C.C. Hunter: When Life Hurts, Love heals.
C.C. Hunter's Books
Books In The Order They Were Published (Word doc download)
The first exciting novel in a brand-new series from New York Times bestselling author C. C. Hunter!
Her dad’s job is with the dead . . . and he’s bringing his work home with him.
Once again, seventeen-year-old Riley Smith is the new kid in school and her dad’s career has her back to being dubbed a freak. Truth is, she’s a much bigger freak than her classmates think. The only company she keeps these days is the dead who follow Dad home from work. She can see them. She can speak to them. And Fate seems to think she can help them solve their last problems so that they can move on to the other side. Which is odd, because with the loss of her mother and her father’s alcoholism, she’s got enough problems of her own.
But nothing could prepare her for the next tormented young spirit who darkens Riley’s door. The young woman’s death wasn’t the accident everyone believes. Soon Riley finds herself face-to-face with the killer and her only protection comes in the form of another spirit, Hayden, a boy her age with a heart-melting smile and understanding eyes that make her feel safe. If she can escape becoming the killer’s next victim, Riley knows she’ll have to help Hayden move on too, but what if she can’t let him go?
For thrills, chills, romance and laughter, preorder The Mortician’s Daughter: One Foot in the Grave today.
Can I go to jail for this?
The question snakes through my mind as I make my way down Dead Oak Street. The sound of my tennis shoes smacking against the cracked sidewalk fills the cold, almost-dark night. I pull my hoodie closer and hold my purse to my side like a weapon.
A full moon makes its appearance early, hanging in the sky that's still clinging to a spray of gold left over from the sunset. I chose this time purposely, hoping everyone would be in their houses eating dinner, doing homework… not out watching for strangers trying to slip something into their mailbox.
Getting caught isn't an option. Never mind if it's illegal—though it shouldn't be, I'm doing them a favor—it would bring questions down on me that I'm not prepared to answer. That I'll never be prepared to answer.
I spot an address on the street curb. My heart thumps and vibrates against my breastbone.
Three houses to go.
I keep moving and, staring down, remember the old song lyrics, Step on a crack, break your mother's back. Since my mom's dead, I don't have to worry. But what was the second chorus? Step on a line, break your father's spine.
Maybe I should avoid lines. Dad has enough crap on his plate. Crap I wish I could help him with, but I don't have a clue how to do that.
Taking a deep breath, telling myself this favor is almost done, I keep walking toward house number thirteen. Why did it have to be an unlucky number?
Homes on each side of the street line up like dollhouses and seem to be watching me. Some of them are dark, and have a menacing look. Others have gold light leaking out of their windows like love lives there. Through one, I see a TV airing the evening news. Through another, I spot a family of four having dinner. I wonder what it would be like to have that. To be part of a family. To be more than just "Dad and me." The before-Mom-died memories are so few, and even those are vague. Considering I was four, I guess I'm lucky I have any at all.
Only one house to go.
I see the house. It's dark as if no one's home. The mailbox catches my eye. It's leaning, looking tired and old. The metal door flap is hanging open.
This might be my lucky day.
I reach into my purse and pull out the envelope.
The tightness in my chest releases. I can do this.
I take the last few steps, avoiding cracks and lines. A dog barks from across the street. The barking rings like a warning, announcing a stranger is present. And I'm the stranger.
The yowling grows loud as if the animal is approaching. I accidently let the envelope slip from my fingers. I look over, hoping I'm not about to be mauled. The dog's in the middle of the road, yelping, alerting the neighborhood.
I stomp my foot, and the canine scurries back across the street.
Heart pounding, I kneel down, snatch up the letter, and slip it into the mailbox.
Done. Problem solved. I can go home now.
And so can you, Bessie.
I look up at the bowl of darkening sky. Right then I see a shooting star race across the night, leaving a trail of glitter in its wake. I smile. I know what it means. A rightness enters my chest.
Before I take my first step away from the mailbox, I hear something… someone.
"What are you doing?" The girl's voice rings out.
The rightness is shattered.
I freeze and pray her words are for someone else. Then I see the dark shadow sitting on the edge of the porch, almost hidden behind the hedges. It's from house number thirteen.
The air locks in my throat, a jolt of pin-prickling pain races under my skin.
I am so caught.
The figure pushes off the porch, walking toward me.
I consider running, but my feet feel nailed to the sidewalk. Panic fills my empty stomach.
Even worse is that when she gets closer, I recognize her. Dark hair, light olive skin, dressed in black.
I don't remember her name, but I have two classes with her. English and history. She keeps to herself. Not coming off as shy so much as… a loner. Maybe even someone with a chip on her shoulder.
I saw her roll her eyes at some girls who were being loud and obnoxious in history today. I wanted to roll my eyes too. Their behavior was out of line.
"What are you doing?" she asks again.
Yup. I am so caught. So screwed. My mind races, seeking an answer she'll believe. One that would completely avoid the truth. Not that she would believe the truth. Sometimes I still don't believe it.
I gulp down the knot of panic in my throat. "I, uh... A piece of mail had fallen out of your mailbox."
That sounded convincing, didn't it? I pray she believes me. Pray she hadn't seen the envelope in my hand before I'd dropped it.
