“In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad.”
The Blue Line “L” train rolls toward downtown Chicago, and I point my face at my phone so it doesn’t look like I’m staring at the two weirdos sitting across from me. Even though I am.
“My old roommate . . . now he was a rat bastard,” says Comb-Over Al. “One time he borrowed my boat without even asking, you know. My boat!”
In the seat beside him, Stanley the Stinger grunts.
Comb-Over Al, as I’ve named him, has dyed the last few hairs on his head so freaking dark that it’s like he used India ink, and his furry gut is hanging out from beneath a stained white T-shirt. Beside him is this wrinkly old guy in a pinstriped suit and matching hat. I assume he’s a retired hit man and decide to call him Stanley the Stinger. In a movie, he’d be the guy you called to get things done. Comb-Over Al would be his bumbling assistant who eventually screws the whole thing up.
“He’s lucky he didn’t screw me out of one more dime,” Al continues, spittle spraying from his mouth. “Because he worked down at the funeral home, ya know. And he’d talk when he got home. I mean, the jag-off would talk, ya know. And I remember every date, every stiff, every amount! Fuck.”
Stanley the Stinger grunts again.
Life must have been weird down at Comb-Over Al’s place. I imagine him sitting on a cracked leather couch, eating sardines out of a can and watching bowling on television when his roommate blows in, saying, “Boy oh boy! I will always remember this, July seventeenth, as the day I stole $47.50 out of the pockets of the corpse of Hank Jamrag. Now I’m gonna take your boat across the lake to Gary, Indiana, to spend it!”
There is no better people-watching on the planet than on the Blue Line, which starts in Forest Park, where I live, and goes East through downtown Chicago before looping back west to the airport. The Red, Orange, and Brown Line trains have better views out the window, and the Green Line has more entertaining panhandlers, but the Blue Line is the weirdest. I have no idea why, but almost every time I ride it, the other passengers are a regular carnival of grotesques, ghouls, and freaks of nature.
I seriously don’t know how people who live in small towns without public transportation cope.
Comb-Over Al and Stanley the Stinger get off at the Pulaski stop, presumably to go break somebody’s thumbs, and the train rumbles on while my phone buzzes with enough messages that I feel rather popular for a minute or so.
Zoey, my long-distance girlfriend, sends me a text to wish me luck at the job interview I’m heading into town for. Then Cynthia, my former babysitter (and possible future employer), sends me one to make sure I’m on my way. Mom asks if I’ll be home for dinner. I send a smiley face with its tongue out to Zoey, a “yep” to Cyn, and nothing to Mom.
I get along with Mom fine, but she’d flip out if she knew what I was doing tonight.
Our house is a two-story Victorian in Forest Park, a suburb close enough to Chicago that it’s basically still the city. The second floor is an apartment just about like any other, with cat-scratched furniture in the living room, Taco Bell wrappers on the floor, and prints from the Frank Lloyd Wright museum on the wall. But the first floor is the funeral parlor my mother owns. In the basement we have all the prep spaces.
Having lived above a funeral home all my life, I have reason to doubt Comb-Over Al’s story about his roommate. I’m pretty sure we never had any corpses brought in who had cash in their pockets. Al’s roommate probably worked in a morgue or something, and Al just didn’t know the difference.
The train goes underground when it comes to the Loop, the main downtown area. When I get off at the Clark and Lake stop and make my way upstairs and outside, I’m right in the middle of a dense forest of gothic towers, art deco skyscrapers, and glass hotels. The heart of the city. French-fry grease permeates the air and mingles with the aroma of freshly-baked brownies from the Blommer’s factory, which you can smell all over downtown.
Panhandlers panhandle. A guy plays passable jazz on a saxophone. Some drugged-up freak with a beard smacks his own ass like a prince whose villain put him under a “spank yourself” spell.
Chicago is roasting in the summer and freezing in the winter. It costs a buttload to live here, it’s run by criminals, and you see a lot of rats at night. But still. It’s Chicago. You either love it or you move out to one of those strip-mall towns in the outer suburbs and wait to die.
The fact that my house was a funeral parlor made it hard for Mom to keep babysitters for me when I was a kid. Mostly they just came to watch me upstairs while Mom worked below, but as soon as they saw a coffin, or followed me down when I went to check out a particularly rowdy funeral, they’d freak out and bolt. It was like they’d gotten clear into high school without ever being confronted with mortality before.
The one sitter who lasted a whole summer was named Cynthia Fargon.
Cyn was like a teenage version of Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid. She had the same body type, and her smile was always an evil smile. I was sort of smitten with her. She was seventeen or eighteen when I was eleven, but she swore in front of me like I was a fellow teenager, and I really appreciated that.
