Winner of the Joanne Harrison Hopkins Literary Achievement Award 2014
“Do you really think it’s haunted?” Bonehead-One asked, tiptoeing into the foyer.
“Suzy Anderson came here with Mike Leiber last week and they said they saw her,” Bonehead-Two answered, chomping down on her gum as she followed Bonehead-One.
“The Witch of Todd Mansion?”
Bonehead-Two nodded and whipped her flashlight around, almost catching me as I ducked behind the wall.
Hiding my laughter took some effort.
Witch of Todd Mansion. HAH!
I bussed tables at Ruby Tuesdays when I was alive. Shouting obscenities at messy eaters was pretty much the extent of my cursing experience. It’s not like they hand out secret ghost manuals after death. There’s no Mr. Miyagi waiting on the other side, just years of stupid humans trespassing on your land and the frustration that came with being called a witch when you weren’t one.
Seriously. It’s offensive to witches worldwide.
When Bonehead-One reached the entrance to the dining room, I prepared for my best performance yet.
They thought I was a witch? Well, I’d give them exactly what they came for.
Using all the energy I could muster, I threw a nearby vase across the foyer and jumped in front of them, sputtering gibberish that would be misconstrued by the Boneheads as Latin. “Bah rah em, babla lo medly! The Witch has cursed you!”
Bonehead-One screeched and dropped the flashlight, tripping on her own two feet as she turned to run out of the front door. Bonehead-Two froze in her spot, her brown eyes wide and her mouth hanging open, gum falling out of her mouth.
“Get out!” I shouted. Still, the idiot didn’t move.
Didn’t she hear me? The witch had cursed her. She should be making for the hills by now. Why was she still standing there?
“I cursed you! Get out already!”
Her head tilted to the side and she raised an eyebrow. “Hey, aren’t you the girl that went missing a few years ago?”
What a stupid question. Lots of girls go missing every year.
Before I could tell her just that, Bonehead-One came back for her idiot friend and dragged the girl out the door behind her, not even bothering to shut it afterward.
Now, that’s just plain rude.
Once I stopped laughing and pulled myself together, I made my way to the back window to wait for Soldier Boy who’d be along in precisely ten minutes. Maybe today would be the day I broke him out of his cycle. Fat chance! He’d probably just carry on like he always did.
They said ghosts stick around because of some unfinished business, right? Patrick Swayze wanted to avenge his own death, Bruce Willis wanted to fix the unfixable kid, and Casper wanted a friend in Christina Ricci.
Well, that’s great. I wish they’d told me exactly what my unfinished business was before I died. At least then I could get started on some of that.
To be honest, I found being a ghost pretty boring. I hated it. No one to talk to, no one came to visit (except the occasional tween looking for a cheap thrill), and nothing ever changed. I’d gotten the idea to dye my hair purple a month before I died. Biggest mistake ever. Now, I was stuck with purple hair for the rest of eternity, and as far as ghosts go, nothing says “don’t take me seriously” quite like hair the color of Dimetapp. I figured this was why people thought I was a witch. Crazy colored hair must mean crazy brains.
The biggest thing I did this week was chase off a stray dog digging around in my kitchen. Thank my lucky stars those girls came by. That startled, pee-my-pants look on Bonehead-One’s face would keep me entertained for weeks.
Strange that Bonehead-Two recognized me, though. That had never happened before. Here I’d been thinking I only died months ago, but according to her I’d been missing a few years. I must have lost track of time somewhere along the way. Not like I could go out and buy a wall calendar or anything.
Nope. No going outside for me. We ghosts pretty much got stuck wherever we landed.
Take Soldier Boy, for example. Everyday at three-fifteen he showed up dressed in complete Confederate garb and marched across that field beyond the trees, calling out for someone named Martha.
I’d grown accustomed to sitting at my window and waiting for him, hoping that eventually he’d give up on Martha and accept that he was a ghost like me. After all this time, he still hadn’t gotten the message.