Her brow pinches. "Oh." She stares at me, recognition widens her light green eyes. "Aren't you the new girl at school? Riley, right?"
I nod. The fact that she remembers my name when I don't recall hers makes me feel slightly guilty. "Yeah. Sorry I don't remember yours."
"Kelsey," she spouts out matter-of-factly, not in an insulted kind of way, more like in a don't-give-a-damn way. Then she continues to stare at me suspiciously. "You live in the neighborhood?"
"Two blocks over," I say. "I was just... taking a walk." I swallow, again feeling the need to get the hell away from there. Away from her.
"I should... go." I'm ready to step away when I hear a truck pull into the driveway across the street. Doors open and slam closed, and male voices boom out. I look over. The streetlight is on, and I recognize one of the two boys. Jacob Adams. Tall, light brown hair, and an oh-so-confident way of carrying himself that most boys his age don't have. He laughs at something the other guy says, and the sound seems swallowed by darkness.
The fact that I know his name says something. It says he's one of the best-looking boys at school. But it's not just that. He's also one of the few kids who's actually spoken to me in my first ten days of school. Not a whole conversation, but just a quick introduction and welcome to Catwalk, Texas. Surprised the hell out of me.
The two boys, almost too loud for the night, go inside the house, and silence falls on the street again. I can hear the streetlights buzzing, spitting out voltage. I feel a similar nervous buzzing inside me.
"So that's why you're here." Kelsey makes a disapproving noise from the back of her throat.
I don't understand what she means at first, and then bam! I get it. She thinks I'm stalking Jacob. I start to deny it but then realize I could use this. It's a plausible reason for being there. One that has nothing to do with the real reason. And really, what do I care if she believes I have a thing for Jacob. I kind of do.
"Don't waste your time," Kelsey says. "He's going out with Jami Holmes. Popular, big boobs, and a cheerleader."
Yeah, I kind of knew that too, which is why I wouldn't have bothered stalking Jacob even if I'd known where he lived. I try to think of something to say, but nothing comes out. So I just shrug.
She reaches into her mailbox and pulls out the envelope I just placed there along with two or three other pieces of mail. "But he is nice to look at," she says. "If you like his type."
"Yeah," I say like a confession, and wonder if that's what she was doing, hiding on her front porch. Stalking Jacob.
She holds the mail in one hand and gives me one more look. "See you around."
It feels as if I'm being dismissed. I can take a hint. I walk away. As I hurry back to my house, I wonder if Kelsey is kin to Bessie. Bessie is black and Kelsey's skin is much lighter, though her dark hair and olive complexion could mean she's of mixed race. We're all melting pots. Dad swears he's part Italian.
I'm a block from my house when I feel it. The sensation of being watched. The fine hair on my arms stand up. My skin tightens. My next breath brings in the scent of... I inhale again... of jasmine.
I don't think it's Bessie.
I speed up, hoping whoever it is will take the hint. Right now, all I want is to get home. Not that it feels like a home yet. We've only been in this place two weeks.
The temperature drops. Chills start at the base of my neck and slither down my spine. A new scent—this one spicy, earthy, like aftershave—fills my next breath of air.
I hug myself, watch my feet move, and increase my speed. One foot in front of the other, faster, and faster.
* * *
By the time I cut the corner to my block, the strip of gold has faded from the sky and the moon hangs bigger and brighter. I look down the street. Dad's car is parked beside my old Mustang in the driveway.
Crap. He's probably worried. I start jogging, my feet slapping against the pavement. The second I reach the driveway, my phone rings.
It's probably Dad. I check. Duh, of course it is. No one else calls me. Well, Shala, my best friend who I left in Dallas a year and two moves ago, occasionally calls. But like Carl, the one-time love of my life, she's moved on. She found a new best friend, leaving me pretty much friendless.
Moving when you're in high school is hard. Everyone already has their confidants and cliques. Add that to what my dad does for a living, and in their eyes, I'm a freak. Or at least a freak's daughter.
Not that I'm pissed at Dad or consider him strange. I'm proud of him. Very few people can do his job. I'm not even really pissed at the kids either. Truth is, I'm not just a freak's daughter, I'm a bigger freak than they could ever guess. Than anyone could guess. But that's my secret.
I bolt inside. "I'm here."
Pumpkin, my red tabby, rushes me, meowing. I pick him up.
Dad walks out of the kitchen, his cell phone in his hand. His dark hair is disheveled as if he ran his fingers through it one too many times. He needs a haircut. Normally, he's as groomed as a guy giving the six o'clock news—camera ready.
Another sign that things are going downhill. Again.
"Where were you?" he asks.
"Walking." It's not an out-and-out lie, but the twinge of guilt tugs on my conscience.
"Alone?" he asks.
"Yeah, just checking out the neighborhood."
"I prefer you do that when it's light," he says. "Or at least leave a note. You scared me."
"It was light when I started out. And you're a little early. But I'm sorry." I put Pumpkin down and go right for a hug. He hesitates, then puts his arms around me.
His smell is so familiar, so comforting. How long has it been since I hugged him?
"Seriously, don't scare me like that."