The funeral stuff didn’t bug her a bit. Even going into the basement prep room with me didn’t give her the creeps. She gave me some tips when Mom let me help with putting makeup on the bodies, which I loved doing even though it wasn’t entirely legal.
Cyn was also the one who introduced me to the joys of looking up rude words in the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which has the complete history of just about every word ever; the print edition is about forty volumes long with tiny type. One time we both got in trouble when everyone at a funeral downstairs heard us laughing at the term “gingerbread-office,” a sixteenth-century slang word for “bathroom” that we thought was hilarious.
Some of my other favorite words we found that year were:
podex (slang for “butt,” first recorded in 1601)
fore-buttocks (“boobs,” first recorded in 1727)
milky way (“boobs,” 1622)
suck-egg (“a silly person,” 1640)
mustard-token (“worthless person,” 1600)
I was sort of disappointed when Mom decided I was old enough not to need a sitter the next summer. I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly, and Cyn was just about the best friend I’d ever had. A friend who I knew wouldn’t freak out if she came over.
Now, seven years later, Cyn and her friend Ricardo have started a ghost tour company—one of those outfits that takes people around town, tells them scary stories, and lets them look for ghosts. She contacted me out of the blue and told me that being a funeral-home kid with some theater experience made me a perfect candidate to be a ghost-tour guide, so I’m going into the city now to meet Ricardo and ride along on a tour. But I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll end up with the job. My mother’s potential customers would probably go apeshit if they knew that someone in the house worked in the ghost business, and anyway, I don’t believe in ghosts.
The real reason I’m going is that I’m dying to hang out with Cynthia again
I’ve kept up with Cyn, off and on, over the years. Now and then we’ve texted back and forth about what we were doing, and whether the lack of raunchy historical slang terms for “sanitary napkin” in the OED was a sign of sexism or respect. But the last time I actually saw her was more than two years ago, when she came to a play I was in, and even then I only saw her for a second.
When I see her waiting for me on Clark Street, it’s the first time I’ve seen her without her hair dyed black—it’s more of a lunch-sack brown, which I guess is her natural color, and it’s even longer than it used to be. I don’t think I like it as much. Her skin seemed almost alabaster white next to black hair, but now it just looks like the color of a pale bus-station hot dog that you only eat half of.
I look different too, of course. Last time she saw me I was dressed as an old lady for a role in Arsenic and Old Lace. And the time before that I was just a kid.
“Holy shit!” Cyn says with a laugh, as I approach. When we hug, she runs her fingers through the red section of my hair that hangs just below my shoulders, beneath the dark brown.
“So, you’re all graduated and everything?” she asks.
“Yep. Last month.”
“Doing a couple of years at junior college to get the boring stuff out of the way cheap,” I say. “Did you finish your archaeology degree?”
She nods. “Not exactly using it, though. Just driving an excursion van at a nursing home by day, and the tour bus at night. And for this I have racked up six figures in student loans.”
“Seriously, if you can find something better to do than college, do it. I don’t know if working for us would make you enough of a living, but you never know. We’re working on some initiatives that could make this ghost tour thing a lot more lucrative.”
When you cross the Chicago River downtown, you’re out of the Loop proper and into a neighborhood called River North, which is mostly tourist traps. The Rock and Roll McDonald’s, a two-story cash cow on Clark Street, looms large before us. In the blocks approaching it, happy tourists in Ohio State University T-shirts walk five abreast. A guy with a giant nose tries to sell necklaces that I assume were stolen by orphans. A dude with a clipboard and some pencils offers to draw people’s portraits. A guy in a frog suit poses for photos outside of the Rainforest Cafe across the street.
“All tourist crap around here,” says Cyn. “And at night it turns into douchebag central. The McDonald’s isn’t really a McDonald’s so much as a place for nightclub refugees to pee. It’s also the city’s designated tour-bus parking spot, though, so here we are.”
A motley assortment of buses are queued up along the road. First we pass a black bus that says AL CAPONE TOURS on the front, then two sleek motor coaches that say DARKSIDE CHICAGO TOURS: GHOSTS, GANGSTERS, AND GHOULS. Then comes a double-decker sightseeing bus, and a rickety old school bus painted midnight blue with the words MYSTERIOUS CHICAGO: AUTHENTIC GHOST TOURS in yellow vinyl lettering. It brings up the rear of the group like it’s the Littlest Tour Bus trying to tag along with the big kids.
Standing in front of it is a young guy who looks like Houdini, only with darker skin and more facial hair: Ricardo. He’s talking with a couple of curious tourists in University of Georgia hats.
“We drive people around to murder sites, disaster sites, body dumps . . . all sorts of places that are supposed to be haunted,” he says. “We tell you the stories, then you get off the bus and see if any ghosts show up. It’s really the best way to discover the city. If you’re here on vacation, it’s the thing you’ll remember the most about your trip a year from now. Guaranteed.”
