The Ghost and the Goth Excerpt–Chapter Two
Laughing at the dead is never a good idea. But I couldn’t help it. The great Alona Dare, reduced to a crying, runnynosed bobblehead? How often do you get to see stuff like that?
Not often. Unless, of course, you’re me. Lucky, lucky me.
But it was also me who, above anyone else, should have understood that laughing at someone else’s expense always comes with a karmic price.
“Mr. Killian.” Principal Robert “Sonny” Brewster greeted me as soon as my foot crossed over the threshold into the school. “Glad you could join us today. Though you seem to
be running late . . . again.”
“I’m not–“ I protested.
Brewster pointed at the ceiling, and, as if he’d willed it, the bell rang.
“Late,” I muttered.
Behind me, Erickson and Joonie scrambled to get through the door and to class, leaving me to deal with Brewster again. Joonie gave me an apologetic look over her shoulder, but I didn’t blame her or Erickson. They were just glad he’d decided to focus on me and leave them alone. After all, they were just as late as me, but apparently, they didn’t set off Brewster’s “freak-detector,” as he called it, like I did. I found that a little hard to believe, considering the number of piercings Joonie wore in her face and how bloodshot Erickson’s eyes were. But, for whatever reason, I was just Brewster’s favorite.
Brewster smiled, an expression that did nothing to soften the hardness of his face and the brutal line of his buzz cut. Former military all the way, that was Brewster. Oh, and don’t forget barely repressed homophobia, testosterone driven violence sprees, and a hard-on for following rules because they are RULES.
“I think it’s time we have another conversation about your future, Mr. Killian.” He caught his hands behind his back and rocked back on his heels.
“Again? People are starting to talk.”
His hand snapped out, snatching the shoulder of my sweatshirt and crushing the cloth in his fist. I stumbled toward him under the force of his grab. His dark eyes gleamed with fury and eagerness.
“Go ahead,” I said. If he hit me, he’d be fired. He knew it. Everyone knew it. There’d already been a couple of complaints against him for his temper. So what if I helped him along a little? My life would be so much easier with him gone.
He released me and wiped his hand down his suit coat, like touching me had covered him in slime. “My office, now.”
He stalked across the main hall toward the administrative offices without even checking to see if I followed. It was tempting to ditch and leave him sitting there alone, but I only had a few weeks left. Just twenty-eight more days, and I’d be eighteen and a high school graduate, both conditions for accessing the little bit of money my father and grandmother left me. Once I had that, I’d be out of here, bound for someplace with only a few people and, therefore, even fewer ghosts. Like some deserted island . . . or Idaho.
If Brewster suspended me, that would be the end of that plan.
So, I followed him, as he’d instructed. I just took my own sweet time about it.
See, here’s the bullshit about high school, and believe me, I’ve had plenty of time to think about this. Teachers, parents, guidance counselors . . . all of them are always pushing this crap about how it’s okay to be different, just be yourself. Don’t give in to peer pressure, blah, blah, blah. The truth is, it’s really only okay to be yourself if that self is within an accepted range of “normal.” You like soccer instead of basketball, Johnny? Well, okay, I guess, so long as you still like sports. What’s that, Susie, you want to wear the blue sweater instead of the red? You know we’re all about expressing individuality here . . . so long as it’s still a sweater.
How can you expect any of us to believe that it’s okay to be different when even the adults don’t believe it? Just because the popular, so-called first-tier kids look “normal” and say the “right” things, no one even looks twice at them. Ben Rogers supplies weed for most of the school, but has he ever been searched? This year alone, I’ve been called to Brewster’s office twelve times and had my locker searched once a week.
Brewster was waiting at the door of his personal office when I finally made it to the secretary’s desk. I could see his jaw muscle twitching from where I stood.
I nodded at Mrs. Piaget, the school secretary, who smiled in return but quickly looked away. She always had a soft spot for me, probably seeing all the notes over the years for various doctor appointments and illnesses, but even she knew better than to challenge Brewster.
Brewster slammed his office door shut as soon as I stepped inside, nearly clipping my shoulder in the process.
“Backpack,” he demanded, his hand out.
Oh, please. I resisted the urge, barely, to laugh at him. I’d learned a long time ago that backpacks were, for all intents and purposes, seen as school property. You’d never find anything illegal in mine.
I slid the pack off my shoulders and handed it to him, and then I dropped into one of the blue plastic visitor chairs in front of his desk.
“Who said you could sit?” he demanded.
I shrugged and didn’t move. He’d be far too interested in catching me with something in my backpack than to force the sitting issue right away. I’d been through this routine enough times to know that.
Brewster unzipped the bag and dumped its contents on the immaculate and polished surface of his wooden desk. From the shine on that sucker, Brewster had been working off some serious sexual frustration.
