I hurried diagonally across the street, jaywalking, glancing left and right despite the unlikelihood of there being drivers on the road at this hour. It wasn’t late, really—eight P.M. by my notoriously fallible wristwatch, but that’s practically midnight for the federal government. It sure as hell felt that late, but I’d been working around eleven hours and desperately wanted to go home. I’d be home if it weren’t for the glorious world of litigation.
“I just don’t get why you have to do this now,” Paige was telling me on the phone. “There’s supposed to be an unspoken law against working late on Fridays.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s why they do it,” I explained, dodging a pothole pooled with water as I hurried along; January in DC isn’t usually brutal, but cold is cold, and even a light breeze can make things miserable. “It’s punitive. Throw up a filing deadline on a weekend or right before a holiday to piss the lawyers off.”
“But the lead attorneys aren’t even staying late, you said.”
“Of course not. That’s why they have lackeys—among them, me.”
She huffed, indignant on my behalf. “That’s fucked up.”
There were a lot of things about Paige that I loved, high among them her succinct and accurate choice of phrasing. “Very. But I’m done with the last delivery and Farragut West’s just a few blocks away. I’ll be on the metro and home in…” I tried to calculate.
I frowned at the sidewalk in front of me. “Maybe I won’t have to wait long for a train.”
“Or maybe you’ll have to wait longer and it’ll be even worse. Damn it. I hate your job.”
“No you don’t. You hate my bosses—which is cool, because occasionally I entertain thoughts of stabbing them in the face myself, and we need that kind of solidarity in our relationship. There are worse jobs out there, though. Economy in shambles, lucky to be employed, etcetera.”
“There are better jobs, too. Like that one my dad keeps offering you.”
I held back a frustrated groan. “I’m not taking a job from your dad. We’ve talked about this.”
She spoke up in an absurd caricature of a male voice that didn’t sound even remotely like me. “I’m Ollie. I’m so insecure in my masculinity that I can’t take a sweet job that’s offered to me because it’s from my fiancé’s dad and I don’t want him to think I’m a loser. Much better that he think I’m stupid. It’s a—”
“—guy thing,” I finished sincerely. “I’ll have you know that I am very secure in my masculinity; I own scarves and multiple pairs of shoes. Also, I sound nothing like that at all.”
“You get to use the squeaky nasal voice for me, I get to use the croaky stuffed-up one for you.”
Which was fair, I supposed. “Anyway, you’re missing the silver lining here,” I said. “Working late means overtime. Overtime means money, and money makes everything better, right? Like cancer. I’m ninety percent sure injecting money into your veins would cure cancer.”
I heard a smile creep into her voice over the phone. “You’re a dork.”
“I’m your dork.”
“Stop, you’re making me sick,” she protested half-heartedly.
I grinned and cut across a struggling patch of grass. A lonely car streaked by into a tunnel where E St. mysteriously dips under Virginia Ave, perhaps to entertain itself; it becomes easy to ignore the bizarre path of streets in DC after living there for a while, and I’d been in the area most of my life. Sometimes I think they were designed by small children and a failed game of cat’s cradle. “I’ll be home as soon as I can. Sorry I couldn’t cook anything tonight. Delicious stir-fry will have to wait another night.” I make killer stir-fry, but it’s possible this is a biased opinion.
“You don’t have to apologize for that.” She paused. “You know what? To hell with it. I’m going to go pick you up and we’re going to have sushi.”
The word ‘sushi’ made my stomach rumble. My weakness for raw fish on rice in artful arrangements was well known by Paige and the mere mention of it had a dangerous Pavlovian effect on me, even if I’d eaten something in the last seven hours—which I hadn’t. That may not sound like a lot on paper but is an eternity, I assure you. “You don’t have to come get me,” I said, a second too late to sound convincingly noble. “You hate driving in DC.”
“I hate waiting, too, but as you continue to slack on inventing teleportation, concessions must be made.”
“Procrastination is Mother Necessity’s Planned Parenthood,” I agreed.
I could hear keys jingle from the other end. Paige does not waste time when she talks about doing something. “I’ll meet you at Farragut West. You better be as close as you claim. For every minute you are late I shall deduct a tuna roll from your share of dinner.”
“Now that hardly seems fair. Even though I’ll totally be the one waiting on you.”
“There will also be no complaints about any tardiness on my part, for I am flawless and beyond reproach.”
I snorted. “Right, of course.”
“I am,” she insisted. The devious smile in her voice widened. “And do you remember why?”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh no. I’m not saying it.”
“Yes, you are.”
“I’m not, it’s silly.”
“Sushi is being deducted from your portion right now.”
“Fine!” I tried to sigh in exasperation, but I was smiling when I did it. “You are woman. Your word is law.”
Paige gave a robust yet graceful harrumph of triumph. “Very good. I’ll see you soon, my minion.” She blew an audible kiss into the receiver and hung up.
I grinned stupidly at my feet, tucking the cell phone into my pocket. I’d have to pick up my pace a little. I wasn’t quite as close to the metro as I’d insinuated. The government office I had to deliver to was in a bizarre hole of the city where no metro stations were conveniently located. Possibly because of the government offices.
I thought it was ridiculous that I even had to hand deliver documents, and I’d never received an adequate explanation for it beyond vague reference to ‘incidents’. Lawyers. Not all of them were bad, granted, but it seemed like once they hit a certain hourly rate they became intolerable.
Being a paralegal wasn’t all miserable hours and drudgery, though. I found the work easy enough, if often tedious, and I made pretty good money doing it. I’d have preferred to do something more meaningful, but in the DC area work tended to revolve around litigated warfare, the government, or the service industry. Mine seemed to encompass all three.
Maybe I was whining too much. My work would’ve let me take a cab, after all—but I’d have to pay for it up front, remind the driver that I needed a receipt, and find the cab in the first place. On a Friday evening there was no shortage of fares in other, trendier parts of the city. In the end, walking was just simpler, and almost as fast.
It was also colder. I pulled my coat a little tighter and hurried on. My pace is fast enough that it keeps the blood pumping, taking the edge off the frigid air. I like to think of it as ‘passive exercise’, too, though I’m sure I’m deluding myself. I should run more often. Maybe next week I’d get back into a routine. Sure, I believed that.
The other thing about a fast pace was that it tended to reveal when someone else on the street was acting suspiciously. Crossing paths with other people, even at odd hours, is hardly unusual in DC; it’s when someone starts following me at the same distance for several blocks that I start to get worried. Someone like the shadowy shape behind me.
Okay, don’t panic. It was a bit creepy, but probably a coincidence. I glanced over my shoulder, hesitated, and picked up a little more speed. I could almost be jogging at this point. Instead of looking back again I just listened and, sure enough, my tail’s footsteps quickened right along with me.
Son of a bitch. I was being followed. I was being followed.
I felt a little rush of panic. My brain immediately jumped to the worst possible conclusions, because that’s the reasonable thing to do in a situation like this. Muggings happen in DC, sure, but I’d never had one happen to me. Would he have a gun? A knife? I had a knife—well, a blade—though it was neither large nor intimidating. It was a box cutter I used mostly for, shockingly, opening boxes of paper and other supplies because your average office scissors are hopelessly outmatched by packing tape and those thick yellow ties they use.
