I didn’t say anything at first. I began to wonder if I had just imagined the two words, if I was tired, or cold, or just plain stupid. But then I heard his voice next to me, soft, a whisper in the dark.
It was a brutal slap back to reality. I shook my head vigorously, jerking to my feet. “This isn’t funny, you know,” I spat. “If you think I’m supposed to laugh, then—”
“It wasn’t a joke,” he snapped, rising beside me. “I mean it. I’m dead. Have been since before you were born.” He snorted. “And frankly, you’re not being very compassionate.”
That was the last straw. It was bad enough being shoved around and messed with by my roommate, but Newspaper? It was too much. And if he and everyone else thought that I was just going to wait around for someone to start doing some explaining, they were dead wrong.
“Compassionate?” I let out a weak, bitter laugh. “Oh, that’s a good one. A really good one.” I waited for a moment until I made up my mind, and pretty soon I did. “You know what?” I growled. “I don’t need this.” Then I turned on my heel and started striding away. After all, if everyone was going to treat me like a three year old, I was going to start acting like one. Besides, I had a feeling that if I stayed here, the only thing I would discover was my own capacity for insanity.
“Where are you doing?” he shouted. “We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
“It’s better than listening to any of you!” I yelled back.
“Hey, come on!” I could hear him start running behind me, and I quickened my pace, but he caught up to me all too easily. “I’m sorry,” he breathed, sprinting alongside me. “If it were up to me, then I would have told you the second I met you, but—”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I snarled.
“Would you just stop running?” he asked.
“Leave me alone!” I shot my hand out angrily, intending to push him away, but somehow he managed to clasp it with his own. I lost my balance, and soon enough my feet slipped from under me and I collapsed on top of him, hitting the ground hard in a tangle of limbs.
“Shit,” I grunted. “What would you do that for?”
“I was trying to…” he groaned, “…stop you from doing something stupid.” He pushed me away and I managed to heave myself into something resembling a sitting position. “You’ll thank me one day.”
“For what? Breaking my legs?” I snarled, very aware of the pain rushing through my head like an alarm. “God!” I clutched my right temple.
“Stop being such a baby. I didn’t break anything important,” he snapped angrily. “Hopefully,” he added with a smile. “Now are you going to listen to what I have to say or not?”
I laughed bitterly, brushing dirt off of my clothes. “In your dreams.”
Suddenly, he grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. His eyes shone with a fierce urgency. “Essie, please,” he said softly. I had never heard that tone of voice from him or anyone else, and it pierced through me like nails on a chalkboard. It was almost like he was begging. Pleading. “Just listen to me. Please listen.”
I stared at him, my mind struggling. I didn’t want to trust him. Especially not him, after everything he had done; after everything he hadn’t. The last thing I wanted to do was listen to him. In fact, strangling him would be more fitting.
“All right,” I murmured. “All right, all right.”
He smiled a bit, loosening his grip. “Promise?”
I yanked his arm off of me, and pushed myself a good three feet away. “If you don’t start talking soon, I’m going to sucker-punch you all the way to—”
“Easy there, Black Widow,” he said, laughing. “I’ll tell as long as you agree to keep all of my major body parts intact.”
“I’ll try,” I replied. Then my smile disappeared. “So that thing you said, that you’re—”
“That I’m dead, yes.” He grinned. “Kind of hard to guess, huh? I mean, I don’t look it. You would probably have never known if it weren’t for the fact that you’re basically the only one who can see me.” He bit his lip, glancing at the car, which was now only a speck in the distance. “Well, not the only one, obviously.”
I exhaled slowly, thinking. “So when you say dead—”
“Shot,” he cut in quickly. “Right in the head by my cousin. Pretty tragic, really.”
I moaned in exasperation, massaging my temples. “This is a pretty screwed up dream.”
He laughed again. “If only.”
My frustration started to kick in once again. “So when are you going to tell me the actual truth?” I retorted. “This is entertaining and all, but there is a stopping point.”
“Essie, I’m serious.” He scooted closer so I couldn’t avoid his gaze. “I swear. And I can prove it.”
“Oh, really?” I challenged. “Already whipping out the magic tricks, huh?”
He ignored that last part and stood up. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and then he jogged off into the black.
It took him an uneasily long time. I shivered, suddenly realizing how dark it was. I was beginning to wonder if he had left me here when I heard his footsteps and the beam of a flashlight.