"I won't." I keep my cheek on his warm chest. Even with his life in chaos, he hasn't stopped parenting. I appreciate that. Not that I'm one of those kids who needs a lot of parenting. Shala used to say I needed to lighten up. That I acted like a nun.
I reminded her that I wasn't the virgin, but she wasn't referring to sex. She meant stuff like drinking, smoking weed, and skipping school. Stuff most kids do. I've never been like most kids.
To make her happy, I finally played hooky a couple of times.
"You okay?" my dad asks when I pull back.
I guess the hug was a little too much. "Yeah. I got dinner ready."
He follows me into the kitchen, but frowns and puts a hand on his stomach. "I ate one of those twelve-inch sub sandwiches, when I should have stopped at six. But I'll sit with you while you eat."
"You should eat a little something," I say. "It's beef stew."
"If I get hungry, I'll fix myself a plate later." He grabs two waters from the fridge and sits at the table. I'm not hungry either. The earlier panic took a bite out of my appetite, but I snag a bowl and dish myself a small helping from the Crock-Pot.
"How's school?" Dad unscrews his water and pushes the other toward me.
"It's okay. The new semester starts next week." I run my spoon around the chunks of beef, carrots, and potatoes before I take a bite. Pumpkin leaps up on the table, landing with feline grace.
"Down," Dad orders.
Of course, Pumpkin doesn't obey. He's a cat. I pick him up and set him down. Then I drop a piece of beef from my bowl onto the floor.
Dad sees me and shakes his head. "You're too soft."
Guilty. I hate disappointing people or even pets.
"You still planning on taking auto tech?" he asks, and almost sounds disapproving.
"I don't know. I mean, I wonder if there are even any other girls taking it."
"I don't care. I'm not scared of boys."
"You should be. All teenage boys are dogs. I know. I used to be one."
"I'm not afraid of dogs either." As sad as it is, I kind of agree with him. I mean, look how fast Carl moved on.
Dad frowns. "I don't want my little girl to grow up to be a mechanic. You're going to college."
I roll my eyes. "There's nothing wrong with being a mechanic. They make a killing. But for your information I'm not interested in being a grease monkey. And I am going to college." I say that with confidence, because I've already researched school loans.
The one time I brought up getting a school loan, he said no, that he could afford it. But I know after his time on the unemployment list, money is in short supply.
Which is part of my reason for taking auto tech. I don't want Dad to have to fork out money to fix all the little things that go wrong on an old car. The more I know about the Mustang, the more independent I am. And I kind of like my independence.
But eventually going out on my own means I'll be leaving Dad alone. Who'll watch out for him?
Pumpkin paws at my leg, wanting another taste. I ignore him.
"Besides, you probably already know everything the class covers," Dad says.
"Because I had a good teacher. But I could still learn a few things." I smile. He's right. I spent a lot of time under that car—with Dad. He put himself through college working for a garage. Together we redid the Mustang's engine. It was my fifteenth birthday present. Our neighbor had put a for-sale sign on the car, and the moment I saw it, I wanted it.
Not because I'm a car freak, or a Mustang freak. But I'd seen a picture of one my mom used to own. Honestly, I didn't plan on getting my hands dirty working on that car. At first Dad insisted, and then he didn't have to insist. Not because I enjoyed working on the car, but because of how much I enjoyed spending time with him.
It was our first real bonding experience. Before that, I'd always gotten a feeling Dad didn't know how to parent a daughter. My first bra and the whole starting-my-period experience almost killed him. And not once has he said the word "sex."
Working on that Mustang gave us something in common.
"Speaking of cars," Dad says, smiling, "I'm about to make your day."
"Yup. I got your insurance card in the mail."
"Yes!" I do a little victory dance in my chair. When he lost his last job, he had to cut the insurance on my car, so I haven't been able to drive it for almost two months.
"So I can drive it to school tomorrow?" I ask and squeal a little.
"Yeah." He chuckles. "You and that car."
Thrilled I don't have to walk to school anymore, I dish a big bite of stew into my mouth and taste it for the first time. It's good. "You sure you don't want a bowl?"
He sips his water. I eat. The almost empty echo in the house reminds me how big it is. All our houses in the past have been small, older. They seemed to fit us better.
"Have you made any friends at school?" Dad asks.
I almost lie, then decide against it. "Not really."
A sudden puff of steam rises from my bowl. A chill runs down my spine. I continue to eat and ignore it. Pumpkin hauls ass out from under the table and darts under the sofa.
Dad frowns. "You should put yourself out there more. Make some friends."
I point my spoon at him and force my eyes to stay on him. Just him. "Says the man who never puts himself out there."
"I'm around people all the time."
"Dead people don't count." I lift a brow and take another bite.
"Not just dead people." He turns the water bottle in his hand. "Did you get into the honors classes you wanted for next semester?"
"I think so," I say. Good grades mean a possible scholarship. I'm going to need one.
My next intake of air brings with it a hint of jasmine. I remember smelling it earlier.
Dad leans back in his chair. "There's an antique car show going on downtown this weekend. I thought we'd go. Hang out. Talk cars with people."
"Great idea." I finish my last bite of stew and go rinse out the bowl and put it in the dishwasher. Then I pull out containers to store the leftovers.
