You can hear me, can’t you?”
I punched the green print button on the copier to drown out the disembodied voice. Sometimes if I ignored them long enough, they went away—confused, discouraged, and lonelier than ever. Sometimes.
Okay, almost never. Usually they got louder.
No time to deal with it that day. Only one more set of legal briefs to unstaple, copy, and restaple, and then I could go home, trade this straitjacket and stockings for a T-shirt and jeans, and make it to Logan’s before practice. To tell him I’m sorry, that I’ve changed my mind, and this time I mean it. Really.
“I know you can hear me.” The old woman’s voice strengthened as it came closer. “You’re one of them.”
I didn’t flinch as I grabbed the top brief from the stack on the conference room table. I couldn’t see her under the office’s bright fluorescent lights, which made it about one percent easier to pretend she wasn’t there.
Someday, if I had my way, none of them would be there.
“What an intolerably rude child,” she said.
I yanked the staple out of the last brief and let it zing off in an unknown direction, trying to hurry without looking like I was hurrying. If the ghost knew I was getting ready to leave, she’d spit out her story, no invitation. I carefully laid the pages in the sheet feeder and hit print again.
“You can’t be more than sixteen.” The lady’s voice was close, almost at my elbow. “So you were born hearing us.”
I didn’t need her to remind me how ghosts’ ramblings had drowned out my mother’s New Agey lullabies. (According to Aunt Gina, Mom thought the old-fashioned ones were too disturbing—“down will come baby, cradle and all.” But when dead people are bitching and moaning around your crib at all hours, the thought of falling out of a tree is so not a source of angst.)
Worst part was, those lullabies were all I remembered of her.
“Come on,” I nagged the copier under my breath, resisting the urge to kick it.
The piece of crap picked that moment to jam.
“Shit.” I clenched my fist, driving the staple remover tooth into the pad of my thumb. “Ow! Damn it.” I sucked the pinpoint of blood.
“Language.” The ghost sniffed. “When I was your age, young ladies wouldn’t have heard such words, much less murdered the mother tongue with …” Blah blah … kids these days … blah blah … parents’ fault… blah.
I jerked open the front of the copier and searched for the stuck paper, humming a Keeley Brothers song to cover the ghost’s yakking.
“They cut me,” she said quietly.
I stopped humming, then blew out a sigh that fluttered my dark bangs. Sometimes there’s no ignoring these people.
I stood, slamming the copier door. “One condition. I get to see you.”
“Absolutely not,” she huffed.
“Wrong answer.” I rounded the table and headed for the switches by the conference room door.
“Please, you don’t want to do that. The way they left me—”
I flipped off the light and turned on the BlackBox.
“No!” The ghost streaked toward me in a blaze of violet. She stopped two inches from my face and let out a shriek that scraped against all the little bones in my ears.
Cringing? Not an option. I crossed my arms, then calmly and slowly extended my middle finger.
“This is your last warning.” Her voice crackled around the edges as she tried to frighten me. “Turn on the light.”
“You wanted to talk. I don’t talk to ghosts I can’t see.” I touched the BlackBox switch. “Sucks to be trapped, huh? That’s how I feel, listening to you people all day.”
“How dare you?” The woman slapped my face, her fingers curled into claws. Her hand passed through my head without so much as a breeze. “After all I’ve been through. Look at me.”
I tried to check her out, but she was trembling so hard with anger, her violet lines kept shifting into one another. It was like trying to watch TV without my contacts.
“Those shoes are beyond last year,” I said, “but other than that, you look fine.”
The ghost glanced down at herself and froze in astonishment. Her pale hair—gray in life, I assumed—was tied in a bun, and she wore what looked like a ruffle-lapelled suit and low-heeled pumps. Your basic country-club queen. Probably found her own death positively scandalous.
“I haven’t seen myself in the dark.” She spoke with awe. “I assumed I would be …” Her hand passed over her stomach.
I felt my eyes soften. “You were murdered?” With old people it was usually a heart attack or stroke. But it explained her rage.
