It was pretty late by the time we left the restaurant, and since I basically hadn’t slept since the Mesozoic era, I could barely take a step without drowning in my own yawns.
“Well, I must say,” remarked Newspaper as he shut the doors behind me, “you are an amazing girl, Essie.”
“Really?” I asked drowsily, stumbling over my own feet. I had long since discovered that when I was sleep deprived, my walking skills weren’t really on point.
“Yes. You managed to clean out my life saving’s in only one night.” He waved his empty wallet in front of my face as proof. “You should be very proud.”
“I am,” I said joyfully, sneering at him. “Besides, what do you need the money for? Is there some sort of undead tax?”
He smiled and shook his head. “If there is, I’m probably a wanted fugitive by now.”
“Hey, Miller,” I whispered, stopping in my tracks. He leaned in closer, waiting for what I had to say. I squinted, licked my lips, and asked, “What do you call a ghost with a broken leg?”
He hesitated for a second, fazed. Then he crossed his arms and stepped back. “Nothing, since ghosts can’t get broken legs, only Shades can, unless they’re using a medium, in which case—”
“A Hobbling Goblin.”
Very long pause. Then very slowly, he asked, “Really?”
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “That one’s been floating around for the whole night. I had to put it to use.” A thought suddenly occurred to me. “So um…” I squinted, my vision muddled. “How does my mom play into all of this?”
He avoided my gaze. “Don’t know much about that.”
I grinned. “Liar.”
Jack glowered at me for about ten seconds, then groaned. “Fine, I’ll show you something, but only if you can shut up for half a second.”
My smile faded, and my eyes rolled back into my head. “All right, all right,” I complained. “I’m waiting.”
He led me back to car in silence, and opened the door for me dramatically. I raised my eyebrows before shoving myself into the seat.
“Where are we going?” I asked, as soon as the engine began to purr. “I thought you said we were almost out of gas.”
“What did I say?” he hissed. “Quiet.”
“Whatever you say, sir,” I pouted under my breath. “But I hope this isn’t going to take long, because—”
We drove for a few painful minutes. The curiosity was almost too much to bear. Possibilities crossed my mind; maybe he was the president of some ghost cult, and now he was trying to recruit me. Yes, I thought. Definitely a ghost cult. I could see it now: the dark rooms, the fancy robes, the incense. He was probably the leader, or maybe chief publicist. Join Jack Miller’s Shade Club. Meetings every day once the sun goes down. Refreshments are available with any six-month membership. Homemade brownies every week or your money back—
“We’re here.” He slammed on the breaks so hard I felt a few of my brain cells die.
“We are?” I asked in disbelief, peering at our surroundings. “Are you sure?”
Newspaper grunted and hopped into the street. “Are you coming or not?” He smiled at me, but his tone was determined. After a pretty violent internal battle, I surrendered and followed him.
Towering above us was the most run-down and unappealing apartment complex I had ever seen. It was white (well, it probably used to be white) and the windows were cracked with dirt. The paint peeled off in long, thin shreds and each fire escape looked more dangerous than the next. The building was practically crying out for help.
“What is this place?” I mumbled as we approached the doors.
He regarded it for a moment, thinking about God knows what. Then he shrugged and said, “It’s my house.” He tried to enter, but I grabbed his jacket and shoved him back.
“Hold on a minute,” I said, stunned. “You live here?”
“Well, I used to,” he replied distantly. He hesitated a while, before adding, “So did your mother.”
The door jingled as I hurried inside after him. “Wait!” I called. “You knew my mother?”
“Can I help you?” demanded a woman. I cringed and whipped around. She was old, probably in her eighties, and was studying me with severe caution over her tiny triangular spectacles. “Are you lost?”
“No, I uh…”
“I can’t believe it,” Newspaper’s face lit up in realization. “That’s Betty Daniels. She was the old receptionist. God, I haven’t seen her in—”
“Hello?” the old woman inquired in an unforgiving tone.
“Tell her you know the Miller family,” Newspaper urged, fidgeting with excitement. “Come on, tell her!”
“Not yet,” I whispered, elbowing him. I wrinkled my nose and started again. “I’m sorry, miss, but do you mind if I ask what this place is?”