Why was I thinking about packing tape? Crap. I stuck my hand in my pocket and got a grip on the little box cutter. Pathetic or no, it was all I had, and my pride refused to let me get jumped and caught unawares. I heard somewhere that most petty criminals are basically cowards and will sooner avoid resistance to pick on a less risky target, but I wasn’t sure how sound that advice was. I was about to find out, I guess.
My pursuer kept behind me at a steady distance, scuffled step by scuffled step. If I could stay ahead and get to Farragut, maybe I could just get on the metro. Of course, then he’d be hanging around the area when Paige showed up. Unless he followed me on the metro instead, and I’d certainly heard stories about attacks there, despite the recent increases in security. Did I really want to find myself on a train with nowhere to go, nowhere to move?
Double crap. No, better to face this guy out in the open, on the road, where it was brightest. I didn’t know whether it’d help, but at least I’d know I could lash out or run away. Maybe Paige would surprise me and get there early. I’d be fine.
I nodded to myself, settled in my course. Best to face him at Farragut and hope for the best. I kept a tight grip on the box cutter and palmed it in my hand, ready to flick the blade out at a moment’s notice—although it was kind of stubborn sometimes, so maybe a handful of moments’ notice. When I got to the top of the escalators I stopped and turned around, putting on my best grim-and-angry expression, hoping that alone might ward off any trouble. Confidence, right?
The man was closer than I expected to find him, only a few long steps away. He looked grubby and shabbily dressed, and definitely larger than me. His face was grizzled and hadn’t been shaved or trimmed since at least the last presidential election, and he smelled of sweat, grit, and alcohol. Stopping awkwardly in front of me, he gave me a quick look over and then said, “Hey man, you got a cigarette?”
I resumed breathing, mentally kicking myself. “No, I don’t smoke,” I replied. “Sorry.”
“Shit,” he grunted. His breath managed to smell worse than the rest of him, heavier with sour staleness. “You got any change, then?”
“No change,” I said, which was true. I probably would’ve offered some on the off-chance that he was the surly kind of homeless guy, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to pull out a wallet.
“Ah well. God bless.” He hurried on down the steps, into the metro station. I watched for a second and he actually moved pretty fast all on his own. How about that. Coincidences do happen on occasion. I shook my head and tucked the box cutter back into my pocket. I’d tell Paige about the encounter later; she’d find it hilarious.
The blow hit me hard enough and fast enough that, for a moment, I had no idea what was going on. I crumpled to the ground, feeling my knees buzz with the sudden impact. The world spun a little and I tried to roll away, to dodge whatever was attacking me. As a result, the kicks that followed didn’t quite hit me solidly, but they still hurt. I lashed back wildly, uncoordinated, but I’ve never had any kind of martial arts training. Something hard crashed against my shoulder, too hard to be a fist—a bat maybe? I didn’t know, didn’t particularly care at that moment. I just wanted to get away; instead I fell face-first on the ground, groaning in pain without meaning to.
I tried to bolt, but it was too late for that. My limbs weren’t responding in time with one another, so I only succeeded in flailing a bit while the next couple of hits landed. Soon I was too injured and disoriented to even do that. Aches and pains roared at me from disparate parts of my body, yearning for nothing so much as a quick end to the agony.
Streetlights dimmed as a heavy weight came down on me, and I managed to make out the face looming over me. It was a man’s face—long, olive-toned, and clean-shaven. One earring in his left ear surrounded by hair both dark and curly. He looked detached rather than cruel, but his eyes were hard and resolute. The details stayed with me, despite my disorientation.
When it became a struggle to even breathe, he held me pinned down with one arm and fished around in his coat pocket until he drew out an old coin. No; “old” didn’t really do it justice—it looked ancient, rough and irregular; definitely not a modern coin. He held the little slip of silver between his thumb and forefinger, one flat side turned to my face, forcing me to stare at the face imprinted on the coin. One eye of a woman with sharp, distorted features stared back; she was primitively etched yet beautiful and austere, like an ancient Roman goddess.
He started to speak in a language I didn’t recognize, Greek maybe, his voice set in a careful rhythm and cadence. I resumed struggling with what little energy I had, sensing that this was somehow a Very Bad Thing, and felt a fresh, searing pain in my chest. I groaned aloud, unable to stop myself, and molded it into a shout for him to stop. Humiliating. Embarrassing. But dammit, I was hurting, and the only thing that mattered was making it stop.
It didn’t stop, though. I started feeling dizzy, surely from all the times this asshole had hit me, and my feeble struggling died to nothing. I simply had no energy left. I wanted to fight, but my body refused to respond, signals ending somewhere in my spine. The pain got worse, a raging fire that starting to creep out to my limbs and into my head. Heat welled up, made my vision blur, consuming me from the inside out.
Then light swarmed over me, bright and glaringly white, flickering with red and blue at the edges. It was different somehow, cold and steely and real. I heard a voice that said, “Stop! Police! Down on the ground!” which didn’t seem at all appropriate to the surreal situation.
The pain ebbed with the confusion and I managed to turn my head enough to see a figure standing by a car in the road. A DC police car, if I wasn’t mistaken. I tried to call out but my mouth wasn’t working, and abruptly my attacker threw me down onto the ground where my head cracked against the cement. Black washed over me like a breaker wave, and I heard a gunshot as the world faded around me.
I woke up, which was my first surprise. The second was that I didn’t really hurt. A little achy and tingly, sure, but the grievous bruises and possible concussion weren’t inflicting the kind of agony I rightfully anticipated. I felt… kind of nice, actually, especially compared to the moments just before going unconscious. I was relaxed and airy; maybe I was just heavily drugged.
But I couldn’t have been out for long. I could still feel hard asphalt beneath me, and lights still flashed around the air; blue and red were never so comforting. No paramedics hovered over me, which seemed odd with my sunny disposition, but who was I to complain? All in all, I was feeling pretty fortunate; as fortunate as the victim of a savage beating can feel, at any rate.
“Tis but a scratch,” I murmured drunkenly.
Light and sound slowly came into deeper focus. I tried to look around, but mobility yet eluded me, my vision swimming erratically when I turned my head. Instead I focused on listening to the voices talking nearby, hoping to glean some information from them.
“Keep the perimeter secure,” somebody was saying in a stern, commanding voice, ragged at the edges as if by years of heavy smoking, or near-constant yelling. Footsteps scuffed the pavement. “Anything different?” the same man asked.
“No, it’s about what we expected.” This man’s voice was calmer, smoother, but no less confident. He sounded disappointed. “Except that he was carrying this.”
The voices paused. “A coin.”
“A replica ancient Mediterranean coin, at a layman’s guess. Had a niece pick up something like this in a museum once.”
The first voice grunted. “Just what the hell is Nico Assenti doing with a collector’s coin?”
“Beats me. Maybe he stole it off the victim. Otherwise he’s like the others.”
