Califca (cahl-if-kuh) n. - Boldness intertwined with stupidity; well-meant rashness; orderly chaos. Deliberate intent achieved through thoughtlessness. Or i'calif (v.), the act of enjoying the presence of the color red.
Okay, I might be only eight and a half years old and, okay, sure, so I only scored a 54 on that brutal spelling test in first grade, fair enough- I'm still at least 99% positive that the moral of "Once upon a time I coughed up a blob of swirly purple cosmic goop" isn't supposed to be, "This is why we don't eat starfish".
But hey, I'll believe anything once. What do I know; I'm the youngest boy of sixteen, I taught myself all the tricks of slipping out to go play down by the pier while my sisters did all the chores, and I'm a testified (testified? Testified… Even I know that's not right) campfire storyteller. Champion of that practice for four years running too- half my sisters spaz if you whisper the word 'moist' with a flickering flashlight under your chin. Not like any of you care, I get it, y'know, don't wanna make this all about me or anything, just putting it out there. Ayuh, looks good, cool beans, 'kay. I owe you one. Hold me to it, champ.
But like. It's not a starfish. It's like a… like, it's a ball thing, this thing I'm hacking up, about the size of the chicken eggs Mr. Raiser always sells in the market across the walkway from my mom's fish stand. The slime oozing from my chattering teeth just keeps gathering into it. It's all freaky psychedelic (and sure, I can spell THAT word, but ask me to write 'machinery' or 'apparition' or… I dunno, something else big, and yeah, I'll just zone).
So I'm sitting there on the strip of pebbled beach down where the water gets all murky and gross, and I'm just puking up this purple goop, you know, like you do, and this one niggling thought won't stop tapping at my shoulder: What kind of nutjob goes around drugging starfish? Who even has that kind of time? Sure, I was a little busy working not to drown and stuff when my rowboat tipped and then the current made the thing fly into my mouth like that, but I would've tried harder not to choke on it if I'd known some zappy loon had gone to town on the whole lot of them. Seriously, injecting starfish with weird acid stuff is an art form and even I get that it deserves my respect. Wow.
… I don't feel way different, though. Dizzy, yes. Maybe like I didn't quite cough up all the water I inhaled, yes. But not like I'm on drugs. I mean, I wouldn't know, but I think I'd kind of know, you know? After she watched a few of her older kids go loopy, my mom made sure to beat the "Say no to drugs and candy from strangers" talk into my head so hard that to be frank, I don't even like rapping with door knockers and holding out my little fishing net on Halloween. Nope, nope, nope- I'm alllll tricks and no treats here. That's why I dress up in my costumes the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, I guess? Because I missed out on a crucial aspect of my childhood? Huh. That sounds right. I'm pretty smart. I should write a psychotic book.
Psychotic? Psychotic. I'm pretty sure it's 'psychotic'. That's what my friend Ryan said I was when I snuck through Old Lady Finch's dooryard to her porch with my dad's hand saw and cut a hole in her kitchen floor from under there. She swears up and down it's me who always filches her blueberry pies every time she sees me slink past the church, but the trapdoor is in the corner under her dead husband's old suitcase that she hasn't touched for at least six years, and I'm always careful. I've watched her. You can see her front door from a certain branch of one of the bigger maple trees in the middle of town, and I always notice when she leaves. If she wears the pink scarf, you know she's going to visit her sister who lives further inland, and that's the best time to sneak into her house and fool around where you know the grown-ups won't catch you. If she leaves pies when she skips town, that is 100% her own fault. Sometimes I think she's not really mad about it. It's more of a game. If we don't break her stuff, stay out of her garden, and put all her furniture back where it was when we snuck in, then we can have the pie.