She frowned for a moment, giving me the once-over like never before. “And why would you want to know?” she asked.
“Same old Mrs. Daniels,” Jack said, his eyes shining. “You know, she used to help me with my homework. Got a talent for math, that woman. Wouldn’t guess it, though, would you? God, I missed her.”
Ignoring Jack was proving to be hard, but thankfully not impossible. I cleared my throat. “I don’t mean to intrude, ma’am—” I stammered.
Mrs. Daniels snorted. “Intrude on what? Have you taken a look at this place?” She glanced at me once more, then cocked her head. “Hang on…” She hobbled forward carefully and inspected my face with intensity. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“I-I don’t think so,” I mumbled. Then an idea struck me. “But maybe you knew my mother. Eva Spiros.”
The woman blinked with her giant brown eyes. “Spiros?”
“Eva,” I repeated. I was beginning to wonder if Jack had just dragged me out here to prove a point. This woman clearly didn’t know my mother, and maybe not Jack either, for that matter. Yes, I was gullible all right. One look at an old lady and I’m convinced she’s Bill Gates in disguise. “Never mind,” I muttered, defeated. “I guess I’d better be going.”
“Well, hold it right there, missy,” the woman said, placing a walker in front of my feet. “Of course I know little Evie. That was years ago, wasn’t it?”
I felt my heartbeat quicken. “So you did know her? My mother, I mean. But surely you can’t fully remember—”
Mrs. Daniels grunted. “Youth these days. No appreciation. Do you go around thinking every old lady has the brain of a hermit crab?”
“That wasn’t very nice, Essie,” Jack teased. “Mrs. Daniels is the smartest person I know. Sharp as a tack. Isn’t that right?”
“I’m sorry,” I said hastily, blushing. “But, about my mother—”
“Ah, yes. That was a long time ago. Back when this joint was still in business. It was pretty popular back then, believe it or not. Lots of people lived here, including the Spiros family. There were the Andersons, and the Georgians, and the Millers—”
“Millers?” I blurted out. “As in Jack Miller?”
Mrs. Daniels scowled at me once more. “And how would you know that, Miss Spiros?”
I began to answer, but a terrible thought came to me. I cleared my throat. “Mrs. Daniels, uh, what exactly was my mother’s relationship to Jack Miller?”
Jack’s eyes widened and he fidgeted beside me. “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
I didn’t reply, but I could feel my face go even hotter. Mrs. Daniel’s frown had widened.
“What kind of a question is that?” she snapped. “And how the devil do you know my name?”
Busted. “I…well, I, uh…” I jumped on the first sentence I could think of. “I heard…stories…about this place.”
Mrs. Daniels arched an eyebrow. “Stories?”
“Like legends,” I said, going with it. “About Mrs. Daniels and the haunted apartment. Then I found my mother used to live here, and I just thought—”
“Haunted apartment?” Newspaper huffed. “Now that’s a good one.”
I clenched my fists to keep from flipping him off. “I’m sorry for intruding,” I muttered, making up my mind to beat it before I slipped even further. “Clearly this isn’t really my business, so—”
The old woman grabbed my wrist and yanked me towards her, nearly breaking it in the process. “Eva Spiros’ daughter,” she muttered absently. “You don’t look very alike, do you?”
“People used to say we had the same eyes,” I yelped, through my agony.
Mrs. Daniels released her grip, and I shook the blood back into my arm. It was now sleeping like a log.
“Used to say?” she asked quietly, staring towards the grimy floor. “Eva’s dead?”
“Not exactly,” I replied grimly, “but pretty close to it.”
The woman’s face contracted a little, and she leaned heavily on her walker, as if she was trying to come to a decision. Finally, she clasped my arm and sighed. “Well, you’d better come in and have some tea.”
She led me through hallways and rooms, each one grungier than the next. I could hear Newspaper’s footsteps behind me, but for once he didn’t say anything. I might have said it was refreshing, but in this case it felt more…haunting. I wondered if he had walked down this pathway back when he was alive. Maybe my mother had as well. It was enough to give me the shivers.
