Authors: K.D. McEntire
Eddie glanced into the empty corner Wendy was glaring at and shrugged, uncomfortable. Their talk that morning had left both of them a little raw but Wendy was opening up, something she hadn't done since her mother's accident. He reached over and took her hand in his, saying nothing, rubbing her knuckles with his thumb. It seemed like the best course of action.
“You're a good friend, Eds,” she sighed, and slumped against the chair, leaning so her forehead rested against his shoulder. “The best friend a girl could have.”
Eddie tensed and then sighed, relaxing. “Thanks, Wendy,” he murmured, pressing a chaste kiss to her temple and bundling her close. “I'm glad to hear that.”
It was their habit, after school, to go to the Dew Drop Diner for dinner and wait for Chel to get off from cheerleading practice. The trip up to UCSF hadn't taken that long but the diner was packed by the time they arrived. The smells of hot coffee, sizzling bacon, and crisp seasoned fries were rich around them as Eddie slid into their regular booth, hogging up an entire side. Wendy nudged Jon's bulk over and tried not to notice as Eddie gleefully ogled a couple three booths behind them.
“I thought you were taking time off?” she asked archly. “First the doc and now this?”
He dismissed her question with an airy wave. “The doc was just eye-candy and besides, I'm sure she's, like, twenty-two. Way too old for me. No, no, those two are the true shame. It must be a sin for people that hot to be together,” Eddie mourned, sinking down. “Then I can't date either one.”
“Think of the babies though,” Wendy said, sneaking a peek. The boy was feeding his girlfriend ice cream, following it with a steamy kiss that reminded her uncomfortably of that morning in Eddie's car. “Genes like those practically guarantee moviestar quality. Aw, first love.”
Jon glanced over his shoulder and snorted. “First love? Uh, no. They're in my class. She's not his girlfriend. That's Mike Anderson, right? His girlfriend's Sue Larson, on the—”
“Cheerleading squad with Chel,” Wendy remembered, flopping back in her seat. “Which is practicing as we speak. Huh. Wow.”
“Juicy,” Eddie agreed, wagging his eyebrows. “I'm clearly behind on my gossip.”
“You three are later than usual. Two cokes, one no ice, and a water?” their server asked as she approached their table. Lucy had been waitressing there since Wendy's mother had started bringing her for Sunday breakfasts when she was small. By now Lucy knew their order by heart and kept her pad tucked in the apron slung low around her hips. Smiling, Wendy shook her head. “Coke for me too, Lucy. I'm feeling festive.”
Tapping the table twice to show she'd understood, Lucy spun on her heel to fetch their drinks. They never ordered dinner until Chel arrived, but homecoming was just around the corner, and her practice stretched longer every night. Wendy didn't mind. It was the one time of day she could let go and force herself to relax. Chel would join them soon, but in the meantime it was just the three of them and the busy restaurant, each lost in their own thoughts.
Eddie made space for their backpacks on his side of the booth, pulled out his reading assignment—
by Camus—and dived in. Jon, following his example, began puzzling over his Spanish homework, leaving Wendy alone without something urgent to do. Wendy thought about starting her homework, but after her long day she didn't feel like it. Lucy brought their drinks and two baskets brimming with fries. One sat before Jon, the other was for Eddie and Wendy to share. Jon absently began devouring his fries by the fistful.
Wendy sighed and tried not to think about their afternoon visit to UCSF or the lonely soul in her mother's room. Every room in the Neuro-ICU had a soul like Lauren's—souls trapped near their bodies by the last minutes of their lives, hovering somewhere between life and death. Until their connection to their bodies snapped, they weren't alive and weren't dead; hovering spirits waiting for the moment they either woke up…or died.
As much as it killed her to admit it, until they were dead Wendy could do nothing for them. They were beyond her reach. Still, despite that terrible limbo, it would have been a relief to see her mother's soul there among the others, even if her body grew weaker by the day. It would be proof that some part of her still existed.
But her soul, unlike every other soul Wendy had seen in such a state, was gone. Her mother's soul was missing and Wendy couldn't rest until she'd found it.
When night fell she'd go out on patrol, taking Caltrain closer and closer to the city, walking the streets every night until she was certain each section was empty, that her mother's lost and wandering spirit hadn't somehow taken up residence there.
