Authors: Lee Nichols
His face fell. “What if I don't want it to be over?”
“You don't?” she said in a small voice.
I came out from my invisibility shield long enough to say, “Lukas, she's losing her abilities. You stay together any longer and she won't even
ghosts anymore. You'll have taken all her power.”
Lukas stared at Natalie, shock on his face. “Is it really that bad?”
“Why didn't you tell me?” He looked horror-stricken.
“Because I was afraid. Scared of fighting ghosts, and scared ofâ” She shrugged. “Of losing you.”
He rubbed his eyes. “This sucks. It's not fair. I mean, my parents â¦ But you, you're theâyou and me, we're just totally â¦”
Natalie nodded, tears escaping her eyes. “We totally are.”
“You mean were.” Lukas swore and smacked the wall. He didn't say anything, but I'm pretty sure he was also about to cry. He turned and stalked into the hallway before we could see him breaking down.
Natalie was shaking, and I cradled her as I wiped tears from her face. “I'm so sorry. I didn't want this to happen.”
She sniffled. “I should be thanking you.”
“For encouraging you to break up with Lukas? You should be cursing me.”
“Not for that. For needing me. For not letting me throw it all away. Ghostkeeping is the one thing that makes me special. Lukas is great, and I guess I kind of love him. But he's not the only guy out there. There'll be other boys. And one day, even men.” She flashed me a watery smile. “I'm just getting started.”
“It's not the ghostkeeping that makes you special, Natalie. It's you.”
The next few days dragged past. Natalie and Lukas had awful, stilted conversations in the breakfast nook, and were overly polite when they met in the hall. And they were so obviously unhappy and uncomfortable that the whole house turned gloomy.
I wasn't any better. I felt like a failure for losing the ring, and like a bad friend for my part in the breakup. Plus I was racked with worry and guilt for telling Bennett I couldn't see him when he was hurting so badly. And I knew that the Sterns were struggling with their own anxieties.
But worse than the tension was the sense of dread. Neos had won. He'd stolen the ring and was gathering his armies, waiting for the perfect time to strike. Holding off until he
he'd win. And all we could do was wait and worry and hope for the bestâand, of course, search for the ashes.
Max and Edmund worked their way through the
library's collections, and Coby flitted through Thatcher's walls whenever he wasn't busy spying in the Beyond. Lukas and Natalie searched during every class break and after school every dayâthough not together anymore. And I dug around with Harry and Sara, who between them knew every nook and cranny of the school.
We found old sports trophies, mounds of ashes from secret smokers, bizarre pottery projects from the '70s, zinc and magnesium powder in the science class cabinets, containers of dubious herbs in the cafeteria, and containers of high-grade herb in a few student lockers.
But not Neos's ashes.
Before lunch one day, I flopped into a chair in the Lame Lounge and slipped my aching feet from my boots. We were doing everything we could, and it still wasn't enough. I didn't know what else we could try, though.
“Hey,” a voice said.
I looked up and saw Kylee. She'd been absent from school for a week, hit much harder than Britta, who'd felt better hours after her possession, despite all the violence. That was Britta for you.
“Hey!” I said, standing to hug her. “Feeling better?”
“Mostly,” she said hesitantly.
“You look better,” I said, even though she didn't, not really. She was even paler and skinnier than usual. “You know what you need? Chicken soup. I'll have myâ” My whatâghost chef? “I'll bring you some tomorrow.”
“Oh, no, thanks.” She bit her thumbnail. “I justâwanted to say I'm sorry.”
“For getting you in trouble with Coach. And I don't really remember, but I â¦” She shifted uncomfortably. “I feel like I sort of attacked you.”
I tried a reassuring smile. “Well, we were fencing! That was the whole point.”
She grabbed my arm, suddenly urgent. “Emma, it was like someone was inside of me, like I wasn't in control. My parents think I've been doing drugs, but I swear I haven't.”
“I know you haven't,” I said. “You're going to be fine.”
“I think I'm going crazy,” she blurted, her eyes scared.
“Kylee, look at me. You are not going crazy. I promise. Okay?”
She nodded doubtfully.
. Kylee, you're half my size and you kick my ass in fencing every day. You're
. Believe me, you'll feel better.”
She said “Okay,” but the fear remained in her eyes as she headed to class. More than fear: like being possessed had made her mistrust herself. I could relate.
After she left, I found myself shaking with anger. A white-hot fury, fueled by all my dread and guilt, my grief for the dead, and now seeing little Kylee with that broken look in her eyes. My sense of futility and failure all came together in my mind. And I took those feelings and clenched them like a fist of power, and sent a burst of words into the Beyond:
I'm going to find you, Neos. And I'm going to make you pay
I hoped my message would find him, the way I'd
found Rachel. I didn't know what it would accomplish, but it made me less afraid. And I felt more like we still had a chance.
The bell sounded, but I remained in my chair, lost in thought through most of the next period. Then I rummaged in my bag for my phone and clicked through to Bennett's number. It rang five times before I got his voice mail, and I wondered if he was sitting on the other end of the line, waiting for me to leave a message.
“It's me,” I said. “I wanted to make sure you're okay. And â¦ well, there were a few more possessions at school. I guess Simon told you. I lost the ring. And I lost â¦” I wanted to say “you,” but couldn't. “We can't find the ashes, and we're just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Neos to make the next move. I don't know what to do. I miss you.”