“Here we are,” Mrs. Daniels announced. “Try not to start an explosion while I fix up the kettle, all right?” She patted me on the shoulder and hobbled away.
I couldn’t contain my surprise. The floors were white; the table was silver and flawless. Flowers of every color dotted the landscape, peeping out under chairs or behind pillars. And below the terrace, the garden was even more incredible. Everything was so neatly arranged; it was like walking right into a Jane Austen novel. “It’s…beautiful,” I gasped, stepping to the edge of the balcony.
“Used to be even more so,” mumbled a voice behind me. “But time will do that to a place.”
I shook my head slowly and collapsed in one of the chairs she had set out for us. “You really lived here, didn’t you? You’re not making this up?”
“Why would I make this up?” My breath caught as I saw the distress in Jack’s eyes. It must hurt him immensely to have to come here. It was like I was forcing him to go through the whole ordeal again.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“Doing what?” he said weakly.
“Taking me here, helping me…” My voice trailed off and I stared at him. “What’s in it for you? Revenge? Justice?”
He thought a moment before answering. “Maybe I just wanted someone to talk to,” he shrugged, glaring at me.
I looked into his eyes, trying for the millionth time to figure him out. All of these days had passed, all these hours spent with him, and he was still a complete stranger. I knew nothing. Who was he? Why was he in my life? And was there something about him I’d overlooked?
Suddenly, I saw something new within him, something I hadn’t yet seen. It was like for a split second, his entire existence had, well…flickered.
“You’re lying,” I whispered.
He appeared to shrink a little, at least in demeanor. “What?”
“I can see it in your eyes. You’re lying.” I grinned, almost crazy with the thrill. “Is this what it feels like to look at me? To read my inner thoughts?”
He swallowed. “I can’t read your mind.”
“Lying again,” I pronounced. “Well, not completely. Maybe you can’t exactly read what I’m thinking, but isn’t it all the same anyway?”
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stammered.
“You know what I think?” I asked, leaning forward. “I think you fear me, just as much as you fear yourself. But for some reason you need me. So the question is, why? Why, why, why?”
“No. You’re wrong.” He shook his head vigorously. I could taste the weakness. I could feel it in my hands.
“There’s some way I can save you, isn’t there?” I inclined my head even closer. His gaze dropped from mine, which only fuelled my intentions. “Isn’t there?”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you know.”
“I think I don’t.”
“I hope you like your tea strong.” Mrs. Daniels slammed the door and set down two glasses. I kept my eyes fixed on Newspaper, who was still acting like I was Medusa.
Mrs. Daniel’s voice drifted over to me. “…the box slipped and all the bags fell in. Damn shame, but what can you do? Tea is tea. Besides, I…Miss Spiros?”
Finally, I let my gaze avert. “Yes?” I asked firmly.
“Well, if you don’t mind me prying, why are you staring at my porch chair like you’re Professor X?”
I sighed. “No reason.” We sat in silence for a moment. I was so angry at Newspaper I nearly forgot what I was asking her about in the first place. Just when I was considering ditching the tenacious tea and heading to the restroom, she piped up.
“You’re really her daughter, aren’t you?” she asked thoughtfully. “Evie Spiros.”
I nodded. “Does that surprise you?”
Mrs. Daniels shrugged her frail shoulders. “Not really. She was pretty quiet, as far as I knew. Kept to herself mostly. Always wondered what happened to that little girl.” She took a gentle sip of the tea. “Guess now I know.”
I turned my head to Jack, but somehow he was gone. For a moment, I panicked, but then it occurred to me, what did I have to worry about? He was probably taking a look around. And it was more than fine by me. Now I didn’t have to endure a comment from him every other sentence. Besides, now that he was gone…
“I asked you before about Jack Miller,” I said, swallowing, “and what he was to my mother.”
“And I asked why the hell you’d want to know,” Mrs. Daniels retorted. “Did she tell you about him, back when she was alive?”
“She’s not dead,” I said harshly. “And no, she didn’t. Should she have?”
The old woman leaned back in her chair. “Don’t see why. If I remember correctly, she bullied the living daylights out of him.” She placed a hand on her hip. “At least that’s what he used to tell me.”
I raised my eyebrows. “She bullied him?”
