Ghosts

I’m dead.

I know what you’re thinking: teenage drama. Now you’re expecting me to say that I missed curfew, or failed math class, and my parents are going to kill me. I wish.

I’ve been gone for almost a year. I don’t know why they call it “gone.” I’m still here. We’re all still here. Sure, there are a few who move on, or transcend, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t know what actually happens to them. They just sort of fade away, and they seem pretty happy about it. But they’re usually the ones who have been hanging around for a long, long time.

As for the rest of us, there seem to be three kinds. There’s the ones like me, I guess we’re what you’d call normal. We’re dealing with being dead and trying to get on with it.

Then there’s the depressed ones. They usually do lots of moaning and wailing and stuff, and sometimes they just lay down and cry. Like, for years.

Most don’t like to be around the living. They tend to gather in wooded areas or creepy abandoned buildings—anywhere they won’t find a crowd of living people—and just kind of hang out and be dead together.

And then there are the happy ones. Not a good kind of happy, like “yeah, I can be happy even though I’m dead,” but happy like they’re glad they’re dead. They seem to enjoy it too much. They … do things. I try to stay away from those ones. I don’t see too many dead people at all, in fact. Most don’t like to be around the living. They tend to gather in wooded areas or creepy abandoned buildings—anywhere they won’t find a crowd of living people—and just kind of hang out and be dead together.

Shawn is waking up now. I stand. I’ve been sitting on the floor watching him sleep all night. Just watching. Ghosts don’t need to sleep. We don’t really need to sit, either. I guess it’s just a habit.

He’s mad. Shawn’s always mad when he has to wake up. He slaps the button on the alarm and turns his back to it, but it’s only a few seconds before he rolls back over and sits up. School today.

He runs a hand over his face. He stands up—sadly, the best part of most of my days, because Shawn is shirtless—and pulls on a pair of track pants. He puts the quarter into his pocket. I’ve never seen him without the quarter.

I stand in the hallway while he showers and inspect my ghost nails. I was always a nail-biter. I miss it.

I also miss Froot Loops, which Shawn devours for breakfast. He’s late, and he only eats half the bowlful before running out the door. I stare longingly at the cereal as I follow him. It’s been so long since I ate anything.

The drive to school is quiet. Sometimes, when I was alive, several of us would pile into Shawn’s crappy old Toyota and crank up the radio. The speakers always sounded terrible, but then again so did our singing. But now Shawn never turns on the radio. I wonder why.

Shawn gets to homeroom just in time, sliding into his seat as the last bell rings. We used to have homeroom together, which I loved because I sat one row over and one seat back from him, so it was easy for me to stare at him all period. But that was last year. When I was alive.

School is just as boring as it was when I was alive, too, so I decide to take a break from my self-appointed guardian angel duties and go see my family. I nod to the other dead people in the room—they’re auditing—and duck out the door.

After I died, Mom got a job for the first time, like, ever. She works in the school office now, and if that had happened when I was alive, I would have died of embarrassment. So basically, I would be dead now either way.

Mom looks … better. At least, she seems to be sleeping again. I don’t think she slept for months after I died. I watch her enter some grades into the computer (holy crap, Lila is getting a D in geometry!), and when I’m tired of that I wander over to Sophie’s English class. Sophie and I were always really close growing up. She’s only thirteen months older than me (geez, Mom and Dad, couldn’t you control yourselves?), so we shared a lot of stuff when we were younger. Like, a LOT of stuff: clothes, bikes, a bathroom. However, I would never have shared the trashy clothes Sophie is wearing today. Since I’ve been gone, she’s kind of turned into a slut.

I go back out into the hallway. Amelia is there. I haven’t seen her since she jumped off the overpass in ninth grade and got run over by that semi-truck. I still remember it because the school brought in counselors for “friends of the deceased.” Some jerks who didn’t even know Amelia went to the counselors just to get out of class. I almost ask her why she suddenly came back to the school, but she crosses the other end of the hallway despondently and disappears around a corner. Ugh. Definitely one of the depressed ones.

After thinking about it, I decide not to go clear downtown to visit my dad. He never went out of his way to pay attention to me when I was alive, so I usually return the favor these days. Besides, the bell is about to ring and Shawn will be headed to lunch with all our friends. I go to the cafeteria and stand by our usual table.