The victim. That was me. I remembered the coin very vividly, the face on it, the way the attacker—Nico I guess?—shoved it in my face. Definitely not mine. I started struggling to sit up to make this fact clear; as before, my body was not yet inclined to cooperate.
“Dammit,” the first man croaked. “Attack in progress and it’s still the same damn story. What about the officer on the scene?”
Papers rustled. “Officer Samuel Kinsey. Says he found Assenti bent over the victim mumbling something unintelligible and holding the coin. Assenti ignored his command to move away and he was forced to fire. Kinsey says Assenti was like a different person after that.”
Another grunt. “Let me guess: he didn’t have any idea what was going on, surrendered himself immediately?”
The second man exhaled sharply. “Yeah.”
I flexed my hands with notable success and decided to give moving another try. “Hey,” I said, carefully sitting up. I expected to feel dizzy, a head rush or something, but there was none of that. “I can fill in some of those blanks.”
I blinked over at the two men. Contrary to my expectations, both of them were wearing suits and heavy overcoats, not uniforms. There were a few uniformed officers in the area, addressing a growing crowd. A lot of activity for a very young crime scene, I thought.
But more troubling than that, neither the men in suits nor the officers reacted to my voice.
“Did you manage to get anything else out of Kinsey?” the first suit asked. He was shorter, his suit a little shabbier, and definitely older. His forehead and eyes were creased with worry and stress, dark eyes fixed in what seemed like a permanent squint. His features and skin tone suggested a Hispanic ethnicity, but I couldn’t have offered a specific country of origin; he didn’t even have a noticeable accent.
The other man was taller and leaner, around six feet in height. He couldn’t have been past his late twenties. He kept his face clean shaven, blond hair short and manageable. At the other’s question, he frowned over at a spot on the curb where a uniformed man was leaning against a squad car, waiting. I couldn’t make out many details about him. “Kinsey’s… I think he’s more than a little shaken up by this whole thing. Seems to doubt some of what he saw. I couldn’t get much more out of him.”
“Not unusual,” the first man said. “Not everyone works violent cases, Casey. Shooting someone, witnessing a beating like that. A person should be bothered by that.”
“I guess you’re right,” Casey agreed. “Still. Seems strange.”
“Speaking of strange,” I said aloud, climbing weakly to my feet. “I’ve been awake here for like five minutes and nobody’s even looked at me.” Okay, maybe more like one minute. I didn’t want to be egocentric, but come on, wasn’t I sort of the focus of this brutal attack?
Nobody looked at me; nobody even twitched in my direction. What the hell was going on?
“Agent Hernandez,” a uniformed officer said, walking up to the older Latino man. “The suspect is under guard at the hospital and we’ve checked for witnesses—only a few folks who heard the shot. Are we ready for forensics?”
“The suspect’s at the hospital?” I asked incredulously, unable to help myself. Outrage and frustration fueled me, driving me directly into their conversation. “Shouldn’t you maybe take care of the victim first? You remember the victim here, don’t you? That’d be me, just so we’re clear. I can’t believe you assholes sent him to the hospital before me.”
Hernandez’s eyes swept over the area, glazing right over me as if I were invisible. He nodded. “Yeah, I think we’re done here. Tell them to find me something useful, will you?”
The officer looked nervous. “Um, sure thing, agent.” He moved away.
I could only gape at them. “Has everyone gone insane?”
“Get out of my way!” a woman’s voice—Paige’s voice—sounded from behind me. “I need to see him!”
“Oh thank god.” I turned around, eager to see my fiancé.
One of the uniforms was dutifully trying to keep her from the crime scene, his voice steadily rising. He was doing everything except physically shoving her away, though I didn’t think he was likely to hold back much longer. “Miss! Miss! You have to stay back!”
“Christ on a cracker,” Hernandez mumbled. He quickly strode forward, walking right—
Right through me.
That was when I began to consider that just maybe I was the insane one.
Having someone walk through you, it turns out, is an uncomfortable experience. Not painful, exactly, but it feels like a wave of warmth rushing through you and everything seems fuzzy and distorted for a second. Colors blurred, tinged briefly a monochromatic grey, and then abruptly snapped back. There was something else, too, a rush of feelings and thoughts not my own, passing as quickly as a fly buzzing past the ear. It was unsettling to say the least.
I whirled around to see Hernandez confronting Paige. She didn’t seem to notice me either, but at this point I was expecting that. Something was very, very wrong. I wandered over to listen to them.
“Where is he?” Paige demanded.
“You’re going to have to be more specific, ma’am.”
“Ollie,” she snapped. “Oliver Elias. I was supposed to meet him here. What happened?”
Casey ambled over in several long, lazy strides—thankfully not walking through me—and the two suits exchanged a look.
Paige read their expressions immediately. “Oh no.”
“Ma’am, what is your relation to Mr. Elias?” Hernandez asked. “And your name?”
“Paige Cassel. We’re engaged and living together. How… how bad is it?”
“Pretty bad,” I said, unheard. “Or weird, anyway.”
“Ms. Cassel, your fiancé was attacked. He had to be taken to the hospital.”
I had? I took a step back, looking down at myself. I touched my shoulder. Yep, still there. I looked around again, feeling the familiar sensation of panic. Maybe this was just a bad dream. Absence of pain was a sign of a dream, right? Surely that was the most logical explanation.
Except I couldn’t think of a single time I’d had a dream and known it, while it was taking place. They rarely seemed so damned internally consistent, either.
Paige swallowed hard but maintained her composure, nodding. “Again. How bad?”
Casey took a deep breath. “When the paramedics left with him, Mr. Elias was unconscious. He wasn’t critical, but they couldn’t revive him on the scene.”
“So you don’t know,” she shot back, an edge to her voice.
“We don’t know,” Hernandez confirmed, voice raspy and weary. “We can take you to him. He should have someone at his side.”
“Damn right he should,” Paige said.
“He has far too many people at his side, actually,” I said. “They just don’t know it, and that’s frankly goddamn annoying.”
Paige and the agents continued to talk. I was no longer listening very closely, but it sounded like she was trying to drive herself to the hospital instead of letting them take her. I was with the agents on this one, but it’s not like I had a meaningful voice in the matter. I turned around the scene, looking at all the officers, the onlookers. Why couldn’t anyone see me?
Except that guy.
My eyes settled on a man who was looking at me. Directly at me. I took two steps to the left and his eyes tracked me, a smug smile on his face widening. He was sitting on a police car at the edge of the scene, dressed in a ratty grey trenchcoat and a dirty, purple pin-striped suit. He was thin, his skin very black, and gleaming teeth showed when he grinned—which he did when he caught me looking at him. I blinked, utterly stunned by this abnormality.
He lifted a few fingers in a wave.
I numbly waved back. Then, realizing the critical importance of this individual, I hurried over to him. By the time I arrived he’d pulled himself laconically to his feet, his grin dimming to mere upturn of his lips, the cat that ate the canary.
“You,” I said. “Who are you?”
His expression sobered in a sudden turn, eyes raking over me appraisingly. “That ain’t a bad question, son; not bad at all. But maybe not the best one.”
