“Oh, AT,” sighed my mother. “I thought you’d finally escaped.” Four times she’d said that since I returned to my father’s house. But she was dead, and it takes a while for the dead to learn anything new.
I pressed my cheek against the trophy case where my mother’s locket was on display and thought patient thoughts. Ghosts couldn’t help having trouble learning new facts—it’s a side effect of having a mind but no brain, I think—but my mom was being even more stubborn than usual.
My father was out of the house for the morning. Without his presence to stifle us, I’d figured it was a great time to work on updating my mother and the other ghosts on my return home. I’d been hiding in my room whenever my father let me for days now, and the idea of doing something for myself had been exciting. At first. I missed my mom. Alive or dead, she’d always been awesome.
“I came back. I got into trouble and in the end, all I could do was come home.” I tried to inject some brightness into my voice. “But it’s not that bad. This way I can still see you.” And it was true. Even as a ghost, my mother was the best thing about my father’s house. Leaving her behind had been really hard.
The misty figure within the trophy case stretched out the hint of a hand and condensation formed on the glass to show me the delicate palm and short fingers I remembered. The picture within the tiny locket frame was a partially scorched photo of a smiling, brown-skinned, curly-haired woman not much older than I was now. Both of those visuals were stronger than my memories of my mother alive.
“I didn’t want you to ever step foot in this house again,” she said gently. Her voice was the hum of a half-remembered lullaby.
Well, I hadn’t planned on coming back either, but sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you want. I couldn’t argue about this with her yet again, not with her, not with the woman who had taught me how hard it was to ever really escape. I put my hand against her imprint, feeling the chill of the glass.
“He’s out with the pack,” I said instead. “I thought I’d work on catching you up.” My breath hitched, but I forced it out cleanly. “I need you to catch up. You’ve got to remember I’m back, that I’m not going away again.”
My father had taken the pack out into the forest beyond the lodge where we lived, for a day of killing every furry thing they came across. I could smell the blood from the lodge’s great hall, via the open veranda. It was one of those perfect Pacific Northwest October days, where the sky is intense blue and the leaves are orange and yellow and there’s a rim of clouds all around the dome of the sky, promising rain.
Personally, while the clear autumn days were beautiful, I thought the rain couldn’t come soon enough. The pack was always the most excitable in the fall, and this year it was going to take at least a week of drenching downpours to calm them down. The rain would wash away the smell of blood, too. I hated the smell of blood, because part of me loved it so very much. It was hard for me to pretend to be normal, even to myself, when the pack was slaughtering everything in the forest nearby.
“I don’t want to catch up,” said my mother, pulling back into the locket again. “I want this to be a bad dream.”
“Mom!” I protested. “I’m really here. It’s not a dream.” I hesitated, then added, “It’s just real life. The part where I left—think of that as the dream.”
“How? How did he bring you back again? He promised. I heard his promise to the Lady in Red.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I whispered. That was a new question, and exactly the one I’d hoped she’d never ask. I couldn’t tell her the truth. She’d never forgive me.
“Oh, AT. My Annalise, my baby girl.” The ghost sighed again. “I was dreaming of when you were just a tiny girl. Things were good then. Before he came back from the dead. Do you remember?”
“Of course I do. Best days of my life,” I said automatically. It was an old conversation and I’ve always stretched the truth when she asks. If I told her that mostly I remembered her stories, not the actual good old days, she’d be devastated. I tried, really, I did. But Dad came back from the dead when I was only four and the most I could really remember from the time before is this sense of warmth and hope, and the smell of onions and cayenne pepper.
“We’ve lost so much, you and I. So much. It could have been so different.”
“Mom, no! We haven’t. You’re still here, you remember, you tell me stories. Nothing’s lost.” I had to pause to scrub my eyes. My mom was awesome, but she was also a ghost. That came with baggage. It wasn’t her fault.
She’d always been a fighter in her own way, my mom. Not like what my father had trained me to be, but after he found us and made us come live with him, she fought him the only way she could. She taught me things he didn’t want me to learn, like how to be kind to those unluckier than me, and how to be careful around danger. And after she died, she’d whisper to me at night, telling me stories about herself when she was a little girl named Denise and stories about me when I was a baby. And sometimes when he didn’t want me reading certain books, she’d do her best to tell me the stories herself, if she knew them. She could never read anything new, but she could remember. I learned about all sorts of classics that way, like Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park.
Her phantom sharpened, until it seemed almost like a living person knelt behind the glass of the trophy case. She wore the pale yellow dress that I remembered her in the most, and her face seemed so young. She’d been so pretty. “Listen, baby girl. Something dreadful is coming, to take away all the dreams and all the memories,” she said. “I’ve felt the ripples. You go and see your friend, please.”
Bewildered, I said, “Where? What friend?” I didn’t have any living friends left in Washington state. It was too dangerous for them.
“Out of this house.” With the sudden edge of total exasperation, she added, “And this time, don’t come back.” The haziness emerging from the locket vanished. The chill became autumn warmth and the glass cleared. She was gone.