Everybody seems to come through the doors at once, bottlenecking like salmon at spawning time. They all laugh and talk while they get their food, but Shawn seems to mostly watch these days. I always remember him being the center of everything when I was alive, but not anymore. Of course, that could just be because I’ve been in love with him for the last three years. Maybe he only seemed like the center of attention because he was the center of my attention. He still is, as evidenced by the intense focus I have while watching him mess with the quarter. He has taken it out of his pocket, which he does like a hundred times a day, and is turning it over and over in his fingers. I still don’t know why he does it.

After I died, I loved following everybody to lunch. To see what they would say about me, you know. It was always, “Yeah, she was awesome,” and “I totally miss her, too.” Don’t judge me ok, if you can’t enjoy all the nice things people say about you, what good is being dead? But they haven’t talked about me in a long time. I mean, I can’t say I blame them. But I still listen, just in case.

I stick with Shawn for his last two classes, because they’re art, which I always kinda liked while I was still, you know, breathing, and computers, which I don’t mind because I can go around and look at all the emails people are writing to each other when the teacher is on the other side of the room. Let me tell you, you can find out a lot of good gossip when you’re dead.

After school, Shawn gets in his car and pulls out of the parking lot. He didn’t even say goodbye to anyone as he walked out. He heads down Murphy Street, but going the wrong way. Oh, that’s right, he has an appointment with the shrink today. I hate Shawn’s shrink days, mostly because they’re totally boring for me, and because Shawn seems really depressed after his appointments.

While Shawn is in with the psychologist, I pace slowly around the waiting room, reading the covers of the same magazines that have been there for the last six months. Man, I wish I knew how to move physical objects like some of the other dead people do. They won’t teach anybody, though, and they get pretty pissed off if you ask. Even if I could turn the pages, though, I guess it might freak out the receptionist just a bit.

I sigh and glance at the clock. We’ve only been here for fifteen minutes? I’m so bored I might die again. For the millionth time since I started watching out for Shawn, I resist the temptation to peek in on his session with the shrink.

I hear them coming before I see them. The happy ones usually sound drunk—they’re loud and stupid and lumber around like they’re so important. These ones sound louder and stupider than usual. I start to panic. I definitely don’t want to be wherever they are going. But I can’t leave Shawn here with them. A lot of the happy ones can move things, and sometimes they hurt the living. And even if they decide not to hurt a person, they can still scare the crap out of him.

They’re louder now, obviously heading down the hallway of the professional building toward Dr. Fielding’s office. I hesitate for a second longer, and then glide smoothly into the room where Shawn and the shrink are.

They don’t see me come in, of course, just like they don’t hear the nasty things those happy ones are saying about the receptionist in the lobby.

They don’t see me come in, of course, just like they don’t hear the nasty things those happy ones are saying about the receptionist in the lobby. I try to tune out the filth, and look around the office instead.

I’ve never been in this room before. It’s pretty boring, really, plain white walls with a plain brown desk and a plain blue couch that Shawn is sitting on the edge of. At least that part’s not boring or plain. Dr. Fielding sits across from Shawn on a shiny leather chair, the only nice thing in the room.

Shawn is fiddling with the quarter again, staring at it in silence. I listen to the clock tick by fourteen seconds, and then the shrink says, “Are you ready yet to tell me what the quarter means, Shawn?” Huh. So the good doctor doesn’t know either. Interesting.

Shawn sighs and leans back into the couch cushions. “Sure. I mean, I guess. What does it matter at this point, right?” He sighs again. “She gave it to me. We all went to the skate park, and I forgot to take my cell. So I asked to borrow hers. And she gave me this quarter and told me to go find a payphone. She was such a smart alec all the time. Then she winked at me, and said she was just kidding, I could use her phone, and to give her back her quarter. But I wouldn’t. She tried to get it out of my hand, she chased me down the street, she yelled for a constable—I mean, who does that?” He smiles just a little and shakes his head. “She died two weeks later. So, now you know.” And he slides the quarter back in his pocket.

Me. That she was me. I was the one who thumb-flipped a quarter at Shawn at the skate park, I was the one who ran down the road like a maniac and called for a constable. He still has my quarter? He takes my quarter out a hundred times a day to look at and touch?

“And what do we have here?”

I whirl and stare. Slipping through the door like a hot knife through butter are two of the happiest happy ones I’d ever seen. Even when they were living, these two must have been happy ones. They are big and ugly and tattooed. One has a huge nose, pockmarked and red even in death. The other still bears scars up and down his arms and neck—it looks like he spent his life fighting in bars with broken beer bottle weapons.