I hear his chair scrape across the floor. "I'll put the stew away."
"I can do it." I take a deep breath. The jasmine scent is stronger now.
"Don't you have homework?" he asks.
"Yeah, but it's not—"
"Then go. You do too much around here," he says. "You should be hanging out with girlfriends and not taking care of a household."
"I don't mind."
He steps closer and brushes my hair off my cheek. "I swear you look more and more like your mom every day."
I'm surprised at his words. He hardly ever mentions her. Right then I see a familiar sadness in his light brown eyes. I go in for another hug. A short one.
When I pull back, I look at him. "You still miss her, don't you?"
"A little." He turns back to the Crock-Pot, away from me. Maybe away from what he's feeling.
I fill Pumpkin's food bowl. The cat comes running. I stare at Dad's back. Even his posture seems extra sad.
"How was work today?" I ask, wondering if that's the problem. Hoping that's the only problem. He swears it doesn't affect him, but I know it does.
"The same." He moves to the counter and lifts the lid off the Crock-Pot. A big puff of steam rises. He looks back. "Go do your homework. I'll close up the downstairs. I think I'm going to retire early with a book."
I stand there and watch him pour the stew into two bowls. "Did you get a new client today?"
He frowns up at me. "I told you, a mortician should never bring his work home with him."
But Dad does bring his work home with him. Or maybe his clients just follow him. Like right now.
The young woman stares at Dad, looking as if she's walked out of the yellowed pages of an old photo album. She appears confused and lonely, wearing an orange sundress and jasmine perfume.
Dad can't see her, can't talk to her.
But I can.
Before I go upstairs, I give Dad a shoulder bump, afraid three hugs in a night might be too much. Then I grab a handful of cookies and head upstairs. Once I'm at the landing, I turn and look to see if she's followed me.
She hasn't. But Pumpkin has.
The woman will find me sooner or later. They always do.
It started happening about a year and a half ago, right before we moved from Dallas. At first it freaked me out. Like really freaked me out. But then I realized not one ghost had done anything to hurt me. I'm not sure they could.
Or maybe I just want to believe that.
Most of them just want to talk. Some of them need something. A favor. But that's okay, because I always ask a favor of them too.
So far, none of them have been able to help me. But I still help them. And it's not always easy, either.
Like the favor for Bessie.
She'd bought life insurance six months ago, but neglected to tell her daughter.
I couldn't go up and just tell the family that Bessie had insurance. So I copied and pasted the insurance logo from their website so it'd look legit. I printed a label, addressed the letter to Bessie, put the policy number at the top. I wrote the letter as if it was a reminder to her that they were still waiting for her to pick up a copy of the policy.
I was going to just mail it, but since I'd stolen the logo I feared sending it through the US Postal Service might make it a federal offense. Instead, I spent an hour last night drawing a postmaster seal to make it look like it had been mailed. Then I spent another thirty minutes forging the company president's signature which I'd found on the website.
I thought it looked quite convincing. It's one thing I'm good at: drawing, copying things. Not usually forging signatures. But now I realize that if anyone questions it, Kelsey might be able to point a finger at me, since she'd seen me outside the house.
Great! Something else to worry about.
I get to my bedroom door and leave it open.
Returning to my bed, I sit. Wait.
I'm barely situated when she appears. She looks pretty in the dress. Her hair is blond, hanging in a nice neat wave. Confusion mars her lovely face. I'd had a spirit, an elderly man, last year that hadn't realized he was dead. Giving that bit of news was loads of fun. Not.
I'm hoping this won't be a repeat of that case.
"You can see me, can't you?" she asks.
I nod. When it first started happening, I tried pretending I didn't. But something always gave me away. They'd move. I'd jump. They'd talk. I'd listen.
I discovered it's easier to just deal with them, to get them to pass over. That's the best part. Seeing them go. They are all different. Bessie was that falling star. Some of them become a bolt of color. I can't really explain the feeling, but when I see them cross over, there's this sensation like... I did something really good. Like I've just checked off one item on Destiny's to-do list.
Truthfully, this isn't anything I would have chosen. But that's kind of the point. I didn't choose it. It chose me. And for that reason, it feels like fate. As if turning away from it will screw up some underlying purpose for my life. This doesn't stop me from sometimes resenting it.
The woman gets tears in her eyes. She's young, but older than me. Maybe in her twenties.
"Is he your father?" she asks.
"He's a nice man."
They all tell me that. That he respects them when he drains their blood, and when he fills them back up with embalming fluid. They say when he gets them ready for the funeral he takes his time. Looks at photos of them and tries to get it right. They tell me he even talks to them, but he never answers them when they talk back.
I get up to close the door, so Dad won't notice me talking, but then I hear it. The sound. That little noise.
My chest fills with a heaviness. I lean against the doorframe and fight the tears stinging all the way up my sinuses.
Who knew the sound of ice filling a glass could be so sad? Sad because I know he's pouring himself a drink. Probably the first of many tonight.
This morning I had to wake him up before I went to school. Normally, he beats the sun up. He looked as if the sun had already beaten him up, but at least he went to work. Would he tomorrow? Is he going to mess up and lose this job, too?
