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“No ghost put that photo on a tree.” He says this as if it’s an inarguable fact that finishes an argument, though no argument has taken place.
I never said one did. James put that photo there.” I tip my head, smiling at him. “What scares you more? That ghosts might be real or that they might have enough power to hurt you?”
“I don’t have time for this nonsense,” he warns. But there is a glimmer of some desperate memory in his eyes.
“You’ve seen her,” I say.
He glowers at me. “Every day for twelve years, but it wasn’t a ghost.”
I smile wider. “Sure it wasn’t.” I can tell a lot about him by this simple, stubborn refusal to admit what he knows he has seen. And I can tell he has seen it a lot. Being haunted gives you a certain look. As if nothing, not even ordinary things, are to be trusted. I have that look. James had it. And now I recognize it in him. His spoken disbelief is just a desperate attempt at denial. And I know too well how that works.
I don’t exactly take pity on him. But I see that the storm clouds have begun to appear over the mountains. Distant though they remain, it won’t take them long to get here. It’ll be a loud one, full of thunder. Perfect for drowning out screams. This isn’t the time for confessions or discussions about ghosts. “James left the picture for me. And it wasn’t the last. She began to come to me more, both in and out of dreams.” I bite my lip. Thinking about James hurts. It’s like thinking about Cody. It is another name to add to a list of those I could not save. They say artists are tortured. James certainly was. For twelve years he’d been trying to bleed her out on canvas. For twelve years, he’d been failing. He thought that I could help him put her to rest. I couldn’t. I can only hope I am not stuck with her; unlike Roxy, there is nothing of Caroline I want to keep.
“You felt sorry for him,” he says. He sounds surprised.
“I sympathized,” I correct him. “I know how he felt. How he struggled. I know what it’s like to be haunted by someone I could not save.”
“I wouldn’t have thought you were capable of pity.”
I smile. “Is that supposed to hurt my feelings?” He raises an eyebrow, smirks, and shrugs. “I am not emotionless,” I say softly, smiling back. “If anything, I feel too much. I suffer for those I know I could have helped and failed.” It’s true. I’ve gone a thousand times through Caroline’s death. What she must have felt, how she must have struggled, desperate for survival. It is this which drives me to hunt.
“Did James tell you about her? What happened to her?”
“Some,” I say. But I don’t tell him all of what James told me. Not yet; some things have a time and now is not right for that part of the tale. We are still one short.
I don’t understand,” he says. “Why would you kill him? It seems like he would have been less target than accomplice. Wouldn’t he have made a good replacement for Daniel.”
“I don’t need partners,” I say. My voice is sharper than I intend. I will not discuss Daniel with this man. It is none of his business what Daniel was or was not to me.
“But why kill him? Did you think he would turn you in?”
“I never said I killed him,” I reply. “Just that he didn’t help me. Exactly.”
“What does that mean. Exactly.”
I think of the pictures. “I would never have known who I was hunting without him.” I hear a rumble of thunder. “It was storming when I first saw him.” I shake my head. “Mom was afraid the power was going to go out. She grew up on a farm. She was never afraid of the dark. But it was different in the new house. Like the trees scared her. Or maybe it was Daniel. There was a real monster hiding in the dark. Too bad she never realized it was sleeping in the next room. Maybe she would have been less afraid.”
I shrug, trailing my fingers over the dusty window ledge. I remember the flashlights. Laid out on the kitchen table like a row of soldiers, as familiar to me as the smell of Uncle Sonny’s makeshift office at the top of one Grandpop Joe’s barns. Not the usual sort. The kind made of airplane metal. These were extra long and heavy. They could have knocked out the Hulk, if swung hard enough. They were battered and scratched up, but still as strong as the day they’d been bought. But their batteries were weak with age. “They were Grandpop Joe’s,” I say, smiling a little, he looks confused, but I don’t care. I was pleased to see them that day in the kitchen; they were part of my childhood. No matter where you went on Grandpop Joe’s farm, no matter how dark the corner, there was always a flashlight waiting. Each one had a home and was neatly labeled on the base in his cramped handwriting. “He insisted any equipment he bought had to be like those flashlights. Dependable. Strong. He was prepared for Armageddon, my sisters used to say. And Mom is every inch his daughter.” And she is. Sometimes she’s flaky. Sometimes she’s a bit too naive. But she’s also pragmatic when planning for disaster and good and making sure everyone is loaded for bear.
“We need batteries,” she’d said, tapping at the keyboard of her phone, making a list. “And a few other things. We’ll have to go to Harrisburg.”
“Better get it done, then,” Dad said. He stood and groaned. He was walking slow; our run had left him walking like he was eighty. He folded the paper and laid it on the table. The sun was still shining, but there was a promise in the unseasonably warm air. It tasted of rain and had that thick, green smell, the sort that reminds me of the deep, wet heart of summer. We’d been promised aggressive storms that night, the sort that tore roofs off houses and tossed cars up trees.