I shrink back into the corner. I can feel my back start to go through the wall. I’ve seen what happy ones like this can do. I edge backwards until only a bit of my face is still in the room and I hold very still.

The scarred one’s eyes narrow as he looks around. “That’s the kid.”

Big Nose’s eyebrow goes up. “What’s the kid?”

“That’s the kid who sent me to death row. I whacked his precious mom and made the mistake of letting him live to tell all about it. Now I’m going to finish it.”

“Wait,” says Big Nose, “You can’t do that. Can you? I mean, almost nobody can do that.” The disbelieving look on his face changes into a hungry look, a dark look. “Can you do it?”

“I can’t, okay? But I know someone who can.” He walks over behind Dr. Fielding and examines Shawn’s chart. “Stonebrook Lane. How quaint. I guess we know where you’ll be tonight, brat.” Scarred Guy goes over and crouches in front of Shawn, shoving his face up close so that their noses would be touching, if Scarred Guy’s nose could touch anything. Shawn doesn’t move. He’s listening to Dr. Fielding lecture him about “using his tools,” whatever that means. If I still had skin, it would be crawling right now.

Scarred Guy stands up and slips back through the door, calling to Big Nose to hurry up, and then they are gone.

I pull the rest of my face into the blackness of the wall and stay there for a long time. What do I do? What do I do? How do I stop two happy ones, plus another that can move things, from hurting Shawn? And … is that even what I want to do?

For a minute, I let myself see it all: spending forever together with Shawn, just the two of us in this invisible dead life. He wanted me, I know that now. We could hold ghosty hands, and find someplace nice to haunt together. I wouldn’t have to be invisible anymore.

But I brush it aside. I have to try to do something, I have to let him live. At least, that’s what I tell myself over and over again. No happy ever after for me, even in the afterworld. But I can make sure there is a happy ever after , or at least a happy most of the time after, for Shawn.

Finally, I pull myself out of the wall. I know now what I will do. I just hope I can pull it off. Shawn left a while ago. I waited too long and I missed my chance, there will be no zipping home in his car. I’ll have to get there on my own.

I missed my chance.

When I finally slip through the enormous bay window at the front of Shawn’s house, the sun is starting to set. I hope I’m not too late. I’ve spent way too much time sulking about this, and now I don’t have much time left to do what I hope I can do.

I head straight for Shawn’s bedroom. He and his dad are downstairs eating frozen dinners in front of the TV—don’t even get me started on how nasty that is—so he won’t be around to distract me. There is a pen on his desk, and I bend down over it. Now how do I make it move?

I start with getting mad. I think I saw that in a movie once: if you get a ghost mad enough, they can move stuff. I think of all the crap that makes me mad. I’m angry that my dad got over me being gone so fast. I’m freaking out that someone is trying to hurt Shawn. I am seriously pissed off that he liked me—loved me even, maybe—and I didn’t know it and now it’s too late.

But my fingers still glide right through the pen.

Then I try love. I squint my eyes shut and think about Mom, and Sophie, and Grandma, and Shawn, and even Dad. But the pen still doesn’t budge.

I try concentration. I try sneaking up on the pen. I even try blowing on it, which would be ridiculous, even if ghosts did have breath.

Finally, I glance at the ugly red numbers on the clock. It’s late, and I don’t know when the happy ones are going to be here. I have to move the pen, and I have to do it now. I pace up and down the room, pulling my ghost hair and blowing out nothing breaths. In desperation, I scream once. I whirl and sweep the pen to the floor. And it actually hits the floor. I moved it to the floor!

That’s the key. It’s desperation. I just have to want it bad enough, and I want this so bad. I glance at the clock again. Focusing all of my desire, I grab the pen and riffle through a drawer for some paper.

Five minutes later, I am done writing. I’m kind of surprised that I remembered how, it’s been so long. I don’t have time to be diplomatic about this, so I start throwing things. Not the best things, not the things Shawn loves, just the clock and some shoes and the mattress. A spelling bee trophy from the third grade goes through the sheetrock, and I hear Shawn and his dad pounding up the steps. I step back then and wait.

Now we are in Shawn’s dad’s truck. The pickup bed is full, and I sit quietly, happily, in the backseat as we hurtle down the highway.

Erin Jewkes had the longest list of books read in her entire first grade class. She has read—and written—quite a lot since then. She homeschools her four kids, with a little singing on the side for good measure. She writes the things that she wants to read, and the things that will make her family proud.