She scowled at me. “Well, it certainly wasn’t suicide.”
“I know.” My voice turned gentle as I remembered to be patient. Sometimes these poor souls didn’t know what to expect, despite all the public awareness campaigns since the Shift. The least I could do was clarify. “If you’d killed yourself, you wouldn’t be a ghost, because you would’ve been prepared to die. And you’re not all carved up because you get frozen in the happiest moment of your life.”
She examined her clothes with something close to a smile, maybe remembering the day she wore them, then looked up at me with a sudden ferocity. “But why?”
I ditched the patience. “How the hell should I know?” I flapped my arms. “I don’t know why we see you at all. No one knows, okay?”
“Listen to me, young lady.” She pointed her violet finger in my face. “When I was your age—”
“When you were my age, the Shift hadn’t happened yet. Everything’s different now. You should be grateful someone can hear you.”
“I shouldn’t be—this way—at all.” She clearly couldn’t say the word “dead.” “I need someone to make it right.”
“So you want to sue.” One of my aunt Gina’s specialties: wrongful death litigation. Gina believes in “peace through justice.” She thinks it helps people move past ghosthood to whatever’s beyond. Heaven, I guess, or at least someplace better than Baltimore.
Weird thing is, it usually works, though no one knows exactly why. But unfortunately, Gina—my aunt, guardian, and godmother—can’t hear or see ghosts. Neither can anyone else born before the Shift, which happened sixteen and three-quarters years ago. So when Gina’s firm gets one of these cases, guess who gets to translate? All for a file clerk’s paycheck.
“My name is Hazel Cavendish,” the lady said. “I was one of this firm’s most loyal clients.”
Ah, that explained how she got here. Ghosts can only appear in the places they went during their lives. No one knows why that is, either, but it makes things a lot easier on people like me.
She continued without prompting. “I was slaughtered this morning outside my home in—”
“Can you come back Monday?” I checked my watch in ex-Hazel’s violet glow. “I have to be somewhere.”
“But it’s only Thursday. I need to speak to someone now.” Her fingers flitted over the string of pearls around her neck. “Aura, please.”
I stepped back. “How do you know my name?”
“Your aunt talked about you all the time, showed me your picture. Your name is hard to forget.” She moved toward me, her footsteps silent. “So beautiful.”
My head started to swim. Uh-oh.
Vertigo in a post-Shifter like me usually means a ghost is turning shade. They go down that one-way path when they let bitterness warp their souls. It has its advantages—shades are dark, powerful spirits who can hide in the shadows and go anywhere they want.
Anywhere, that is, but out of this world. Unlike ghosts, shades can’t pass on or find peace, as far as we know. And since they can single-handedly debilitate any nearby post-Shifters, “detainment” is the only option.
“I really have to go,” I whispered, like I’d hurt ex-Hazel less if I lowered the volume. “A few days won’t matter.”
“Time always matters.”
“Not for you.” I kept my voice firm but kind. “Not anymore.”
She moved so close, I could see every wrinkle on her violet face.
“Your eyes are old,” she hissed. “You think you’ve seen everything, but you don’t know what it’s like.” She touched my heart with a hand I couldn’t feel. “One day you’ll lose something important, and then you’ll know.”
I ran for the car, my work shoes clunking against the sidewalk and rubbing blisters on my ankles. No time to stop home to change before going to Logan’s. Should’ve brought my clothes with me, but how could I have known there’d be a new case?
I’d wussed out, of course, and let the old woman tell my aunt her nasty death story. The ghost was angry enough that I worried about what she’d do without immediate attention. “Shading” was still pretty rare, especially for a new ghost like ex-Hazel, but it wasn’t worth the risk.
The leafy trees lining the street made it dark enough to see ghosts even an hour before sunset. Half a dozen were loitering outside the day care center in the mansion across the street. Like most of the buildings in the Roland Park area, Little Creatures Kiddie Care was completely BlackBoxed—its walls lined with the same thin layer of charged obsidian that kept ghosts out of sensitive areas. Bathrooms, military base buildings, that sort of thing. I wish Gina and I could afford to live there—Roland Park, I mean, not a military base.