I leaned back in my chair, tilting it back up on two legs. “Do you polish it yourself? That must take a lot of wrist action.”
His gaze jerked up from the now untidy pile of folders, papers, and books to gauge my expression.
I opened my eyes wide, the very picture of innocence. “What?” I’d long ago mastered the art of keeping my true feelings to myself. Trust me, you see the dead walking around, you learn not to scream, laugh, or piss yourself pretty quickly.
“You think you’re clever, Mr. Killian?”
I shrugged. “Not particularly.” I knew it irked him, though, because he’d seen my test scores. Thirty-two out of thirty-six on the ACT last year, and I’d totally blown the curve on all the standardized tests they could offer. I couldn’t help it–just one of the few, very few, benefits of my gift. After all, it wasn’t hard to remember history when I was surrounded by people who’d lived it, and the ghosts who hung around the school all the time were often bored enough to read over your shoulder and do the homework aloud with you, even if no one could hear them. No one, except me, of course.
“You’ve only got a month left here, and then you’re out in the world, far beyond my reach.” He began shuffling through my stuff, like he was looking for something.
Dude, there’s nothing to find, I could have told him.
“And yet, Mr. Killian, I’ll feel like a failure as an educator–“
“Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself, Mr. B., everybody fails sometimes.” I couldn’t believe he was handing this to me. “Some people more than others, though, I guess.”
He gritted his teeth, and the knuckles on the hand gripping my physics book turned white. “I’ll feel like a failure if you don’t leave here without at least one lesson learned.” He dropped the book back on his desk and dug into my backpack again, this time the small pocket in the front. “Ah,
here we are.”
He dropped my iPod nano on the desk with a careless clatter, the tiny headphones trailing after it.
“Hey, watch it!” I set my chair on all four legs again with a thump. The nano (I’d nicknamed her Marcie after the logical and brainy chick in the Peanuts cartoons) was my lifeline these days.
“The lesson being,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken, “that you can’t always have your way.” He scooped up Marcie, wrapped the earphones around her, and dumped her into his top desk drawer. “No music for a week.”
“You can’t do that,” I said immediately. My palms began sweating, itching for the cool comfort of Marcie in my hand. “I have a medical condition that–“
“Oh, yes, Mr. Killian, I know all about your “˜illness.'” He smiled, all too pleased at having gotten a reaction from me. “Twice-a-week visits with your shrink, during school hours, no less. Permission to leave class as needed. Music allowed during your lessons so the “˜voices'”–he waggled his hands near his head–“don’t bother you.
“But do you know what I think?” He closed the drawer with a snap and pulled a key ring from his inside suit-coat pocket. “You’re a bad seed. Somewhere along the line, you figured out how easy it was to fool everyone and coast through life with a “˜disability.'” He separated a small silver key from the jumble on the key ring and locked the drawer. “But you don’t fool me.”
Without Marcie, I was toast. The dead talk all the time, even when they think no one is listening. The noise is overwhelming, not to mention the effort it takes not to respond.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. Going to class, walking the halls without my music . . . I’d be curled up in a corner somewhere before first hour was even finished. The week Marcie had been gone, getting her battery replaced, my mother had nearly signed the commitment papers then and there.
I couldn’t let that happen again. I’d have to take the risk with Brewster.
Brewster shook his head, tsking. “Too much coddling at home and self-indulgence in these flights of fancy. If your mother had sent you to military school as I–“
“Like your grandfather sent your father to military school, hoping they’d beat the fairy out of him?” I asked, unable to believe that the words were slipping out despite everything I’d vowed. He really should have left Marcie out of this.
Brewster’s face turned white and then red.
I tensed in my seat but kept my voice steady. “It worked for a while too,” I continued. “Till your mom died and he retired to Florida where he met this nice neighbor guy, Charlie–“
Brewster didn’t even bother to come around the desk. He shot out of his chair, his hand stretching out to close around my throat.
I shoved the chair back in the same instant, and his fingers caught nothing but air.
“You can hear me.” Brewster’s dead grandfather–young again and dressed in his World War II uniform–gaped at me from his seat on the highly polished wooden credenza next to the desk. His unfiltered cigarette, still burning, fell from his mouth to the floor and rolled to a stop next to my foot.
I ignored Grandpa Brewster and the cigarette with the practice of many visits to this office. Brewster’s grandfather hung out here most of the time, talking to his favorite grandson, willing him to mend fences with his father while there was still time for them to have a decent relationship, something he’d never managed while he was alive.
That was the key with the dead. Ignore them long enough, and they’ll give up. Oh, they won’t stop talking . . . ever, but they’ll stop expecting you to respond, figuring what they took for awareness was just a fluke.