Until sunset, though, Wendy could take a breather. She thought of her patrol the night before and the picture on her notebook. She thought of the kiss she'd shared that morning, how she'd pushed Eddie away. It had hurt at the time, but after all his over-the-top ogling and staring this afternoon, Wendy knew she'd done the right thing.
Maybe Eddie was right. Maybe she should've called the cops for that guy in the woods. It wasn't like she'd be the first kid to jump the fence; she couldn't get in too much trouble for it, right? But old lessons stuck and Wendy's mother had rules about encounters like the one she'd had.
Always cover your back.
Her mother's words had been pounded into Wendy so often over the years that it was as if Mary was in the room with her, whispering them in her ear. When it came to reaping, her mom was all business, all the time. Especially in the early days, after Wendy had woken to the Light.
Her mother had waited until they were in the car to begin. “You and Eddie didn't come downstairs. I thought we told you to fetch him, Winifred.”
“I tried, Mom, but he didn't want to.” Wendy pushed back in the seat and scrubbed her palms across her cheeks. She wanted to explain further but she knew her mother's tone when she called Wendy by her full name like that; Wendy didn't want to push her luck and end up grounded.
“Bereavement rituals are important for the living and the dead.” The car slid backwards into the street, engine purring. Pulling to the end of the street, her mother clipped the end of each word; her knuckles were white on the steering wheel. “Some dead stick around only for the funerals, Wendy. They won't pass into the Light on their own if they think the rituals weren't followed just so.”
The guilt was sour in her mouth. “Was Mr. Barry angry at me?”
Her mother sighed. “Unless you spotted him, he wasn't there, Wendy. But my point is that he could have been. They frequently are.” She looked left, then right. “We're not going home right away. I can see now that I need to start your lessons sooner rather than later.”
“Can wait. He's used to it.” Her mother punched the gas and the station wagon darted forward into traffic. They drove up to the high school and parked in the principal's spot. The engine was barely off before her mother was out of the car and on the move, Wendy scrabbling to unbuckle her belt and follow. “Mom! Mom, wait!”
Tearing her skirt in thorny bushes, Wendy pushed on after her mother, trying to put her feet where her mother did, trying to slide through the gaps as neatly as her mother did. Her legs weren't as long, though; nor was she tall enough to push back the branches her mother could. When she finally caught up with her mother she was scratched from head to toe, her hair tangled and sweaty, her cheek cut and stinging from a stray branch. “Mom,” she panted. “Why didn't you slow down? I'm bleeding.”
“Wendy, darling, in our line of work you just have to get used to it,” her mother said, but her words were gentle. She wasn't looking at her daughter, but instead staring intently into a backyard butting up against the edge of the woods. The chain link back here was only hip-high on Wendy, easy to jump if she needed to. A small girl, no more than three or four, was swinging on the backyard swing set. She wasn't pumping her legs; strong hands pushed her higher and higher. She squealed happily. “Higher Grandma! Higher!”
“But…she's dead. Right?” Wendy blinked and rubbed her eyes, thinking that perhaps the rapidly expanding twilight was playing tricks with her. “How can she do that? And can the kid see her? She can, can't she?”
Her mother sighed. “I don't have all the answers, Wendy-girl. But this much I do know…she died last week. I was here, picking up the body, but I couldn't do anything then.” She pushed aside a branch and glanced around the yard. “Other than the two of them it looks all clear, but I'm not willing to risk it. It would look very strange, me showing up here like this. So you get to do it instead. Who's going to suspect a little girl?”
“Send her into the Light.”
“But, Mom, I don't know how,” Wendy protested. “All I can do is see them!”
“You'll figure it out.” She laid a hand on Wendy's shoulder. “But remember, Wendy-girl. Cover your back. I had to.”
“What do you mean, you had—ow!” Wendy stumbled into the yard, her mother's shove pushing her far enough past the bushes that she had nowhere to hide. The girl's swing slowed; both the spirit and the little girl had spotted her immediately.
“Hi!” the little girl chirruped, jumping off the swing at the low point, stumbling when she hit the ground but catching her balance quick enough. “Do you want to swing?”
“Lacey, no,” the old lady hissed. “Stranger danger! You don't know her name!”
“I'm Wendy,” Wendy said quickly. She swiped her hand against her cheek, feeling the hot smear of her blood against her palm. “But your grandma's right, I don't want to swing.”