I stopped for a giant Coke Slurpee and guzzled it on my way toward I-83, wincing at the brain freeze. I usually prefer to use the spoon end of the straw, but after ex-Hazel’s intake session, I desperately needed the massive caffeine-sugar infusion that only pure, bottom-of-the-cup Slurpee syrup could provide.
The long shadows of trees cut across the road, and I kept my eyes forward so I wouldn’t see the ghosts on the sidewalks.
Lot of good it did. At the last stoplight before the expressway, a little violet kid waved from the backseat of the car in front of me. His lips were moving, forming words I couldn’t decipher. An older girl next to him clapped her hands over her ears, her blond pigtails wagging back and forth as she shook her head. The parents in the front seats kept talking, oblivious or maybe just unable to deal. They should trade in that car, I thought, while that poor girl still has her sanity.
The on-ramp sloped uphill into the sunshine, and I let out a groan of relief, gnawing the end of my straw.
After almost seventeen years of hearing about grisly murders and gruesome accidents, you’d think I’d be tough, jaded. You’d think that ghosts’ tendency to over-share would eventually annoy instead of sadden me.
And you’d be right. Mostly. By the time I was five, I’d stopped crying. I’d stopped having nightmares. I’d stopped sleeping with the lights on so I wouldn’t see their faces. And I’d stopped talking about it, because by that point the world believed us. Five hundred million toddlers can’t be wrong.
But I never forgot. Their stories are shelved in my mind, neat as a filing system. Probably because I’ve recited many of them on the witness stand.
Courts don’t just take my word for it, or any one person’s. Testimony only counts if two of us post-Shifters agree on a ghost’s statement. Since ghosts apparently can’t lie, they make great witnesses. Last year, me and this terrified freshman translated for the victims of a psycho serial killer. (Remember Tomcat? The one who liked to “play with his food”?)
Welcome to my life. It gets better.
I pulled into Logan’s driveway at 6:40. I loved going to the Keeleys’ house—it sat in a Hunt Valley development that had been farmland only a few years before. Newer neighborhoods had way fewer ghosts, and I’d never seen one at the Keeleys’. At the time, anyway.
I checked my hair in the rearview mirror. Hopelessly well-groomed. I pawed through my bag to find a few funky little silver skull-and-crossbones barrettes, then pinned them into my straight dark brown hair to make it stick out in random places.
“Yeah, you look totally punk in your beige suit and sensible flats.” I made a face at myself in the mirror, then leaned closer.
Were my eyes really that old, like ex-Hazel said? Maybe it was the dark circles underneath. I licked my finger and wiped under my brown eyes to see if the mascara had smeared.
Nope. The gray shadows on my skin came from too little sleep and too much worrying. Too much rehearsing what I would say to Logan.
As I walked up the brick front path, I heard music blasting through the open basement window.
Late. I wanted to hurl my bag across the Keeleys’ lawn in frustration. Once Logan got lost in his guitar, he forgot I existed. And we really needed to talk.
I went in the front door without knocking, the way I had since we were six and the Keeleys lived around the block in a row home like ours. I hurried past the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the family room.
“Hey, Aura,” called Logan’s fifteen-year-old brother Dylan from his usual position, sprawled barefoot and bowlegged on the floor in front of the flat-screen TV. He glanced up from his video game, then did a double-take at the sight of my Slurpee cup. “Bad one?”
“Old lady, stabbed in a mugging. Semi-Shady.”
“Sucks.” He focused on his game, nodding in time to the metal soundtrack. “Protein drinks work better.”
“You bounce back your way, I’ll bounce my way.”
“Whatever.” His voice rose suddenly. “Noooo! Eat it! Eat it!” Dylan slammed his back against the ottoman and jerked the joystick almost hard enough to break it. As his avatar got torched by a flamethrower, he shrieked a stream of curses that told me his parents weren’t home. Mr. and Mrs. Keeley had apparently already left for their second honeymoon.
