Authors: Lee Nichols
“I don't doubt that for a second.” I downed the shot, shivering at the bitter taste. “But it'll still be fun.”
The three of us took turns filling and running the machine. After the third shot my stomach began to hurt, and by the fourth I was getting a pleasant buzz. Sara and I were giggling over some raunchy gossip Harry had about a senior girl and freshman boy making out in the pantry, when Coby materialized.
Where've you been? I'm so glad to see you!
He glanced at Harry and Sara.
What've they done to you?
What? We're having fun
I've never seen you this cheerful
, he said, smiling.
I giggled some more.
“Is that Coby?” Sara asked.
I nodded. It must have looked to them like I was laughing at the refrigerator.
“Why have we never given Emma this much coffee before?” Harry said in Coby's general direction. “She's so much less emo this way.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. “I am
I was about to say more when I heard a guy from my Advanced Bio class yelling something about a blue Yaris.
“You got a blue Yaris?” he asked, making his way toward the keg. “It's about to get towed.”
“Where'd you park?” Harry asked.
“In front of that house that looks even more like a castle than this place.”
“You're screwed,” Sara said. “That guy lives to have people towed.”
I shot Coby a panicked look. Two blocks away. There was no way I'd make it in time to stop the tow guy.
I'm on it
, he said.
Give me your keys
I found my bag and fished for the keys.
Just stop drinking the coffee. I don't know how to deal with you this happy
. Then he disappeared.
I told Harry and Sara that Coby was handling the car situation, then made good on my promise to slow down on the espresso and went outside for fresh air. Everyone from Thatcher was there, and now that I was back in the good graces of Harry and Sara, I was no longer a pariah, which was a relief. I wandered around, joined the dance pit on the patio for a couple of songs, looked for Lukas and Natalie, and stopped to chat with Kylee and another girl from fencing.
That's when Coby reappeared behind Kylee's back. I tried to ignore him, but as he made zombie faces and pretended to bite her neck, I began to snicker. Right in the middle of Kylee explaining she'd been dumped by her boyfriend.
“I'm sorry.” I tried to convert the snicker into a sigh.
“That's just so sad.” I looked pointedly at Coby. “Guys are such jerks. Go tell Harry to give you one of his special espressos. That'll perk you up.”
The excuse to talk to Harry cheered her up, and she and her friend headed toward the kitchen. I found Coby sitting alone in one of the cabanas, watching the kids dancing under the white Christmas lights.
I sidled up and singed him with a little compelling power. Not enough to do any damage, just like a shock from a finger.
That was for making me laugh when poor Kylee was telling me about her breakup
, I said.
I didn't even know she had a boyfriend
It wasn't enough that I saved your car?
You did? How?
Coby grinned wickedly.
I stole the guy's chains, then flashed the lights and honked the horn on his truck, and made the winch go up down. He was a tough old nut, though. He didn't give up until I climbed into your car and drove it away. That freaked him out. I parked in the driveway. No one else saw
, I said, laughing.
But not really, right?
I stopped laughing, not understanding the searching look on his face.
It was always Bennett, wasn't it? Even that night you kissed me
, as in the romantic lead of my life. I sat on
the lounge next to him, and thought about what I wanted to say.
There's this thing between me and Bennett
. I explained about the other Emmas, and the other Bennettâthe Rake, and there was probably even one before him.
I don't know, it's like everything I feel for him is wrapped up in those other lifetimes. And now he's taking that stupid Asarum and he's changed. Sometimes I wish he was more like youâthat I could trust him, the way that I trust you
As a friend
I guess. I do love you, you know
. I touched his arm softly, then moved my hand before I burned it.
It's just different. I'm sorry if you wanted more than I could give
He shook his head.
You don't owe me anything, Emma. I just â¦ I don't know, I guess I didn't expect to die young. I thought I'd go to med school like my dad, meet some girl, fall in love
. He smiled wryly.
Have more sex
My guilt at his death rose like a black wave. I was the reason he'd never go to college, have a career, fall in love, and all the rest. But this wasn't about me; this was about him, so I pushed my guilt aside and listened.
I spend too much time thinking now
, he said.
There's not much else to do. Sit around wondering what I could've done with my life, who I could've been. And who I could've been
You, Sara, some girl I hadn't met yet
His gaze locked on a cabana across the garden. Natalie and Lukas were lying on their sides in one of the wide lounge chairs, facing each other. He ran his hands
through her hair as she traced his lips with her finger, then kissed him.
never regret not enough sex
, Coby said.
They're not sleeping together, Cobyâthey're ghostkeepers, theyâ
Like you and Bennett?
No. Well, yes. But it's completely different
Sure it is. How could he choose her over Sara? I'm going to check on her
, he said, and dematerialized.
I wished I had that ability, instead of being stuck here worrying about Lukas and Natalie. Should I stop them? Warn them about the special hell Bennett and I were stuck in? On the other hand, my mom gave up her powers for my dad, and Bennett's dad gave up his powers for his mom. They all seemed okay.
And I thought about something Sara had said before Coby died. “You can't help who you like.” And you certainly didn't want your best friend telling you who you could and couldn't like.
In the end I decided to ignore them and followed Coby into the kitchen to make sure Sara wasn't freaking out. She and Lukas didn't have anything going, but I could tell he'd been on her possibilities list.
I started through one of the sliding glass doors, and felt a faint tug on my senses. A humming in my chest, telling me there was a ghost nearby. Not in our world yet, but in the veil between worlds. I would've ignored the humming, but I couldn't forget what happened the last time I'd been at one of Harry's parties: Natalie had unexpectedly
summoned a wraith that I'd barely stopped from tearing into a bunch of kids. I really wasn't in the mood to deal with this, but did I have a choice? So I closed the door and wandered past the patio out to the bluff.
