We drove for hours and hours, across pastures and lawns and barns, and somehow, even though the sun was up, we were still in the middle of nowhere.
“We’re lost, aren’t we?” I piped up, stifling a yawn. It was the first time either of us had spoke since getting into the van.
“We are not lost,” he said, gritting his teeth. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Oh, really? Because I could have sworn I saw that cow a few minutes ago. Where are we going, anyway?”
He rolled his eyes. “Would you just relax? We’re almost there.”
I groaned. “And by ‘almost,’ you mean—”
“Almost,” he said firmly.
I pouted and leaned against the car window. I was tired beyond belief, but even if I closed my eyes there was no way I was falling asleep any time soon. After all, how can you get a good night’s rest when your roommate (no, sister, I corrected stiffly) just told you that you can see ghosts, and moreover, you’ve got one acting as your own personal chauffeur.
“Wait a minute,” I said.
He glared into the steering wheel. “Yes, Essie?”
I hesitated, trying to pick out the right words. “So, if you’re right about all this ghost stuff, and I’m really the only one that can see you, then what about all the people outside, watching the car go by? Don’t they think no one’s driving it?”
He shook his head, a smile spreading over his face. “Why do you think I drive so fast over the speed limit?”
“I’m serious,” I said seriously.
“I’m serious too,” he said seriously. “I’ve been driving around for years and no one’s ever pulled me over. You could call it a lucky record, but I prefer a combination of talent and wit.”
I shrugged and settled at the window again. “I’d go with a lucky record.”
As the time passed, I found my eyes begin to sag. I knew there was still a zero chance of sleeping, but why not humor myself?
Well, it turned out I had gotten enough humor for a lifetime.
“Would you stop that?” Newspaper snapped.
I perked up, startled and annoyed. “Stop what?”
I frowned. “Why?”
“Because if I see you sleeping, then it’s going to make me tired. And if I’m tired, I’ll fall asleep. And if I fall asleep—”
“Then we’ll die. I get it.” He winced, and I quickly added, “I mean, not we exactly. Just me.”
“Ha, ha.” Newspaper cleared his throat. There was a silence. Then he asked, “So what’s your favorite color?”
I eyed him with half amusement, half suspicion. “Why would you care?”
He glared at me. “I don’t. Just trying to make conversation. And, you know, save you from crashing to your death.”
“How chivalrous,” I retorted sarcastically. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here right now.”
“As opposed to what? Being sandwiched in between Sylvia and Gigantor?”
I sighed. “I guess you have a point.”
“Of course I do.” He scratched his ear. “So what’s your favorite color?”
I started to smile, but caught myself just in time. “Green,” I said. “You?”
“That’s not a color, it’s a shade.”
We argued about that for another hour. And as much as I didn’t want to admit it, it was kind of nice to yell at him, just like old times. Before I had walked right into an episode of The X-Files. For those few minutes, I was able to forget that my mind still hadn’t fully processed everything, that part of me was still convinced I was about to wake up in my own tiny apartment, the blankets kicked over the side of the bed. I was so engaged I barely looked around. Finally, when he had given up and taken on yellow as his new favorite color, I let out a gasp.
“Oh my god,” I said in a hushed voice. “Is that a person?”
He followed my gaze. “Looks like it. And as luck would have it,” he glanced at the car’s monitor, “we’re almost out of gas. Want to get a bite to eat?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Did a ghost just ask me out?”
He smirked. “I hope not, because I left my tuxedo at home.”
I tried to picture him in a tuxedo, but couldn’t. “I think I just threw up a little,” I moaned.
His rolled his eyes and his smirk widened. “Come on.”
We pulled over by the side of the road, and he got out of the car and into the street. Sure enough, there I saw the beautiful sight of civilization. There were restaurants, and office buildings, and even a giant fountain in the middle of the square. I stopped for a second to admire it all, and I could have cried with relief.
“Hurry up!” Newspaper called, and I grumbled and ran ahead. “Essie,” he said, as I struggled to keep up, “you still don’t believe me, do you? After all of this. You still think you’re going to wake up.”
“No, I…” My voice trailed off. “Well, I don’t know.”