Right on cue, he appeared, his gray cap hanging sideways on his head and his musket slung across his back.
“Martha!” he called. “Martha! I’m here! Where are you?”
“She doesn’t want you, Soldier Boy! She ran off with a Yankee!” I shouted, but he didn’t hear me. He never heard me, and Martha never came. He trudged halfway through the lawn and stopped, alarm tightening the features on his face.
“No! No, please, sir! I only came because I’m in love with your…” He gasped and fell to his knees, grabbing at his chest like he’d been shot. I often wondered who killed Solider Boy originally, and despite my repeated attempts at asking him, he never finished that sentence. Did he lust after the rich married woman of a Yankee sympathizer? Was he infatuated with some wannabe Scarlett O’Hara until things took a turn for the worse? The theories never ceased, and I’d probably never know.
No, there’s no Mister Miyagi on this side of the realm but I’d learned a few things on my own. Soldier Boy was what I called a repeater. He just kept doing the same thing over and over again no matter how many times I tried to communicate with him or get him to forget Martha.
Thank the good Lord I wasn’t that kind of ghost. What a miserable existence that must be. Me? I was an intelligent haunt. I knew what was going on around me and I interacted with the people who came to investigate the Witch of Todd Mansion.
Even though I believed myself smarter than the average ghost, I couldn’t figure out how to get out of this hovel. Every time I tried to break the barrier of a door or a window, some invisible force field pushed me back inside. I feared that whatever kept me here would continue to keep me here until the world ended or the apocalypse began.
Would there ever be any peace for me?
Something crashed in the kitchen. Instantly, I teleported my molecules to the sound only to find that same stray dog digging through trash in a lower cabinet.
Startled, the dog jumped and yipped, tilting it’s head toward me with a snarl. Hackles rose on its back as those lips stretched over big yellowish teeth.
“Go on and bite me. I dare you. Want to know why? ‘Cause you’re in for the biggest surprise of your life, Buddy. You. Can’t. Touch…”
“Dogs can see you, too?”
I gasped and jumped and completely lost track of staying corporeal. If I had a heart, it would have skipped about fifteen beats.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!
Bonehead-Two stood in the entrance to the kitchen, her skinny, scrawny arms wrapped around a book practically as big as she was. When did she get here? How did she get here? Why didn’t I hear her when she came in?
Did… Did a human just scare me?
“Hey!” she called out, big brown eyes looking left and right. “Where’d you go?”
Still, I didn’t bring myself to focus again. What was she doing here? What sort of book was that? Why had she come back?
“Look, I didn’t mean to scare you or anything,” she said. “But I know that wasn’t Latin you were speaking. I also know who you are, Charlie.”
Charlie. Charlie. Charlie.
It echoed in my ears like a beautiful song, a soft poem. It had been a long time since anyone called me that. I’d almost forgotten it was my name.
“You went missing two and a half years ago in July. They never found you.” She took a step closer, tugging that book monstrosity tighter to her chest.
I figured she couldn’t be that bad, right? She knew who I was and what happened to me. At least she wasn’t calling me the Witch of Todd Mansion anymore. I focused as much energy as I could into making myself visible again, sending little vibrations down my arms and legs to keep myself appearing as normal as possible.
“That’s because I ended up here.”
“Obviously.” She was tall for her age probably. I guessed her maybe twelve or thirteen, all knees and elbows and skinny limbs too big for the rest of her. She pushed her blonde hair behind an ear and glanced at the horrid decay of my surroundings with big, brown eyes, slowly taking another step forward.
The wallpaper peeled, exposing great holes in the drywall that molded and crumbled with age. Dust and dirt blanketed every surface and looters had long since wrecked the furniture. I couldn’t smell a whole lot anymore (that sense went away quickly after I died), but I imagined the place probably reeked of animal excrement and old mildew.
Just because it was one of the oldest properties in this town didn’t mean it was particularly well maintained.
“So, what do you want?” I asked, already frustrated with her presence.
She shrugged. “I guess I wanted to help you.”