“You retarded little pervert,” Brewster spat. “You don’t know anything. My father is a good man.” He charged around the desk toward me.
I tensed, ready to move, and faked an easy shrug. “I’m sure he is. He’d probably be horribly disappointed to hear his son got fired for trying to choke a student.”
“What do you think you’re up to, kid?” Grandpa Brewster demanded. He’d recovered enough from his shock
to slide off the edge of the credenza and stand over me. “Messing with my Sonny like that?”
I met Brewster’s glare without flinching. “Give me my music back, and none of this happened.” It was a gamble, but he’d backed me into a corner.
His jaw clenched furiously, and I could see him working through the alternatives. “No one else saw anything. There are no marks on you. It’ll be my word against yours.”
“True,” I said, pretending to consider the possibility. “But at this point, I wonder if it’d take much more than words to convince the school board? I heard it was a really close vote last time.”
Brewster stared me down, but I refused to look away. Then, the pungent stench of something burning reached my nose.
Automatically, I glanced to the floor, searching for Grandpa Brewster’s cigarette, and found the rubber edge of my Converse high-top smoldering, a tiny blue flame lapping at the side. “Shit.” I jumped up, twisting my foot against the carpet to put the fire out.
“Will you look at that?” Brewster’s grandfather said with a note of awe in his voice. “I’ll be damned.”
“No kidding,” I muttered. With the smoke from my shoe lessening, I paused long enough from my extinguishing efforts to grind out the cigarette beneath my heel. A cigarette Principal Brewster couldn’t see.
I stopped and looked over to find him watching me, disgust spreading across his face.
“Pathetic,” Brewster sneered. “Do you really think I’m going to fall for your “˜crazy’ act?” Of course. From his perspective, I’d jumped up from my chair to scuff my shoe against the carpet for no apparent reason. Story of my life.
Brewster shook his head. “You tell the school board anything you want. No one is going to believe you.”
Unfortunately, he was right about that. I had a slight credibility problem these days.
“I could call my mother.” I winced inwardly. God, there was just no way to utter that sentence with any kind of dignity.
“If you do, you’ll know she’ll pull you out of here in an instant and dump you in the nuthouse.” His gaze dropped down to my feet and the carpet. Only Grandpa Brewster and I could see the scorch marks. The damage to my shoe was real enough in this world, but unless someone touched the melted rubber on the side of my sole to find that it was still warm and freshly burned, it could have happened anytime. “I’m beginning to think that’s where you belong.”
“Then let me have my music back. It . . . helps.” I stole a quick sideways glance at Grandpa Brewster, who still stood next to me, silent for once as he watched our exchange. That couldn’t be good.
Brewster smiled, an expression of his I’d learned to dread. He turned (“About-face!”) and strode to his office door, pulling it open. “Mrs. Piaget!” he barked.
Something crashed, and I heard the sound of pencils or pens clattering as they hit the desk and rolled off onto the linoleum floor. “Uh, yes, sir?”
“Write Mr. Killian a pass to class. Tell his first-hour teacher he is not to have any kind of distraction during class, including music. Then, make sure the rest of his teachers know as well.”
“But, sir, he has–“
“That will be all.” He closed the door with a snap.
“I could skip class,” I pointed out as he returned to stand behind his massive desk. It wasn’t like I’d never done that before. I still managed a 3.4 GPA.
“I could recommend expulsion,” he said.
Dr. Miller, my psychiatrist, would be thrilled. It would give him just the excuse he needed to make the more permanent arrangements he felt I needed “to be safe.” Translation: a steady lithium drip and a kid who eats gravel as my roommate.
“What is your problem?” I demanded. “I’ve never done anything to you.” Until today, obviously. But he’d held this grudge from the first instant I’d met him.
“Isn’t it obvious, Mr. Killian?” He began shoving my books, notebooks, and folders back into my backpack any which way, crumpling pages and tearing paper. “You are an insult to every student here making a real effort. You’re a bad influence on otherwise responsible and well-behaved children, like young Miss Turner.”
I felt sucker-punched at the mention of Lily, but I refused to let it show. “That was a first-tier party.” No way in hell I was there. She shouldn’t have been either.
Brewster ignored me. “Not to mention, you’re a disruption and a distraction with all of your “˜special needs.'”
“You say that to all the sick kids?”
He paused, sensing trouble from a new direction. Public schools weren’t allowed to discriminate . . . for any reason.
“You’re not sick, Killian. You’re troubled, maybe, and desperate for attention anyway you can get it, including manipulating your mother and digging through my trash to find out about my personal life. But you are not sick.”