“Well then.” He turned back and shot me a halfhearted grin. “How about some real proof, huh?”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“See those people?” He pointed along the street, where there men and women and children going about their everyday lives. It was a bit of an odd sight, most likely because it seemed like so long since I had seen any trace of normalcy.
“What about them?” I asked.
He squared his shoulders, but his smile shrank a little. “Ten bucks says they’re not Outriders.”
I shrugged. “So?”
“And if they’re not Outriders…” He glanced at me wearily, like he didn’t want to finish.
“Then they can’t see you,” I said, crossing my arms.
“Exactly. Just like your friend Daphne and your boss and everyone else at work. Outriders are pretty rare, especially around here.”
I glanced at the stream of people. Something about them made me nervous. “I don’t like this,” I argued softly.
“Do you think I like it either?” he challenged, running his fingers through his hair. “You need closure, and I’m going to give it to you.” Then, before I could stop him, he sprinted forward, inhaled, and tapped a woman on the shoulder.
She kept walking without a reaction.
I cocked my head. “Maybe she just thinks you’re a pervert,” I suggested. “Wouldn’t be that far of a stretch, trust me.”
He scowled at me, then gestured to an old man who was perched on the edge of a fountain, reading an old edition of Dracula.
Newspaper gave me a watch-and-learn look, turned around, and sat right next to him. The guy didn’t move a muscle.
“Excuse me, sir,” Newspaper said loudly, waving a hand in front of the man’s face. “I love that book you’re reading!” he shouted theatrically. “It’s one of my favorites!” He looked back at me. “See, Essie? He can’t hear me.”
“He’s old,” I shot back. “Maybe he’s deaf.”
Jack groaned. He searched the street, and settled on a young man, sitting alone outside of a restaurant and eating a pastry. “That guy seems normal enough.”
We neared the table. The man wasn’t that bad looking, I had to admit: dangerously tall with blonde hair and dark eyes. In fact, he was the most handsome guy I had seen for weeks.
I smiled sweetly at Jack. “Wait. I want to try something.”
“What?” he asked, baffled.
“I’ve got this,” I assured him. “Excuse me,” I said to the young man, lowering my voice half an octave. “Is this seat taken?” I stared at him nervously. To tell the truth, I had never really talked like this to a guy before. It was probably due to the fact that the environment I grew up in was far from flirt-friendly. But this guy was cute, and besides, what was stopping me? So I batted my eyelashes a few more times and waited.
The man looked perplexed for a moment, looking me over. Then he grinned. “Hopefully by you,” he said.
I could almost feel Jack rolling his eyes. “Is this really necessary?” he asked with irritation.
“Would you be quiet for one second?” I snapped.
The young man’s eyebrows knitted together. “Is something wrong?”
I cleared my throat. “Not at all,” I crooned, extending a hand. “My name’s Essie.”
He took my hand and pressed it to his lips. “Humphrey,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Humphrey?” Newspaper snorted. “Kissing hands? What are we, in a Shakespeare play?”
I ignored him forcefully. “So do you live around here, Humphrey?”
“Actually, I just moved.” He took a bite out of his pastry and offered it to me.
“Don’t you dare take that, Essie,” Newspaper warned, poking me hard in the shoulder. “It could be spiked with poison, and your sister told me not to—”
I shook him off and stuffed it into my mouth. But I was so determined to piss him off that I took a much bigger bite than I could hold, and I ended up swallowing it down so hard it stung.
“Essie, what the hell are you doing? You could have died. Do you hear me? Died.”
“I’m sorry about him,” I apologized, smiling shyly at Humphrey.
Humphrey smiled back, bemused. “Sorry about who?”
I shook my head. “My um…butler.” I beamed at Jack, and he stuck out his tongue. “The guy breathing over my shoulder. You know, hair that could easily be mistaken as a birds nest, dressed like a small hobo, about five-eight—”
“Five-ten,” Jack growled.
“Five-eight,” I said vigorously. “Does his job well enough, but for some reason he never understood the term ‘personal space.’”
Humphrey frowned. “Sorry, I don’t—”
“Oh, don’t worry. He’s unpaid.”
“Who are you talking about?” he exclaimed.
Slowly, my smile started to fade. “The guy standing right there.” I pointed to Newspaper. Humphrey didn’t respond. I bit my lip so hard it bled. “You can…see him, can’t you?” I asked softly.