Fantastic. The one person that could see and hear me was a cryptic asshole. “Look, could we maybe not steer this conversation immediately into the land of vague allusions and puzzling phrases? I just want some answers. Clear, concise answers.”
He harrumphed. “Well that don’t seem very fun,” he drawled. “But I s’pose I can ease up, what with how confusing things must be for you right now.”
“Thank you,” I said, too sharply. “Now could you please tell me who you are? How can you see me? And why nobody else can?”
He laughed, a throaty cackle that made no thrusts in the direction of social elegance. “Shoot, son, slow down! My name’s Nebuchadnezzar, but it’s best for all of us if you just call me ‘Nezzie’ like everyone else.”
A hell of a name, but I’d heard stranger. “Everyone else?”
He waved the question off. “In good time. As for your other questions, you musta caught that you ain’t quite the same as you recall. That’s ‘cause you ain’t. Instead you’re like me.”
“And you’re like…?”
He grinned, flashing those pearly whites again. “I’m a ghost.”
I paled and took a couple steps backwards. I looked back at the crime scene where officers continued to mill about, and now guys with laminate ID tags were scouring the area; Paige and the detectives were gone. I looked back at Nezzie. “I’m dead? But—but they just said I was alive; unconscious, but alive!”
He raised an eyebrow, mirth wavering. “Oh. They did? You sure? ‘Cause sometimes a ghost might be hearing things where there ain’t—”
“I’m sure,” I snapped.
“Mm,” he said uncertainly. “Well shoot, if that ain’t the most puzzling thing I’ve seen in a long time… A ghost what ain’t dead. Always like a good surprise.”
I stepped back over to Nezzie and grabbed him by the lapels of his trenchcoat. Thankfully I could touch him. “What do you mean ‘puzzling’? Am I dead or aren’t I?”
He blinked at me. “I don’t rightly know, son. I saw ‘em rush you off in that ambulance of theirs, but figured your body was just giving out. You were already on the ground at that point. But if they’re sayin’ you ain’t dead, I don’t know what to tell you. You look like a ghost to me.” He coughed and slowly pushed my hands off of him. “One way or another, you are a spirit; at least some kind of spirit.”
I gritted my teeth and tried to think of something snappy to yell at him, but nothing came to mind and my anger was deflating with remarkable speed, anyway. Nezzie wasn’t the one to blame. I rubbed my face and paced away from him, trying to use the action to spur on my thoughts. “A spirit,” I muttered darkly. “What the hell does that even mean?”
“Could mean a number of things, depending on the particulars. Even ghosts ain’t all the same. But the basic thing to understand is that you ain’t got a body anymore.”
“Sure, that word,” Nezzie replied. “You exist in a different place, now; an in between place.”
I stared at him, trying to wrap my head around it. I couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the possibility of supernatural things; I did. Like many fans of movies and books that incorporated the impossible or the supernatural, a little piece of me always hoped that something like that could really happen. But it couldn’t. Not really. Not like this. Not to me.
I shook my head. “This is a bad dream. I have a concussion right now and I’m having weird dreams, that’s all. I’ll wake up with a reeling headache and laugh about this. Variable depending on the severity of said headache.”
Nezzie’s eyes turned pitying. “Sure, son. You’re dreaming. It’ll go easier for you that way until you pass on.”
“I am not passing on!” I snapped, annoyed at both his tone and easy acquiescence. “I’m not dead. I’m—asleep. Even in this fucked up dream I’m not dead!”
“Sorry, son, I didn’t mean anything by that. You’re absolutely right, just ignore ol’ Nezzie. I’m sure you’ll wake up in no time.” He paused, leaning back against the squad car. “But just in case you’re stuck here a little longer than you think, mind if an old ghost offers you a piece of advice?”
I hesitated uncertainly, but it wasn’t as if he’d been openly hostile or anything. “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”
He nodded, staring at me very fixedly. “Be careful. Just ‘cause you’re a spirit don’t make you invincible. The world’s a whole heap bigger than you imagined.”
I frowned, but nodded. “Sure, thanks.” I didn’t know what to make of his advice. I didn’t know what to make of anything, honestly. Everything felt so damn real, and despite how bizarre all of it was, there was a terrifying consistency to what was taking place, and a steady trickle of ideas and information that had no place in my life experience up to this point. Where were the elephants in polka dot pajamas? The random appearances by people I knew? Talking cars or—fuck, I don’t know—dancing polar bears. With top hats. Point is, any self-respecting dream should’ve been a whole lot weirder, and yet simultaneously more familiar.
I looked at the crime scene, worried. Was the night brighter than I remembered? The air warmer? I was still wearing a heavy coat and scarf, but I couldn’t distinguish any benefit it was providing against the cold night. The more I focused on little details, the more unnerving my surroundings seemed to be.
What would Nezzie say about these little things? Part of the ‘spirit world’, surely. I turned to ask anyway, only to find that the old black man was gone. I looked around, casting my eyes up and down the street. He couldn’t have walked away fast enough to get out of sight, but there it was. Poof. Impossible.
If only I could decide whether that made him more like a dream or a ghost.
Whatever was going on, I realized that standing around wasn’t going to do anything about it. The forensics people continued to look over the ground and the crowd gradually dispersed, not a single person noticing me—as I was beginning to expect. Even so, I gave it another handful of ridiculous tries, waving my hands in front of people, shouting in their ears, but all of it to no avail. I couldn’t even kick one of the squad car’s tires in frustration.
Clearly there wasn’t anything more for me to do here, but would anywhere else be an improvement? My new ‘condition’ didn’t seem relegated to this location. Then again, who wants to hang around a dingy street in the middle of the night? My eyes kept being drawn to the spot where I woke up, where my attacker had beaten me. I shuddered. Better to leave.
I could try to find the hospital they took me—my body—to, but I wasn’t sure where the closest one was. Home was an option, but unlike other dreams, I apparently lacked a means of inexplicable teleportation, so I’d have to walk wherever I was going. Not an appealing notion.
However, with Nezzie gone I couldn’t even talk to anyone. I can’t even begin to explain how frustrating that knowledge was. After stomping around and muttering angrily to myself for a half hour, I decided that if I had to be this way, at the very least I could be miserable in the comfort of my own home—so home it was. I couldn’t exactly call a cab, but the metro ran for everyone, incorporeal or not. I suppose given my luck with inanimate objects it was possible that the train would pass right through me, but it wasn’t like I was falling through the ground I was standing on. No, that was ludicrous—there had to be some aspects of my existence that paid lip service to the physical world.
I descended into Farragut West’s entry corridor, and immediately began to feel a sense of unease creeping over me. The metro is designed for a truly staggering number of people to pass through it on a daily basis, but despite this it typically feels claustrophobic and cramped by the sheer mass of humanity commuting to and from DC during rush hour. I actually enjoyed taking the metro at odd hours for the completely changed nature of the place–how the wide spaces and echoing walls give it a sense of hollow, ominous emptiness, like an ancient tomb or forgotten ruin.