“Sure did. And he was a nice boy, too. Didn’t deserve someone like her lurking about, kicking him every once in a while. Even so…” Something glowed in Mrs. Daniel’s eyes. “That kid was strong. A bit awkward, sure, but everyone goes through phases, and…” She smoothed down her silver hair. “Always wondered what happened to him, but like I always say…forgive and forget.” Then her expression changed, and she slammed a hand down on my shoulder. “You’ve seen him somehow, haven’t you? What, did he end up marrying Evie or something? Always thought she had a little bit of a crush on him, but I never—”
“No!” I snapped, perhaps a bit too eagerly. “I mean, he’s not my father, I swear.”
“Well then how do you know him?” She shook her head. “No, doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you’ve seen him, and…”
“Well, how is he?” she demanded. “Tell me how he is!”
The command caught me by surprise, and not in a nice way. What was I supposed to say, after all? Sorry, he died, and his ghost has been following me around for the past few weeks? I couldn’t say that, could I? Would she even believe me if I did?
I stared at her, looking at the curiosity, the hope in her eyes. Then again, how could I bring myself to tell her the truth? I ran my fingers through my hair and exhaled carefully. “He’s turned out all right,” I said, smiling at her. “Bit of a pain in the ass, but all in all…”
She smiled back, sighing like a weight had been lifted off her chest. “Good. That’s good. He was…good. A good kid.”
“Essie, we’ve got to go.”
I snapped around so hard I thought my head might cave in. Newspaper had materialized, and he looked even more cross than usual. “Wait, I have a few more questions to ask,” I protested to him.
Mrs. Daniels nodded. “Anything.”
“Essie,” Newspaper warned. “Now.”
“Fine!” I snapped. I spoke quickly, before Mrs. Daniels could get that look of confusion in her eyes. “Look, thank you so much for talking to me. It’s been great, but I really have to go.”
“Wait!” she called out, snatching my arm. “If you see him again, could you tell him…”
“What?” I asked politely.
She closed her eyes, then opened them. “That I’m sorry. For everything.” My heart stopped at her kind words and part of me wanted to scream, “HE’S RIGHT THERE! HE’S THERE! CAN’T YOU SEE HIM?”
“I’m sorry, too,” Jack said, with soft words only I could hear. “I’ll miss you.” There was a silence. He looked at her, and she looked at me.
“He knows,” I assured her. “Trust me, he knows.”
She grinned, then rose to walk me out. She would have probably run Jack over if he wasn’t quick enough to duck. On our way, she asked, “Will I see you again?”
“I don’t think so,” I said truthfully, as we neared the doors.
“Oh.” Her face fell, then recovered just as hastily. “Well, you know my motto, forgive and—”
“Forget,” I finished. “Goodbye, Mrs. Daniels.” I gave her one last smile then headed for the front lawn.
“Goodbye, Essie Spiros!” She yelled, just as the doors closed.
Jack lingered for a while near the entrance. “Goodbye,” he mumbled, waving at eyes that couldn’t see.
“Come on,” I urged gently. “You said we had to leave.”
“Right.” He smiled feebly. “Of course, yes. Get in the car.”
“Yes, Mom,” I said, putting up my hands in surrender. After a few seconds passed that weren’t filled with some cheesy comeback, I began to get worried. “Are you okay?”
“Never been better,” he dismissed. “Now get in the car right now.”
“Whatever you say.” I stuck out my tongue and walked away, Newspaper following at my heels. “You’re not the boss of me, you know,” I said bitterly.
“Well someone needs to be,” he shot back. “You don’t seem like the type to make levelheaded decisions.”
“How would you know? You barely even know me.” I rolled my eyes.
“You barely know me either, and you’re letting me drive you around in my van,” he retorted. “I rest my case. Now let’s stop for some gas, before I actually start putting your life in danger.”
“I hate you,” I mumbled.
“Good to know things haven’t changed then,” he hissed, and then neither of us spoke again.
We were a few hundred feet from a gas station when Jack suddenly pulled over.
“Scoot over,” he said.
I hesitated. “Why?”