“Your friend over there sure has you covered,” he panted, pulling out a long, sharp knife. My heart stopped. It was the one Sylvia had earlier, the one that had been so dangerously pressed to his throat an hour ago.
The sight of it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. “What the hell are you doing with that?” I demanded.
He hesitated to catch his breath, then slowly, carefully, he placed it into my hands. “Just like I said,” he mumbled, locking his eyes with mine.
“Miller,” I warned. “Jack…”
He set the flashlight on the ground, so we could see each other. Then he began to fumble with his clothes. For a second, I feared he might be planning to flash me, but the only thing that came off was his jacket. He rolled it up, winked at me reassuringly, then tied it securely around his head. “There,” he said, his voice muffled. “Any time now.”
I stared at him for a moment, shocked. Then I put a hand on my hip. “Don’t be an idiot,” I scoffed.
“Don’t be a coward,” he countered. “I promise I won’t feel a thing. Can’t kill someone who’s already dead, remember?”
“This is ridiculous.” I glared at him through the jacket. “Magic tricks are supposed to be impressive, not disturbing.”
“Oh, you’ll be impressed,” he said, and I didn’t need to see him to know he was smirking.
I frowned. “Come on. Did you really think I was just going to bob my head cheerfully and stab you in the chest?”
He shrugged. “Scared?” he taunted.
“No, I’m not…” I took a deep breath. “Look, you may be a bit of a repellent stuck-up, womanizing, repulsive jerk, but that doesn’t mean I want to kill you.”
“I’m telling you,” he groaned, “you can’t.”
I sulked, searching for something to say. “Well, uh…” A thought hit me. “Maybe you could clear this up for me. When Sylvia had you pinned before, you looked pretty scared. Not to mention the way you screamed like a little girl when I punched you in the gut. Now if you’re really claiming to be Casper The Friendly Ghost,” I rolled my eyes just thinking it, “wouldn’t you be a bit…well, calmer? And wouldn’t you be slipping through walls and chairs, and saying ‘boo’ when I’m not looking and all of that?”
“Hey, that’s offensive,” he remarked. “Some of us have better things to do that mess around in your boring little lives.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “God, you people and your shallow stereotypes.”
I smiled smugly. “So you’re a hipster ghost, then?”
“I’m not a ghost!” he snapped. “And what you said before, about the pain and the punching and stuff…pain is in the mind. When someone points a gun at you, or punches you so hard your stomach caves in,” he paused to gesture to me, “even if you’re dead, you can still feel it. Just think about it. You don’t scream because you broke your leg, you scream because you feel that you broke your leg. It works with other emotions too. As long as I feel like I should be afraid, or hurting, or cold, or miserable, I will be. But as long as I have this blindfold on…” He tapped it matter-o-factly, “and I don’t know when you’re going to make your move, I won’t have any time to prepare myself, and get my brain ready to feel the pain.”
“That makes absolutely no sense,” I stammered. “You don’t see the Headless Horseman keeling over because of a stubbed toe.”
Jack ripped the jacket from over his eyes and let out an infuriated sigh. “God, would you stop comparing me to Hollywood horror movies? Essie, think about it for a second. When I was working at your office, no one could see me but you, right? I probably didn’t even show up on the security tapes.”
“S-So what?” I muttered. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
“Well, what do you think it means?”
“It means…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. “It means…”
He leaned forward and touched my shoulder lightly. “Essie, come on, you know I’m right. Why would I lie to you?”
“Why wouldn’t you?” I shot back. “Like I said, you’re just a sad little jerk. You’ve been stalking me the second I got on that train.”
He stepped back, giving me a look that was half furious, half stunned. “Is that really what you think?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. The knife was warm in my hands.
“Fine,” he said faintly, tying the blindfold back over his eyes. “If you really hate me so much, if you really think I’m a pervert, what’s stopping you from sticking that knife into me, huh?”
I said nothing. My fists clenched, and I stared at my right hand. The knife was glittering by the light of the flashlight. I felt so powerful, so alive.
“You’re right.” His voice was lower now, almost gravelly. “I was stalking you. I have been from the beginning. Just waiting for you to turn your back and then…” He laughed, and it sent a chill down my spine. “I knew you wouldn’t do it. I always knew you were too damn weak. Pretty little girl, acts tough but doesn’t even know the first thing about herself.” He hesitated, as if uncertain, but slowly added, “No wonder your mother left you.”
Then he stopped, and I felt something rushing up inside of me. It was more than anger; it was fury. It was revenge. It was life. “How do you know about my mother?”