My chest hurt, and I had to rub my eyes again. She didn’t have to leave so quickly, did she? For a moment, I felt like I was once more seven years old and I’d just learned she would never be able to hug me again.
Then the scent of blood washed over me and I heard the sounds of the pack returning. There were yips and laughter and the occasional howl and cry of pain as the wolves became men again. Not all of my father’s pack could turn into wolves, but the mortal men had just as much fun hunting as the ones he’d remade, and they all dreamed of being granted the same gift.
That’s what they called it, a gift. They gave up the most important part of being human to become a slave and they thought of it as a gift.
I held my breath, listening for my father’s voice among the others. I didn’t want him to see me with my eyes still red, and when I didn’t hear him, I relaxed a little. Sometimes he stayed out longer, on business of his own. That usually made dealing with his pack easier. They liked to try to impress him by harassing me, but they were warier without him there. And I didn’t have to worry whether I was pleasing him or displeasing him when I made them leave me alone.
I went out the front door and headed down the private road that was the lodge’s driveway. I wanted to go to the Black Clearing and speak to its ghosts, but not while there was any chance my father would be there.
Most people can’t see or hear ghosts, unless things are really bad. But most people aren’t the child of a mortal woman and a fallen angel, either. That provides a body with a variety of abilities. And no, they’re not gifts, not any more than what my father does to his pack. Sometimes they’re practically curses. But seeing ghosts is okay. It gives me a steady supply of people to talk to, anyhow.
And it’s not common even among the half-blood nephilim, which means it’s a secret I’ve managed to keep from my father all these years. It probably helped that the first ghost I met was my mother and I knew that he didn’t want me to talk to her. And I’ve always been good at picking up on things other people don’t notice.
There are ghosts near almost every road, too. Most of them don’t notice me, but I like to keep an eye on them. Some people watch birds; I watch ghosts. The ones that don’t already belong to my father are pretty safe from him, and that’s always a nice thought.
After looking around for the ghost I called Flower Picking Girl at the driveway’s edge and not finding her, I ran all the way down to the two-lane blacktop that curved through the forest and led to the lights of civilization.
Everything always got really quiet when my father was in the forest. But as I ran, the forest slowly came back to life around me. Birds chirped and whistled and small things moved in the underbrush. A breeze sighed through the trees, making the green tips sway. And briefly I heard a snatch of music.
At first I thought it was just a distant car stereo blaring. But the music wasn’t distant, and it didn’t doppler like it would from a moving car. It began and ended mid-phrase, and it was barely musical, more like somebody having an argument with a violin.
I came to a halt, listening intently, but when it didn’t reoccur, I finished my run to the county road. Once I was there, I slowed to a walk. I wasn’t tired–my father’s blood means I can run for hours before getting tired–but I was far enough away from the house that I felt like I didn’t have to run alone.
I concentrated. There’s a spot inside me that I can reach when I close my eyes, where I stop being me and I start becoming something else. I imagined opening a door, and then I whistled.
My dogs, all three of them, burst out of my shadow, tangling around my legs and licking my hands. I felt better right away. I’m always happier when my dogs are around. They’re the only real friends I have that my father can’t take away.
I laughed and crouched down, running my hands over their fur and behind their ears. Grim, Nod, and Heart. I had no idea how it worked, but I knew they were mine, and that they lived inside me when it wasn’t okay for them to run beside me. Without them, my life would have been a disaster instead of just hard sometimes. A ghost mom can give you good advice, but with dogs running beside you, you feel like you can do anything.
They bounced around me for another moment, and then Heart and Grim broke off to go investigate the trees beside the road. There were some jack o’ lanterns there, carved by the pack, with some especially interesting scents. But Nod stood on his hind legs and put his black paws on my shoulders. His tongue darted out, once, twice, a third time, licking each of my eyes to catch the remnants of the unshed tears before licking my nose. Then, with a grumbling woof, he trotted after Heart.
I grinned after him and wiped the dog slobber off my face. I felt so much better having them out. They’d mostly been stuck in my shadow since I got back home again, since my father does not approve of them. He can’t make me get rid of them, but he can be nasty in so many other ways that it was safest to just bring them out occasionally to snuggle with as I slept. But they weren’t just stuffed animals, and they deserved a real chance to run and play sometimes.
Once they’d sniffed around a bit, I continued my run to town. There were other ghosts there I’d known before I ran away. They probably hadn’t even noticed I’d left, but that just meant I wouldn’t have to have any unpleasant conversations.
Okay, so the “updating the ghosts” plan was mostly just an excuse to get out of the house. Which was kind of funny, really, because I was the only person who expected an excuse. My father’s been trying to get me out of my room and active again for days, ever since the injuries I came home with healed. Because he wanted that, I didn’t. But as soon as my father’s pack hit the forest, I couldn’t stand being closed into my room anymore. I wanted somebody to talk to, even if they weren’t going to be great conversationalists.
It took about an hour to get to Issaquah Commons, with a few squirrel-chasing diversions along the way. It was mid-afternoon then and there were a lot of other people out enjoying what was probably the last sunshine of the year.