He's a good man. He's the only family I have. I love him, but I'm pretty sure he's an alcoholic. And I don't know what to do.
He's so proud that he's hiding it from me. He's so afraid to let me down. And he is. He's letting himself down too.
Anger stirs my gut. I'm tempted to storm downstairs and rip open his secret, try to stop him, but I'm afraid he'll just drink more then. At least if he's hiding it from me, he's not drinking all the time.
I shut the door and turn to face the ghost, but she's gone.
That's fine. I'm not really up to talking right now. I need to figure out how the hell I'm going to help my dad.
* * *
Two hours later, I've finished my cookies, my homework, and my pity party. And I'm no closer to figuring anything out. I go to take a shower. A short one. Wet but clean, I step across the hall with a towel wrapped around me. I can't help stopping to listen for the sound of the fridge spitting out more ice. Thankfully, only silence whispers up the stairway.
I try to tell myself that he's okay. He's not drinking too much. But from what I've heard about alcoholism, even one drink is too many.
He's never told me he's an alcoholic. I read about it in Mom's diary. I found the small leather journal in a box tucked away in a closet when we moved last year. There were only a few months' worth of entries, but I treasure every word.
The older I get, the more I ache to know everything about her. Did she hate fish like I do? Did she cry at a drop of a hat when she was on her period?
When I told Dad I'd found her diary, he'd seemed upset, but he didn't ask me to return it. And I didn't offer. I kept the photographs, too.
Dad had given me a few photos a couple of years before when I'd asked him about her. I still wonder why he didn't give them all to me then. Does he still miss her that much?
I step back into my room. Pumpkin stands on the edge of my bed, his orange hair puffed up around his neck, his ears tucked back to his head. I know what that means.
"She's back," I say and turn around. Then I see... not her, but him. I almost scream. Air bubbles up in my throat.
I don't even know why I'm so startled, except I was expecting it to be the same woman in orange. It's not.
He's standing there, a good foot taller than me, dark brown hair, blue eyes. Young. My age. Eyes wide. Eyes that are checking me out.
I suddenly feel naked. Oh, hell, I am naked, except for a strategically placed towel.
"Get out!" I look down to make sure all of my important parts are covered. Unfortunately, the towel is small, and either my top or my bottom is going to be a little compromised.
His eyes lift up, wide with surprise, and he... smiles.
"Hi," he says.
Hi? You don't say hi when someone yells for you to get out! I scowl at him.
"Sorry," he says, which is better, but he doesn't sound sorry. He doesn't look sorry. He looks happy. Like I'm a present that's already unwrapped.
"I said get out!" I even stomp my foot like an angry two-year-old.
He fades. Only then do I realize another reason I was so startled. He was different. For a fraction of a second I thought he was... real. Alive.
All of the spirits in the past looked like faded photographs, aged and kind of yellowed. He wasn't faded. He was... bright. He was... too young to die.
I hurry to my closet, shut myself in there, take a few deep breaths, then pull on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt.
When I step out, I look around. He's not there. Pumpkin peers at me from under my bed skirt.
"Is he gone?" I ask my cat as if he might answer.
Then I smell it. That same scent I got earlier when walking home. Aftershave. Or deodorant. They all come with their own scent. Each different, like a fingerprint.
But this one is almost familiar. It's a boy smell. A cute-boy smell.
Carl used to smell similar after he showered. I used to really like that scent. When I take another deep breath, I also detect a hint of jasmine.
Oh, crap! Does that mean I have two spirits? I've never had two at a time. I'm not sure I can handle that.
* * *
"Have a good day, Sweetie." Dad squeezes my shoulder and picks up his briefcase and lunch bag. "Be careful driving. I left the insurance card on the coffee table. You have enough lunch money?"
"Yeah. Thanks," I say without enthusiasm and spoon some Lucky Charms into my mouth. I'm still pissed at him.
Although I didn't have to wake him up this morning—he was packing himself some stew for lunch when I came down—he appears to be dragging. I'm not an expert on hangovers, but I saw Carl moving around like a sloth a couple of times after indulging in too many beers.
When Dad walks out, I spoon-chase a pink marshmallow around my bowl, then just drop the utensil with a thump on the table. What am I going to do about him?
I sit there listening to Pumpkin crunch on his kibbles. Then bam, I realize I'm not relying on the go-to source that's helped me through most of life's issues—my first period, sex, how to use a condom—hey, I wanted to make sure Carl did it right.
Yup, Google had saved me. I run upstairs, sit at my desk, and type in "alcoholism." Ten minutes later, I'm more confused than when I sat down. It's not that there's not any advice. There's too much.
And reading it makes me aware that I have no proof that Dad's drinking. Or that he's really an alcoholic. I only read it in a diary written before I was born. Yeah, I heard the ice last night, I know he lost his last two jobs after showing signs of irresponsibility—sleeping late, calling in sick—all of which he'd never done before.
But is that enough to draw this conclusion?
Other than the two job losses that he swears were due to other issues, I have no proof. I've never seen him so much as consume a beer. Never seen him stumbling, slurring his words. Never even smelled it on him.
I need proof. But maybe I don't have it because I haven't looked for it.