“You…you can hear me?” The old woman hurried forward and grabbed Wendy by the shoulders. “You have to—ouch, girl! You're hot!”
“I am?” Wendy put her wrist against her forehead. She didn't feel any different to herself, not like she was running a temperature. Wendy shrugged. “Sorry? I can't control it.”
“No matter. You have to go. You can't stay here.”
“Why not?” Wendy knelt by the younger girl. “Lacey? Maybe you should go inside, okay? It's getting awfully dark and cold. You should go wash up.”
“No!” The ghost waved her arms widely but Lacey, yawning, toddled off toward the patio door. “Lacey Marie, you come back here! Lacey!” She turned on Wendy and wagged a finger in her face. “Young lady, I know you think you're doing the right thing, but you're an idiot.”
“I just…I didn't want her to see this.”
“See me…see me sending you into the Light.” Wendy winced.
“Sending me into the Light? Child, I turned my back on that nonsense a week ago. You think I'm going to just let you shove me into it now? Especially when there's no sane person around to keep an eye on my granddaughter? Absolutely not.”
“But…don't you want to go to heaven? Or whatever?”
She laughed mirthlessly. “You don't have the slightest idea what you're doing, do you? Look, young lady, I didn't believe in a god when I was alive, I'm hardly about to start believing in him now. Now if you'll excuse me—”
“Hey!” Wendy snapped, inexplicably angry with the stubborn old ghost who should've had the sense to go into the Light when it'd been offered the first time. If it hadn't been for her, Wendy would be home right now, safe in her warm bed, thinking good thoughts about the kiss with Eddie, not bloody and shivering at the edge of the woods while her mother skulked somewhere in the shadows and watched her argue with a ghost. “My name is Wendy! You wouldn't want me to start calling you ‘old fart,’ would you? And…and…okay, you don't have a choice. Right? If you need to go into the Light, you just go, okay? Or else you're stuck. The Light doesn't stick around forever, you know.”
Wendy crossed her arms over her chest and scowled. She was making a huge mess of this, she could tell. Strangely, standing there with the anger bubbling was sending an odd feeling coursing through her body; an acid-tummy sort of feeling, but stronger, hotter. It was as if she could suddenly feel the heat the old woman had been complaining about. She felt unexpectedly flush and warm, her eyes drying in their sockets as if she were baking with fever. The ghost shimmered before her; Wendy blinked rapidly to keep her centered in her sight.
Her tone changed, softened. “Please…Wendy. I don't know what you are, but please, please, don't do this. Please. I need to stay.”
“I can't,” Wendy whispered, marveling at the bizarre heat pooling in her gut, straining to expand. Controlling the heat was incredibly difficult; Wendy felt her tongue begin to dry, making her next words clumsy and hard to say. “I don't know why but I can't stop.” Wendy bent double, the heat throbbing out through her chest and belly now, insistent and fierce. “I'm really sorry.”
“Then do me a favor,” she said urgently. “You have to get Lacey out of here.” The ghost pointed to the house. “I was the last blood relative Lacey has left. Her stepfather isn't a very nice man, he…” she stopped short, blushing. “How old are you?”
“Old enough,” Wendy snapped, uncomfortably aware of the direction the conversation was turning. Her palms felt like they were blistering. She dropped to her hands and knees on the cold, muddy ground, feeling the earth beneath her knees simultaneously squelch and bake under her heat. It was as if the backyard were shining through some dark prism—one moment, the world was light and sweet, the backyard small but well-kept, and the next it was decaying in front of her face, the neat late-season roses lushly overgrown and rotting on the bush.
“The Never,” Wendy whispered. Her mother had described the world of the dead to her, but this was the first time she'd seen it for herself. Wendy held up one hand, marveling at the tiny buds of Light beginning to illuminate the tip of each finger. “You want me to call the police.”
“Okay. Done,” Wendy whispered and the Light unfurled within.
When she opened her eyes again, the old woman was gone and a pair of scuffed up boots were in front of her at eye-level.
“Kid, I'm giving you thirty seconds to get off my property,” slurred the man standing over her. He had a beer in one hand and a baseball bat in the other. “And if you come around here jumping my fence any more, I'm calling the cops, you hear me?”