“Do y’all, like, have people jumping out from behind bushes and stuff?” asks the woman.
“Nothing of the kind! We are the authentic ghost-tour company. See, I got my start working for those other guys, and I can tell you right now, their stories aren’t anywhere close to accurate. We tell the truth here. It’s all meticulously researched.”
“How do you tell the truth on a ghost tour?” asks the guy. “Just tell people that ghosts aren’t real?”
Now Ricardo folds his clipboard up in his arms and gives the guy a very, very serious look. “Sir,” he says, “every time someone says ‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ there is a little ghost somewhere that falls down dead.”
“Uh, Rick?” says Cyn. “They’re already dead.”
“True,” says Ricardo, lightening right up. “So no harm, no foul, I guess. What do you say, folks?”
“Y’all are hilarious,” says the woman. “Maybe tomorrow night.”
And they walk away to take selfies in front of a bronze statue of Ronald McDonald.
“Hey,” says Cyn. “Did you notice she called you ‘y’all’ when there’s only one of you?”
He nods. “In the south, the plural form is ‘all y’all.’ ‘Y’all’ is singular.”
“Nice,” says Cyn. “Because we are large, we contain multitudes.”
“Don’t call me large,” says Ricardo. Then he looks at me and asks, “This your new recruit?”
“Yeah. Megan Henske,” says Cyn, as she puts her hand on my shoulder. “Megan, meet Ricardo Torre.”
“What’s up?” I ask.
He looks me up and down, like he’s checking to see if I have good birthing hips or something, then says, “What are you, like, eleven?”
“Eighteen,” I say.
“Rick, be nice,” says Cyn. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders. And she’s lived in a funeral home all her life, so you know she’s death-positive.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m a black-diaper baby.”
“I’m just fucking with you.” He laughs, waving a hand. “Much love. You look great. You know much about Chicago history?”
“Enough,” I say. “And I could learn more.”
“She’s good at researching things,” says Cyn. “She and I used to play on the OED all the time. She knows what a gingerbread-office is.”
“And a thunder-mug,” I add.
Rick looks at Cyn, then at me, and asks, “What is it?”
“A chamber pot.”
He nods thoughtfully, then says, “What about ghosts? You know much about ghosts?”
“Well, I hate to make one fall down dead, but I don’t really believe in them.”
He seems to loosen up when I say that; he stops leaning forward and lets his shoulders fall back.
“That’s actually good,” he says. “We tried out a couple of people who were hardcore believers, and it didn’t go well. We had this one guy who kept waving holy water around and saying he was helping ghosts ‘cross over.’ I was like, ‘Dude, you’re an adult.’ ”
“Not to mention you kind of need ghosts to stick around, not cross over, right?” I ask.
“Exactly!” He points at me and nods to Cyn, like he’s saying, Well done, scout.
“Ghosts are real, though,” says Cyn. “Rick and I used to know one back home in Magwitch Park. She didn’t look nearly spooky enough to be a tour attraction, though. Just like a regular person.”
“And her being real doesn’t mean every ghost story is real,” says Rick. “One percent, tops. For all I know she’s the only one.”
“So you never see ghosts on the tours?”
“We see some weird stuff. I couldn’t swear they were really dead people in front of a panel of scientists. But some weird stuff.”
A few more tourists walk up and start asking Rick a question, and Cyn leads me away.
“Come on,” she says. “Let me show you the bus.”
The seats in the Mysterious Chicago bus are half duct-tape, and two of the windows are cracked, but the ceiling is really cool—they’ve painted a giant map of the city with markers, showing famous disaster sites, the dens of various antique serial killers, and old neighborhood names like “Little Hell” and “Satan’s Mile.” A few of the landmarks are jokes, like “South Side: Birthplace of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Rick and Cynthia’s Apartment.”
I wipe a smear from a window with my sleeve. “So, are you and Rick . . . you know?”
She glances at the back of his head through the window in a way that makes me think he’s her unrequited love, but she says, “Sometimes we are, sometimes we aren’t. Sometimes we aren’t but we still sleep together. It’s complicated.”
“What about you? You seeing anyone?”
“Not exactly seeing, but I have a long-distance thing with a girl in Arizona.”
Just as I say that, as if by telepathy, Zoey sends me another “good luck” text and a drawing of me dressed as a Disney villain, summoning lighting and thunder from the balcony of my castle.
I would have preferred a picture of her, but she’s really paranoid about that sort of thing. She’s never sent a photo, or done a voice chat, or anything like that.