See, some people call me 'Butterfingers' 'cuz my mom's first husband's last name was Butterfield and it's just what they've named the whole clan of us (so we've heard all the 'I can't believe that wasn't a Butterfield' jokes), but the smart people know that when it comes to my special nickname, they'd be better off replacing the first half of that word with 'Sticky'. Uncle Milo is the one who taught me that word, stickyfingers. Even though he spends all his days wandering aimlessly, swinging and pointing his walking stick instead of actually using it like a cane, he's the only one in town I've never been able to prank. I think it's partly because he's one-fourth Passamaquoddy and can probably talk to forest spirits or something (I don't have Indian blood, which is so unfair because more than half my sisters do), but mostly I've never pulled a fast one on Milo because he's Butter Dad's big brother and taught me almost every trick I know. I hope I can get him at least once before he dies. He's kinda old.
Oh yeah, we were talking about me throwing up the purple gunk that wasn't a starfish. Uh. The stuff spilling from my mouth finally slows down and then stops. I lift my cheek from the sand and sit up, wiping my bare forearm across my chin and saying "Bleh" a whole bunch of times. Gritty flecks stick to my lips and eyelashes. When I lick a few away, they don't have the familiar salty crunch of the sand I grew up with. No, they taste sooty and dirty. Unwelcoming. Like the ash from the fireplace that I've only had to clean out once in my whole life because my sister Olive can be such a pushover. After shoving my bangs from my eyes, I rub them with both fists, and then, for the first time since my scramble from the harbor to the wharf beach, I look up.
Green. There's oodles and oodles of green, the same bright color my eyes are. The whole sky is black, but it's got fluffy green clouds skipping across it too. How that works since there isn't any wind that I can feel, I haven't the foggiest. But there's also these thick green lines up there, striping across the black expanse of space. They keep shifting too, retracing their patterns, redirecting, twisting, spiraling. So that answers the wind question, I guess; no wind here, exactly, but these flows that ebb and swirl. Like the ocean currents. Works for me. I got my sealegs before my regular ones- my first step was taken on a fishing boat.
Carefully, keeping one hand to my stomach, I place the other behind me and push myself up until I stand. Then I turn a circle. Three times.
I stand on a little island. That's the only word for it, even though there's no water around me, or maybe it's really clear and just reflecting this freaky night sky or something. It's this tiny floating island suspended in radioactive outer space, made of blackish, dirty rock. There's nothing else except two scrubby gray bushes a few steps away and a little tree. The tree's maybe four and a half feet high, barely taller than I am, with just five leaves between all its claw-like branches. Or six. The slimy goop I threw up has started seeping into the dirt around it, like maybe the plant drinks it instead of plain water. I judge, but I don't judge plants.
This. Is officially not my beach. The little seaside town of Twigvale that I grew up in didn't normally make its pretty blue sky turn all green and black like this. Or have at least thirty mysterious purple doors, none of them exactly the same shape or size as the next, just kind of floating out there in the empty expanse of nothingness. Huh. None of them are attached to any building or seem to go anywhere. Some are tall and thin and even from here look like they're made of wood. Others have chains wrapped around them with a dozen huge padlocks piled on top to make it absolutely clear that no one's welcome inside, with extra emphasis on poor little old me. One's a car door with cracks on the window. Okay. My favorite of the set looks beaten up, claw slashes and scorch marks all over its lower half. A lot of them don't have doorknobs. Instantly, I want to explore every single one.
So, there are floaty doors. Four other islands too, scattered around, although most have only a single gray bush and one just has a sharp bit of rock sticking up and that's it. But I don't see any other people. Maybe one figure really far in the distance, darting away someplace, but it looks like I'm the only one around here.
Even if that's true, I move my hand behind me to cover the small tear in the back of my 'pineapples against a blue backdrop' swim trunks. It's a small hole, but I still don't want anyone snickering at me. Now that I'm not in the bay anymore, I really want to change into my pajamas. Better yet, my fluffy werewolf costume. This bizarre-o place is cold. There might not be any wind, but it's still very, very cold. The hairs on my arms tingle with sprouting goosebumps.