He rolled his eyes, like it was downright idiotic to ask. “Why do you think? We’re at a gas station. And people go to gas stations. People with eyes, who will be very concerned if they see a car zooming in without a driver.”
“Yeah, I think I get that,” I argued. “Except…I don’t have the slightest idea how to drive.”
A smile spread over his face. “Seriously?”
I felt myself blush, which is by far the worst feeling in the world. “Yeah, so? Is that so wrong?”
He shook his head, chuckling now. “Not at all. It’s just, you know, a skill every single adult eventually learns. No big deal.”
“So what are we going to do, then?” I asked bitterly. “Or are you suggesting the all-knowing epitome of wisdom Jack Miller is out of ideas?”
His grin dimmed a bit. “Relax. I’ll take the wheel, you push down the pedals.”
“I’m not comfortable with that.”
“Well get comfortable with it, because it’s our only option.”
To some degree, I found it satisfying to sit there and glare at him, although I knew he had a point. Eventually, I relented and moved to the driver’s seat. “Okay, I’m here. What do I do, Oh Great One?”
He snickered. “My humble grasshopper, the first step is to—”
But the rest of that obnoxious statement was never heard, because I threw my foot down and slammed on the accelerator.
The thirty-seconds after that were an exhilarating blur, during which I definitely saw my life flash before my eyes at least once, but somehow I was uninjured by the end of the ride, and somehow I was having the time of my life.
“Oh, I think I like driving,” I chirped as we skidded to a stop.
“Well, too bad, because you’re never doing it again,” he panted, escorting me out of the car. “Screw the rest of these people. You could have killed half the population out there.”
“Foiled again,” I whispered. “Hey, aren’t we out of money?”
He beamed with a certain air of mystery that chilled me to the bone. “Watch and learn.” Before I had a moment to stop him, he snapped into action. Swiftly and expertly, he approached an old man and reached into his pocket. The man froze, as if struck by undetectable lightning. His hand flew to his jeans, but Newspaper was too fast. He was already next to me, placing something into my hands. “Use this.”
I narrowed my eyes at the newfound dollars, still reeling from the act I had just witnessed. “I’m not taking that,” I insisted. “You can’t just go around picking people’s pockets. It’s not right.”
Newspaper groaned and threw me a look that could have cut through steel. “You know what isn’t right? The fact that I’m dead as a doornail and I’m stuck here arguing with you. That’s not right. Besides, in a few minutes that guy’s going to forget any of this ever happened.”
I sighed, exasperated. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll use the damn money.” I turned away before he could start rubbing it in. I was getting ready to approach someone when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Can I help you, little lady?” an employee asked, grinning at me with exactly four white teeth.
I jumped, and then collected myself, making sure I didn’t lash out at Newspaper. All I needed was some other bastard convinced I needed psychiatric help. “Yes, actually. My car needs gas.” I patted the van awkwardly like it was my long-lost child.
“Your car?” he repeated, eyeing me in bewilderment. “That’s your car?”
For some reason, I found something about that question oddly disconcerting. “Is there a problem?”
“Not at all,” he said, shaking off his astonishment.
“How much would that be?” I asked sweetly.
The employee shrugged. “With a car like that, could be…” He counted on his fingers. “Fifty, sixty bucks. With tax, of course.” He bared his teeth again at my shocked expression. “Hey, I don’t make the prices, sweetheart.”
I forced a smile and looked down at the money in my hands. I must have been traveling with a psychic Shade, because I didn’t have a penny more than I needed. I handed it all over, silently praying the poor man Newspaper robbed wasn’t now condemned to eternal doom.
“Is that all?” the man asked, counting each bill out with lightning speed.
“Yes, please. That’ll be…” The rest of that sentence vanished into thin air. I was too busy trying to process an extremely familiar voice I was hearing, one with an accent that was too thick to be forgotten.
Slowly, I slid around the car. For once in my life, I wasn’t calling any attention to myself. The toothless employee seemed pretty engrossed in filling up my tank, and there was no glaring at me a few feet away. Finally, no one was questioning my sanity. Finally—
“Essie, are you okay?”
“God!” I was getting better at holding in my flinches. “Can’t a girl hide from a crazy woman in peace?”
