The Ghost and the Goth


The Ghost and the Goth

The Ghost and the Goth Novels, Book 1

After a close encounter with a bus, Alona Dare goes from homecoming queen to Queen of the Dead. She’s stuck as a ghost in the land of the living with no sign of the big, bright light to take her to a better place. To make matters worse, the only person who might be able to help her is Will Killian, a total loser outcast.

More than anything, Will wishes he didn’t have the rare ability to communicate with the dead, especially the former mean girl of Groundsboro High. He’s not filling out any volunteer forms to help her cross to the other side, though it would bring him some welcome peace and quiet.

Can they get over their mutual distrust—and quasi-attraction—to work together? Readers of this spirited paranormal comedy won’t want this odd couple to ever part.


Music

When I’m writing a book, or even before I start, I usually find a song, an album or an artist that I listen to for the entire book. Obsessively. Something in the words or the music just speaks to whatever emotions are going on in the story. For THE GHOST AND THE GOTH, I have to thank my friend Ed for introducing me to Tegan and Sara.

Below is the playlist I listened to the entire time for G&G, from my first full page of notes, all the way to the edits I made in the wee morning hours before sending the manuscript to my agent. There were other songs, of course, along the way, but this was the core.

I suspect Tegan and Sara is a bit more Will’s style than Alona. But if Alona could get past the whole “bad hair and screechy independent rock” thing, which would doubtlessly be her first impression, I think the lyrics would appeal to her. Particularly “You Wouldn’t Like Me” and “Where Does the Good Go?”

Anyway…check it out and see what you think. All of them are available on iTunes.

P.S. “I Know, I Know, I Know” was featured in a fabulous episode of Veronica Mars. And “Where Does the Good Go?” was on Grey’s Anatomy.

Playlist for THE GHOST AND THE GOTH

Downtown by Tegan and Sara
Fix You Up by Tegan and Sara
I Know I Know I Know by Tegan and Sara
I Won’t Be Left by Tegan and Sara
Not Tonight by Tegan and Sara
Speak Slow by Tegan and Sara
Take Me Anywhere by Tegan and Sara
Walking With a Ghost by Tegan and Sara
Where Does the Good Go? by Tegan and Sara
You Wouldn’t Like Me by Tegan and Sara

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Alona Dare

Dying should have been the worst moment in my life.

I mean, hello, getting run over by a school bus full of band geeks while wearing the regulation gym uniform of red polyester short shorts and a practically see-through white T-shirt? It doesn’t get more tragic than that. Or, so I thought.

On Thursday, three days AD (after death…duh), I woke in the usual way—flat on my back and just to the left of the yellow lines on Henderson Street with the heat of a bus engine passing over my face.

It wasn’t “the” bus, obviously. The one that killed me was probably still being repaired or maybe decommissioned or whatever they do with vehicles that now have bad juju.

I coughed and sat up, waving the hot plumes of bus exhaust away. I know, weird, right? No lungs, no body, no breathing, but hey, whatever. I don’t make the rules, I just live here…sort of.

I got to my feet just in time for Ben Rogers’s Land Rover (his dad owns a dealership…lucky) to pass right through me. I flinched, but it didn’t hurt. These days, nothing did, but it was taking a while to get used to that. Ben, of course, didn’t notice a thing, just kept jabbering on the cell phone pressed to his ear. He couldn’t see me. Nobody could.

If I seem pretty calm about this whole being-dead thing, it’s only because I’ve had a few days to adjust. The first twenty-four hours? Definitely not among my best. Listen, if anyone ever tries to pull that whole “I had no idea I was dead until I turned around and saw my own gravestone” cliché on you, they’re lying.

First of all, headstones, as they’re properly called, take months. Especially special order Italian rose-marble ones with weeping angels on top. Second, if standing by your own crumpled and limp body on the street isn’t enough of a clue, try following it to the hospital and watching a hassled and tired-looking emergency-room doctor pronounce “you” dead, even as you’re shouting at him to listen to you, to please look at you. Then, how about when your dad finally arrives at that cold little room in the hospital basement, where the hospital people show him “you” on this grainy and horribly unflattering closed-circuit television?