“Help me? Help me with what?”
“I don’t know. You’re a ghost, right?”
Stupid question. “Well, I’m certainly not a witch.”
She smirked. “Sorry about that. Ashley made me do it.”
“Do me a favor. Stop listening to Ashley. She’s got dumb ideas.”
The girl nodded and tucked her hair behind one ear. “I’m Rebecca.”
“Okay, Rebecca. Nice to meet you. Now, why don’t you take your dog and scamper on back home? I’m not in the mood for visitors.”
“That’s not my dog.” Though she denied ownership of said canine, she reached out and scratched him behind his ears. The beast melted into her hand, craning his neck in different directions to get just the right spots. “How did you die?”
“Fell off a cliff.”
“Really?” Rebecca snorted a laugh. “Which cliff?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know or you don’t remember?”
“Pick one. Why does it matter?”
“Not a lot of people have a chance to talk to a ghost. I’m curious if all of your memory is intact or if you really don’t know how you died.”
What kind of psycho-babble was that? Who the heck was this kid, anyway? Sigmund Freud? My eyes narrowed on her. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen,” she answered with a big smile, almost proud to be so young. Or maybe she had recently had a birthday and the dreaded thirteen was now behind her. “So, do you, you know, remember how you died?”
“Yeah, I fell off a cliff. Wile E. Coyote style. I didn’t even start to fall until I looked down.”
“And then you woke up here?”
Rebecca hummed an inquisitive sigh and looked down to the book in her arms, her eyebrows creasing together on her forehead.
I tried to hold in my response. I tried not to encourage her but that look meant something. I had to know what. Despite the fact that I wanted her gone and out of my house, I couldn’t help asking, “What?”
“It’s curious. That’s all”
Waiting a moment, I hoped she’d elaborate without my telling her to do so. The little smart-ass held out, drawing me into the conversation against my will. “Go on.”
“Well, you didn’t live here. You graduated from the high school down the street from me so you had to have lived in my area, not the Todd Mansion. Why are you haunting it?”
Which was a good question—one I hadn’t thought about before and one I didn’t want to think about now. Something evil churned in my stomach and cold crept up my spine, twisting over my head like fingers on my scalp.
Why am I here? Why am I here?
Shaking my head and rolling my eyes, I let out a long, aggravated sigh. I wasn’t in the mood for visitors and I definitely wasn’t in the mood for prolonged conversation. I could already feel my energy starting to drain. Pretty soon, I’d have to start drawing from her to keep corporeal and that could get ugly fast.
“Rebecca,” she corrected.
“Whatever. I don’t know why you came here or what you want from me, but I’ve got important ghost stuff to do and I’m sure you’ve got important teenage girl stuff to do. So what do you say you take a freaking hike already?”
“Is your anger part of being dead? Are you mad at the person who killed you?”
“No one killed me. I told you. I fell off a cliff.”
“Did you kill yourself?”
“Stop asking me questions or so help me…”
“What?” she said with a small chuckle. “What are you going to do? Throw another vase at me? Yell at me in your made-up language? I’m not afraid of you.”
At last. The reason she wouldn’t leave. At least twenty or thirty people had come through here since I’d been haunting it and I’d sent them all packing. Some screamed, most just ran, but Rebecca… Rebecca wasn’t scared.
“You’re probably the first little girl in the history of the world that wasn’t terrified of ghosts.”
“Well, most little girls don’t live with the ghost of their dead mother.”
Oh, now it made sense. She’d dealt with a ghost before. This was familiar territory for her.
“I’m not your dead mother.”
“I know that,” she retorted. “I helped my mother move on. I think I can help you, too.”
I stared at her for a moment, long enough to determine that she meant what she said, and then I burst out laughing.
“Move on?” I managed in between breaths. “Move on? Kid, there is no moving on. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“You need help moving on. If you could move on by yourself, you would have done it already. Duh.” She plopped the book down on the dining room table, a plume of dust mushrooming to either side of it. “Now, let’s try to figure out how you died and then we can figure out how to help you die the rest of the way, okay?”