I opened the basement door, releasing a blast of guitar chords, then slipped off my shoes so I could walk downstairs without noise.
Halfway to the bottom, I peered over the banister into the left side of the unfinished basement. Logan was facing away from me, strumming his new Fender Stratocaster and watching his brother Mickey work out a solo. The motion of his shoulder blades rippled his neon green T-shirt, the one I’d bought him on our last trip to Ocean City.
When he angled his chin to check his fingers on the fret board, I could see his profile. Even with his face set in concentration, his sky blue eyes sparked with joy. Logan could play guitar in a sewer and still have fun.
Logan and Mickey were like yin and yang, inside and out. Logan’s spiky hair was bleached blond with black streaks, while Mickey’s was black with blond streaks. Logan played a black guitar right-handed, and his brother a white one left-handed. They had the same lanky build, and lots of people thought they were twins, but Mickey was eighteen and Logan only seventeen (minus one day).
Their sister, Siobhan—Mickey’s actual twin—was sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of them, her fiddle resting against her left knee as she shared a cigarette with the bassist, her boyfriend, Connor.
My best friend, Megan, sat next to them, knees pulled to her chest. She wove a lock of her long, dark red hair through her fingers as she stared at Mickey.
The only one facing me was Brian, the drummer. He spotted me and promptly missed a beat. I cringed—he was sometimes brilliant, but he could be distracted by a stray dust ball.
Mickey and Logan stopped playing and turned to Brian, who adjusted the backward white baseball cap on his head in embarrassment.
“Jesus,” Mickey said, “is it too much to ask for a fucking backbeat?”
“Sorry.” Brian twirled his stick in his thick hand, then pointed it at me. “She’s here.”
Logan spun around, and I expected a glare for interrupting—not to mention leftover hostility from last night’s fight. Instead his face lit up.
“Aura!” He swept the strap over his head, handed his guitar to Mickey, and leaped to meet me at the bottom of the stairs. “Oh my God, you won’t believe this!” He grabbed me around the waist and hoisted me up. “You will not believe this.”
“I will, I swear.” I wrapped my arms around his neck, grinning so hard it hurt. Clearly he wasn’t mad at me. “What’s up?”
“Hang on.” Logan lowered me to the floor, then spread my arms to examine my suit. “They make you wear this to work?”
“I didn’t have time to change.” I gave him a light punch in the chest for torturing me. “So what won’t I believe?”
“Siobhan, get her some clothes,” he barked.
“Choice,” she said. “Say please or kiss my ass.”
“Please!” Logan held up his hands. “Anything to keep your ass in the safe zone.”
Siobhan gave Connor her cigarette and got to her feet. As she passed me, she squeezed my elbow and said, “Boy thinks he’s a rock god just because some label people are coming to the show tomorrow.”
My mind spun as it absorbed my biggest hope and fear. “Is she kidding?” I asked Logan.
“No,” he growled. “Thanks for blowing the surprise, horse face!” he yelled as she slouched up the stairs, snickering.
I tugged on his shirt. “Who’s coming?”
“Get this.” He gripped my shoulders. “A and R dudes from two different companies. One’s an independent—Lianhan Records—”
“That’s the one we want,” Mickey interjected.
“—and the other is Warrant.”
I gasped. “I’ve heard of Warrant.”
“Because they’re part of a major, major, major humongous label.” Logan’s eyes rolled up in ecstasy, like God himself was handing out record contracts.
“We’ll use Warrant to make Lianhan jealous,” Mickey added. “But we’re not selling out.”
Logan pulled me to the back side of the stairs, where the others couldn’t see us. “This could be it,” he whispered. “Can you believe it? It’d be the most amazing birthday present ever.”
I steadied my breath so I could get the words out. “Hopefully not the best present.”
“You mean the Strat from my folks?”
“Not that, either.” I reached up under the back of his T-shirt and let my fingers graze his warm skin.
