around the kitchen, rattling cabinets. “Michael, do you like lemon?”
“Uh…yes, ma’am,” he replied. Looking curious, he got up and followed me into the kitchen as I went back for silverware. Mom had a stack of Tupperware containers and an array of serving dishes strewn across the counter. “Oh, you don’t have to do all that.”
She ignored him and held up a foil-covered plate. “This one is pot pie. It should still be hot by the time you get home. This is baked spaghetti. It’ll be good until at least Sunday. Put a damp paper towel on it before you microwave it. And this is a nice lemon cake one of the ladies at church made.”
“I insist. We won’t eat it all before it goes bad, and I hate wasting food,” she said, stacking the plastic containers in a shopping bag and tying it in a knot. She squeezed his shoulder. “You’re a growing boy and you need to be eating good meals. Are you sure you don’t want to stay? You’re always welcome here.”
“I should go.” His eyes drifted to the table, but he clutched the bag and smiled at her. “Thank you. I know my mom will appreciate it.”
“Good,” she said. “You be careful driving home.”
She managed to keep quiet while Michael walked out the door, then fixed me with an appraising look. “Are you two…”
“We are not dating.” We had this discussion at least once a week.
“Bridget, it’s fine if you want to date a boy, but I want to know,” she said. “The way you look at each other…”
“We’re just friends,” I said.
“You’ve been spending a lot of time together.”
Yeah, because my quasi-angelic best friend kissed me and then ruined everything and I’ve been lonely. “Just friends,” I repeated.
Her eyes narrowed, like she’d glimpsed something beyond my words. “All right. I do worry about him. What happened to Natalie was terrible.”
“I think that’s why we get along so well,” I said. “I understand what he lost.”
She flinched, but nodded. “Just be careful. I think it’s wonderful to be supportive, but don’t take his sadness for yourself. You’ve been doing so well lately.”
It took a serious effort not to laugh in her face. Taking on others’ sadness was practically my destiny. I carried countless forgotten sorrows and secrets because the dead could no longer carry them. But instead of arguing, I forced a smile. “Okay. I’ll be careful.”
She nodded, but the easy smile she’d worn with Michael had worn away slightly. “Would you please set—”
“Table’s already set,” I said mildly.
She raised her eyebrows. “Thanks, sweetie.”
My last big case had gotten me in a heap of trouble with Mom. I’d been stressed, exhausted, and injured from dealing with two angry spirits. That had been a bad mix for my temper, and I’d gotten myself suspended from school. She’d grounded me then, but ghosts don’t cower at her iron fist.
With two ghosts doing their best to put someone in an early grave, I’d had no choice but to sneak out to finish the job. Unfortunately, I got busted, which meant I was grounded for even longer.
Since then, I’d been on my best behavior, bringing up my grades, doing chores unasked, and trying to be a generally more agreeable person. My dad used to say pick your battles, and I’d finally figured out what it meant. My new strategy was working, but I knew that the tiniest slip would prove to her that I was still an unreliable screw-up.
After Mom said grace, she dished out a heaping pile of chicken pot pie onto our plates. “Before I forget, I need you both to help me clean tomorrow,” she said, gesturing broadly. “Starting on Thursday, I’m hosting a church group here.”
Colin groaned. “Mom. We already clean a lot. Saturday is weekend time.”
She shot him an incredulous look. “Colin, you take turns cleaning one bathroom in which you are solely responsible for the mess.”
“And my room.”
“Your room looks like a bomb went off, so I take issue with your use of the word clean,” she said. “It won’t take long. I already have a list for each of you to knock out. Got it?”
“Yes,” I said quickly. Colin gave me an incredulous look. I was challenging his spot as the goody-two-shoes kid lately.
“It’s a grief support group,” she said. “There’s a program the church offers. I did it after…we lost Valerie, and it was really helpful. The woman who usually runs it can’t do it this time, so she asked me to take over. I just wanted you to know that people may be sharing some sad stories so it didn’t surprise you if you heard anyone upset.”
My stomach flip-flopped. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks for the heads up.”
“So, what did you guys do at school today?” she asked, finally digging into dinner.
“I got the highest score in the class on my science test. And I was the only one who got the bonus right,” Colin chirped. Of course he was. I ate quietly while Colin told Mom about his test and his idea for his upcoming science project.