There's no big shocker, when I realize it. No denial, no anger. No scrambling around and sobbing for my Mama to whisk me away and kiss me good-night. Not for me. It only takes another second and a half to calculate that I'm dead. So, uh… Sorry, if you were expecting lots of pain and crying. I don't do that baby stuff. I just read a lot of books, y'know? And it's not like I don't remember the part about flailing around after my rowboat tipped over in the rip current near the jetty. I mean, I'm not a genius kid, but wow, you'd have to be a real dumb kind of turkey if you're underwater and you can't breathe, and then you shut your eyes and next thing you know you wake up in some wonky outer space world and you aren't wet and you can see the ground a little through your glowy hands.
Aw, man. Drowning was never in my top five ways to die. I kinda wanted to go in a shark attack, which is way different even though they're both in the ocean. Wicked crazy. A gunfight would've been sick too. Or aliens. And because of my red hair, I've always thought being burned at the stake might be kind of fun to try once. After that comes going up in a nuclear explosion, falling off a cliff in a train car, and being eaten alive by a giant poisonous spider. Pretty gross, huh? I mean, when you're dead, what else are you going to talk about? No one wants to get pinned in a corner by the obvious "So, how did you get here?" conversation starter and have to mumble, "Oh, I just got ran over when I didn't look both ways before crossing the street".
"'Kay. So. Yeah. Now." Briefly, I take my hand from the back of my pants and rub both together for warmth. "Where… do I go from here? Let's review the facts, I guess. I drowned. I spat out a starfish, but if anyone asks, it was an electric eel or something. I remember the water being real crazy even for a rip current. I can see through myself if I squint a smidge, so I'm probably a ghost. Which I kind of dig. I'm… trapped on a floating island in the afterlife with no way off. I need new warm clothes."
My hands stop scrubbing together. Instead, I cross my arms and start to walk. I walk in circles around my floating chunk of rock at least ten times, watching the tree roots drink the gross purple puddle in the dirt. The egg-sized glob I coughed up is still there, solid. On my eleventh time around, I kick it over the edge into empty space. It leaves a smear of purple on my bare foot.
"Oh, ick," I mumble. There's not much on the island to clean the stuff off with. I grind my toe into the ash for a second before the purple glob flies back at me from behind. I know, because it clips me over the ear with a squelch, bounces, and rolls to a stop next to one bush.
"Hey!" I whip around, grabbing automatically for the two trusty water blasters I always keep on my belt. My fingers close on nothing. Right, I'm wearing the swim trunks. Ugh. This is the worst thing that could happen to anyone ever. The afterlife had better have a seamstress at the market where you can get all the scariest costumes, because I am not haunting the Heath twins with my blotchy birthmark in plain sight. Nothing's scary about a smudge that kind of looks like a puppy dog and kind of looks like a flower. And I'm still cold.
No one around. For a minute I just stand there, huffing softly with my cheeks puffed, until I smack myself in the forehead because oh duh, ghosts don't have to breathe. Then I stand there not huffing, not talking- just staring across the abyss.
It's a dark world, and a goopy-looking one. I watch the purple doors bob up and down as tangles of green slither on by like snakes. The air, if you can call it air, ripples as they pass. One of the doors starts to sink lower and lower. It passes my island and keeps going. I follow it down with my eyes until the deep black swallows it up. Down seems to go on for a long way. I think there might be some trees, with bare branches reaching upwards. But at the very bottom, way way down there, I can see a glow. Green, of course. It's moving.
"A person?" I get down on one knee. "A monster? This is usually the part of the story where I'm supposed to call for help, and then the friendly person turns out not to be friendly and he tries to eat me. But then my soon-to-be best friend would save me, you know. What is it?"
The green creature shifts again. I think it's walking on four legs. Is it hunting? It's moving kind of slow, turning its head left and right. After two more minutes, it darts away. One more minute and I can't see its glow anymore. Trees and dark have swallowed it up.