Many stations, Farragut included, would be deep into this emptiness already. But as I walked to the fare gates, utterly alone, I still felt an uncomfortable sense of closeness and the press of other bodies around me. I kept glancing around, expecting to see swarms of pedestrians, but finding none. There was nobody there at all, but I still caught movement in my peripheral vision, only to turn my head and wind up staring at vacant space. I shivered and kept walking, feeling like I was caught in a current of rushing water, unable to turn back lest I be crushed.
So pretty much like a typical commute on the metro—if it were rush hour. If there were anybody at all in this station beyond me and a scattering of late night travelers.
I passed a homeless man as I hurried along, huddled in a corner of the vacuous corridor playing a lonely, off-key tune on a battered trumpet. He didn’t so much as look by as I passed, and I made no move to engage him, even though I was desperate for someone to speak to. There was something peculiar about his image that warded me off, as if the edge of it were blurry or inconstant, shifting in the dim light. Just before I looked away, the whole scene seemed to change color into lifeless black-and-white, albeit only for an instant. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but he’d made the jump to color again. There was something about the tune, though, I couldn’t quite…
I shook my head and put the whole thing out of my mind. I was near the gates.
I hesitated. Normally I’d use my metro card and walk through unthinking, but obviously things were a tad different now. I could probably walk cleanly through them, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. Giving in to the rules of my hallucinations would be like admitting they were anything more than a dream. Dreams weren’t supposed to have logic or consistency. Yet here I was, unerringly immune to physical obstructions.
Maybe there was another way.
I checked my wallet and found that I still had my card, which seemed a little unfair given that I didn’t even have a body. Commerce lives on, I suppose. Shaking my head, I gave the damn thing a try, but nothing happened. I grumbled and threw the useless strip of plastic off to the side.
It dissipated into a fine mist before it hit the ground.
While I stared after it, utterly bewildered, a man grumbled behind me. “Come on! Are you gonna stand there all day or go through!?” he asked, voice angry and gruff. “Some of us are trying to get to work on time.”
I jumped out of his way, startled. “Sorry!” I said reflexively; more than a little absurd when I thought back on it.
“Tourists. Christ,” he muttered. He, too, had a metro card, but when he pressed it to the fare gate there was a faint, pleasant beep and the sound of gates being drawn aside—only they weren’t. For a paradoxical instant I could see the bars slide away, only to reveal the purely physical set of bars in the same place. I blinked and looked from the businessman—a plump, balding man, his entire image tinged with a cast of dull grey—to the gates. He walked right through, oblivious to the remaining bars.
Had to be another ghost. Belatedly, it occurred to me that he could actually be helpful. “Wait! Can you talk to me for a second?”
He didn’t even look back. “Busy! Ask the attendant!”
If only I could. I groaned and hurried after him, bracing myself to pass through the gate. I felt a light pressure when my body reached it, like the surface of a bowl of jello, and then it gave way. I continued to feel where the turnstile was, like water through a rubber glove, my substance slithering around and through it. Unsettling. It was over in moments, but I shuddered from the uncomfortable sensation.
Once past the gates, the station opened up into its more familiar arched chamber, where concrete walls climbed to cathedral heights and the distant howl of trains echoed and rebounded in endless waves, probably some side effect of the unusual walls and ceilings unique to DC’s metro system. Thick, grid-like ridges extended from the wall’s surface, stretching up to the very peak of the ceiling’s arch, forming curious shadows from the station’s ground-based light. My brother Alex used to say they reminded him of waffles, but I didn’t think they resembled anything so tasty. They were rectangular, deep, and stark grey, always putting me more in mind of alien catacombs, vacated for some nefarious purpose.
Farragut was a fairly straight-forward station, its design cloned many times over with little variation. It required no junction for trains headed other directions, and no curious abnormalities to its street exits existed to twist its shape. It resembled nothing so much as a giant tunnel with two tiled platforms along either long wall, joined by two perpendicular bridges at each end, upon which sat the fare gates (not to mention the aforementioned attendant’s booth, its denizen completely ignorant of my presence).
The businessman was already halfway down the escalator to one train platform—happily the one I was headed to. I charged after him, instinctively grabbing onto the railing to help my balance on the way down. When it occurred to me what I was doing, I stopped, staring at my hand on the railing, firmly pressed against the very physical object. I could touch it. As before, I wondered at the bizarre new rules of my current state. Why could I touch and even lean on some physical objects but pass right through others?
Maybe the businessman could give me some tips on being incorporeal and getting around. Just, you know, on the off-chance that this wasn’t a screwed up dream. Where was he going at this hour, anyway? I stepped off the escalator and looked around the train platform, searching for him.
The platform was empty.
“God dammit,” I muttered.
‘Empty’ might have been a hasty choice of words, though. There were no people on the platform, of that I was sure, but I could again sense motion around me, and occasionally hear a quiet echo of someone speaking or moving. I couldn’t explain how, but I felt certain that this platform was teeming with ghostly entities that brushed against me, coiled around me; maybe pressed right through me. Looking around, I caught a glimpse of a transparent shape that vanished even as I saw it.
On the plus side, though, things were getting more dream-like every second.
I closed my eyes, shook my head vigorously, and sternly told myself that most of those figures weren’t actually there and I should stop trying to see them. To my surprise, it worked; sort of. Whenever my focus started to wane the sensation of creatures all around me would intensify, but as long as I stayed centered, things were fine. Relatively speaking.
Mercifully, I didn’t have to wait long for the train. It rolled into the station with the usual whining stop, doors opening to the same recorded voice and chime. I hurried into the door nearest me and looked around for somewhere to sit. My legs weren’t actually tired, but it was the thing one did on the metro. You sat down. When it wasn’t rush hour, anyway.
I sat in a chair by the door where I could look at most of the train’s occupants at once. There weren’t many; an older woman sat towards the back, purse settled on her lap and gazing devoutly out the window; a couple of guys sat in a corner of the train, joshing with each other—or so I assumed from their tone and frequent chuckling; the last was a teenager with too much pale makeup and fake piercings. She was closest, just a couple rows away, so I addressed my soliloquy to her.
“I’d make conversation, some small chat maybe, but there’s obviously not much point,” I started. “Actually, that’s not true. If I were an actual person I’d shut the hell up and mind my own business on the ride back. But now that nobody can hear me? Talking with a complete stranger would be awesome.”
She yawned and fiddled with her iPod.
“Ironically, I bet that’s exactly what you’d be doing even if you could hear me.” I chuckled. “Or maybe you’d just look at me and say ‘God, shut up.’ But you can’t, can you? So maybe I can bounce some ideas off of you. Like this coin thing. What the hell’s with that, anyway? Not that I’m crazy about being attacked in the first place, but at least that part made sense. Why a coin? Why that coin? And there was something else—muttering.” I shuddered, brief glimpses of the attack coming back to me, none of them making much sense.
Thinking about the incident brought more questions to the surface. Why me? I’d been a bit preoccupied with being invisible and intangible at the time, but my wonder arose again, fresh and pungent. Why the hell was I attacked? He never asked for money, never rooted through my pockets, never said or did anything that would indicate why I was attacked. Even afterward, when the detectives talked about my attacker’s story, he’d claimed not to remember anything. Worse, it wasn’t the first time this had happened.