I hung up, before he could hear me sniffle. Then I began to cry, because the truth was, no matter how furious I got, the fight had gone out of me. I couldn't deal anymore. I hadn't been able to protect Kylee, I couldn't help Natalie and Lukas, I couldn't help Bennett, or guard the ring, or find the ashes. How was I supposed to keep the whole school safe?
There was a twitch in the atmosphere, and I turned to find Coby standing beside me.
Emma, what happened? I heard what you sent into the Beyond about making Neos payâ
heard it. Are you okay?
. I took a deep breath and dried my eyes.
Just crying from happiness again?
I almost smiled.
I'm tired. That's all
I can't imagine whyâyou're only supposed to do everything around here. Dispel ghosts, help your friends, find the ashes, figure out what your aunt Rachel is doing, protect your classmates. Oh, and kill Neos
Do I sound like that?
I asked, appalled.
God, I really am an emo whiner
He laughed, which always made me happy.
At least I've got Harry and Sara covered. You can cross them off your list
You've been guarding them?
Whenever I'm not poking around the Beyond. You can't be with them all the time
They need full-time protection. You didn't see what Britta did to them. We can put the ghost jocks on them
, I suggested.
That way you can stay longer in the Beyond and warn us when Neos is on his way
They'll make rude comments about Sara.
Better than her getting possessed. And she won't hear anyway. I hate to ask you, but if we don't learn what Neos is doing with my ring and his ashes, we're totally screwed
Okay. I've been keeping my distance from Neos, but I'll get closer
But stay safe
, I begged.
He eyed me thoughtfully.
It's that ass Bennett making you unhappy, isn't it?
, I said, and when he gave me a look,
Okay, a little
I wouldn't have made you unhappy
, he said as he faded away.
“No,” I said aloud. “You wouldn't have.”
My stomach rumbled as the fourth period bell rang, and I grabbed my lunch out of my locker and went to join Natalie, Harry, and Sara at our usual table in the cafeteria. Lukas came in a moment later, looking unsure where to sit. I felt Natalie tense beside me, but she waved him over. She picked at the salad Anatole had packed her, and Lukas watched her for a moment before unpacking his sandwich. I ached for both of them. They couldn't be together, but they couldn't be apart, either.
Sara asked about Kylee, so I filled them in. “So she's back,” I finished, “but she's kinda â¦”
“Haunted?” Harry asked.
I almost snapped at him for joking about it, then realized he was serious. “Yeah. Like she's lost something. And she looks like crap.”
“Do you think she'll get better?” Natalie asked.
“I don't know.” I looked around the room and found Britta sitting at a table with her friends, whispering and texting furiously.
“Britta looks all right,” Harry said, echoing my thoughts.
“Yeah, figures that she'd â¦” I stopped, suddenly hearing a strange hissing sound over the regular lunchroom chatter.
Whispering. A dozen kids whispering to each other, all at once. Then more than a dozenâand pretty soon all conversation in the cafeteria had died away, and was replaced by wordless whispering.
not right,” Harry said.
“Are they all looking at us?” Sara asked. “They're all looking at us.”
“It's like a naked-at-school dream,” Lukas said.
“I love that dream,” Harry said.
We all gaped at him for a moment, despite the eerie whispering filling the roomâthen someone screamed. The sharp, high-pitched sound cut through the whispers and set my heart racing. Natalie and I exchanged a glance, and Lukas pushed his lunch aside, preparing for the worst.
“Who screamed?” I asked, my voice soft. “Where did it come from?”
“I don't know,” Natalie said.
“Okay, ifâ” I didn't get any further, because the kids at the other tables abruptly rose from their seats. Chairs scraped the floor, and a sudden hush fell. They all stood with blank expressions on their faces, looking almost militaristic in their school uniforms.
“Crap,” I said under my breath. “Crap, crap.”
I summoned my power, and felt Natalie and Lukas doing the same. I sent tendrils through the room, searching for ghosts, prepared to compel them from kids' bodies â¦ and felt nothing. If they were normal ghosts I would've sensed them immediately. But there was something about them possessing bodies that shielded them from me.
“Emma, what's happening?” Natalie asked, panic in her voice. “I can't feel a thing.”
“Oh, God,” Harry said. “I can't die yetâI haven't finished the ten steps.”
I glanced at Lukas and he shook his head. “I've got nothing.”
At some signal I didn't catch, the kids all turned in unison. They filed across the room in a martial line. As they neared our table, they swiveled their heads to stare at me.
“What are we going to do?” Sara cried. “There's too many of them.”
“Get down, both of you,” I told her and Harry. “Under the table.”
“No,” Sara said, holding her salad fork like a dagger.
“They're still human on the outside,” Harry said, clenching his fists.
No time to argue. I raised my hands and sent invisible compelling energy throughout the room, not caring how I looked. But I found nothing. As the other kids marched from the room in a martial line, I couldn't compel a single ghost from anyone's body.
Then Britta, the last in line, paused at our table. “What are you, a scarecrow?” She flipped her hair toward me and said triumphantly, “Told you I'd get even!”
Harry was the first to get it. He started to laugh. Then it dawned on me. This wasn't Neos. I couldn't compel any ghosts, because they weren't possessed. This was Thatcher's version of a flash mob.
I began to giggle, and so did the others. I was so relieved we hadn't just witnessed the entire school being possessed, I was giddy. And for the first time ever, I sort of liked Britta.
“You got me,” I said.