“What if I don’t want to die the rest of the way?”
Rebecca paused for a moment, then made a show of closing the book and giving me an incredulous glare. “You like being a bitchy ghost stuck in a crappy mansion with no one to talk to? Fine, I’ll leave you alone. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“Alright, alright!” I yielded. “It sucks. It absolutely sucks. What do you want me to do?”
“Tell me what you remember about the last day of your life.”
After struggling to recall any memory whatsoever, the only thing that came to mind was my mother’s face. Bright blue eyes. Weathered tan skin. She’d given me a kiss on the forehead and brushed a hand over my hair.
Where was I?
The smell of lemon floor cleaner permeated my nose and the prism of our chandelier danced across the beige walls of our foyer. I was at home. I was talking to my mother, telling her I’d be back soon.
“I think I left my house and I went for a walk.”
“Yup.” Rebecca said. “That’s right.”
“That’s right?” How could it be right or wrong? Did she already know what happened to me?
“Your parents said they saw you wander down East Street and that you turned right on Elm. But after that, they don’t know where you went. Do you remember?”
East Street? Where the hell was East Street? Did I live on these streets? Maybe. A bright green sign reading “East Street” flashed through my mind, so real and visceral, as if I’d seen it everyday of my life. Perhaps I had. After that? Nothing. The memory dissolved and swirled into a dark cloud and no matter how much I tried to pull it back, nothing came.
I shook my head. “I don’t know, Kid. I sort of remember that, I guess, but there’s nothing afterward.”
“Okay,” Rebecca said, flipping over another page in that enormous book.
“What is that thing anyway?”
“When I was trying to help my mom, I collected everything I could find about ghosts. I even added some things myself.”
“Are you a Ghost Whisperer or something?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. I used to see my grandfather when I was a child. At first, my mom didn’t believe me. Then I called her Betsy, which is what her dad used to call her. She believed me after that.”
I paused, debating whether I should ask the next question. As much as I didn’t want her here, I certainly didn’t want her to start crying. I decided to ask anyway.
“How’d she die?”
“Cancer. She knew I could see ghosts so she hung around for while.”
“How’d you get her to move on?”
“I found out the reason why she was hanging around and I solved it, just like I’m going to do with you.” Rebecca looked up at me and pushed her hair behind her ears again, her eyes red and cheeks flushed.
Abort! Abort! Tears in T-minus ten seconds. Time for a subject change. “Have you seen my parents?”
She nodded and glanced back down to the book. “Your mom’s obviously having a hard time. Your dad pretends like nothing’s wrong. And your sister…”
Oh, God. Oh, God!
A slice of panic cut into my stomach and fisted my insides until they threatened to explode. Why did it hurt so much to think about my sister? Where was my sister? What had happened to her?
“Is she okay?”
“Recovering? What the hell does that mean?’
At the curse, Rebecca’s gaze snapped back to mine. “Calm down, Charlie.”
No! No! I didn’t have to calm down! She was in my house. I didn’t ask her to come here. I didn’t want her help.
“Charlie…” Rebecca said again, her tone light and musical, as if she were trying to coax down a wild horse. “Your sister is okay. She took your death the hardest, I think. She was in my grade, you know. That’s why I recognized you. We were friends for a little while.”
Rebecca shrugged, a simple bounce of her shoulders. “She doesn’t really talk to anyone anymore. I tried to keep in touch with her, but she missed a few months of school and she had to repeat a grade.”
My heart broke just imaging it. Little Jessica with tears in her eyes, looking for me and waiting for me to come back, and here I was, stuck in this stupid place, screaming at stupid Soldier Boy and scaring Boneheads.
Ugh! I didn’t want to think about this. Still, I yearned for more information.
“Bring her here. I want to see her. I want to tell her I’m okay.”
“No.” Rebecca shook her head. “I can’t do that.”
“What? Why not?”