"Huh. Freaky-deak. I wonder how far down it is." It's gross, but I use my foot to nudge the purple ball thing to the island's edges. Hey, it glows. This way I can keep track of it even in the dark. I knock it over the edge and start my count.
"One Jolly Roger. Two. Jolly Rogers. Three-"
Before it even gets halfway down (I think?), the blob flips direction. It zooms right back up at me! I gasp and stumble, scrambling away like a crab on my hands, but the universe has a sense of humor, I guess. The ball shoots high in the sky, then falls back and lands perfectly in the middle of my chest. Goop splashes everywhere.
"Ew! Hey, no fair! I'm not dressed for a fight like this! Who's throwing stuff?"
I don't get an answer, not that I'm surprised. After swiping off some of the larger patches of goo and flicking them to the side, I approach the island's lip again. The wolf creature, if it was a wolf creature, isn't down there anymore, and I don't see any other glows either. The green stripes that make the black sky look pretty up here obviously never go all the way down there. It's like that really dark part of the ocean, with all the cool trenches and the fish that are blind. Definitely, there's no one I can see that threw the purple blob at me.
"Hello? Are there people out there? Behind those doors, anyone? Or way down deep in the pits? Er…" I think for a second. "I'm not looking for just people. Out there are there other ghosts too?"
No answer. I shiver as one of the snaking green stripes swims too close to me for comfort. It's not even thicker than a paperclip, but it's almost as tall as I am, like an evil lasagna noodle. Can ghosts be invisible to other ghosts and stand around watching me? That seems like cheating.
Shifting my bare toes in the ash heaps, I glance back at my island. The slime I peeled off my chest has mostly reformed into an egg-sized ball again. Maybe it's some kind of infinite boomerang weapon? That would be decent. Deciding to forget the fact that it's gross, I take it from the dirt and squeeze my fist around it. It bulges at both ends, but doesn't pop. The surface is rubbery. The dirt didn't even stick to it. It feels good in my hand, and at least makes me feel safer than my empty fists do otherwise. I try to pretend the cold, wet, goopy feeling is just soap, because the blob is slippery like that.
"Now, if only I had pockets."
Okay. Obviously the afterlife doesn't have a welcoming committee into like, the Pearly Gates or anything, and no one's coming to find me. At least not soon. So I, Sorrel Rogers Butterfield-Yates, am going to have to explore on my own. That's kind of my thing.
I peer over the side of the island again. Yep, if I fall, I'm gonna die. Good thing I'm a ghost. Or I think I'm a ghost. I hope I'm a ghost.
Carefully, I sit down on the edge and roll onto my stomach. I put the purple blob right up against the drop, so I can still reach it later. There's no grass or weeds to hold onto, and the bushes and tree are too far away to work. Instead, I just make sure to keep my folded arms tight and balanced enough that they can hold up my weight. Then I start lowering myself. My fingers slide across sharp black rocks. While they do that, I move my feet, just feeling around. I cling to the side of the floaty island and kick my legs.
The weird thing is… my weight isn't pulling me down. My arms don't hurt too much. I just don't feel very heavy. It's like there's not a lot of gravity here.
Or none at all.
My elbows are slipping a bit anyway. Even though I don't feel as strained as I did when I was alive, it's still probably not a good idea to hang here until I run out of energy. I'm going to have to make the move sooner or later anyway. Shifting my weight, I reach up and knock the glowing ball down into empty space again. After less than ten seconds, it zips back up and puts itself exactly back where it was. So that's kind of cool. Even if it turns out to be absolutely useless in any other way, it'll be good entertainment to play with when I get bored. I get bored a lot.
I try spitting after that, twisting to watch my saliva fall. It drips, but kind of slowly. It keeps going, like a slow raindrop down the window, growing a bit of a tail as it goes, and never comes back.