The guy studied me with a trace of distaste. “Are you okay?”
“Told you,” Jack whispered, grinning smugly. Then he sat down next to us. “Hold on. Watch this.” He leaned forward, paused for effect, then took a huge bite out of Humphrey’s pastry.
“Hey, you can’t do that! That’s theft,” I hissed under my breath.
“Just shut up and watch,” he snapped.
Humphrey yelped and rose to his feat, his face stricken with fear. “Did you do that?” he asked me. “Make it…lift up like that?”
“Make what lift up?” I looked at Jack, who shrugged.
“W-What in the hell is going on?” he demanded, his voice trembling. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Then Jack snatched the pastry right out of the Humphrey’s hand and flung it to the ground. Humphrey exclaimed in panic. “This can’t be happening,” he muttered. He glanced at me. “How are you doing this?” he cried out. “If you’re messing with me, I swear I will—” He froze. Jack was waving the book around his face. Humphrey’s eyes followed the book in horror. “You are completely insane!” he yelped at me, and he screamed one last time before scurrying away from us, leaving the rest of his things behind.
I watched him go in astonishment. There was a silence, and then Jack advanced towards me, his face sullen. “He can’t see me, Essie,” he said flatly. “None of them can.”
“Well…” I was getting desperate now. “Try him!” There was a man inside the shop, a magazine pulled around his head.
Newspaper gazed at me despondently. I thought he would say no, but he just kept staring at me, and eventually he nodded. “If you want me to,” he said.
We went around half the street, and he prodded and screamed and moved things right in front of my eyes, but no one gave the slightest retaliation. After half an hour, I moaned and sat on the ground in a parking lot, tired and hungry and sufficiently vanquished.
Jack sat beside me, perhaps even more exhausted, but I couldn’t be sure. I waited for him to rub it in my face, how he had proved me wrong, how this dream had become a reality after all, but he didn’t. As a matter of fact, he didn’t say anything at all.
“When did you find out?” I finally asked indistinctly.
He cleared his throat. “Didn’t take that long,” he muttered. “I felt the pain of dying, saw everything go black. I thought it was the end; I was convinced it was, until one day I just…woke up.” His mouth quivered slightly. “It could have been an hour later, or six months, I don’t know. Point is that when I did, I found myself all alone, staring down at my own grave. And that…” He stared at the cars in front of us. “That isn’t a very pleasant sight.”
“But why?” I asked. “Why did you wake up? Does everyone become a…” I remembered the word he had used, “Shade when they die?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said. “I don’t know if I have unfinished business, or some job to do, or…” He chuckled. “You know, I don’t see Outriders very often. I’m sorry I followed you and everything, it’s just…”
“Wait a minute,” I blurted. “Does that mean that…” It was hard to complete the sentence.
“Yes,” he replied, looking straight at me with a grin. “You’re the first real person I’ve properly spoken to since 1993.”
My insides churned. 1993 to now. I was never very good in math, but even I could tell that was a lot of years. I wanted to ask him how he could stand it; how he managed to pass those lonely seconds without completely losing it. Instead I said, “No wonder your sarcasm needs work.”
There was a hush, and for a second I was afraid that I had gone too far, offended him somehow. But then he let out a snort, and a few moments later he was guffawing so hard I thought he might throw up.
I laughed with him gratefully, tossing my head back. To be honest, it was the most fun I’d had in weeks; just being able to laugh and make a fool out of myself without Sylvia in the other room telling me to shut the hell up, or a very prissy group of businesspeople listening in on the other line. If it were up to me, I would have stayed there forever, but pretty soon he cut in, silencing us.
“Hold on,” he panted. “Essie, there is something I do know about…people like me.”
“What?” I asked, the humor now so far gone I could barely remember what it was like.
“First, you should know that there are other ghosts, too.”
My eye twitched. “Other ghosts?”
“I don’t just call myself a Shade because it sounds fancy. I call myself that because if I’m not a Shade then I’m one of them, and…I’m not.”
“One of them?” God almighty, I complained internally. It’s bad enough keeping track of one breed of spirit, but now—
“The people who have the luxury of being killed the proper way. The ones who can ‘rest in peace,’ or so they say.”