“Not everyone can see ghosts, Charlie. Not even Ashley could see you and I think Mike Leiber was lying when he told me he did. Ashley only got freaked out because of the vase, not because of you. Even if I brought Jessica here, she wouldn’t believe me. Most likely, she’d think I was teasing her and then she’d hate me.”
“She’ll believe you! Just ask her, okay? Just bring her here. Just bring her.” Desperate as I was to see my baby sister again, I didn’t care about the possible repercussions of my demand. I didn’t care that seeing me again might negatively affect her. All I cared about was mussing her hair and giving her a kiss and telling her I loved her. She didn’t need to be so upset about me.
Rebecca gave me a small smile and nodded. “Okay, I’ll try. Tomorrow. I promise.”
Something in her eyes made me doubt her, but a small glimmer of hope blossomed deep inside of me anyway. If I could tell my sister I was here, she could come visit me and we’d be just like we used to be. I wouldn’t be alone anymore.
“Let’s keep working, okay?” Rebecca said.
I tried to focus, but all I could think about was Jessica. I hoped Rebecca kept her promise to try to bring her here. Even if my sister didn’t initially believe Rebecca, there are things I could tell her to say that would make Jessica believe. Secret things. Things only the two of us knew.
Christ! Could I even remember those things anymore? Where had we gone when we snuck out that one Fourth of July? What was the name of her favorite stuffed animal?
Every day, I lost more of who I used to be. Maybe I didn’t really remember how I died and I’d completely made up the cliff story. Maybe my memories would continue to slip away from me until nothingness consumed me. Would I invent new memories or would I simply lose my mind altogether?
Of course, I’d only been dead two and a half years. In another fifty or a hundred, I could only guess how I might think or feel. Maybe I’d become like Soldier Boy, mindlessly reenacting my own death until the end of the world.
Well, at least then I’d know how I died. Silver lining, I guess.
“Do you know where your body is?” Rebecca continued.
“Wherever my parents buried me. Duh!” I mocked her earlier tone.
She took a deep breath and pursed her lips. “They never found your body, Charlie.”
“Well, I guess my body’s at the bottom of whatever ravine I fell off when I died.”
“You didn’t fall off a cliff,” she said, giving another shake of her head.
“And just how do you know?”
“Because you wandered off one day and never came back. There are no cliffs around here within walking distance. Besides, your soul is attached to Todd Mansion for some reason. As you can see,” she gestured out the window to the back yard. “No cliffs.”
Huh. “Well, I distinctly remember falling.”
“Try to think really hard.”
“I am,” I grumbled, draining more energy in my frustration. Rebecca crossed her arms over her chest and tucked her hands under her elbows. When she exhaled, I saw smoke pouring out over her lips, her shoulders wiggling in a violent shiver.
I’d already sucked the atmosphere dry of its energy and now I’d begun to pull on hers. If she didn’t get away soon, she’d end up right here next to me. While the idea of a companion appealed to me, I’d never been a big fan of children and being stuck with one for the next million years literally sounded like hell.
“I think you should go, Rebecca,” I told her. “I can hurt you if I get too tired.”
She must have decided I had a valid point because she closed her book and stood, gathering it to her chest like before. “Try to remember where your body is. Most of the time, a ghost is attached to their remains. If you’re haunting the place, your body is probably here somewhere.”
Was my body still here? And if it was, why hadn’t I come across it yet?
I tried to think of the first time I’d realized I was a ghost and found that I couldn’t remember. When had I first called out to Soldier Boy? When I had I first scared an intruder? Had it really been over two years that I’d been stuck here?
I’d been through every room in the mansion, upstairs and downstairs and through the corridors. I’d jumped on the ancient, rotted mattresses and rifled through what little possessions had been abandoned by the last owners. Though the basement freaked me out, I’d still explored as much as I could and found no evidence of my body whatsoever.
The sun set and rose again before Rebecca returned, carrying the same heavy book as yesterday. I was sitting at my window watching for Soldier Boy when she appeared from around the corner. She walked to one end of the yard and back again, eyes studying the grass.