“I told you,” he said cautiously. “I know everything about you.”
Then I snapped. Something seemed to break inside of me, like a switch had been flicked. My ears were ringing so loud I couldn’t think. It was like someone else had grabbed me from behind and put his hand over my mouth, and I watched, terrified, as the knife shot forward and plunged itself right into Jack’s heart.
After that, the world moved in slow motion. He dropped to his knees and toppled over backwards, hitting the ground hard. Whoever I now was tugged the knife back out of his chest and threw it over my head. It wobbled before tipping over and becoming still; still as my heart, still as Jack’s lifeless body.
Suddenly air rushed into my lungs, and I could feel it all, just like he had said before. “Oh my god,” I breathed. I crouched down and frantically tried to feel a pulse, but I couldn’t tell it apart from the slamming of my own heart. I was losing hope fast. He was dying, he was dying, I had killed him. “No!” I screamed and pressed my fists over and over again on his torso, although some part of me knew that CPR wasn’t going to help a stab wound.
Eventually my cries died down, and I knew it was over. I was too late. I had murdered him, all because of some stupid comment he had made about my mother. He probably just made that up. How could I think he knew? I shoved my face into his chest, expecting the tears to come, but they didn’t. I was too scared, too guilty to cry.
“I’m sorry.” The tone was weak. I was weak. My eyes slid along the ground, over to the knife. It was still shining, still glimmering like nothing had happened. I couldn’t move. I shut my eyes and let myself fall limp. You killed him, you killed him, you killed him, you—
Wait a second.
I sat up, startled. I had just remembered something, something that didn’t make sense. The knife. I crawled over to it and checked again. Once again, I saw it. It was completely clean. Not a single drop of blood.
Of course, that didn’t make any sense, because if I had stabbed Jack, and I knew I had, there would be at least some blood on it, wouldn’t there?
Gradually, I let my head turn back to Jack’s body. And sure enough, it looked completely normal, other than being completely frozen. I picked up the flashlight and looked everything over again, just to be sure. Same results.
My head was reeling. This couldn’t be right. I knew I had. But what if…
Only one way to find out. There was one last test, the hardest one of all. I took a deep breath, steadying my nerves. Gently, my hand floated over to his face. I enclosed the knot of his jacket in my fingers, and bracing myself for whatever was going to come, I pulled.
For a second, I was paralyzed. His eyes were closed, his face scrunched up in pain. I gasped soundlessly and turned away. He’s dead. You killed him, you killed him, you—
My breath caught and I whipped around, my eyes wide. “Jack?” I mumbled, stumbling over my own desperate breaths.
He grinned and hoisted himself up. “Miss me?” he asked.
For the longest time, I just sat there, seething. Then I gulped and began, “What the…hell…is wrong with you?”
He shrugged. “What do you mean?”
“You scared the hell out of me!” I yelled. “You selfish, arrogant, stupid—”
“Okay, okay,” he admitted still chuckling. “I’m sorry. I was just having some fun. Now let’s hug it out and move on, shall we?” He extended his arms.
“Fun?” I said icily, pushing his hands away. “You think that was fun?”
He raised his eyebrows. “You mean it wasn’t? I thought it would be pretty therapeutic for you. After all, how many time have you pictured stabbing me like that?”
“I thought I had killed you,” I squeaked, pacing. “You were unconscious on the floor just a second ago. I thought you were dead. God, this isn’t happening.”
He gave me a thoughtful look. “Wait a minute. Is it possible that you actually missed me? That you wanted me to live?”
I kept pacing. “Shut it, okay? Of course not.”
But he kept going. “So all of those dramatic exclamations of ‘noooo!’ and ‘help!!’ weren’t because you were experiencing lady cramps?” He picked up the flashlight and shined it right in my face.
“What? Look.” I shoved the flashlight to the ground. It a bounced a few times before turning off. “It had nothing to do with you. I was just a little surprised, that’s all.”
The light clicked on again, illuminating Newspaper’s face. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
“I didn’t mean any of that. The stuff about your mother. You know that, right?”
I narrowed my eyes. “How did you know about that?”
Newspaper stared at me intently. The flashlight shined between us. “It wasn’t your fault. None of it was. If only you knew…” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter right now. But Essie,” he lowered his voice, “do you believe me now?”
I swallowed hard, scowling. “I-I don’t know what to believe.”
“Yes you do. You saw it with your own eyes. How that wound would have surely killed, only it didn’t, because—”
“No. You don’t get it,” I objected. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t.”