I blinked. “As opposed to—”
“The wrong way. Like I was.” He looked shy all of a sudden. “You see, it wasn’t just any guy that shot me in the head. It was my cousin Ray.”
I frowned, wondering where I had heard that name before. Then it hit me. I had drawn a picture of him that day in Zippy’s Oats. Red hair, Jack’s eyes. “What’s so special about him?” I asked absently.
Jack’s face scrunched together. He stood up, brushed himself off, and started to walk away. “He’s dead,” he called after me. “You hungry?”
“Hey, stop!” I jogged at Newspaper’s heels. “You can’t just say something like that and then leave.”
“I’m not leaving,” he argued. “I’m buying you dinner.”
“Miller—” My voice broke off and I went after him into a restaurant called Andy’s Meat Palace.
“I hope you like steak,” he said, dodging the ongoing current of exiting people, “because it appears that’s all they have.”
If I was really being honest, I was starving, but right now, the first item on my list was getting Newspaper to talk, and fast.
I waved at the lady taking reservations. “Table for t—one,” I corrected. “Quickly, please.”
Of course. She led my invisible friend and I over to a dim table in the corner. “Just you?” she asked sympathetically.
I nodded. “Yes, please.”
“Oh.” She seemed utterly saddened by the fact I was by myself.
“Is there a problem?” I muttered sourly.
“No, not all,” the lady assured. “It’s just…if you’re lonely, just call, and—”
“I’m fine,” I said brusquely. Newspaper was trying to hold back laughter and failing miserably. “Anything else?”
“Here’s your menu.” She thrust it into my hands and her eyes bored into mine. “Be strong,” she whispered, then she dashed off to another table.
“Yeah, Essie,” Newspaper mocked as we were sitting down. “Things will get better, I promise.”
“Oh, go screw yourself.” I realized too late that I had been a bit too loud. The people next to us moved their chairs a few inches away.
“So, about you being killed by someone beyond the grave,” I started. “Are we talking A Nightmare on Elm Street, or just some good old-fashioned ghost fun?”
“Very funny,” he murmured. “Look, you Outriders do more than just see.”
“Oh, really?” I challenged, attempting to unfold my napkin, but quickly finding it was like trying to walk up the Penrose steps. “Let me guess. We’re really good spellers as well.”
He began to reply, but pretty soon the waitress returned, her face still pinched in sorrow. “Can I take your order?” she asked.
I gave Newspaper a questioning look. He winked. “Whatever you want, your majesty,” he taunted.
I disregarded his tone and pointed to a few things on the menu. The waitress nodded solemnly. She took my menu with a trace of reluctance and stepped away silently.
A few seconds after she had left, I suddenly realized Newspaper hadn’t gotten a chance to order. “Wait, don’t you want something?” I asked. “I can call her back, hold on—”
“No!” he blurted. I raised my eyebrows, and he faltered a little bit. “I mean, no thanks. I’m good. Not hungry.”
My eyebrows were now so high they could have touched my hairline. “Tough guy, huh?” I quipped. “All systems go without a bite to eat?”
He rolled his eyes. “You could say that.”
I would have let it go, but he was acting dodgier than usual. “What’s going on, Miller?” I sighed. “Don’t Shades eat?”
“Of course,” he snapped.
“But not you.”
Again, the most awkward attempt at playing it cool I had ever seen. Well, I had to give him credit for trying. “Come on,” I urged. “Pretend I’m your therapi…actually, forget it. I’ve had enough of that word for a lifetime.”
He groaned. “Fine. The truth is that if I really wanted, I could eat every single steak in here.”
“But you choose not to?” I pried. “Why?”
“It’s because I don’t…” He gathered his nerves. “I don’t really remember what…” Miller stared at the tablecloth, like whatever he wanted to say would make the restaurant burst into flames.
He cleared his throat and grimaced. “Never mind.”
“Just tell me!” I felt like Daphne had taken over my throat and was now controlling me from within.
He massaged his cheeks while pursing his lips slightly (which caught me off guard, because it was the exact same move I used to pull as a kid when I wanted to awkwardly change the subject), then scowled at me. “So you had questions.”
I scowled back, but took the bait. “About me, yes.”
“Right.” He blew his hair out of his face. “Well, it’s a bit hard to explain—”
I rolled my eyes. “Try me.”