"I should probably test my swim trunks next," I realize. I stare sulkily down into oblivion. Yeaaah… I could try that, and it's probably better to be stuck naked on a floating island forever than lose my life if it turns out I was wrong about the whole ghost thing, but… I'm not doing that. Being naked on a tiny deserted island forever sounds like the very worst way to spend eternity.
And it's not like I have no proof I'm a ghost. I mean, I can see through my arms. And I glow around the edges. So either I take a risk and definitely bust my head open, or if I'm not a ghost, then being naked on an island with no food should be equally bad.
Ghosts float, I think. The doors are floating. The island's floating. So why can't I? I kick my legs again. "Come on," I mutter, "Float. Float."
My arms are starting to get tired. I go to pull myself back onto the island, but when I move that much, the rock and dirt start crumbling beneath my fingers. I shift over to a stronger patch as pieces of the island swirl downward. It's very slow and boring. At that kind of speed, cats wouldn't be the only ones who always land on their feet.
"Float. Why can't I-?"
This section of the island can't support the pressure of a wriggling kid. Trying to heave myself up just tricks it into falling apart faster. Okay. That makes the choice easy. As the section I'm holding gives way, I make a final lunge to swipe the purple ball down with me. It plunges. Cocking up one eyebrow, I withdraw my fingers and let myself fall.
I'm totally right. Sure, I drift down for a long time - maybe thirty seconds, maybe a minute - before all my kicking and flailing finally does something. Maybe I hit a nerve, lucky guess or whatever, or this far down is where gravity really does become zero. Either way, I figure it out before I can go ka-splat. I catch myself and steady my balance in empty air. A grin splits my face like a knife through a birthday cake. I bob there in my pineapple swim trunks, my arms stretched out to both sides. My legs drift lazily there in front of me with the bony knees pointed up. 'Bob' is the right word. Even when I try to hold still, I can't help but float up and down a little bit.
"Hey! Ha ha! This isn't so hard. It's like swimming. Only everything doesn't look so dirty and I don't have to wear goggles, and my eyes don't hurt from salt. They do kind of hurt, though." I pause to rub them. When I take my hands away again, I find the glowing glob hovering in front of my face, too. It's turned a little more blue.
"You're still here," I tell it, patting it on its top. "It's kind of gross that I threw you up, but I like you."
I take a moment to look around. I dropped down pretty far. This is down deep where everything is nearly black, except now that I'm here and my eyes are adjusting, I can make out the outlines of bare trees in the dark. When I look to my left, I can see the dull pink-gray glow of the door that came down here. As I watch, it starts to rise up again. Huh. And above me, I can still see the glowy green streaks of light that swim around like barracudas. My island is there, and the other islands with it. The green stripes swim around them.
As for what's below me, I don't pay that any attention until I hear a curdling moan (For curdling milk, not like, blood- it wasn't that scary). If I still have any veins working in my body, they definitely freeze up. I glance down right when a skeletal hand, electric green like the barracuda things, thrusts its way up through the black dirt. Wet, dark, dripping mud sticks to the little finger bones, and to the skull when it pops up next. The second hand reaches back and closes its fingers over the top of a gravestone. By the flickering glow it puts off, I can read the words 'Tell no tales'.
"Yip!" There's a whole row of 'em, skeletons, with their eyes hanging from their sockets and strips of flesh spreading between their ribs, all clawing their way upwards. I grab my glowy purple ball and dart off. Hey, I like skellies, but I like them when they're still stuck firmly to the pages of a book. It's different when they're actually there, oozing old blood and clothes, especially 'cuz I still don't have real proof that I actually am a ghost, so maybe I can still die. I can jump off a floating island, sure, but I'm not going to stand around and let myself get ripped apart by mummies if I don't have to.
At least running away gives me the chance to figure out how to move. I try paddling with my arms at first, but after awhile that just makes them sore from doing it too much. It's kind of unfair that you can get out of breath when you're supposed to be dead, but I guess it makes sense that I have to use air, or else I wouldn't be able to talk. I pull up with a jerk to puff out my cheeks and nurse the stitch in my side, my tail snapping forward as I do.