When we were done, I cleared the table and put away leftovers, then excused myself to my room with thirty minutes to spare before Jerry showed up.
As I walked into my room and closed the door, I said, “Hey, Ka—” before I stopped short, trying to erase his smile from my imagination. It was sheer instinct to call for him once I was in my room for the night.
Before The Kiss, we’d chat at night, especially if I hadn’t seen him during the day. He’d tell me about any interesting spirits he’d encountered, then gently remind me to do my homework before getting sucked into ghost business. Even when it was only a quick visit or quiet company while I did homework, his presence was comforting.
Instead, I sat at my desk and took out the spiral-bound planner I hid in my drawer. The days were marked only with initials and times. For today, I had listed JC 9pm. Jerry Corcoran, nine o’clock.
Clipped inside the planner was a plain ivory business card. Its corners were worn and curled from me handling it so much. Printed above a phone number and email address, the glossy black text read Marcus Alder.
A few months ago, I’d dealt with the angry ghosts of the Hillman boys. After several dangerous encounters that brought me no closer to putting them to rest, Kale went for help. Marcus, an older sensitive from Atlanta, was the result. Despite two years of being my Guardian, Kale had never mentioned that there was an organization of other sensitives that could teach me how to harness my ability.
But once Marcus arrived, I understood Kale’s wish to shelter me as long as he could. Marcus was cold and detached, and he’d made it very clear that if I wanted his help, I had to play by his rules.
Since Marcus left, I thought about this mysterious training all the time. Was it boot camp where I’d have to run laps and recite Latin chants? I’d nearly called Marcus half a dozen times to ask, but I’d always chickened out.
Deep down, I knew I had to do it eventually. Though things had been calm for a while, it was only a matter of time until I stumbled into something I couldn’t handle alone. Heck, the Hillmans had been too much for me, and I was just lucky that I didn’t get into worse trouble before Marcus arrived.
With fifteen minutes until my meeting with Jerry, I called Detective Fulbright. He answered after two rings and said, “Hey kid, what’s up?”
“Hi. I’ve got a tip for you,” I said. “Do you have something to write with?”
“One sec.” His voice was muffled as he said, “I’ll be right back, sweetie. It’s work.” His voice cleared again. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“Did I interrupt? I can call back.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “Wait. You’re not doing something dangerous, are you?”
“No sir,” I said. “I promise. Have you found any unidentified bodies in the last few days? Maybe a woman in her twenties, pretty, short blonde hair? I’d guess natural causes or something non-violent.”
“I can’t tell you about any active investigations, but if you wanted to give me relevant information, I’d pass it along,” he said cryptically.
“You suck,” I said playfully. He chuckled. “There’s a missing woman named Monica Nash from Biloxi, Mississippi. I have a feeling she died somewhere here in town, and she may not have been identified yet. Maybe not even found yet.”
“Nash,” he murmured. “Got it. Anything else?”
“No, sir. I’m going to email you what I found about her,” I said, already typing his email into my laptop. “Will you at least let me know if you find her?”
“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Thanks, Bridget. You doing okay?” There was a nice, gravelly warmth in his voice when he switched from cop mode into dad mode. I talked to him more often than I talked to my own dad, who lived across the country.
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay, we can catch up later. Is your daughter home from college?”
“Yeah, she is,” he said. “It’s pizza and movie night. She’s making me watch something about sparkling vampires.”
“You love it.”
He laughed. “Any time with my girl is my favorite time, vampires or whatever,” he said. “You take care. Stay out of trouble and call me if you need me.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
After my call, I sat on my bed and waited for Jerry. I mentally battened down the hatches for Hurricane Jerry and the incoming deluge of conversation, even making a one-sided bet that I would hear the story about the time Jerry caught a shark in Key West for the seventeenth time.
Nine o’clock came, and there was no Jerry. I wasn’t worried yet. Time and space were a little funky with the dead, and he’d been late before.
But by nine thirty, I was baffled. Jerry never missed a chance to chat, especially because I was so strict with him. If I let him visit during the week, he’d talk my ear off so I couldn’t get anything else done, so I always saved a few hours on Friday night. He hadn’t missed a single week.