He closed his eyes, contemplating, then opened them again. “Would you believe it if they told you too?” He pointed the Sesame Street car.
“I-I’m not sure,” I said truthfully.
“Well, better give it a shot,” he replied, his smile growing.
We knocked twice on the car door. They were both asleep, since it had only been an hour or two since the sunset.
Trevor woke up first. He grunted, stretched his mountainous arms, and wiped the drool off his mouth.
“Morning, sunshine,” Jack called through the glass of the window.
Trevor looked confused for a moment, like he wasn’t sure where he was. Then he caught sight of me, and his eyes widened in unadulterated rage. “What in the—”
“Sorry to cut your beauty sleep short, but we have to ask you something.” Newspaper beamed at him. “Only take a minute.”
Trevor burst out of the car and slammed the door behind him. “Who do you think you are?” he demanded, towering over Newspaper with his fists clenched. “One more word, and I’ll—”
“Stop!” a voice interrupted. Sylvia had emerged and was regarding Newspaper and I with a scowl. “You’ve told her, haven’t you?”
Newspaper nodded cautiously. “Listen, I didn’t mean any harm, I was just—”
“No,” she said firmly. “This is good. Really good.” She sighed, and Jack smiled triumphantly. “I don’t know who you are, Jack Miller, or where you came from, but for some reason…”
He raised his eyebrows. “What?”
“I really hate you.”
Jack frowned. Normally I would have added, Join the club, but under the circumstances I wasn’t really in the mood.
“However,” Sylvia continued forcefully, “there aren’t that many people that I do like. It’s one of my flaws—no come to think of it, my only flaw.” She sighed, pondering the situation like a judge on a cooking show. “Now if it had been any other day, I would have probably chucked you over the fence. Or pummeled you. Repeatedly. With my car.” She smiled a bit, just thinking about it. I could hear Newspaper swallow. “But luckily, last night was the most sleep I’ve had in ages, and I’m feeling pretty refreshed. Not refreshed enough to start singing Kum-ba-yah, but pretty damn refreshed. So it’s your lucky day, kid. I’m willing to cut you some slack.”
Newspaper sighed with the force of a small hurricane. “Thanks so much, I really appreciate it—”
“Hey, don’t push it,” she snapped. “Still doesn’t mean I like you. Or trust you. But I have to say that you came at a pretty convenient time. And you made my job easier. I wasn’t even sure how to begin.” She pursed her lips. “So congratulations.”
My eyes darted between them. I had only one word left. “Sylvia?” I asked feebly.
“Essie,” she started, taking a few steps closer to me, “You’re an Outrider. Just like me, and Trevor, and your mother.”
I blinked. “Is that some yoga term I’m not familiar with, because—”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” Trevor cut in. “It means you can see ghosts.” He glared at Newspaper. “Ghosts like him.”
Jack groaned. “For the last time, I’m not a—”
“Hold on!” I snapped. “Would everyone just stop talking for a second?”
Sylvia gave me a sympathetic look. “I know it’s a lot to take in—”
“I said stop talking!” I threw my hands over my ears. “Now, wait a second. Just wait.” I started to pace again. “You are all out of your damn minds.”
“You are!” Their faces were calm, patient. I wanted to pound them all. “Ghosts do not exist, all right?”
Jack stepped forward. “Well then how do you explain what happened before? You stabbed me through the heart, Essie. You know you did.”
“So maybe I underestimated you,” I snapped. “Maybe you’re better at magic tricks than I thought.”
“Or maybe I’m dead,” he pressed.
“No!” I cried out. My head was reeling again. My rational and irrational minds were practically having a wrestling match, and all I felt was confusion. Confusion, and fear, and disbelief.
It wasn’t possible. I knew it wasn’t possible. When I had watched all those horror movies, and read all those books before bed when I thought my parents weren’t watching, sure, I had been a bit creeped out, but I was five. And besides, there was always a part of me, deep down, that knew they weren’t real. They were only trying to scare me.
But this…this was ripping me apart, because here were three people showing me a horror movie and expecting me to believe it. And among those three people was Sylvia Bauer, the person I most trusted, the one who taught me how to tell a guy off, and how to punch someone so hard they fell over their own feet. Why would she, of all people, lie to me?
“I…don’t understand,” I mumbled, defeated, letting my weight fall against the side of the car. “Why is this happening to me?”