I tried to talk to him. My dad, I mean. He couldn’t hear me. Nothing altogether new about that. Russ Dare only hears what he wants to hear—or so he always says. That’s what makes him such a good corporate negotiator…or a complete bastard if you listen to some people. But this time, he wasn’t ignoring me. I could tell—his eyes weren’t doing that squinchy annoyed thing at their corners. And then he started to cry.

My dad–the one who’d taught me that “show no emotion” is the first rule of getting what you want–stood in that tiny antiseptic-smelling room alone, his face gray under his golfing tan, and tears lighting up like silver streaks on his cheeks in the flickering fluorescent lights.

That’s when I knew. Even before he said, “That’s her,” in this choked-up whisper that was nothing like his normal booming voice. I was dead. Maybe not all of me—after all, some part of me was still here and watching everything happen. But it was definitely my body on that television screen, covered by a crisp white sheet, looking smaller and frailer than I’d ever seen myself, and my hair all tangled and snarled around my too-still face.

That had been the breaking point for my dad. Even as the hospital people had shoved forms at him to sign, he’d asked over and over again, “Someone will fix her hair? She doesn’t…it’s not like her to look like that. She would hate it.”

I drew in a deep breath (ironic, I know) and shook my head. None of that mattered now anyway. Sometime soon, very soon, a big bright light was going to shine in the distance and suck me in. Then I’d be living the life–or some imitation of it–of sunbathing on a white sand beach with NO sunscreen, nonvirgin mojitos, and an endless selection of shoe stores where everything was free. Hey, it was heaven, right? Before that happened, though, I wanted to see everything I could. A girl only dies once, you know?

I rounded the corner to the parking lot with a spring in my soundless step and realized that for the first time in my…well, for the first time ever, I couldn’t wait to get to school.

People always assume that being popular and pretty makes high school some big playground. Shows how stupid people can be. When you’re homecoming queen three years running, varsity cheerleader cocaptain, and first attendant on the prom court as a junior, there are certain responsibilities and expectations that must be met. The slightest variation–talking to the wrong person; wearing the same sweater that a geek, in a rare moment of fashion consciousness, wears as well; buying a burger instead of a salad–can tip you into obscurity or worse.

Case in point: Kimberly Shae. Kim had everything going for her—a rich family, flawless Asian features, and a metabolism that let her eat anything and still stay light enough to remain at the top of the cheerleading pyramid.

Like most of us in the inner circle, Kim got drunk, or pretended to, at all of Ben Rogers’s weekend woods parties. Except, this one time, Kim drank too much, or at least enough to forget one of the major popular girl tenets: drink enough to be silly and flirty, not enough to be stupid and horny. Someone with a camera phone caught her in the act with her longtime crush and our host, Ben Rogers, behind the school-spirit tree.

Yeah. All the guys would have killed to be in Ben’s place, and not a single girl at that party could honestly say that she hadn’t fantasized about doing the same thing. (Ben’s been considered the most eligible guy in our class since the third grade, and consequently, every girl dreamed of being the one
to break him.) But getting caught? That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Pictures circulated within hours, and as of Monday morning, Kim knew better than to sit with us in the caf. She relegated herself to one of the second-tier tables. Our cafeteria doubles as an auditorium, with a big stage at the front of the room, so there are steps and levels built right in.

The closer you are to the orchestra pit–the smallest, most exclusive level–the more popular you are. I’d worked hard pretty much my whole life to maintain my status at the pit table (a disgusting name, but not my idea, so whatever). You can’t just coast on your looks. My mother taught me that, in her own messed-up way. Maintaining the illusion of perfection, and being the envy of every other girl in school, took a lot of time and effort, but I gave it my all, and it was worth it.

I mean, take my funeral yesterday, for example. I’d never seen so many people from my school show up in one place. Outside of school, of course. (Thank God my mother had been too “distraught” to attend the graveside service. Emotional outbursts would have been okay. Vomiting into the flower arrangements…not so much.) Anyway, someone had gotten organized and handed out black armbands with my name puffy-painted in pink on them. They brought flowers and candles and boxes of Kleenex. People I didn’t even really know—like that one chunky girl in pre-calc who always wore these ugly baggy sweaters like they made her look thinner…yeah, right—came and cried over my casket. Well, near it anyway.

I’d even heard talk of a permanent photo memorial of yours truly in the main hall, right next to the glass case of baseball and soccer trophies. (As a varsity cheerleader, I can assure you we suck at football, and if the trophy cases were any indication, we had sucked at it since about 1933.)