“Fine.” He picked up a fork and started to weave it through the fingers of his hand (fortunately, a move I did not pull in my childhood). “Outriders can serve as a sort of…medium. Or ‘avenue,’ if you want to be pretentious.”
I pressed a palm to my forehead. “No thanks. A medium for what?”
“The dead.” When I didn’t reply, he added, “You know, the dearly departed. The deceased. The perished. The—”
“I get it,” I snapped. “And what is that supposed to mean exactly?”
Newspaper pursed his lips and put the fork down gently. “It means that if you wanted to, say, give a ghost a helping hand and let him enter your magical garden, then—”
“Would you stop with the awkward metaphors and just get to the point?” I demanded impatiently.
“The point is that they can possess you,” he said, his voice suddenly almost a whisper.
I blinked, then stared at him. “Possess me? So you’re telling that old cliché’s real?”
“Yes,” he answered with jurisdiction. “But most of the time you have to be willing, or it won’t work.”
Something about that last part made me extremely uneasy. “M-Most of the time?” I stammered, surprised I was stammering.
Jack exhaled slowly and reached for the fork again.
“Put that down,” I scolded.
He made a face and picked it up.
“Anyway,” he persisted, “it usually works out fine, if the so-called comrades can find it in themselves to…share the load, as they say. But if one starts to overpower the other, if one’s stronger…” I noticed with slight agitation how he had become more than three shades paler during this short speech. “…It can be bad.”
“How bad?” I squeaked.
“Really bad.” The only color left in him was the indecipherable one gleaming in his eyes.
“Here you go, dear,” hummed a voice.
I jumped to my feet with such might that the chair I was sitting in plummeted to the floor, along with my still unfolded napkin.
“Are you all right?” the waitress gasped, jiggling my shoulders gravely. “Do I need to call a—”
“No!” I yelled. “No,” I breathed, setting my chair back up correctly. “I’m just fine, thanks. Never been better.” I gave her the thumbs-up sign.
“Great job, Essie,” Newspaper sneered, his color now fully returned. “Managed to look like a psychopath in under twenty minutes.”
I was about to tell him to suck it, but then I remembered how crazy that would look and I kept the words lodged in my throat. “Is that my food?” I asked sweetly, bringing her attention to the tray, which had overturned in all of the commotion.
The waitress’s face flashed pink. “Oh, yes. Of course. I’m sorry, honey. We will bring all of that right out…soon.” She gulped three times, then bent over to pick it up, muttering, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
I waited with as much phony happiness I could muster while she gathered all of the contents while smoothing her hair down in embarrassment.
“So sorry, again,” she said profusely. “And if you need anything, like a cocktail, or an ambulance, or just someone to talk to—”
I ushered her away briskly. “The service here,” I mumbled. “Appalling.”
“I don’t know, I kind of like her,” Newspaper remarked, shrugging. “She really gets you.”
“Ask her out if you want. I’ll wait here.” I grinned smugly. “No, sorry. Shouldn’t piss you off or you might hop into my body and start making me do the Macarena.”
“That would be a sight to see,” he said, a touch more wistfully than I felt like hearing. “Unfortunately, Shades can’t possess people. Probably a good thing, too,” he pronounced. “We’d have way too much fun.”
I was confused, and not mildly. “But you said—”
“I said ghosts could use an avenue. I’m not a ghost, remember?”
“Why is this all so complicated?” I whined. “Why can’t people just pass on when they die?”
Jack licked his lips. “I don’t think you get it. Most people do. I mean, you don’t see a bunch of ghosts playing bingo in the corner when you pass a graveyard, do you?” He hesitated. “Or do you?”
“Haven’t had that pleasure, no,” I replied.
“In any case, you don’t rise from the grave unless you want to. Or unless you’re a Shade. We don’t really have much of a choice.”
Suddenly, I remembered what he had tried to tell me before. “You said you were killed by…” I paused and for once, I didn’t have to ask. “That’s why you’re different. You weren’t killed by a living person, or a ghost for that matter. You were killed by a ghost who’s inhabited an Outrider.”
He raised his fork in a salute. “Ten points for Essie,” he congratulated. “Figured one out all on her own.”
I buried my face in my water glass and took a long sip so I didn’t have the honor of seeing his repugnant smile.