Sylvia approached me and squeezed my shoulder, which would have been reassuring, except for the fact that Sylvia never touched anybody’s shoulder, ever. “It sucks, doesn’t it?” she remarked. “But at least you have someone you can scream at. When I found out I had nobody but myself to cry to.”
I studied her face, and part of me was still waiting for her to say, “Just kidding!” But then I saw the pain there; the suffering, and I could almost feel it too.
“I didn’t want this life for you,” Sylvia said sadly. “I raised you to be tough, like me, but I never thought it would come to this.” She looked out, towards the stars.
“Come to what?” I asked mutely. When no one answered, I added, “What are we doing out here?”
“We’re trying to stay alive,” Trevor complained. “But with interventions like these I don’t see how we’re supposed to do that.”
Sylvia spun around, poison in her eyes. “Would you leave my sister alone?”
I frowned. “Your what?”
She grimaced, as if ashamed she had revealed too much. “Yes, you’re my sister. Not the most crucial part of this situation, but…” She pondered for a moment. “Honestly, it’s a bit strange you haven’t figured that part out yet.”
I pushed past her and stumbled over to Jack. “And you’re a ghost,” I said weakly.
“Actually, I prefer the term ‘Shade,’” he answered defiantly. “But apparently you Outriders are lacking in respect.”
“God, I'm sorry,” Trevor declared sarcastically. “I didn’t know you were so sensitive.”
“So let me make sure I have all of this down,” I said, dazed. “You expect me to believe that I’m a…uh… Outryer…”
“Outrider,” they corrected in unison.
“Whatever. And that means I can see ghosts—”
“Shades!” Jack cried.
“Don’t care,” I shot back. “But…why?” I asked, my voice exhausted.
Sylvia shook her head. “Trust me. If I knew, then I could probably figure out how to stop it. And I can’t.”
“This is…” I tried to find the words. The brawl was beginning to slow down in my head, but I still wasn’t quite sure which side had won.
“Aggravating, huh?” Newspaper finished. “Well, not as bad as my current situation, but—”
“Essie, there’s more to it than all of this,” Sylvia said. “Much more.”
My heart sank. “My mother somehow ties into all of this, doesn’t she? Do you…” I hesitated anxiously. “Do you know where she is?”
Sylvia sighed. “Vaguely. I was pretty close to finding her, actually, until—”
“Hold on a minute,” Jack said suddenly. “What time is it?”
Sylvia frowned and glanced down at her watch. “Half past ten. Why?”
“Oh, shit,” Newspaper grunted. “It’s happening.”
“What is it?” I demanded. “What’s happening?”
“I didn’t have a chance to tell you before, but he saw where you went. My contacts saw him follow you.”
Sylvia’s face fell. “You saw him? W-Where is he? Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Jack answered, gritting his teeth. “In fact, I hear the guy’s basically walking on sunshine. And he’s on his way, so we’d better get moving.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Trevor groaned.
“We had time before,” Newspaper argued. “Besides, it’s kind of hard to think when you’ve got a knife inches from your neck.”
“Who are you talking about?” I asked, although at this point I knew I was dreaming to think anyone would answer.
Sylvia straightened up and sprung into action. “Essie, ride with Miller,” she ordered. Then she grabbed his shoulders and gave them a hearty shake. “Take her back to the city, to her job. They won’t be expecting her there, at least for the time being. And if you do anything to my little sister, anything at all, then…” Her brow furrowed. “Then you should know that I have a lot more knives hidden in this car.” He gulped once again.
“Can’t I ride with you?” I whined.
“Too dangerous,” she insisted. “He knows me too well.”
“Where are you two going?” I asked desperately.
Sylvia started to say something, then stopped. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why not?” I moaned.
“Because if I do then you’re try and follow me, and I won’t let you do that.”
“But Sylvia, I swear that I won’t—”
She put a finger to her lips. “It’s okay. I’ve been there. But you just have to wait. I will come back, all right? I promise you I will.”
Helplessly, I tried to grab her arm, but she leapt into the car and started the engine. “Good luck!” she called, giving me a salute, then she sped off into the darkness.
I yelled after her, coughing on the cloud of dust she had left behind, but I knew it was no use.
“You’ll see her again,” said a voice behind me.
“This isn’t happening,” I whimpered.
Then I felt a palm on my right shoulder, pulling me into the van. “It’s going to be all right,” Newspaper said, and I got the feeling it wasn’t me he was trying to convince.
“Don’t lie to me,” I whispered. He exhaled slowly and didn’t.