I paused at the edge of the cliff, watching the empty harbor and feeling the weight of the ghost in the Beyond. Not a wraith, but not completely benign, either. My chest tingled as I focused my summoning energy; something felt wrong. This ghost wasn't responding to my summoning. It was coming at me like a guided missile. Denser and stronger than a ghost, and with a keen sense of purpose.
I turned my attention inward, waking my dispelling power, my mouth suddenly dry at the prospect of facing something new and unknown, all alone on the clifftop.
Then she appeared, with a muffled flash of spectral power. She was dressed in a shapeless white gown, her dark hair loose and tangled. When her face came into focus, I gasped and let my power disperse.
Aunt Rachel! Is itâis it really you?
Yes, Emma. It really is. You called?
I said in surprise.
I mean, yes, I have questions.
I don't know how you found me, my dear, but I took pains to ensure that you won't be able to do so again
. Her smile skewed slightly.
Why? What are you doing here? You're a ghostkeeper, and I watched that wraith kill you. I'm sorry I wasn't able to stop him. But how could you be a ghost?
Things aren't always as they seem
, she said, a pained look in her eyes.
You're not even wearing the same clothing you died in
. And she looked a little crazy, but I kept that part to myself.
You were a ghostkeeper, you
be a ghost. Not unless you killed yourself, andâ
She drifted toward me, and her expression changed to pleading.
You have to understand, Emma. I loved Neos. Your mother treated him unfairly. He sacrificed everything for her, and she left him for my brother
Yeah, for my
I don't really have a problem with that.
The Knell refused to help Neos; they hated and hounded him. I thought if I helped him, I could make things right again. I didn't realize he'd changed so much
He's evil, Rachel
Is sacrificing for someone you love so evil?
You are not unfamiliar with a passionate young man who's willing to sacrifice for the one he loves. And I think you're willing to make sacrifices for him
My face warmed with anger and I felt dispelling energy crackle along my arms.
Bennett is nothing like Neos!
She didn't agree or disagree. Instead, she said,
I know the Knell's looking for Neos's ashes. They're at Thatcher
What? Why? What are they doing there? How do I find them?
I can't tell you. He'd hurt me if he knew I'd revealed even this much to you
. She twitched, as though pulled by an invisible string.
He's looking for me. I must go
“No. Wait!” I said aloud. “Rachel!”
I half closed my eyes and drew my summoning energy into my hands, a hard knot of power, then sent tendrils
through the veil into the Beyond, to catch Rachel and drag her back into this world. I needed answers. How was she a ghost? What did she know about Neos's ashes, and whose side was she on?
But she didn't reappear, and I couldn't find her. I didn't know how she vanished so completely, but I sent another ball of power after her, just in case, then let my summoning energy dissipate. I stood on the clifftop, letting the chilly air clear my mind, yet I couldn't make sense of what had just happened. I needed to talk to someone, and thought about finding Coby, but realized he wasn't the one I wanted.
I dialed Bennett, and he answered on the first ring. “Happy New Year, Emma.”
I smiled at the warmth in his voice. “Happy New Year.”
“Is that music in the background? Are you at some club, surrounded by guys?”
“Close. I'm at Harry's, surrounded by chilly clifftop.”
“Well, I'm pacing outside Simon's office all alone, so that sounds pretty good.”
“I miss you,” I said, aching for him.
“Me, too. Next year, we'll kiss at midnight.”
“Yeah, and not just on New Year's. Every midnight for a year.” Then his voice changed a little. “What's up? You sound a littleâ”
“I just saw Rachel. It's her, Bennett, not some shape-shifting ghost. She was too
to be anyone else. I know it's impossible, but it's her.”
“Another ghost at Harry's?” But he didn't argue with me about her identity, which I appreciated. “The veil must be thin thereâeither that, or ghosts really like his parties. What'd she say?”
“That she loved Neos, and â¦” I shivered, and not just from the wind. “Oh my God. I know what happened to her, Bennett. I know how she became a ghost. She
that wraith to possess her, knowing it would kill her. Technically, that'd be suicide, right?”
“Yeah,” he said slowly. “Yeah, that makes sense. You think she loved Neos that much?”
“Well, she hated the Knell for turning their backs on him. And she talked a lot about sacrificing for people you loved.”
Bennett grunted. “If she's another ghostkeeper suicide, that means she's going to start losing her mind. How'd she seem?”
“Crazy, like Ophelia in
“Emmaâa Shakespeare reference? Did you get that from Harry?”
“Hey, I know the classics,” I protested.
Bennett recited, “âWhite her shroud with the mountain snow, larded with sweet flowers, something something the grave did go, with true-love showers.'
. Act three or four, scene something.”
Hearing his deep voice reciting some ancient drama eased my fears, and I smiled. “Show-off. Is that how you woo the girls?”
“There's only one girl I care about wooing.”
“Well, it's working. But Bennett, she told me something else. Neos's ashes are here. They're at Thatcher.” The Knell had been searching for them ever since Rachel had been killed in that first attack. Simon had agreed with Yoshiro that they were the key to dispelling Neos.
“She said that?” he asked. “Do you believe her?”
“I do,” I said. “It fits with that smoky vision I had. The stink of ashes.”
“Oh.” I still hadn't told him. “It happened when I was searching the school for her.” I explained, but left out his part in it.