Which, of course, means that there’s a pretty good chance that she’s not who she says she is. Maybe she’s really a guy. My hunch is that she’s transgender and afraid to tell me, even though I’ve told her again and again that I’ll be okay with anything she is. All things being equal, I think I like girls the best, but you know how you automatically go for chocolate over vanilla most of the time, except sometimes it’s a choice between a smooth, creamy vanilla made with real vanilla beans and some crummy dollar-store chocolate that tastes like chalk, and then you’re like, “well, I guess vanilla this time?” And sometimes there’s strawberry, too, and that just fucks the whole thing up? It’s like that.
All I care about is that Zoey gets me. She loves my fan-fic stories instead of being freaked out by them—even the darker stuff that I worry is going to make her run off screaming. And if I follow in Mom’s footsteps as a funeral-home owner, that won’t scare her off either. From previous crushes and aborted attempts at relationships, I’ve learned that people putting up with your weirdness is important.
And really, really hard to find.
Long-distance invisible girlfriends might be all I ever get.
While I answer Zoey’s message, I look at the pictures that are set up in the space above the bus windows and below the map on the ceiling. They’re shots of what I guess are supposed to be ghosts—odd shadows and blurry, vaguely humanoid forms glowing in alleys, stairwells, and dead-end streets.
“You get these shots on the tours?”
“Most of them. We only get a picture that I’m really impressed with every now and then. Even with most of these, we know what they really are, and we’re pretty up front about it. That shot that looks like a guy in a hooded robe on the staircase is really just a reflection of Rick’s ear.”
I can think of good explanations for most of the pictures without much effort. The rest could just be outright fakes, but that doesn’t seem like Rick and Cyn’s style. And I appreciate that. I’d been thinking I’d have to tell people that pictures of their flash bouncing off of windows are actually “spirits” on this job. If I don’t, the gig is a lot more attractive to me.
I take an empty seat up front as customers start checking in. When the bus is about a third full, Cyn gets in the driver’s seat and tests the microphone.
“So, what do you guys wanna see?” she asks.
“Ghosts?” someone asks, like they aren’t quite sure.
“Ghosts!” says Cyn. “Perfect. Now, who brought someone we can murder?”
People chuckle, but not enthusiastically. They all seem like they’re tired from a long day at Navy Pier and the Hard Rock Cafe, or whatever tourist places they’ve been to.
One girl holds up three fingers, Hunger Games–style, and says, “I volunteer as tribute.”
“You can’t volunteer yourself as a victim,” says Cyn. “That makes it a suicide, not a murder. We’ve gotta control these variables. That’s science. Look it up.” Then she sits down and ties her hair into a low ponytail.
While we wait for the last couple of people with reservations to arrive, Rick comes onboard, takes the mic, and starts warming the crowd up, making friends with everyone.
“Did you all see this in the news?” he asks, holding up one of those free weekly papers. “Someone broke into President James Garfield’s tomb in Cleveland and stole a dozen commemorative spoons. Spoons! Who gets buried with spoons? And who busts into a tomb and steals a bunch of spoons?”
“Maybe they aren’t really spoons,” I suggest.
“What else would they be?”
He puts the mic in front of me, and I take it.
“Maybe some stormy night, an old woman showed up at the White House and offered President Garfield one single rose for shelter,” I say. “And when he sent her away, she turned his staff into flatware, so whoever stole them was just, like, rescuing them. And now the cops will never find the spoons, because they’re human again.”
Ricardo’s face breaks into a grin. “Okay. You, I like,” he says.
A minute later the last parties show up, and it’s time to get going. Rick introduces Cyn as “ ‘Switchblade’ Cynthia Fargon, my roommate, my oldest friend, and the best damn driver in the city.” Then he says “All right, you guys wanna go see something scary, or what?”
“Yeah!” people shout.
“All right, Cyn. We’re gonna start out at the men’s room of the Greyhound station.”
“After that, we’re going to your house.”
“It’s your house too, doinkus,” says Cyn. “Screw your courage to the sticking place, team.”
And he navigates us out from behind the DarkSide buses, down Clark Street, and toward the Loop. The guy in the frog suit at Rainforest Cafe waves as we pass.
Just Kill Me
Megan Henske isn’t one to heed warnings…
When the last letters in her alphabet cereal are D, I, and E, she doesn’t crawl right back into bed.
When her online girlfriend won’t text a photo, she just sends more of herself.
And when she realizes that Cynthia, her boss at a Chicago ghost tour company, isn’t joking about making stops more haunted by euthanizing people there, she doesn’t quit her job—she may even help.
But soon she learns people in the murdermonger industry are being murdered, and doesn’t know who it is doing it. Could it be the head of the rival tour company? Or could it be someone near and dear to Megan?
After she realizes she has an uncanny resemblance to a flapper who disappeared in 1922, Megan receives a warning she can’t ignore: the next ghost on the tour might be her…
- Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers |
- 336 pages |
- ISBN 9781481434942 |
- August 2016 |
- Grades 9 and up