It sounds bad, but to be perfectly honest, I felt a little relieved to be dead. Not at first, of course. After I’d gotten over the shock of it, I’d been well and truly pissed for a while.Then again, spending the night in the morgue with your body does tend to make you a bit grumpy. All I could think about were all the things I’d be missing. No more hot fudge sundaes on the sly? No more kissing? Or anything else? I’d died a freaking virgin–that was so not the plan.

But then, the next morning, when I’d found myself transported to the center line on Henderson Street, the sun warm on my face, the roar of the buses overhead, I’d realized something else. All the things I wouldn’t miss. Among them, I’d been dreading the thought of college next year. Starting over, building up followers again, and competing with other girls like me from surrounding schools…ugh,
totally exhausting. Now I didn’t have to worry about it. My popularity was frozen forever at its peak. I felt like I’d crossed the finish line of a race that I hadn’t even known I was running. I’d died before I could ruin my life, and while that sort of tanked, in a way it was kind of great, too.

Anyway, after yesterday’s impressive display of mourning, I couldn’t wait to see what my friends would come up with next. Had my fellow cheerleaders, Ashleigh Hicks and Jennifer Meyer, had time to work on the candle-wax sculpture of my face that they’d discussed yesterday between hiccups and sobs?

I picked up my pace, eager to get to the building and take a look at the main hall before the bell rang and everyone started milling around. All those bodies passing through me–they couldn’t see me to avoid me, and I couldn’t dodge all of them–made me feel queasy.

The first sign of something wrong, though, appeared before I got even close to the main hall. Halfway through the parking lot, I caught Katee Goode, a wannabe popular sophomore (third tier in terms of caf tables), glancing around covertly before pulling off the black band around her left arm and letting it drift to the ground.

The fabric caught the brisk breeze and scuttled across the gravel, finally catching on the rough edge of a rock near my feet so I could read the words: Alona Dare, Rest In Peace.

“Hey!” I called in outrage after Katee, but, of course, she didn’t even twitch at the sound of my nonexistent voice.

I crossed my arms over my chest. Fine. Let her be the one weirdo without the black armband. She’d never make the pit table at that rate.

Except as I watched Katee join her group of stupid little sophomore friends, I realized that none of them were wearing armbands anymore either. The cluster of band geeks (fourth tier, better than math geeks but not as good as science geeks because the science geeks could always be counted on to blow something up), just behind Katee’s group of friends, were also black armband”“less.

My heart started pounding a little harder, and a cold film of sweat covered the back of my neck. For being dead, I certainly still “felt” a lot, and right now, that feeling was complete and utter horror.

I turned in a circle, just to be sure, the gravel strangely silent beneath my heels. But no . . . not a single person in view wore the symbol of mourning they’d all so proudly displayed yesterday. How could that be?

Ignoring the long-held instinct to remain calm and look bored, I bolted for the school entrance and the Circle.

Three wooden benches, donated by alumni, made a U shape around the flagpole out front, and this was the
domain of my people. First tier, all the way. The popular crowd had lounged and lingered here for the better part of a decade, handing possession down to the next group of young hopefuls.

The benches were worn smooth by hundreds of perfect asses–like Ben Rogers’s–and the flagpole had borne silent witness to, like, hundreds of pre-first-hour hookups. All of it took place right in front of the office, too, because we could do that. We were “the good kids.” Let a burner try any of
that, and you’d see detention slips flying. I’m not saying it’s fair, just that that’s the way it works. Everybody knows it.

I arrived at the Circle a little out of breath (yeah, I know, dead! Still…) and a lot closer to the bell ringing than I wanted to. It was harder than usual to get through the crowds of students ambling toward the building. I never realized how much I counted on people recognizing me and getting out of my way. Shame that was over.

As seniors, we finally rated seats on the benches, and my friends had taken their usual places. Ben Rogers was stretched out full-length on the bench closest to the parking lot, his group of would-be concubines encircling him. Seriously, all they were missing were the grapes to hand-feed him, and those big Egyptian fans.

No armband on Ben’s Abercrombie-covered arm, butthen again, he hadn’t bothered to wear one yesterday either.