Snagging my backpack, I run downstairs, drop it on the table, and rummage through the cabinets. Nothing. No liquor. No evidence.
I turn around and stare at Dad's closed bedroom door. I move toward it, reach for the knob. Turning it is so hard. This is Dad's room. He's a private man. Invading his space feels... wrong on every level.
Something else feels wrong, too. Silence. So silent I hear the living room clock counting time. Tick. Tick. Tick. It seems to be the only sound in the house.
My heart starts to keep beat with the tiny sound. The slight thump in my chest makes me realize I've stopped breathing. My gaze shifts to the clock on the living room wall.
If I don't leave for school now, I'm going to be late. That's all the motivation I need to let go of the doorknob. Later.
I cut off the kitchen light, throw my insurance card in my backpack, and fly into the entryway.
And come to a rubber-sole-skidding halt.
He's standing in front of the door, blocking it, looking too bright, still smiling. I inhale to confirm his scent. It's there. Still familiar. The aroma takes me back to being close with Carl. Back to being intimate with Carl.
"You going to school?" His voice is deep, almost husky.
"Yeah," I manage, and rub my thumb and index finger on the backpack strap hanging off one shoulder.
He leans against the wall, as if he plans to stay there and visit with me for a long time. "What grade are you in?"
"Twelfth." I realize in my haste to leave, I forgot to brush my teeth. With my luck, I've got a green marshmallow stuck to my pearly whites. I run my tongue over them.
His smile widens. "So am I."
Am, not was. He's speaking in the present tense. Does he not know he's... dead?
The way his blue eyes study me reminds me of how he stared at me almost naked last night. As if he might be envisioning me like that right now.
"We need to... set some rules. You can't just..." I'm tongue-tied, nervous, cute-boy kind of nervous. That's so wrong. Talk about two people being incompatible. "You can't just pop—"
"What's that saying about how rules are meant to be broken?" He grins.
I frown, tighten my eyes, and glare at him.
"Just joking," he says teasingly. "What's your name?"
"Riley." I hitch my backpack up higher on my shoulder. "Yours?"
He pauses one second. "Hayden."
It's different, sort of like him, so I guess it fits him. "I... gotta go."
He tucks his hands deep into his jean pockets. His shoulders round. The muscles in his arms bulge out just a bit. Yup, it's definitely cute-boy kind of nervous that I'm feeling.
"Okay," he says.
Pumpkin hisses behind me.
"Stay away from my cat," I mumble and motion for him to step away from the door.
He inches to the side but not quite enough. Not that it matters—he's not flesh and blood. I switch my backpack onto my other shoulder and head out. I'm one foot out the door when I realize what happened. I felt him. Not like a person, but a light touch as if someone brushed a feather across bare skin. And... he wasn't cold. Why wasn't he... ice cold like the others?
I shut and lock the door. Run my hand over my tingling shoulder. Then, with my heart doing double time, I hurry to my car.
I start the car and drive away. Riding shotgun is the question: What makes this boy so different from all the others?
I fret about Hayden the whole drive. Now, really close to being late, I take the first school parking spot I can find, unbuckle, grab my backpack and get out. I turn and lock the car. One bad thing about an old car: no automatic locks.
As I'm pulling the key out of the door, I hear steps behind me, and then, "Wow." Followed by, "Is that your car?"
"Yeah," I mutter and swing around, feet ready to run. But the second I see who's standing there, my size sevens aren't so worried about being late.
Jacob and... I think the guy who was with him last night... stand a few feet from me. Jacob is staring at me. His friend is staring at my Mustang.
"Hi," I say and pull out a special smile reserved for good-looking guys. Or I should say, good-looking living guys. I didn't smile at Hayden.
"Is it a four-speed?" Jacob's friend asks.
He stares at me as if shocked. "You can drive a manual?"
I nod. It took almost two months and every ounce of patience Dad has for me to master it, but they don't need to know that.
"Does it have a 289 engine?" The friend moves closer to the car.
"No, just a 200, straight six. But I'm not complaining."
He stops staring at my car and now is studying me the way a boy studies a girl. "Tell me you know how to work on it, and I'm going to put a ring on your finger."
A little flattered, but mostly embarrassed, I laugh. Now if it was Jacob saying that…?
The school bell rings.
"Gotta go." I start walking.
Obviously not worried about being late, they both linger to check out my car some more. Before I push through the school doors, I look back... at Jacob, not so much his friend, even though both of them are easy on the eyes.
Not as hot as Hayden.
The instant the thought wiggles through my mind, I reject it and give myself a mental kick in the ass.
I must really be desperate if I'm getting the hots for a dead guy.
* * *
Having flushed most of my Lucky Charms cereal down the garbage disposal this morning, I feel my stomach gnawing on my backbone by lunchtime. I snag a slice of pizza, fries, and a fudge cookie, and try not to count the carbs. Shala, who used to have a bit of a weight problem, was a walking, talking carb meter, and even after all this time, I can still count carbs as fast I can eat them.
It's a good thing I don't gain weight easily because I've never a met a carb I could resist. From the pictures of my mom, she was naturally thin, too.