“I could stay here,” I said.
“Not a chance,” Dad said. “Grab a book.”
“It’s not like anyone can get to me,” I said. “The FBI is parked in the driveway.”
My mom looked at me over the top of her phone, the gray eyes I’d inherited from her shining with terrible knowledge. “People can die in the time it takes for someone to run up a driveway.” She did not say another word. She didn’t have to. I can murder football players twice my own size and laugh in the face of their threats or hunt a murderous redneck in his own woods with nothing more than a knife. But my mother still scares the hell out of me. I went upstairs and grabbed a book. I climbed into the back of the car muttering darkly, but I didn’t try again for freedom.
My parents hadn’t just left Grendel behind. They had left civilization as much as they could. The nearest superstore was almost an hour away. I tucked myself into the back seat, drowning myself in the words of my favorite novel. I didn’t mind those trips as much as I let on; I didn’t miss Grendel or superstores, but I always like car rides. And being with my parents in the car was different than being with them in the house.
We were our most normal in those moments. Mom stopped brooding and standing in windows watching for attackers. Dad would tell stupid jokes to his captive audience until we were forced to laugh. And, during that ride, I was interested in the world for the first time since Roxy, paying attention to the beauty of the land around us. I even let Dad talk me into a hot fudge sundae. I was not coming back to life, not yet. I was just sliding back into the roll I’d always had. I was not yet myself again, but I wasn’t asleep and waiting to die either.
The first rain arrived while my parents were loading the groceries. The sky had become heavy with roiling gray-black clouds. The first drops were fat, round things that hit the windshield with a satisfying smack. The smell of rain mixed with that of sun warmed asphalt. Then, with a crack like the world was splitting in half, the skies opened. I watched as an entire parking lot of people scrambled for their cars, holding coats, bags, purses over their heads, looking like ants fleeing before a flood.
One girl imediately earned my love; she grabbed her boyfriend and began dancing with him, laughing. Her hair was black and her frame slim. For just a moment, she was Roxy as she should have been, full of life, always finding a way and a reason to dance in the rain. For a moment, she brought Roxy back to me, not in the ruined, shadowy form she’d returned to me as, but the real Roxy. The one that had been more sister than friend, my mentor, my confidant, the only person in the whole world who had understood everything about me and loved me anyway.
The moment was quickly gone; the girl was not nearly as pretty as Roxy and she did not burn with that wild, inner light. But still, something in me stirred and I remembered what it meant to love, remembered what it was to have a friend. It was only a small thing, but, in hindsight, I see that it was the key to rediscovering myself.
It was the only time James could have stood out. I would not have noticed him if not for the rain. Everyone, even the dancing girl, had a reaction to the storm. Flinching from the thunder, cursing the rain, running for shelter, dancing, nobody behaved as though they didn’t know it was storming. Except James.
He stood between two other cars. He was watching us – no, staring at me. His ashy hair was plastered to his scalp. His gingery beard was scraggly, thin in places, as though he pulled at it a lot. The rain caught in it in gleaming droplets and it reminded me of an over used pad of steel wool. Rain streamed down over his high forehead and hollow cheeks. It stuck his ratty flannel to his boney shoulders and turned his baggy, stained jeans nearly black. His watery green eyes were focused on me and it could have been nothing more than a bright, pleasant day because he didn’t even reach up to wipe his face off.
“Sam.” My mom was just climbing into the car, rain drops glittering in her golden, blond hair. The warning in her voice made me look at her. Her face was white. Her lips were pressed together. The look she was giving the man was that of a mother lioness about to eat someone’s face off for threatening her cubs.
My dad followed her gaze and his face darkened. My father rarely got angry. It just wasn’t his style; he was calm, quiet, and smiled far more than he frowned. But he was angry now. I felt a chill run through me. He shook his head and started toward the man.
“Who is that?” I asked Mom.
“Just some homeless man, I wager,” Mom said flatly.
“You’re a terrible liar,” I told her.
She glanced back at me. “He’s no-one.” And her voice said drop it. I knew her too well to think arguing would do any good. I let it drop, but only because I was already plotting my attack on Dad.
I watched him speak to the man. Whoever he was. He kept his eyes on me until Dad touched his shoulder. I wished fervently that I could read lips. Dad wasn’t yelling, but even at this distance I was nervous; Mom has a temper, but Dad is the one you want to be careful of when he’s angry. I was half afraid he was going to hit the man. The man looked at my dad for a long moment. Then he sighed and it was like a balloon deflating. His shoulders sunk and hunched forward. He turned without saying a word and began trudging off across the parking lot.
Dad watched him for a long moment, as if to make sure he was really leaving, then came back and slid into the driver’s seat. I put my ear buds in, hoping my parents would talk about what had just happened. But they chattered on about my sisters and the weather, and not one word was said about the man in the parking lot. It was as though he hadn’t even existed. But I couldn’t get him out of my head; like Caroline, I had a feeling I ought to know him.