Maybe it was because of Shirley. A few months ago, I’d befriended an elderly spirit named Shirley, who had lingered beyond death to see her granddaughter born. Since I was busy with a case, I’d set her and Jerry up as buddies. Jerry had gone with Shirley to visit the baby, and to hear him talk about her, you’d think she was his, too. But Shirley was ready to move on once she saw that her daughter and granddaughter were safe and healthy. Jerry wasn’t.
Standing in the rose garden behind her old house, I’d sent Shirley on to her final rest with a smile on her face a few weeks ago. Jerry hadn’t been himself last week, and we’d mostly talked about how much he missed Shirley. I even ate half a pint of strawberry ice cream in sympathy. That part might have been a stretch, but Jerry appreciated the gesture.
I waited until ten, then finally went to the window and surveyed the night sky. Closing my eyes, I imagined his tanned face and slightly wrinkled boating shirt. “Jerry?”
But I got no answer. I tried again, putting a little more power behind it as I sent his name out into the night. It was like reaching my hand into the dark. When I called for Sal or Kale, I got a hand back, a connection that felt alive and vibrant. But there was nothing tonight.
Where the heck was he?
Saturday passed in a flurry of house-cleaning, catching up on homework, and ghost research. By Sunday morning, there was still no sign of Jerry, which had upgraded from weird to worrisome. I tried calling for him again as I finished getting ready for church, but there was no response.
On the way into the church, I saw a familiar spirit sitting in the small courtyard outside the sanctuary. Halfway through the second hymn, she still hadn’t come inside. I nudged my mom and whispered, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Hurry back,” she whispered.
Squeezing past four irritated-looking people in the pew next to us, I scurried down the red-carpeted aisle and out into the tiled lobby. Behind me, the noisy drone of the church organ continued.
The closest bathrooms were near the fellowship hall, which wasn’t a quick walk. Furthermore, I was prepared to tell Mom I had an embarrassing bathroom issue if I had to. I’d used number two enough to excuse myself for ghost conversations that I was surprised Mom hadn’t taken me to a doctor for my seemingly rebellious bowels.
Hugging myself to ward off the damp chill, I walked outside into the dreary gray morning. Outside, a small courtyard enclosed several stone benches arranged around a small angel statue. One of the benches bore a plaque that read In Memory of Lena May Robinson.
And today, that bench was occupied by Lena May herself. A dark gray dress, modest but flattering, hugged her trim figure. With an elegant strand of pearls on her pale throat, she looked as neat and put-together as always.
“Hi, Lena May,” I said quietly, walking into the enclosed area. I glanced furtively over my shoulder, but there was no one else outside. As the hymn came to a close, the music faded and left only the quiet hum of road noise in the distance.
She looked up. Her expression was an echo of her usual smile. “I thought I saw you walk in. It’s good to see you, dear.”
“You too,” I said, looking closely at her. Were her brown eyes clouding over? “How are you?”
Her shoulders slumped a bit. “Honestly, I’m tired, sweet girl. I suppose that sounds silly, my current status considered.”
“I’m surprised you’re not inside for the hymns,” I said. Usually Lena May came and found me, reading over my shoulder as she sang in a warbling soprano.
She nodded. “Yes. I suppose I’ll go in later. I…I actually didn’t realize it was Sunday until I saw people arriving. Goodness, it feels like just yesterday was Sunday.”
“Time can be strange for spirits,” I said. “Especially when you’ve been here a while.”
Her eyes drifted toward the angel statue, one graceful hand stretching up toward the heavens. I’d only nudged Lena May a few times about why she was here, and she said she just wanted to see her family a little longer. She’d seemed unburdened, unlike most of the other ghosts I befriended.
But I didn’t like the way her eyes looked today, with the faintest haze of gray covering the rich brown. Someday, I’d have to push the issue for her own sake.
She surprised me then. “I think perhaps it’s time I said my goodbyes.”
“Oh,” I blurted. “Really?”
“Something is changing,” she said. “Perhaps the Lord is calling me home, since I didn’t take His hint the first time. I can’t help but think it’s a sign.”
She turned to me. “I hear thunder in the distance, and the sky is getting so dark.” My skin chilled. “Reminds me of a summer storm. Do you see it?”
The sun lingered behind hazy clouds, but there was no storm. “I don’t see anything.”
“Maybe it’s just for me,” she said with a little chuckle. “I know I’m not supposed to be here after all this time.” She patted the seat next to her. “Would you come sit with me?”
I slid to the bench next to Lena May. An odd smell, like wet soil, hung in the cold air around her.