It hadn’t really hit me until now exactly how bizarre the whole incident was. “I guess being able to walk through walls is enough to distract anyone,” I told my captive audience. “You don’t notice things like ancient Mediterranean coins or casual references to ‘other attacks’, you pretty much just home in on being a damn ghost.”
Except I wasn’t a ghost, I reminded myself; not really. I wasn’t dead. Okay, I didn’t actually know that with one hundred percent certainty, but I really felt like I’d know if I was dead or not. Wouldn’t I?
Again I wondered: Why me?
“Jesus,” I snapped. “I really hope this is just some messed up dream.” I stuck my hand through the back of the seats in front of me, feeling the oily slickness of its physical mass. I turned my hand over, watching it, trying to focus on the strange sensation of passing my ‘body’ through a solid object. “Or I get to look forward to an exciting future of being pointless and meaningless. Cool tricks do not make up for that, no matter how impressive. Being a ghost sucks, you know?”
I looked at the goth girl, purely by whim of conversational habit, to find her staring directly at my arm. Her eyes flicked up, widened when she met my stare, and she quickly focused on her iPod again.
I blinked, mouth stuck open for several long seconds. “Holy shit,” I muttered. “You can see me. You can hear me.”
The girl gulped and looked anywhere but at me, starting to blink really rapidly and act like something had gotten into her eye. I wasn’t fooled. I got up and hurried over to her, sliding into the seat next to her, despite the fact that her backpack—purple, covered in buttons of every shape and style, most with snide witticisms written on them—was already there. I passed through it after a brief second’s resistance, and the disturbed glance she gave me affirmed my suspicions. She really could see me.
But… she was a person, not a ghost like Nezzie. The backpack proved it. “Wow,” I said, excited. “This is great! You’re like a ghost whisperer or something, aren’t you? That’s perfect! I could really use your help. See, there’s all this craziness happening to me and what I really need is someone who can help me figure it out. Someone who can do things, like… talk. And open drawers. Push buttons. You know, the important things.”
The girl just stared straight ahead, ignoring me.
I scowled. “Don’t even. I know you can hear me, don’t even try to pretend otherwise.”
Her jaw clenched and she turned up the volume on her music. I could hear it, and even the other passengers could hear it, the older woman giving her a disparaging look.
“That’s harsh. You could listen to me and help me, but instead you’d rather piss off everyone on the train and ignore a person in need.” I leaned in close to her ear and shouted, “Well too bad! I’m going to shout in your ear nonstop until you acknowledge that you can—”
“Fuck!” she shouted, pulling the earbuds off. And one of her faux piercings. The other passengers quickly looked away now. She glared at me and lowered her voice. “Fine, yes, I can hear you. Jesus. Can you just shut the fuck up already?”
“I knew it!”
She continued to glare. The boys in the back of the train laughed uproariously at something.
I took a deep breath to calm myself down, though it occurred to me that I probably didn’t have to breathe at all at this point. Something to think about later. “Look,” I said in a reasonable-and-not-at-all-desperate tone. “I need the help of someone who can see and hear me and actually touch things, and no sooner did I realize I needed this then, lo and behold, there you are. It’s obviously a sign.”
“Not ‘Stop’, I’m guessing.”
“Don’t be a smartass. Seriously, I need your help. For some reason the entire world has gone crazy and my current state is frighteningly similar to a ghost—only I’m not dead—and I can’t figure out why. I’m about seventy percent sure this is a spectacularly intense hallucination, but on the off-chance that it isn’t, I should probably be doing something about it. All of it goes back to the attack, I’m sure of it, but I don’t know enough about the attack, and I can’t ask anyone about it. I don’t even know who to ask! You’ve gotta help me.”
The girl rolled her eyes with exaggerated frustration. “No, I don’t,” she muttered under her breath. “It’s not my problem. I don’t care how you got killed, when you were offed, why you’re confused about it, or any of that bullshit. So you’re a ghost—get over it. Or go bother somebody else.”
“I can’t bother somebody else! They can’t hear or see me, so they are intrinsically not bothered by me. You’re all I’ve got.”
“Sucks to be you, then. I’ve got my own problems—the problems of the living.”
I scowled a little deeper at the deliberate jab. “Yeah, but you can feasibly deal with your problems; I can’t! I’m stuck! Do you know another ghost whisperer I can talk to? Because I don’t know any!”
She rubbed her forehead. “Go. Away.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “No. I’m not going anywhere. Except when you’re going somewhere, because then I will follow you. Everywhere.” She snapped her eyes over to me with an alarmed gaze. I grinned. “That’s right. I’m going to haunt you.”
“I thought you said you’re not a ghost.”
“Call it a ‘live’ haunting, then. I’m going to annoy the hell out of you until you agree to help me.”
She shook her head, staring out the window. “You’re an asshole.”
“As long as I’m an asshole who eventually gets his way, I think I can find a way to persevere.”
She continued trying to ignore me as the ride wore on. When the train reached King Street, we got off to make the switch to the Yellow line over to Huntington. King Street was an above-ground station, hovering over Old Town Alexandria while the Masonic Temple, in turn, hovered over it (the Temple has a longer name, but few locals ever use it). As before, I talked to her for the extent of the wait, which allowed me to pay less attention to the stray movements and sounds I perceived from the old city below us. Occasionally she’d say something snide under her breath, but mostly she tried to forget that I was there. Unsuccessfully. I had no idea what a proper ‘haunting’ might actually entail (actually I found myself developing a considerable number of questions about the notion of haunting in general, the foremost of which was how to haunt every other person on the planet who couldn’t see or hear ghosts), but a person can only withstand so much annoyance. Eventually she’d cave.
We arrived at Huntington, where I chattered at her throughout the trip down its precariously steep escalators, to the bus bay at the bottom of its strange, sloping mass. I talked and shouted and even sang (in my uniquely hideous voice) while we waited for the bus, pestered her endlessly as we bounced down Richmond Highway, and rambled at her throughout the walk from her bus stop to a set of low rise condos clustered near the highway. Whenever she thumbed the iPod on, I’d yell into her ear again, so she quickly gave up that tactic. I could practically feel the frustration rolling off of her, but she obstinately refused to admit defeat.
“I’m not going to stop, you know,” I said to her as we neared what I presumed to be her home.
“Yeah, I think I got that about two hours ago, but if you could say it just one more time…”
“I don’t think you appreciate what that means,” I continued. “You know in the back of your head that I’m going to annoy you incessantly, and you probably know that eventually you’ll give in. You’re just prolonging your own suffering, really. So why not just give in now and listen to me? I’ll only need your help for a little while, just until I can figure out how to find and reclaim my body.”
She snorted. “Yeah, pissing me off is a great way to convince me to help you. Makes me want to do all kinds of nice things for you.”
“Hey, I tried being polite!”
“No, you didn’t. You just came up and chattered at me and then started expecting me to do shit for you. What about my life, huh? What are you going to do for me?”
I blinked at her. “What help could I possibly be to any problem you have? I can’t even hit the snooze button for you.”