What the heck is that girl doing?
“Hey!” I shouted, banging on the window. “Rebecca. What are you doing?”
She only looked up and smiled before continuing to browse. The stray dog walked at her side, nose down to the ground as they strolled. They reached a spot about halfway between Soldier Boy and me before the dog abruptly stopped and began digging, his little front paws chucking dirt out behind the back.
“Smell something, boy?” Rebecca asked, kneeling down to pat the dog on its head. Her features dropped and her eyes slowly rose to meet mine.
Something about seeing her there set off a screeching alarm in my head. Something about that spot seemed familiar. I looked at it every day for over a year, but only now that Rebecca stood there did it finally hit me.
“I hate her,” I shouted to no one in particular, crossing my arms as I trudged up the crumpling steps into Todd Mansion. “I just hate her. She gets whatever she wants and I get diddley-squat!”
Jessica had stolen some of my clothes and gotten away with it. Again! My parents didn’t even care! The assholes. It’s my stuff. Just because she’s my little sister doesn’t mean she has free rein to my bedroom.
Maybe tomorrow, I’d go out and by a lock for my door. That would show them all, wouldn’t it? No one goes in my room but me.
That’s if I made it out of this storm okay. In my anger, I’d called Jessica a sneaky brat and stormed out. Forty-five minutes later, the sky opened up and dumped buckets on me, as if the weather sensed my mood and wanted to make my day even worse. Thick water droplets bounced off the ground in tremendous thuds, releasing the pressure of the stifling, humid day. I passed the Todd Mansion every day on my way to school, but I’d never been inside before.
Now, it seemed like the best place to wait out the storm.
The whole place reeked like mildew and an inch of dust coated every surface. I remember Riley Miller telling me this place was haunted, that her sister had gone in here on a dare and “almost didn’t make it back out alive.” Whatever that means. Riley’s big sister always embellished her stories, and I hardly believed in ghosts. However, standing there in the foyer with my only light the brief illumination of crackling lightening outside, it was easy to see why she’d been so freaked out.
This place could be the setting for Stephen King’s next novel.
I clutched my hands into fists and took a step forward, forcing myself to breath evenly.
“Ghosts aren’t real,” I told myself. “Ghosts aren’t real.”
A sudden boom of thunder roared right over the mansion and I jumped, eyes searching the area for any kind of threat. I’d been so focused on ghosts, but the more likely scenario involved homeless people or wild animals.
“Hello?” I called out. “Anyone here?”
“Martha!” a voice rang out, scaring the living crap out of me. I gasped and jumped and clutched at my chest and prayed I didn’t have a heart attack in such a dreadful place.
“No, I’m not Martha.” I crossed into the dining room, ears straining for the source of the voice. “I’m Charlie. Where are you?”
“Martha! I’m here! Where are you?”
Was that coming from outside?
My gaze narrowed on a figure standing about fifty feet out in the backyard but with the rain falling so hard, I couldn’t quite make him out.
Surely, wandering around in the rain couldn’t be good for anybody so the better part of me wanted to call out to him to seek shelter in the house with me. The other part of me, however— the smarter part—wondered why this guy was just wandering out in the rain, calling out for Martha. Seemed a little crazy. Was he off his meds? Of course, prior to finding myself in front of Todd Mansion, I had been wandering around, muttering to myself about my sister.
Who was I to judge?
“Hey, buddy!” I shouted, crossing into the kitchen so I could go out the backdoor. “Hey! There’s no Martha here! Now, why don’t you come inside and wait out the storm?”
He didn’t even stop walking. He just kept marching closer and closer until he reached the midpoint of the field where he stopped.
“No! No, please, sir! I only came because I’m in love with your…” He gasped and collapsed to his knees, gripping at his chest like he was the one having a heart attack.
“Hey. You alright?”
Did he just die? Holy crap! Holy crap!
“Hey, Buddy! Are you dead?”