Her eyes drifted to me as she sighed. “I feel like a hypocrite. Spent more than fifty years in this church, and I’m afraid of what happens now. Did you know that the Bible tells us more than a hundred times not to be afraid? I suppose I never learned.”
“I think anyone who says they’re not afraid is lying,” I said flatly.
She laughed. “There’s a lot of that even in adulthood, I’m afraid. We all lie to ourselves so we don’t have to admit how scared we are. But I think it’s time for me to push past it.”
“Do you want to talk to Annette and Peter first?”
“I’ll lose my nerve,” she said, fiddling absently with her simple wedding band. “But I hope you’ll tell them I care for them, and that I’ll look for them on the other side to sing Christmas carols when the time comes. I know you’ll be kind to them and help them when they’re ready. As for me, I’m as ready as I’m going to be.”
With a deep breath, I offered my hand. She carefully placed her translucent palm over mine. The muted color of her skin brightened into a healthy, pinkish glow, and there was the faintest weight to her presence as I squeezed her hand.
“Thank you for being so kind to me,” Lena May said. “You’re a good girl, Bridget. Is there something I should…oh,” she said, lifting her head. Light shone on her face, as if the sun had peeked from behind the clouds to shine only on her. Unexpected warmth surged from her hand. Her fingers passed through mine as she stood. “I see him,” she said, eyes wide in wonder. “Darrin?”
Then she stepped away from me, her body fading into golden light as she reached for the sky. I rose, desperate to see what she saw, but Lena May was fading rapidly, her feet rising from the cold stone.
And in another heartbeat, one quiet breath, she was gone. The wind whispered gently, a sigh of relief that sounded like a final breath. Sorrow washed over me as I sat back on the bench, now entirely alone.
As always, I was torn between relief and grief. I’d always walked away from Lena May a little happier than when I arrived. And yet, she had gone on to where she belonged, a place where she could truly rest, where she would always know warmth and light. At least, that’s what I wanted to believe.
I see him.
Darrin was her late husband, who’d died a few years before she did. Did she really see him? Kale would never tell me what really waited after death, though I wasn’t sure if he didn’t know or if there was some cosmic law that sealed his lips.
But every spirit I’d ever sent on seemed to be at peace, and I held tight to the belief that a good place waited for them. That was where I wanted Valerie to be, along with Natalie and the other dozens of spirits I’d sent on. That was what they deserved.
Lena’s story here had ended, but my life continued on. I was probably getting close to Mom coming after me to make sure I hadn’t died of dysentery in a church bathroom. Swiping at my eyes, I checked for running mascara before heading back into the sanctuary.
When I got back, the ushers were making their way down the aisles with the dented gold offering plates. One of them shot me a dirty look as I skirted around him and sidled back down the pew.
Mom gave me a questioning look as I settled into my seat. I rubbed my stomach, and she gave me a sympathetic nod before returning her attention to the pulpit. She took notes through the sermon, but I barely heard a word. It was hard to pay attention considering I’d just watched a lingering spirit leave this plane of existence.
After the service, I headed for the doors, but Mom touched my shoulder and pointed toward the right side of the sanctuary, where a slender woman was ushering a young boy out of the pew ahead of her. As we approached, her face lit up. “Barb, it’s so good to see you.”
“Bridget, this is Christina Shepherd,” Mom said. “She’s joining the group I was telling you about.” Christina looked a little younger than my mother, with a slender, wiry figure. Dark brown hair fell around her face in springy curls. A plain gold wedding band adorned her left hand, but there was no man with her. Maybe that was who she was grieving.
“And this is my son, Jason,” Christina said. “He’s in sixth grade at Fox Lake Middle.”
“Maybe you guys can hang out,” Mom said, patting Colin’s shoulder gently. “This is Colin. He’s in seventh grade at Fox Lake.”
Being the mother-pleasing angel he was, Colin waved at Jason. “Do you play Battlenauts?”
Jason hesitated, then grinned broadly. “Yeah.”
“Cool,” Colin said. “What’s your gamer tag?”
They made small talk for a few minutes before Christina excused herself to run errands. After our Sunday shopping, we headed home. Colin bolted for the TV to play video games, while Mom sat down with the workbook for her grief group. She had half a dozen highlighters strewn across the table, reading intently with quiet music playing. Hoping to earn brownie points and keep her off my back, I’d completed her checklist of chores yesterday, so I excused myself to my room with no objections.