I hand the cashier my money. She lifts her face. Her blond hair is in a ponytail, and some of it hangs in front of her face, almost as if she's trying to hide. She tucks the loose hair behind her ear, her blue eyes meet mine, and she smiles. I remember her kind of doing that yesterday, too. It's a different kind of smile. As if she recognizes me. Probably has me mixed up with someone else.
"You are extra bright today," she says.
I look down at my navy shirt and jeans. I don't understand what she means, but I smile and take my change. As I walk away, I feel her gaze stuck to my back.
She's an odd duck.
It's only when I look and see my peers, all sitting in groups, laughing and chatting like friends do, that I remember how much I hate lunch period. Why is it that you're never as lonely by yourself as you are in a crowd?
I head to a spot at the end of a table with several empty seats. I'm seated and taking a good long sip of my water when someone drops down next to me.
I almost choke on my H2O when I see it's Kelsey. My first thought is that she's here to confront me about the letter, which causes my appetite to take a dive. I set my water down and wait for her to start accusing me.
But she doesn't even look at me, just starts forking at her salad.
After a few awkward seconds, I throw in the towel and say, "Hi."
"Hi," comes the one-word echo.
She's mentally immersed in her food tray, and not me, so I pick up my pizza and take a bite. It's cardboard with tomato sauce, but the cheese makes it edible.
"Word is you're cool as shit," she says, still studying her salad.
I swallow. "What?"
"Your car. Jacob and Dex were talking about it in math."
Dex must be the other boy.
"I'm not cool as shit," I say. But I remember that almost the same thing happened at the last school. My car makes a big impression on some people. But then they find out my dad is a mortician, and my cool status bites the dust.
Does he have to touch 'em? Does he hug you when he comes home from work? What does he do with the blood he drains from their bodies? Does he smell like dead people?
Verbal jabs have been tossed at me for as long as I can remember. I've basically come to the conclusion that there are some careers that should require sterilization. And mortician is one of them. The only other person who got teased more than me in school about their father's career was Marla Butts.
Her father was a proctologist. The man could have at least changed his name.
"You lived here long?" I ask, a little curious as to why she doesn't seem to have friends.
"A year." She forks a cherry tomato, holds it up and stares at it. "Where did you move from?"
"Dallas." I pop a fry into my mouth. It's cold, but salty and greasy.
"I'm sorry," she says.
Say what? I study her eyeballing her fork. "Sorry for what?" I don't think she's looked at me since she sat down, and it feels weird talking to someone who seems more emotionally invested in a cherry tomato than our conversation.
"Dallas," she says.
"You don't like Dallas?"
She pushes the tomato off her fork and stabs a piece of lettuce. "No, it's great. I lived right outside of Dallas for eight years. I'm sorry for you having to move here. This is a sad, screwed-up, boring town."
I don't know what to say to that, so I just shrug. Not that she sees it. Her attention is now on a cucumber she's chasing around her bowl.
"Why did you move here?" she asks.
I flinch at the question.
"My father's job."
Please don't let her ask what he does. I'm not ready for that. And knowing my dad works at the funeral home where Bessie is might connect me to the letter.
"What brought you here?" I toss out, hoping to distract her from the career question.
"My mother got tired of her latest live-in boyfriend beating the shit out of her."
I don't know what to say to that either. But I force out a "Sorry."
"I'm not. Not that she left him. Just sorry that my grandmother lived in this half-ass town."
So, Bessie was her grandmother? I pick up the pizza and as I do I see her bracelet. It reads, Black Lives Matter.
"Do your parents like it here?" She's still not looking at me.
"My dad seems to." I hesitate and, sensing she's about to ask, go ahead and say it. "My mom passed away when I was young."
"That sucks." She pauses and then asks, "Does your dad give a shit about you? Word is mine never did."
It's strange to be talking about personal stuff with someone I don't even know. Yet, for a reason I don't understand, I'm compelled to answer.
"Yeah, he does." For all of my problems with my dad, I know he cares about me. And if what I believe is true, it's himself that he doesn't care enough about. For some reason, I feel the need to look up. My gaze goes straight to the cashier, who is staring at me. What's with her?
"My grandmother just died."
Kelsey's confession yanks my attention back to her. Is that sadness I hear in her tone, see in her eyes? Then I realize she's looking at me for the first time.
"Sorry." I mean it. I liked Bessie. And while I don't know what it's like to lose someone—I don't remember losing Mom—I know what it's like to not have someone. To miss them. To feel as if there's an empty spot in your life.
She continues to stare at me. It suddenly feels like too much. I take a bite of my pizza.
"Or did you already know she died?"
I jerk my gaze back to her. She knows. Damn it! She knows. I swallow the half-chewed bite of pizza. A big lump rolls down my throat. "Why... why would I know that?"
"Because everyone is talking about it. She died of a heart attack at the grocery store."
"I'm sorry about that. But... I didn't know. I don't talk to anyone." Except the dead. I swear I feel the half-chewed glob of pizza hit my mostly-empty stomach.
She continues to look at me, and for some reason I don't believe her. Not about how Bessie died. That makes sense. The first time she came to me, she was holding a can of English peas. What I don't believe is Kelsey's reason she thinks I know about Bessie's death.
Or maybe I'm just being paranoid.