She stared at me for a moment, made a frustrated noise, and walked on to one of the drab, brick buildings. They were all uniformly uninteresting, colored some shade between grey and brown with green trim on the windows and roof. Plain cement stairs led up to the main entrance, sided with black metal railings—some of which were falling off. Shapes and shadows flickered at the edge of my vision, far more than they did on the metro. More ghostly things. Definitely something to look into.
“I still don’t think you’ve thought this through,” I went on. “What are you going to do about me when you need to go to bed? Change your clothes?” I paused meaningfully. “Take a shower? You can’t just shut me out.”
She turned to me with a horrified expression. “You wouldn’t.”
I wouldn’t. That was far too personal, too offensive, too… wrong. There were limitations to how much of a bastard I could be in the name of getting the help I needed. But she didn’t need to know that. I couldn’t trust myself to lie, so I merely raised an eyebrow quizzically in an ‘or would I?’ sort of way.
Her face twisted in disgust. “You’re a fucking pig.” Then she turned and stormed into the complex.
Feeling bad for the bluff but not wanting to back down, I followed her up a flight of stairs to one of the four doors on that level. She started fumbling with her keys, glaring over one shoulder at me. “I have friends, you know. I may not know how to do anything about you yet, but you keep fucking with me, and you’re gonna regret it. Go away.”
Friends? I couldn’t tell if she was making something up or if she really knew something about all this spirit stuff. After all, she could see me. I opened my mouth to ask, but was interrupted by the door swinging open.
A woman stood in the doorway, bearing some facial features in common with my haunting victim, though her hair was long and blonde rather than black, short, and spiky. She was a little too slim, and her eyes showed crow’s feet and creases of premature worry and strain. Icy blue eyes that matched the girl’s were fixed in an angry glare that raked over both of us.
“Amelia Morgan,” she challenged in the tone of voice only a parent can muster. “I swear, young lady, if you dragged that miserable boyfriend of yours back here, we are going to have a serious talk.”
“Boyfriend?” I yelped. Her mother saw spirits, too?
Amelia rolled her eyes with a cursory glance in my direction, though most of her attention was focused on her mother. “I’m alone, mom.”
“Then who were you talking to?” she paused. “Not more of this ghost—”
“Myself! What the fuck do you care, anyway?”
“Language, young lady.” She leaned out the door and scanned around, straightening with a satisfied hmph.
“Like you never say it.”
“When you’re an adult you can use adult language. Not before. Now get in here, you’re home much later than you said—as usual. And just look at how you’re dressed.” She clucked disapprovingly and ushered her inside.
Amelia sluggishly tromped in and I slipped inside before the door closed. There was a kind of resistance to my presence, even without the solidity of the door in the way, but it faded after a moment, hovering at the edge of my awareness like a nagging memory. “You should’ve seen the other girls,” Amelia said.
“I don’t care about the other girls, Melly, I care about you.” She looked over her in scorn again, shaking her head. “That skirt is way too short, and the makeup—”
“I’m going to bed,” Melly announced. The little apartment wasn’t enormous, and the living room was in a state of stubborn disarray, magazines, toys, and video game boxes scattered around the area haphazardly. Melly headed for the only hallway in the place, extending on past a little claustrophobic simulacrum of a kitchen.
Her mother turned to follow her progress. “Aren’t you hungry? I made dinner, but it’s cold now. I can heat it up for you.”
“Not hungry,” she called back. “Got food earlier with my friends.”
“Todd?” her mother said in a disapproving tone.
Melly gave her an icy glare of her own, a small reflection of her mother’s own. “No. We broke up. I was with Becky and Rach.”
She seemed to like this less, if her arms folding over her chest were any indication. “Those two are a bad influence on you.”
Melly stopped at a turn in the hallway, chuckling. “What, ‘cause they’re dykes?”
“Because they’re older and unprincipled and in a cult. I don’t care if they’re lesbians.” But her voice dropped a little on the last word, suggesting otherwise.
“Wicca isn’t a cult, mom.”
“It isn’t normal.”
“Right, of course, my mistake. You want a perfect, normal girl with perfect, normal friends who like perfect, normal things. Your definition of ‘normal’, I assume.” She gave another eye roll and turned away. “Can you say how I’m a disappointment next? I love that part.”
Her mother sighed wearily. “I want you to be happy and safe, Melly. I want you to be a good role model for Jonathan. He doesn’t have a father figure, you know, so it’s especially important for him to have a responsible older sister.”
Melly hmphed and mouthed the word ‘responsible’. “Bringing up the dad thing again. Classy.”
“I wasn’t trying to blame you.”
“Yes, you were, just like you always do,” Melly snapped. “I didn’t drive him away, mom, he just left.” She looked like she was ready to say more, but her eyes flickered over to me and she clammed up. I couldn’t blame her. Just watching the argument was making me decidedly uncomfortable.
“I wasn’t blaming you!” she shouted back before reining herself in with a deep breath. Then she added, “But I don’t think his leaving was entirely spontaneous. There had to be some reason.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. He was an asshole, mom, that’s all the reason you need!”
She threw her hands up and stormed off down the turn in the hall. “I don’t want to fight. I just want to go to bed!”
Her mother mirrored the gesture, but settled her hands on her hips. “Fine! Just go to bed!” She headed into the kitchen, expression pained.
I felt very much like an intruder—which I guess I was. I gave Melly’s mom a lingering look, frowning, and then followed after Melly. Aside from the bathroom, there were only two other rooms in the hall. The door to one was ajar, revealing a messy, disheveled master bedroom in various shades of secondhand furniture and decorations. The other door was shut. I braced myself and slipped through it, the sensation of fluid tension on my face an unpleasant feeling. This was going to take some getting used to—or it would, if it were permanent. Which it wouldn’t be, I reminded myself.
The bedroom wasn’t huge, but it was sizable enough for two beds, an opaque screen in between them as a makeshift wall, and a couple of personal effects on each side. The far side was decidedly ‘boy’, and younger, with a respectable trunk, nightstand, and smallish bed. The child in it was making a rather impressive show of looking asleep, except that his breathing wasn’t regular enough for it. His hair was dark brown, features locked in willful ignorance; he looked perhaps eight or nine, but I’ve never been good at guessing the age of children.
Melly was on the near side, where there was a small closet to bolster her storage space. She had another curtain that could be drawn across her space, maybe a foot or two from the door, allowing for some modicum of privacy and personal space—but not much. She hadn’t even bothered to close it. Her furniture consisted of only a small single bed and a table that was too small to be a desk and too large to be a nightstand crammed with knickknacks, pictures, books, and anything else she could fit on it. A slim dresser nearby was similarly cramped, at least two of the drawers left open with dark clothes threatening to erupt out of them. The tightly packed space left her maybe two square feet of open space, if that.
Melly was facedown on her bed, face in her arms. I leaned back against the dresser, my lack of weight doing nothing to dislodge the precarious artifacts there.
“Enjoy the show?” she grumbled at me.
“Not even a little,” I said honestly.
She barked a laugh into her pillow.