Damn it! Now what do I do? Do I go out there and check on him? Or wait here until the storm clears? Of course, he could be really dead by that point and, if I got to him now, he might only be mostly dead and I could call 911. Maybe I’d save his life.
Okay. Okay. Am I doing this?
I’m doing this.
The rain was a thick, grey curtain separating me from this stranger, and even though I couldn’t really see him, I marched down the stairs and sloshed through the blanket of water flooding the overgrown grass anyway. The sky looked angry tonight, dark grey clouds fuming into huge puffs that spoke of how hot it had been earlier today. I trudged to the spot where I thought he’d fell and looked around.
Nothing. No one.
What the… Where’d he go?
I’d definitely seen someone, right? A tall guy dressed in grey, with something slung over his back.
“Hello?” I spun around in a circle, looking in every direction I could for this mystery dude, but he was gone.
Like he’d disappeared into thin air.
“Rusty! I said give me the rifle! You’re not doing it right!” came a voice from somewhere behind me. I twirled around, expecting to see the same guy I’d seen just moments before.
“Shut up, Jeremy! I’m doing it fine!” another voice shouted, high pitched and whiny. A child’s voice. Both of them.
A loud boom echoed over the field, so piercing that, at first, I thought it was thunder. When I realized it was a gunshot, I tried to take a step forward to yell at Rusty and Jeremy for shooting in the field. This wasn’t some goddamn gun range! Except… my legs wouldn’t move. They wouldn’t work. In fact, I couldn’t feel them at all.
A warm, sticky substance trickled over my stomach and down my legs. Not water, not rain. Thicker. A coppery scent filled the air, coated my tongue, and slithered down my throat, made me want to gag. Eyes moving slowly, I glanced down and noticed the growing maroon spot on my white tee shirt.
Now, how the hell did that get there?
Oh… Oh, no!
Agony ricocheted through me, arching my spine and buckling my knees under me. Every nerve in my body was alive and struggling to alert my brain to the damage done to my torso, but my brain couldn’t comprehend it all. The ground rushed up to meet me, my head slammed hard against the mud. Eyes heavy and throat closing, I focused in on two sets of feet rushing closer.
“Oh shit! Look at what you did, Rusty! I told you to give me the gun!”
“You’re the one who said Todd Mansion was safe! ‘No one ever comes here,’ that’s what you said!”
They bickered amongst themselves as my muscles relaxed and my vision darkened. Every molecule gave into the inevitable situation. I was dying. This was it. It was over.
“Charlie,” Rebecca said, suddenly right behind me. She must have come back inside while I stumbled my clumsy way down memory lane. “Are you okay?”
“Is it my body?” I asked even though I already knew the answer.
“I think so. I’m going to call the police, alright?”
“Yeah. Sure. Police.” At least, I think that was what I sputtered at her. My mind was still trying to catch up on everything I’d forgotten. Who were Rusty and Jeremy? Why had they left me here? That’s when I remembered my first day as a ghost inside Todd Mansion. Sitting at this window, watching those two kids dig a hole and shove me into it.
Rebecca pulled out her cell phone and talked to the operator on the other end of 911 for a few minutes. They said they’d send out a car right away if Rebecca would wait.
“I remember how I died, Rebecca. Two kids were out in the field playing with their rifle. One shot me by accident.”
“Kids? What kids?”
Rusty and Jeremy. It would be so easy to say their names. But would it really matter? Rebecca wouldn’t be able to prove it was them, especially not if they got rid of the gun after I died. Part of me wanted to see them rot in jail, the little shits. The other part of me, the part that wanted to be the bigger man, realized that they probably didn’t know any better. They were kids, probably no older than Rebecca, and they made a mistake. No sense in ripping open old wounds. It would only do more harm that good. Deep down, all I wanted in the world was to see my bones returned to my family. I just wanted to be free. That was more important to me.
“It doesn’t matter,” I told her. “Just get me home, Rebecca. Promise me that.”