“What crazy woman?” He peered over the car’s edge. “Tell me what’s going on.”
I snorted. “Oh, so you can be all mysterious, but I’m entitled to tell my deepest darkest secrets whenever you feel like hearing them? I don’t think so.”
He glowered at me. “Essie, come on, don’t be childish. I don’t want to know any more than you want to tell me, but if you’re crouching behind a van, it seems more like a life-or-death situation than a deep dark secret.”
Normally, I would have liked to use the silence that followed as an opportunity to hit him over the head with a large stick, but as usual, there were more pressing matters at hand. “I don’t know her name, or who she is, or where she’s from.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Do you know anything?”
I thought for a moment. “I know she has a Brooklyn accent, hangs out in abandoned bars, and is missing two very vital body parts.”
Newspaper closed his eyes in frustration. “Anything more helpful?”
I shrugged. “Well, not really. She thinks my name’s Barbara, and our last meeting ended with a single blow from Sylvia, resulting in apparently not-so-fatal wounds.”
“What does she look like, Essie? What does she look like?”
“Oh,” I scoffed. “Well you could have just asked.”
“Damn it, Essie—”
“I’m thinking.” I clicked my tongue. “I’m pretty sure she has green eyes.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, just point her out.”
I gave him a shove and stretched to see through the car’s windows. For a moment, I thought I might have been mistaken, that it was some other lady from New York, but then my heart stopped. It was pretty hard to mistake someone without any eyebrows. “There she is,” I muttered.
“There. In the black coat. Wow, Sylvia really left a mark.” I gritted my teeth.
“That woman? Are you sure?”
“I’m positive,” I said. “Why?”
He squinted. “She doesn’t look too dangerous. Did she insult your clothing choices? Give you a disapproving stare?” He smiled at me, probably looking for a reaction, but I was occupied elsewhere.
“What the hell is she doing here?” I murmured. “Where are we?”
Newspaper shrugged. “Not that far from the city. I do know my way around, surprisingly enough.”
“I would beg to differ—”
“All right, just forget it. What did she say to you?”
I paused. That day in the bar seemed so long ago, and yet how long had it really been? A few days? I shook it off. “Well, Sylvia was asking her to contact someone, which she didn’t seem too happy about. And no, I don’t know who. Then there was something about her sister not being safe, which…” My voice trailed off. “That…would be me, right?”
“Continue,” he prompted.
“We’ll get to that later. Keep going.”
I swallowed. “Right. And then there was some blackmailing. You know, ‘You’d better do what I say, or else.’ Something along those lines.” My thoughts were swimming. “Wait, if they were talking about me, then what does that—”
“Don’t shush me!”
“Essie, shut up. She’s coming over here.”
“Really? Right now?”
“Yeah, I get it. Silence.”
Sure enough, I heard heels clacking over the pavement, then a dreadfully eerie voice. “How much will that be, sir?”
“Fifty dollars, ma’am.” Pause, then, “Hey, I don’t make the prices, sweetheart.” I stifled a laugh just in time.
“That’s fine,” Eyebrows crooned. “I have more than enough.”
“I’m sure you do, ma’am.”
More pauses, followed by shuffling, followed by: “Mister?”
“Did you happen to see a young lady walk through here? Tall redhead, on the bony side, enjoys punching others in the face?” No answer. She tried again. “Freckles, doesn’t talk much?” Still nothing. “Looks all right from far away, but up close it’s better to take a step back? ”
I was rather offended by that last part, but Newspaper was holding my head down before I could even think about saying anything about it.
“Haven’t seen anyone like that, ma’am,” the employee replied. “An’ if I did, I surely don’t remember. Anything else?”
“No, that’ll be all. Thank you for everything, mister.”
It didn’t take that long until the sound of the car speeding away. After a coast check from Miller, I got myself to my feet, where the toothless guy was looming over me.
“Lost an earring?” he asked, grinning.
I grimaced and opened the car door for Jack to get in. “Found it! Have a nice day, sir.”
The employee looked kind of confused that I was opening and shutting both doors before entering, but he didn’t ask any questions. “You too, miss.”
It probably took him a few seconds to realize the wheel was turning by itself, and by then we were already blocks away.