“Is it something you—wait.” His eyes widened, making the silver hoop in his brow glint in the overhead light. “Are you saying—”
“Yep.” I stood on tiptoe and kissed him, quick but hard. “I’m ready.”
His gold-tipped lashes flickered, but he angled his chin to look at me sideways. “You said that before.”
“I said a lot of things before. Some of them were stupid.”
“Yeah, they were.” His eyes crinkled, softening his words. “You know I’d never leave you over this, either way. How could you even think that?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Me too.” He traced my jaw with his thumb, which always made me shiver. “I love you.”
He kissed me then, drowning my doubts in one warm, soft moment. Doubts about him, about me, about him and me.
“Here you go!” Siobhan called from the stairs, a moment before a clump of denim and cotton fell on our heads. “Oops,” she said with fake surprise.
I peeled the jeans off Logan’s shoulder and held them up in salute. “Thanks, Siobhan.”
“Back to work!” rang Mickey’s voice from the other side of the basement.
Logan ignored his brother and gazed into my eyes. “So … maybe tomorrow night, at my party?” He hurried to add, “Only if you’re sure. We could wait, if you—”
“No.” I could barely manage a whisper. “No more waiting.”
His lips curved into a smile, which promptly faded. “I better clean my room. There’s like a one-foot path through all the old Guitar Worlds and dirty laundry.”
“I can walk on a one-foot path.”
“Screw that. I want it to be perfect.”
“Hey!” Mickey yelled again, louder. “What part of ‘back to work’ is not in English?”
Logan grimaced. “We’re switching out some of our set list—less covers, more original stuff. Probably be up all night.” He gave me a kiss that was quick but full of promise. “Stay as long as you want.”
He disappeared around the stairs, and immediately Megan replaced him at my side.
“Did you make up? You did, didn’t you?”
“We made up.” I sat on the couch to remove my stockings, checking over my shoulder to make sure the guys were out of sight on the other side of the stairs. “I told him I’m ready.”
Megan slumped next to me and rested her elbow on the back of the sofa. “You don’t think you have to say that to keep him, do you?”
“It’s something I want too. Anyway, who cares, as long as it works?”
“You know what it’s like, going to their gigs.” My whisper turned to a hiss. “Seeing all those girls who’d probably pay to get naked with Mickey or Logan. Or even with Brian or Connor.”
“But the guys aren’t like that—well, maybe Brian is, but he doesn’t have a girlfriend. Mickey loves me. Logan loves you.”
“So?” I slipped on the jeans. “Plenty of rock stars have wives and girlfriends, and they still screw their groupies. It comes with the territory.”
“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” she said in her best Darth Vader impression, forcing a smile out of me.
I unbuttoned my white silk blouse. “What should I wear?”
“Same stuff as always, on the outside. That’s the way he likes you.” Megan snapped the strap of my plain beige bra. “But definitely do better than this underneath.”
“Duh,” was my only response as I slipped Siobhan’s black-and-yellow Distillers T-shirt over my head. I’d made a covert trip to Victoria’s Secret weeks before—the one way up in Owings Mills, where no one would recognize me. The matching black lace bra and underwear were still in the original bag, with their tags on, in the back of my bottom dresser drawer.
“The first time doesn’t have to suck,” she said, “not if you go slow.”
“Okay,” I said quickly, in a deep state of not wanting to talk about it.
Luckily, at that moment Brian tapped his sticks to mark time, and the band launched into one of their original tunes, “The Day I Sailed Away.”
The Keeley Brothers wanted to be the premier Irish-flavored rock band in Baltimore. Maybe one day go national, become the next Pogues, or at least the next Flogging Molly, with a heavy dose of American skate-punk ’tude.
As Logan began to sing, Megan’s face reflected my bliss and awe. With that voice leading the way, the Keeley Brothers didn’t have to be the next anyone.
Two record labels. I closed my eyes, ignoring the way my stomach turned to lead, and savored the sound that Megan and I would soon have to share with the world.
I knew then that everything would change the next night. It was like time had folded in on itself, and I could remember the future.
A future I already hated.
© 2010 Jeri Smith-Ready