I wended my way through Ben’s future conquests to find Ashleigh and Jennifer, along with Leanne Whitaker, another senior varsity cheerleader, huddled near the flagpole and texting fashion critiques of the unwashed masses in Target jeans and no-name T’s to each other.

They were armband”“less too.

Swallowing the urge to throw up, I turned in a quick circle, looking for the trademark glossy black hair that belonged to my BFF and cheerleading cocaptain, Misty Evans.

After an endless moment, when my heart would have stopped if, you know, it already hadn’t, I found her on the bench farthest from me, half hidden by Leanne and the others.

I could only see Misty’s left shoulder and the side of her head, her ponytail bobbing as she talked to whoever was next to her. That was enough, though, because at the top of her left arm, I caught a glimpse of familiar black fabric and pink lettering.

With a smile of relief, I started toward her, carefully avoiding Miles Stevens as he paced back and forth talking to Ben and Leanne (who refuse to speak to each other for reasons unknown to the rest of us), and then dodging Ashleigh and Jennifer, who decided to ditch Leanne and leap, giggling and squealing, on Jeff Parker’s lap, nearly crushing his guitar in their hurry to pretend to be his groupies.

Ashleigh and Jennifer had been friends since kindergarten, and they did everything together, including buying matching–or at least color-coordinated–outfits for the entire year. It stopped being cute in about seventh grade, but they’d figured out their gimmick and they were sticking with it, no matter what. Just one of the many reasons Leanne called them the Idiot Twins. To their faces. Their response? “Duh. We don’t look anything alike.” Um, yeah. Leanne might be a bitch, but that didn’t make her wrong.

As it turned out, Leanne wasn’t wrong about much.

“God, Misty’s such a whore. Alona’s not even cold yet,” Leanne said to Miles, just as I passed by.

I froze at the sound of my name. In that moment of distraction, Ashleigh–Jennifer right next to her–darted through me; they were trying to get Jeff to chase them. The sensation of her all-too-solid and warm body passing through me stole my breath and rocked my stomach. But even that was not enough to let me miss Miles’s response.

He snorted. “Alona was cold even before she was dead.”

“True dat.” Leanne grinned at him, her freckled face crinkling by her eyes.

I stared at them, stunned. Neither of them had ever talked about me like that before…at least not to my face. I wouldn’t put it past Leanne to talk trash when my back was turned, but Miles? I was the one who freaking brought him into the Circle when he was new here last year. He was the only black kid in our school who wasn’t an athlete. He’d actually been a member of the chess club, for God’s sake, before I saved him. Not that it was entirely selfless or anything. He’d helped me with trig, and in the process, I discovered his ability to run wicked commentary on just about everyone in school. Including me, it seemed. God, what else had he been saying about me?

“Ungrateful dork,” I said in disbelief.

Years of habit had me striding toward Misty to tell her what I’d overheard, before two very obvious things clicked with me. First, Misty wouldn’t be able to hear me. Second, the Leanne and Miles bitchfest about me had actually started as an insult about Misty. Leanne had called her a whore, something Misty would deny, despite her string of one- or two-week relationships with fraternity boys from Milliken, the college in town. High school boys weren’t worth the effort, according to Misty.

I couldn’t figure out what would have triggered Leanne’s assault on her character. It wasn’t like there were any college guys here or that I would have been interested in any of them, even if there were.

But then, when I finally ducked and dodged my way to Misty, everything became clear.

Misty’s black armband with my name on it stood out crisply on the white long-sleeved T-shirt she wore under her cheerleading uniform top. Her black and glossy ponytail (“Condition with mayonnaise and rinse with beer,” she used to advise me) still bobbed with her movement. But she wasn’t talking. She was kissing. My boyfriend.

“Misty!” I shrieked. Of course, she didn’t react. She just kept kissing Chris in front of the whole school. ONE day after my funeral.

I didn’t know if it made me feel better or worse, but he, too, was still wearing his armband. Misty looked exhausted with dark circles under her closed eyes, and her mascara had dried on her cheeks in long tear tracks. But they were kissing.

“Do you think Alona knew about them?” Leanne asked Miles, her words drifting back to me. “I mean, I heard that’s why she threw herself in front of that bus. She found out and couldn’t face them and everybody knowing.”

“I did not throw myself in front of anything,” I shouted at Leanne, though I couldn’t tear my gaze from Misty and Chris. “It was…an accident.”