"Hey, I have a ghost tail!" But as I stop swimming, my tail morphs back into short human legs. "Whoa, that's freaky. Can I do that again?"
Not yet. Forgetting the stitch, I experiment with it for awhile as I practice swimming up and down, skimming near the dark dirt all the way up to the undersides of the floating islands. I practice for awhile, but I can't get the tail to come back at will yet. Maybe you have to be moving faster. I guess this makes me a mermaid, or merman, merboy, something, I dunno. Either way, it was pretty cool.
I still don't know where I am, and except for the green skeletons, whose brains have probably rotted too much to be of any help, I haven't seen anyone I can talk to. I don't usually ask for directions - that's the coward's way out and I'm an explorer myself - but I'm not the kind of person who's too stubborn to try anything once. Back in Twigvale, I never had to ask for directions. I was the one that other people came to for directions, because my sister Clover and I knew every step in that rural corner of Maine, from the big hiking trails to the soft paths in the forest that the lynx (lynxes?) liked to run down. And the rules of the world there, like gravity, were consistent and easy to learn. Here, in this new life, I haven't been born to experienced parents who can teach me to walk. Or float. Looks like I'll have to change some of my old ways and play by my own rules. This should be fun. This should be lots and lots of fun.
Well. Mom used to read us Bible verses sometimes in the evenings, especially around Christmas and Easter, and one of them that I actually remember is "Knock and it shall be opened unto you". I linger in the dark, shadowed by trees with branches woven together over my head, and stare up at the sixty purple doors floating way up there. Which one, which one?
By turning my toes even a little bit, I can shift the direction I float. Making myself go forward is mostly a thought, although since I'm only just starting to get the hang of it, I realize it's easiest to push off from one of the dark red rocks on the ground that jabs upward like a shark's dorsal fin. I wobble as I go, holding carefully to the branches for balance, but it only takes me two minutes to swim up out of the dark forest to the place where all the doors are. They aren't connected to any buildings or anything, but they have to go somewhere, right? Otherwise, what's the point? That's dumb.
The first door is tied shut with ropes. The second says 'Danger, keep out', and I'm not stupid enough to open it without an actual weapon. Something better than the purple boomerang ball clenched in my fist.
Making a mental note to come back to it later when I get the hang of being a ghost, I move onto the next one. Something behind it is panting, rattling the door. The beam across it is on this side, so it's obvious that the creature in there wants to get out. That's probably not where I want to go. Then there's a fourth door covered with enough paper hearts and smiley faces to make even my sister Holly gag. A last resort.
The ninth door I come to is made of wood. I think. It has a simple brass doorknob, and the rest of its surface is blank. I knock on it three times and float a few steps back to wait.
I was listening for footsteps. Maybe that was a dumb thing to expect, because this is ghosts we're talking about. So when I don't hear any, I let my eyes wander into space. I get caught way off guard by the gun to my chest when the door swings inward.
"Um…" The woman's hair is bright pink, her skin pale blue. I think she's a woman. With people who have short hair and pants, sometimes I have trouble telling. I know that's kind of dumb to say since I usually tie my hair back in a ponytail, but I'm only eight, so give me a pass on this one, okay? I have to learn things too. I try to look past the lady's shoulder to figure out where the door goes. Behind her, the sky is the same color as out here, but the dirt is actually ruddy brown. "Hi? Don't shoot- you have the wrong guy. I wanted to ask-"
"Come to steal my heart!" she shrieks, jabbing the weapon deeper. I don't think it's even a real gun - the barrel is too big - but a stripe along its side is glowing bright blue like it's an alien blaster powering up, and the woman doesn't look like she shares my sense of humor. My squishy ball definitely won't hold up as a shield.