Cold radiated from my open door. I braced myself for what I would find on the other side. A pretty dark-haired woman paced my floor. “Oh, there you are,” she said, turning her injured face toward me. “I thought I’d mixed up the address.” I flinched as Nancy looked up. Blood poured in an endless flow from the ugly gash on her forehead, obscuring her ruined left eye.
I took a deep breath as I closed the door. “You startled me.”
“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. Her voice was pleasantly smoky. If the blood bothered her, she didn’t show it. “You told me I could come back if I needed to.”
“Sure,” I said. “Did you need something?”
She shook her head, which was disconcerting. If she was alive, the motion would have flung blood everywhere. I kept a smile plastered on my face, trying not to let my discomfort show. Her grisly appearance was a visceral reminder of the accident that had taken Valerie and left me forever altered. I really liked Nancy, but it was much easier to not look at her. “It’s just so cold and dark out there.”
Though Nancy’s incorporeal form wasn’t affected by the weather, some spirits had told me it was warm and pleasant in my presence. That was a nice compliment, considering I didn’t know many living people who would describe me as warm and pleasant.
But her words, cold and dark, reminded me of Lena May’s parting words. “You said it’s dark out there. What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s like there’s a thunderstorm rolling in,” Nancy said. “Bad one.”
“Was it always there?”
“No. Not when I first…” She winced. “I noticed it a little while after I met you.” I’d met Nancy three weeks ago, but she’d been dead for over a month. So it had been within a few weeks.
“Where is this storm?”
She gestured broadly toward the window. “Out there. But it’s nice in here.” Not helpful, Nancy. She brushed past me and sent a violent shiver rippling through me. Unperturbed, she headed for my desk. “Have you watched any more of that show?”
“Oh,” I murmured. “No, I was waiting for you. Hold on.”
Nancy smiled as I opened my laptop and cued up Netflix, where my account was waiting to continue with the next episode of The Office. I started the next episode for her, and she hovered in mid-air, legs folded like she was in an invisible chair.
Though her presence made my room unpleasantly cold, I didn’t mind having Nancy around. Some of my spirits, like Natalie Fullmer, were bound here by tragedy like bloody barbed wire that had to be carefully extricated.
Others, like Nancy and Lena May, simply needed time. Nancy fell asleep at the wheel and ran another car off the road. The other driver, Karina, survived, but she was still recovering from severe injuries. Nancy felt responsible, which was legitimate. I had a feeling that once Nancy knew Karina was okay, she’d be ready to move on. Until then, all I could do was acknowledge her and be kind.
And as it turned out, Nancy had a degree in biology and had been a teaching assistant for chemistry in college. Using clever rhymes and memory tricks, she’d coached me into a B average in chemistry, trading tutoring for TV time.
“Nancy, I’m going to try to call a friend, but you can stay and watch TV,” I said. She nodded without looking away from the screen.
I sat on my bed, smoothing out the light purple comforter around me. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on Jerry Corcoran, picturing the stark tan lines around his warm brown eyes, and the deep smile lines in his full cheeks.
And then I caught something.
It was like plunging my hand into deep water and brushing my fingers over something unfamiliar and slimy. I instinctively recoiled.
Then, ever so faint, I felt the hint of a whisper in the back of my mind.
“Jerry,” I said, this time speaking aloud. Bracing myself for that unpleasant sensation, I latched onto the faint presence. My veins turned to ice, but I grabbed on and pulled hard, like hauling a weight from beneath cold, dark water. The effort knocked the wind out of me, and the temperature plunged all around me as I finally broke through the resistance.
Nancy screamed in fright and disappeared. Submerged partly into the hardwood floor was the prone form of Jerry Corcoran, so pale and transparent he was barely visible. Deep furrows marked his chalk-white cheeks. His thick forearms were marked with scratches and cuts, as if he’d tried to fend off a vicious attack. Blood spattered his orange shirt.
“Oh my God,” I breathed, sidling toward the nightstand where I kept a bottle of holy water. “Jerry?”
When his usually-warm eyes drifted to me, I took a tentative step back. Warm brown was obscured by milky, cataract white. A low, eerie hiss escaped from his gray lips.
My heart pounded, and I did the only thing I knew to do. “Kale!”