“I kept waiting for her to see them, and come here andthrow some big screaming fit.” Leanne paused. “Now, that would have been something, right?” Her voice held as much disappointment as evil glee.

“Please, Alona didn’t see anything but Alona,” Miles said.

Pushed to my breaking point, I turned away from Misty and Chris, feeling like I was going to throw up. It didn’t seem likely considering I hadn’t actually eaten anything in three days now, but I wasn’t about to bet against it, given how things had been going. Cold sweat covered my skin, and my stomach lurched alarmingly. I swallowed hard.

“Why else would she be running away from school in the middle of zero hour?” Leanne continued.

“Shut up!” I bent in half, arms cradling my stomach, and realized I could see through my legs. As in, completely through them, like they weren’t even there. From the knees down, I’d started to disappear.

“No!” I howled. This wasn’t fair. I was being taken away now? Why not yesterday when I could have died, or passed on, or whatever, in happiness? And there wasn’t even a white light…not anywhere!

“Maybe she forgot her backup mascara and had to run home for it,” Miles offered, a sneer in his voice.

I jerked my head up to glare at him. I’d told him about my backup-makeup theory in confidence.

Leanne snickered.

I tried to run, to get out of there, but my legs, half gone as they were, wouldn’t work. I collapsed on the grass, watching the line of invisibility climb to the bottom of my shorts. At this rate, I’d be gone in less than a minute.

Unable to help myself, I turned my head to see my former best friend tangling tongues with my former boyfriend, something that was not even a new development, apparently. How long had they been hooking up? How long had they been laughing at me? Misty knew almost everything about me, stuff I didn’t want anyone else to EVER know. She was the only person I’d allowed to come over to my house for years. Had she told Chris all about it? Had Leanne been mocking me behind my back this whole time? Worse yet, what if people had felt sorry for me, Alona Dare?

Hot tears slipped down my cheeks, but when I reached up to wipe them away…no hand.

“No, no, no. This is not fair. This is such bullshit. I do not deserve this. I did everything right!” I sobbed, losing control completely. Crying ruins your makeup, not to mention the eventual cascade of snot you have to deal with, which was why I’d never allowed myself to shed a single tear in the company of these people. But none of them could see me now, and I’d never see any of them again, so who cared, right?

The bell rang, and everyone around me scrambled to gather up backpacks, purses, and guitar cases. Then they walked right through me on their way to the door. First, Jeff, who was quickly followed by Ashleigh and Jennifer (whose minuscule purses did not have any room to hold any kind of candle-wax sculpture, no matter how small). Then Ben sauntered through with an arm around his two chosen underclassmen virgin sacrifices. Leanne actually stood on me and checked her lipstick in her reflection on the shiny surface of her cell phone.

“Bitch,” I spat.

Chris and Misty, holding hands, did not walk through me, but only because they were already close to the door. And besides, hadn’t they walked over me enough?

With only my head left, I watched as the entire school paraded past me, laughing and joking and worrying about pop quizzes like I’d never even existed. Like I hadn’t just tragically died only THREE days ago.

“This is hell. This must be hell,” I said, my voice nasally and clotted with tears.

As if to confirm that fact, Will Killian, the biggest weirdo loser of all time, looked right at me and smirked as he ambled by, just ahead of his pot-smoking buddies.

“Hey,” I shouted, furious. Like he had the right to laugh at me! Even dead, I was more popular than him. He was total loser material, skin so pale he practically glowed, and shaggy black hair that hung down in front of his creepy blue eyes. Seriously, they were so pale, they were almost white. And hello, he acted like such a freak, always wearing headphones and pulling the hood of his sweatshirt up, even inside the building. Rumor had it he’d even spent a summer in some mental hospital somewhere. There wasn’t a tier of popularity low enough to signal where he belonged. And he was laughing at me?

Killian looked away quickly, hunching his shoulders in his sweatshirt and staring at the ground, his usual antisocial, psycho-in-training behavior.

Wait…wait. Something about that…

I frowned, even though I was pretty sure my mouth was gone, and my thoughts were getting fuzzy. If he was laughing at me, that could only mean that he could see me. And that meant…

Chapter Two

Will Killian

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.”

Brewster froze.

“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.

“Don’t.”

“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.”

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