Chapter One of SHADE (Part 1 of 2)
“You can hear me, can’t you?”
I punched the green print button on the copier to drown out the disembodied voice. Sometimes if I ignored them long enough, they went away—confused, discouraged, and lonelier than ever. Sometimes.
Okay, almost never. Usually they got louder.
No time to deal with it that day. Only one more set of legal briefs to unstaple, copy, and restaple, then I could go home, trade this straitjacket and stockings for a T-shirt and jeans, and make it to Logan’s before practice. To tell him I’m sorry, that I’ve changed my mind, and this time I mean it. Really.
“I know you can hear me.” The old woman’s voice strengthened as it came closer. “You’re one of them.”
I didn’t flinch as I grabbed the top brief from the stack on the conference room table. I couldn’t see her under the office’s bright fluorescent lights, which made it about one percent easier to pretend she wasn’t there.
Someday, if I had my way, none of them would be there.
“What an intolerably rude child,” she said.
I yanked the staple out of the last brief and let it zing off in an unknown direction, trying to hurry without looking like I was hurrying. If the ghost knew I was getting ready to leave, she’d spit out her story, no invitation. I carefully laid the pages in the sheet feeder and hit print again.
“You can’t be more than sixteen.” The lady’s voice was close, almost at my elbow. “So you were born hearing us.”
I didn’t need her to remind me how ghosts’ ramblings had drowned out my mother’s New Agey lullabies. (According to Aunt Gina, Mom thought the old-fashioned ones were too disturbing—“down will come baby, cradle and all.” But when dead people are bitching and moaning around your crib at all hours, the thought of falling out of a tree is so not a source of angst.)
Worst part was, those lullabies were all I remembered of her.
“Come on,” I nagged the copier under my breath, resisting the urge to kick it.
The piece of crap picked that moment to jam.
“Shit.” I clenched my fist, driving the staple remover tooth into the pad of my thumb. “Ow! Damn it.” I sucked the pinpoint of blood.
“Language.” The ghost sniffed. “When I was your age, young ladies wouldn’t have heard such words, much less murdered the mother tongue with…” Blah blah…kids these days…blah blah…parents’ fault…blah.
I jerked open the front of the copier and searched for the stuck paper, humming a Keeley Brothers’ song to cover the ghost’s yakking.
“They cut me,” she said quietly.
I stopped humming, then blew out a sigh that fluttered my dark bangs. Sometimes there’s no ignoring these people.
I stood, slamming the copier door. “One condition. I get to see you.”
“Absolutely not,” she huffed.
“Wrong answer.” I rounded the table and headed for the switches by the conference room door.
“Please, you don’t want to do that. The way they left me—”
I flipped off the light and turned on the BlackBox.
“No!” The ghost streaked toward me in a blaze of violet. She stopped two inches from my face and let out a shriek that scraped against all the little bones in my ears.
Cringing? Not an option. I crossed my arms, then calmly and slowly extended my middle finger.
“This is your last warning.” Her voice crackled around the edges as she tried to frighten me. “Turn on the light.”
“You wanted to talk. I don’t talk to ghosts I can’t see.” I touched the BlackBox switch. “Sucks to be trapped, huh? That’s how I feel listening to you people all day.”
“How dare you?” The woman slapped my face, her fingers curled into claws. Her hand passed through my head without so much as a breeze. “After all I’ve been through. Look at me.”
I tried to check her out, but she was trembling so hard with anger, her violet lines kept shifting into one another. It was like trying to watch TV without my contacts.
“Those shoes are beyond last year,” I said, “but other than that, you look fine.”
The ghost glanced down at herself and froze in astonishment. Her pale hair—gray in life, I assumed—was tied in a bun, and she wore what looked like a ruffle-lapelled suit and low-heeled pumps. Your basic country-club queen. Probably found her own death positively scandalous.
“I haven’t seen myself in the dark.” She spoke with awe. “I assumed I would be…” Her hand passed over her stomach.
I felt my eyes soften. “You were murdered?” With old people it was usually a heart attack or stroke. But it explained her rage.
She scowled at me. “Well, it certainly wasn’t suicide.”
“I know.” My voice turned gentle as I remembered to be patient. Sometimes these poor souls didn’t know what to expect, despite all the public awareness campaigns since the Shift. The least I could do was clarify. “If you’d killed yourself, you wouldn’t be a ghost, because you would’ve been prepared to die. And you’re not all carved up because you get frozen in the happiest moment of your life.”
She examined her clothes with something close to a smile, maybe remembering the day she wore them, then looked up at me with a sudden ferocity. “But why?”
I ditched the patience. “How the hell should I know?” I flapped my arms. “I don’t know why we see you at all. No one knows, okay?”
“Listen to me, young lady.” She pointed her violet finger in my face. “When I was your age—”
“When you were my age the Shift hadn’t happened yet. Everything’s different now. You should be grateful someone can hear you.”
“I shouldn’t be—this way—at all.” She clearly couldn’t say the word dead. “I need someone to make it right.”