I rolled my eyes. Why did people always think it was the garbage? Like they wouldn’t have noticed someone headfirst in one of their trash cans at the curb. I couldn’t remember how many times I’d had this argument. “What could you have possibly thrown away that would tell me your father is gay and–“
“You think you’re so clever. It’s my job to teach you that you aren’t, prepare you for the real world.” He chucked my now full backpack at me, but I caught it before it slammed into my gut.
“What if I’m telling the truth? Did you ever consider that?”
“It’s just a bunch of nonsense you’ve sold to that quack your mother takes you to.”
Actually, Dr. Miller had diagnosed me as schizophrenic–a real disease that was in the medical books and everything–but that wasn’t what was wrong with me. The voices I heard and the things I saw . . . they were real, even though no one else could see them. As far as I knew, medicine didn’t recognize that condition. Popular culture did, thanks to TV shows like Medium and Ghost Whisperer (Jennifer Love Hewitt is hot, but that show sucks ass) and various movies.
But try telling one of the three adolescent psychiatrists in the dinky town that is Decatur that you see dead people. See what happens. It’s called a twenty-four-hour involuntary commitment.
“We’re done here.” Brewster stepped out from behind his desk and jerked his door open. “Get to class.”
As much as I hated being in his office, it was safer here than the hallway or even the classrooms. The fewer living people in the room, the fewer dead follow. In here I only had Grandpa B. to deal with, but out there, I’d be surrounded, engulfed, drowning in a sea of people dying to be heard. One of them in particular also seemed willing to kill me to get his point, whatever it was, across.
The thought of confronting him without Marcie or anything else to serve as a distraction made my palms damp with sweat. If he found me here and now, exposed like this, I’d be lucky if I ended up in the psych ward.
“Look, I only have a few weeks left here.” Focusing on a splotch of white on the nubbly carpeting where someone had obviously tried to bleach out a stain, I forced the words out, keeping my gaze down. I couldn’t stand to see him gloating. “I want to be out of here as much as you want me gone. Just let me have my music back. Please.”
“Means that much to you, hmm?” His highly polished black shoes, within my range of vision, rocked back on their heels and then forward again.
“Yes–“ I grimaced and forced the next word out “–sir.”
“Good. Then the consequences of going without will hold some significance for you.”
I jerked my gaze up from the floor to stare at him in shock. “Bastard.”
“Watch it, kid,” Grandpa Brewster muttered next to my ear.
An arrogant smile spread across Brewster’s face. Without taking his gaze from me, he called to the outer office again. “Mrs. Piaget, set Mr. Killian up with an after-school detention as well.”
“Oh . . . okay,” came the distant and faintly dismayed reply.
He gestured to the open doorway. “Time to collect your winnings, sport.”
In the process of hitching my backpack over my shoulders again, I stopped dead. Of all the stupid little names he could have chosen . . . “Don’t call me that.”
“What?” Brewster looked confused for a second before understanding dawned, along with an evil gleam in his eye. Never give a bully more ammunition, I know, but I couldn’t let that one go. I just couldn’t.
“What’s wrong with sport, sport?” Triumph rang in his voice. He’d found a weapon to get under my skin, and he wielded it with glee.
“Why not . . . sport?”
I could have told him the truth–that had been my father’s nickname for me, and hearing it from him with such disdain and condescension made me want to beat his face in. But that would have only given him more to work with. I could also have gone the human rights way–I’m a person with a name, use it–but he wouldn’t care about that. So, instead I went for the more direct route.
“Don’t call me that, or I’ll tell you things that’ll make you wish to God you’d turned your service weapon on yourself that night instead of chucking it in the Sangamon River.”
His mouth worked helplessly, but no words emerged. Brewster had nearly offed himself thirty-some years ago, a few years after he’d come back from Vietnam, a young man who’d seen and done too much in a jungle half a world away. He eventually chucked his gun into the river instead, embarrassed about the fact that he’d even thought about suicide–a quitter’s way out. His grandfather–dead only a couple of years at that point–had been right beside him the whole time. The dead see everything, man, whether you want them to or not, and they tell a lot of it to me, even if they don’t know I’m listening.
“That’s nothing you should be talking about, kid.” Grandpa B. sounded alarmed.
I ignored him and pushed past Brewster to collect my pass, detention slip, and a sympathetic smile from Mrs. Piaget in the outer office.
I was opening the door to the main hall before Brewster recovered enough to emerge from his office, eyes wild, hands clenched at his sides.
“Let’s see how you survive the rest of the year without your special privileges, you little freak,” he spat at me, but he didn’t come any closer. Good enough for me.
“Bob!” Mrs. Piaget turned to stare at him.
Ha. It would be a miracle if I could make it an hour. But at least, when they carried me out, he wouldn’t be calling me sport. I nodded. “You’re on.”