“I promise,” she said with a nod, tucking her hair behind her ears. “It’s okay, now. Your family will get closure. Everyone can move on.”
Move on. Was that what I wanted them to do? Move on? Forget about me? Had they already forgotten about me? From what Rebecca said, my sister hadn’t.
“Did you try to talk to Jessica?”
Rebecca shrugged and tucked one arm under the other elbow, which I took as a negative.
“Yeah, I suppose it wasn’t a good idea after all, was it? She probably wouldn’t believe you.”
A few quiet moments later, a police officer arrived and Rebecca showed them to my final resting spot. He gasped and covered his mouth, bending down to get a better look. When he convinced himself they were, in fact, human bones, he said something on that little radio thing on his shoulder. Rebecca stood next to him, petting the stray dog behind the ears. After that, some other people arrived and they carefully extracted each of my parts from the ground, digging and dusting with little archaeology tools.
“Wait a second,” one of them said, brushing and rubbing at a spot next to me. “What’s this?”
“Is that a second body?” the cop asked, walking closer with his hands on his hips.
A second body? What the hell?
“Looks like it,” the guy with the tools said. “Here, let me go deeper.” A few more moments passed. “Holy shit! Johnson, come take a look at this. This one’s older. A lot older.”
The atmosphere cracked right next to me and I jumped, gasping and clutching at my chest.
What the heck was that?
“Hello,” he said, his tone deep and thick with a southern accent. “I’m Phillip.”
He extended his hand toward me, which I hesitantly took and gave a firm shake.
Wow. The sensation of touching someone again shot through me, jolting a shiver up and down my arms. Could a ghost get goose bumps?
“Sorry to burst your bubble,” I told him. “But Martha’s not here, either.”
He smirked and stepped forward, coming inline with me to look out the window. “Martha’s run off with a Yankee, right? Or was it the milk man? It changes everyday.”
“You heard all that?”
“I wanted to talk to you, too. I wanted to break the cycle,” he said. “But I could not stop. I did not know how.”
“They found our bodies,” I said, nodding to the window.
“I think that is what finally shook me out of it. I guess I have you to thank for that.”
“Hey, don’t thank me. I got shot and the Boneheads who did it just happened to bury me next to you.”
“You got shot, too?”
“Yeah,” I groaned. “Long story. Wait for the movie.”
Oh. Right. Guess Soldier Boy wasn’t really around for silents and talkies, huh?
“Never mind. Hey! We both got shot, how about that? Who shot you?”
“Martha’s father. He did not want his daughter marrying a rebel.”
“Figures,” I said with a chuckle. “Damn Yankees.”
“So, what happens now?” he asked.
“I don’t know. You tell me. You’ve been a ghost a lot longer than I have.”
He didn’t answer, just glanced at me with those green puppy dog eyes that begged for my kindness, whatever little I had left. I decided I’d be lenient, considering we were ghosts together and all.
“I suppose I’ll be taken to my family and you’ll be put in a military cemetery somewhere.”
Phillip frowned and didn’t seem to like that answer very much, so I grabbed his hand again and took a deep breath. “We could try to move on, if you wanted.”
“Yeah. To the next… whatever.”
He raised an eyebrow with an inquisitive look. “Do you mean heaven?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know. Wherever it is that ghosts go when they move on.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, giving my hand a tight squeeze. “Yeah. Okay.”
Something about having Phillip by my side made leaving easier, maybe even less frightening. Sure, I’d only just officially met him, but I felt like I knew him personally. Fate had buried us next to each other and that told me we were supposed to face this together. We’d make it through whatever else the afterlife had to offer… together.
Rebecca chose that moment to glance back toward the window, making eye contact with me. As if she knew precisely what was happening inside, she gave me a small wave and a wide smile, which I returned with my free hand.
Tingles radiated over my skin, seeming to sink into my very soul. A weight lifted off my chest—a weight I’d never even know was there. I had no idea where we were headed or what we’d find when we got there, but I hoped for hair dye and a hot shower.