Issaquah Commons was completely tricked out for Halloween, with pumpkins and black crepe streamers and the annual costume store that spontaneously appeared in any empty building. It had plenty of ghosts, too, although since they were real, nobody else could appreciate them.
The shopping center wasn’t particularly old, but some of the ghosts were. One of my favorites was a young man who sat on a bench outside a boutique in worn overalls, holding a push-broom. I think he was over a hundred years old. I don’t really know why he was there; he never talked to me. I just assumed ghosts liked window-shopping and people-watching as much as living folks.
As I got closer to the shopping center, I sent Heart and Grim back into my shadow again, and put a collar and leash around Nod’s neck. Having a dog out was crucial when I wanted to talk to ghosts in a public place, so I didn’t look like I was high or something. But I’d found that most people were uneasy about a girl like me with two leashed large dogs and occasionally called the cops when I had all three with me, even if they were on their best behavior.
Nod was the best behaved of my dogs, most of the time. Grim was too bouncy and energetic to walk nicely today, while Heart was shy and sometimes she got nervous. She has gorgeous red fur that everybody wants to touch and she’s not okay with that.
Nod, on the other hand, walked at my heel and waited quietly on the sidewalk when I ducked into the Overalls Ghost’s boutique to check out some cute jeans. He and the ghost were looking at each other when I came out, but as soon as I unlooped Nod’s leash, the ghost’s gaze went away again. That was fine. I didn’t mind at all. Sometimes a dog was all the people a person could handle.
When I went into the coffee shop across the street, Nod rested under the table we’d staked out, relaxed enough to attract and tolerate the attention of a nearby toddler. I was so proud of him; he’d come such a long way from the savage feral I’d saved years ago.
I set my coffee and pastries down on the table and smiled at the little girl and her mother as they went back to their shopping trip. I liked little kids, although I didn’t get a chance to play with them much. When I was in California, I’d gotten to know two adorable little girls–but I didn’t like to think about what had happened with them. I’d heard they were safe and happy now, and that was good enough.
The radio playing over the coffee shop’s speakers finished up a metal ballad and switched to a song that had only really hit the airwaves a couple of weeks ago. I’d heard it a few times before, a touchy-feely song about calling back what was lost. It was catchy, one of those songs you like even when you think the lyrics aren’t your style, and I hummed along as I sipped my coffee.
Another ghost I recognized passed by, a woman in a business suit with wild hair and about a hundred plastic shopping bags. She was more contemporary than the others, I was pretty sure, and sometimes she talked to me about what she was hoping to fill her bags with. “Baby powder, just the right sort, to help me sleep. Hyacinth soap to keep away nightmares.” She spent a lot of time outside Bath and Body Works, but she never seemed to have anything in her bags.
Today she only nodded at me absently and hurried past. I thought of the missing Flower Picking Ghost near my driveway and my gaze flicked back to the Overalls Ghost at the boutique down the street.
He was sitting up straight, looking at a man walking down the sidewalk toward him. The man wore a black cowboy hat and proper cowboy boots peeked out from worn navy denims. He wore a dark pinstriped suit jacket, too, and a black tie against a black shirt; I wondered if that was what passed for businesswear in Texas or something.
To my surprise, he bent down to say something to the Overalls Ghost. I wondered if he was a human initiate into supernatural matters, or a nephil half-breed like me, or something like my father. I was just about to activate my magical sight to find out when the Overalls Ghost shot to his feet and started stumbling down the sidewalk in my direction. He looked almost as solid as the living, but he passed through them without any of them noticing.
The cowboy had a faint smile on his face as he tapped the fingers of one hand against the palm of another. He was counting, I realized. And the Overalls Ghost was running.
Nod growled and crawled out from under the table and I stood up without quite knowing why. Ghosts could be frightened, but they couldn’t really be hurt unless they allowed it, and they couldn’t be destroyed at all. But still–why frighten a ghost? And how? If I were better with my magical sight, I could just flick it on and learn more about him–but if I did that, the chaos of the Geometry would make it hard for me to watch anything else, and I wanted to see what happened when the cowboy finished his count.
He counted to five four times, then started moving after the Overalls Ghost. He didn’t walk; he sauntered, weaving around the other people on the sidewalk. There was no way he should have been able to catch up with the ghost, but the Overalls Ghost seemed like he was stumbling through deep snow and after less time than it took to count to twenty, the cowboy reached him.
He smiled dreadfully and stretched out his hand to catch the ghost’s arm, like somebody playing tag in slow motion. It had just that air of a game being played. But when he touched the ghost, the ghost screamed.
It wasn’t like any mortal scream I’d heard before. It wasn’t a noise. It was a blow, straight down the spine. It raised Nod’s fur and the hair on the back of my neck, and every mortal in earshot paused and looked around. The expression on the ghost’s face was terror and agony. And then the ghost just… disintegrated into wind, and his scream was the last thing to go.
The cowboy looked at me, actually at me, through the space where the ghost had been and grinned widely. Horribly. Then he pointed a finger gun at me, winked, and vanished into thin air just as the song playing over the coffee shop speakers ended.