The bell rings. She tosses her napkin onto her lunch tray.
I do the same. "I'll see you in history," I say.
"No, you won't," she answers and looks at me again. "I have a funeral to attend." She stands up, her eyes stay on me. "I'll say hi to your dad."
I swallow empty air. "How do you know…?"
She just smiles, then turns and walks away.
* * *
Pumpkin greets me in the entryway when I get home. Which normally means the house is ghost-free. I kind of hope it stays that way. I've got too much rolling around in my mind.
I'm clueless as to how Kelsey knows who my dad is. Well, there's my last name, but face it, Smith is about the most common name there is. I just hope she doesn't suspect my involvement with the letter.
As I move in and toss my backpack on the sofa, my gaze goes to my dad's bedroom door. I recall my earlier determination to figure out if he's drinking. I don't have a clue what I'll do if he is.
Crap. I'm jam-packed with cluelessness.
I stand there staring at the door, again feeling it would be an intrusion into his life. But don't I need to know? I'm about to take a step closer when my phone dings with a text.
I pull it out, thinking it might be Shala. In that second, I consider confiding in her about my dad's problem. We used to talk about everything. Well, not about the ghosts, but everything else.
I kind of need a voice of reason. I need a friend.
Then I look at the phone. It's not Shala. It's Dad.
You home from school safe?
I type Just got home.
How did the car drive?
Like a dream.
He texts Don't cook dinner. We'll order pizza. Stew was good. Thanks.
He sounds so normal. So okay that I turn away from the door and go give Pumpkin his after-school treat. Then I grab some Rice Krispies Treats for myself. Twenty-five mouth-watering carbs. Yum.
Stomach happy, I grab my backpack and head upstairs. I barely have any homework, but I might as well get it out of the way.
Half an hour later, I'm finished with homework and lying back on my bed watching the ceiling fan spin. I let out a deep breath and think about Kelsey at her grandmother's funeral. I'm sad for her.
She didn't come off as grief stricken but I'm pretty sure I caught a touch of it in her voice. It hurts to lose people.
I roll over and look at the framed photo beside my bed. It's one I found in the box with Mom's things. A picture of two pairs of feet, one adult and one child, both with wet-looking painted toenails. When I first saw it, I swear I remembered that day. Remembered Mom painting my toenails. Remembered how she smelled like sunshine, like love.
Crazy how you can miss someone you barely remember. But I do. I miss her so badly it hurts sometimes.
Exhaling, I pop up, run to the bathroom, find my nail polish and a towel, and head back to my bed.
I clip my toenails, place my feet on the towel on the bed, and paint them a mellow pink. I look back at the photograph, at Mom's polka-dotted toe design, and I reach for the second nail polish and start adding polka dots to my toes. That's when I feel the temperature drop. My mind goes to Hayden. A slight nervous flutter happens in my gut and I look up.
It's not Hayden, but the blond-haired woman. Pumpkin leaps off the side of my bed and goes to hide in my closet.
She's staring at my toes. I finish dabbing dots onto my big toe, then put the nail polish back on my bedside table.
"What's your name?" I ask.
She doesn't answer.
I'm always unsure how to get them talking. But until they do, I don't know if they just need to be told it's okay to pass on, if they have something to get off their chest, or if there's something more. Considering I seem to have two ghosts at the moment, I'm hoping both are easy to handle.
"I know." Her words are a mere whisper that seems to hang in the air.
"Do you know what happened?" I ask, wanting to confirm she knows she's... dead.
She looks at me, her expression now one of desperation. "Bessie said you helped her. I need you to do something for me."
"If I can," I say, careful not to make promises.
"Find my ring. I want my baby sister to have it."
"Where is it?" I say and hear Pumpkin hiss. Poor cat.
"It's in the woods."
"Just find it." She gets tears in her eyes and I see something more than just desperate tears. Fear. She's afraid. She shakes her head back and forth. "It was so wrong."
"What was wrong?" I ask.
"I can't... I just... You have to find it." She's wringing her hands. I can see them trembling.
"I can't find it unless I know where it is." I speak in a calm voice. "Do you know where it is?"
"I know." She paces my room once before she looks back at me. "It's at... Lake Canyon State Park."
"Isn't that in Brian County?" I ask.
I bite down on my lip. "That's a little far away." Dad would freak if he knew I'd driven that far. "I don't know if I can—"
"You have to do it!" Anger brightens her eyes. "Haven't you ever lost anything that's precious? Something that can't be replaced? Something that meant the world to you?"
She fades, but the sound of her crying echoes in my head, like a song that won't let go.
My next breath brings an overwhelming sadness, accompanied by fear, exploding fear that crowds my chest. It comes on so fast, so cold and so harsh, my chest hurts. The fear accelerates. Panic I don't understand claws at my insides.
Gasping, I put my hand on my chest. This has happened before. Sometimes I seem to take on their emotions, but this time is stronger. I can't handle this. I... can't breathe. I feel as if someone has their hand over my mouth. I reach for my face, but there's no hand. I keep gasping, but there's no air to be found.
I feel myself being sucked into some dark place. Black spots like fireworks pop off in my vision. Shit! Now am I the one who's going to die?