“So you want to sue.” One of my aunt Gina’s specialties: wrongful death litigation. Gina believes in “peace through justice.” She thinks it helps people move past ghosthood to whatever’s beyond. Heaven, I guess, or at least someplace better than Baltimore.
Weird thing is, it usually works, though no one knows exactly why. But unfortunately, Gina—my aunt, guardian, and godmother—can’t hear or see ghosts. Neither can anyone else born before the Shift, which happened sixteen and three-quarters years ago. So when Gina’s firm gets one of these cases, guess who gets to translate? All for a file clerk’s paycheck.
“My name is Hazel Cavendish,” the lady said. “I was one of this firm’s most loyal clients.”
Ah, that explained how she got here. Ghosts can only appear in the places they went during their lives. No one knows why that is, either, but it makes things a lot easier on people like me.
She continued without prompting. “I was slaughtered this morning outside my home in—”
“Can you come back Monday?” I checked my watch in ex-Hazel’s violet glow. “I have to be somewhere.”
“But it’s only Thursday. I need to speak to someone now.” Her fingers flitted over the string of pearls around her neck. “Aura, please.”
I stepped back. “How do you know my name?”
“Your aunt talked about you all the time, showed me your picture. Your name is hard to forget.” She moved toward me, her footsteps silent. “So beautiful.”
My head started to swim. Uh-oh.
Vertigo in a post-Shifter like me usually means a ghost is turning shade. They go down that one-way path when they let bitterness warp their souls. It has its advantages—shades are dark, powerful spirits who can hide in the shadows and go anywhere they want.
Anywhere, that is, but out of this world. Unlike ghosts, shades can’t pass on or find peace, as far as we know. And since they can single-handedly debilitate any nearby post-Shifters, “detainment” is the only option.
“I really have to go,” I whispered, like I’d hurt ex-Hazel less if I lowered the volume. “A few days won’t matter.”
“Time always matters.”
“Not for you.” I kept my voice firm but kind. “Not anymore.”
She moved so close, I could see every wrinkle on her violet face.
“Your eyes are old,” she hissed. “You think you’ve seen everything, but you don’t know what it’s like.” She touched my heart with a hand I couldn’t feel. “One day you’ll lose something important, and then you’ll know.”
I ran for the car, my work shoes clunking against the sidewalk and rubbing blisters on my ankles. No time to stop home to change before going to Logan’s. Should’ve brought my clothes with me, but how could I have known there’d be a new case?
I’d wussed out, of course, and let the old woman tell my aunt her nasty death story. The ghost was angry enough that I worried about what she’d do without immediate attention. “Shading” was still pretty rare, especially for a new ghost like ex-Hazel, but it wasn’t worth the risk.
The leafy trees lining the street made it dark enough to see ghosts even an hour before sunset. Half a dozen were loitering outside the day care center in the mansion across the street. Like most of the buildings in the Roland Park area, Little Creatures Kiddie Care was completely BlackBoxed—its walls lined with the same thin layer of charged obsidian that kept ghosts out of sensitive areas. Bathrooms, military base buildings, that sort of thing. I wish Gina and I could afford to live there—Roland Park, I mean, not a military base.
I stopped for a giant Coke Slurpee and guzzled it on my way toward I-83, wincing at the brain freeze. I usually prefer to use the spoon end of the straw, but after ex-Hazel’s intake session, I desperately needed the massive caffeine-sugar infusion that only pure, bottom-of-the-cup Slurpee syrup could provide.
The long shadows of trees cut across the road, and I kept my eyes forward so I wouldn’t see the ghosts on the sidewalks.
Lot of good it did. At the last stoplight before the expressway, a little violet kid waved from the backseat of the car in front of me. His lips were moving, forming words I couldn’t decipher. An older girl next to him clapped her hands over her ears, her blond pigtails wagging back and forth as she shook her head. The parents in the front seats kept talking, oblivious or maybe just unable to deal. They should trade in that car, I thought, while that poor girl still has her sanity.
The on-ramp sloped uphill into the sunshine, and I let out a groan of relief, gnawing the end of my straw.
After almost seventeen years of hearing about grisly murders and gruesome accidents, you’d think I’d be tough, jaded. You’d think that ghosts’ tendency to over-share would eventually annoy instead of sadden me.
And you’d be right. Mostly. By the time I was five, I’d stopped crying. I’d stopped having nightmares. I’d stopped sleeping with the lights on so I wouldn’t see their faces. And I’d stopped talking about it, because by that point the world believed us. Five hundred million toddlers can’t be wrong.
But I never forgot. Their stories are shelved in my mind, neat as a filing system. Probably because I’ve recited many of them on the witness stand.
Courts don’t just take my word for it, or any one person’s. Testimony only counts if two of us post-Shifters agree on a ghost’s statement. Since ghosts apparently can’t lie, they make great witnesses. Last year, me and this terrified freshman translated for the victims of a psycho serial killer. (Remember “Tomcat”? The one who liked to “play with his food”?)
Welcome to my life. It gets better.
by Jeri Smith-Ready
Copyright © Jeri Smith-Ready