“I’m sorry,” I added lamely. “I didn’t realize things were so…”
“Bad?” She turned her head to look at me with one eye. Her eyeliner was a little smeared. “Fuck off, I don’t want your pity.”
I blinked, unsure what to say. As it happened, her younger brother spoke in my place. “Melly?” he said in a small voice.
Her voice softened. “Yeah, J?”
“Is that another ghost you’re talking to?” His voice had a hint of excitement to it.
“Yeah. He’s kind of a mean ghost, though. I don’t think you’d like him.”
“Your brother knows you can see spirits?”
She laughed again, more heartily. “My god, you are just the king of obvious statements, aren’t you?”
Jonathan giggled from the other bed. “Is he a stupid ghost, too, Melly?”
“They’re all pretty stupid, J.”
“I don’t think that’s true at all,” I said. “And anyway, I’m not a ghost because I’m not dead.”
“This ghost is delusional, too.”
I heard a rustle as the child kicked out of bed and scrambled over to her side of the room. “Really?” His voice was a fierce whisper. “What’s he saying?”
Melly sat up, drawing her legs under her and pressing her back against the wall. Jonathan climbed onto the bed to sit cross-legged in front of her. The actions of both were so thoughtless and natural that I suspected this was a frequent activity for them. “Well,” she started in a storyteller voice, “First of all, he doesn’t even think he’s dead!”
Jonathan made a dismissive noise. “You said they say that all the time!”
“Yeah, but it’s different. Those ghosts think they’re alive and still have a body. They just ignore the spirit stuff. But this guy knows he’s a ghost, and thinks his body is still alive somewhere and he needs to get back to it.”
“It is still alive,” I insisted.
“Ohh,” Jonathan cooed, nodding as if he understood completely. “So he wants you to get him back to his body? Is he gonna throw things if he gets mad?”
“Naw, he’s not a poltergeist, he’s just annoying. I guess that’s what he wants.” She gave me a look.
Ghosts able to ‘throw’ things gave me a moment of pause. Was there some way I could do that? I added that one to the small hoard of questions I was collecting. “Yeah, I do. And I need help figuring out what happened to me.” I waved my fingers. “Can’t exactly surf the net, can I?”
She gave her brother a flat look. “He said ‘surf the net’. Maybe he has been dead a few years.”
“He wants to get on the net?” Jonathan asked. “Weird!”
“What’s wrong with ‘surf’?”
“We just call it ‘browsing’ these days, grampa.” She snickered. “Typical ghost stuff, J. Wants me to do all the legwork to give him piece of mind.”
“Typical? You get this a lot?”
“Used to. Try not to let you bastards know I can hear you and, usually, I’m okay. Most aren’t as persistent as you.”
I wondered why. I’d figure, as a ghost, how many better things could they have to do? Perhaps there was a whole world of supernatural reindeer games I didn’t know about.
Supernatural. Like this wasn’t all a dream. It was seeming less and less like one, despite all the strange sights, sounds, and sensations. Walking through doors, seeing spectral images, all of it. But there were no gaps in time, no teleportation, and nobody I knew.
Dammit. I was starting to accept this.
“I just want to get back in my body.” I looked down. “If it’s still there. Maybe I am dead and just don’t know it.”
Silence stretched on. Jonathan looked between the two of us—well, as near to my position as he could guess. “What’s he doing now?” he finally asked, voice hushed.
“Ohh.” He paused. “What’s sulking?”
“It’s what boys do when they get bigger to get women to do things for them. Very pathetic. I suggest you not get into a habit of it when you grow up.”
He beamed. “I won’t. I’m going to be sensitive and responsive, just like you taught me.”
Okay, I couldn’t help it. I laughed. Maybe it was the extreme precision little Jonathan used to say the words ‘sensitive’ and ‘responsive’. “You’re a better role model than your mom thinks,” I said.
She looked at him with a small smile. “I like to think so.”
Jonathan beamed, perceiving that something nice had been said about him. Looking at the two, I was struck by how out of place I was among them. I had problems—severe problems—but I’d been using them as an excuse to behave selfishly, with no concern for others. It had seemed natural to try and make use of Melly’s abilities. I needed help, after all, and she could offer that help.
But the world doesn’t revolve around me, even if my problems flagrantly defy the laws of reality and challenge my sanity. This, more than anything else, drove home the fact that this was not a dream. The world wasn’t about me, I was just in it. Who was I to rope some poor girl into spending her time on me, just because she’d been cursed to see spirits?
There had to be another way. Other people who could see ghosts had to exist in the city, or failing that, maybe I could figure out how to move objects like Jonathan alluded to. I could find the detectives working on my case and just listen to them. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be right.
Melly was staring at me. I gave her an apologetic smile and backed to the door. “Look,” I said. “It was wrong of me to bother you and expect you to drop everything and help me. I’m sorry. I’ll deal with my problems myself.”
Jonathan’s attention had slipped to his sister’s iPod. He flitted through the various menus, scanning the music on it. “Hey, wait,” she said. “I’ll help.”
“No, I’ll handle it. You were right; this is my own problem and it was unfair to try and drag you into it.”
She shrugged. “That’s kinda why I’m doing it. It’s not all selfless, anyway. You’re different and I want to know why.”
Jonathan looked up sharply. “You’re gonna help the ghost?” he babbled, the words falling over one another in their rush to escape his mouth.
“Yeah,” she told him. “Just this once.”
“Awesome! Can I help?”
“No way, squirt. This is big kid business.”
“Aww,” he groaned. “But I could be helpful! Really!”
She ruffled his hair. “The best help you can be is to keep mom happy. Don’t give her any trouble and she won’t give me any trouble.”
He giggled and batted her hand away. “Uh uh! You and mom are always fighting, no matter what. Mostly about dad.”
I don’t think the boy saw her frown at that, because she quickly smothered it. “I’m going to be on good behavior. Ghost-hunting requires it.”
His eyes widened in amazement. “It does?”
“Yeah, and absolute secrecy, too. You know what she thinks about ghosts.”
Jonathan nodded exuberantly and zipped his fingers over his lips. Then he turned an imaginary key over them.
“Please teach him how zippers work.”
She ignored me. “Good. Now hurry back to bed, J. I need to talk to Mr. Ghost and see what he needs, specifically.”
He grumbled and groaned, but she shushed him. Slowly, he shuffled towards his side of the room, but stopped. “Wait! What’s his name? I wanna know his name!”
I smiled. “Oliver.” Melly translated.
“Goodnight Oliver! Be nice to my sister or I’m gonna exa… ex-hor…”
“Exorcise,” Melly supplied.
“Yeah, that! So be good!”
“I’ll do my best.”
When Melly passed this on, he seemed satisfied. He turned and marched to his bed, flopping onto it.
“He seems like a good kid.”
“The best. Only good thing about that prick.” Her voice dropped. “Not gonna let him turn out the same way.” I decided not to pry by following up on that. She shook her head after a moment and fixed me with a look. “Alright, Oliver. Tell me about your problems.”
So ends the preview for Into That Good Night! Want more? The book is available on Amazon in paper or Kindle format (protip: the Kindle version is substantially cheaper).