"Yup, okay, I should've expected that." When is the first person you meet ever helpful? "Check ya later, witch." Without any further good-bye, I jackknife down and dodge behind her door, where there's nothing there except the door's back. Kicking off it gives me the boost I need to propel me through the forest of other floating doors and chunks of rock.
"Wait! Boy! Come here, boy!"
"You had your chance, lady!" I holler back, grabbing the top of one door that had bobbed particularly low and leaping off it. My fingers slip around my purple ball (which is growing more comforting by the second in this wacked world where little redheads can fly and pink-haired ghost women want to shoot you for knocking on their ugly doors), and I fumble it back under my arm. I risk only one glance over my shoulder to see her, fingers outstretched, weaving through the, um, "hall" towards me. She's pointing her gun down at the distant ground. Not trying to shoot me anymore. Still not re…hash…ing for me. Anyway.
She doesn't leave. I realize straight off that I'm not going to be able to outrun her. Her legs have gone into tail mode like mine, but she's still quicker and more argyle. Fragile. Never mind, sticking with argyle. Plus, she's sure to know this place better than I do. I turn a "corner" around a disembodied pink drawbridge and fly as fast as I can between two rows of doors. I open the seventh one on the right that I come to without knocking, dart inside, and slam it shut. The handle rattles so hard, it falls to the brick-patterned linoleum with a clatter. My wispy tail turns into feet again. When it does, I flatten my back against solid wood and close my eyes.
"Phew… Aw man, I need to lay off the chocolate coins. Do ghost kids have to eat their vegetables too? In that case, can we just get this over with right now and make me double dead?" My sister Ivy taught me about squares and powers of two, so does that mean I would become four ghosts, or just ascend to the fourth level?
Someone snickers. My eyelids fly open. "I didn't mean it!"
It takes me a few seconds to stop trying to crawl up the door, but I relax when I realize that I'm floating above the floor of the biggest kitchen I've ever seen in my life. There's this little white hall to the door. At the other end of it are a small round table (floating) next to three ugly brown chairs (not floating). Sitting in the closest one is this man with pale green skin. He's wearing a dark blue sweater with a white stripe across it, but his weird skin color is what I notice first.
Sorry- that was racist, wasn't it? I'll try to be better from now on. Hair color's not racist, I think. Okay, his hair is black. And, um… he has freckles and pointy ears. He's also holding a roll of bright yellow tape, like they have on the cop shows. But he smiles down the hall at me where I stand (well, float), still pressed to his door. I hold his gaze until he blinks first before I glance jiffily around again. The table is over to my left. There are counters to my right, and an old icebox. And a fruit bowl, which kind of confirms the theory that ghosts need to eat. I think that's interesting, 'cuz what does that mean for starving if you're dead and everything, but I decide to focus on that piece of information later.
My eyes slide up the walls, across the clean white ceiling, then settle on the black-haired man again. I take my hand away from the door and squish my gross blob-promoted-to-stress-ball between my fingers. The whole place carries a similar dark to the world outside, like all the light bulbs are close to dying. And there could be a whole colony of spiders living in one of the bleaker corners, but somehow… I actually don't hate it. It's a weird sort of familiar to be in here, like the feeling I get when I'm under my covers later at night than I'm supposed to be with a flashlight and a good adventure book in my lap.
"Whoever put the handle on your door didn't do a good job," I say defensively.
The sweater man shrugs the comment off with a chuckle. That was probably supposed to make me feel more comfortable around him, but it's true what they say, that reading either opens the mind or poisons the brain. Most people who laugh when they see you turn out to be bad news. I try to decide if I want to open the door again. I mean, most of the other doors I passed warned against opening them. I probably should have thought that this one would be the same.
I wish, not for the first or probably the last time, that I had a better weapon than my boomerang blob. Then I'd be brave enough to explore behind any door I wanted. That's the problem with bravery- it comes in like the tide, and then it shifts away again.
"It's quite all right, little friend. I can have it replaced. Let's talk about you." He stands up and comes my way, holding his hand out like a friend. "By the flickering of that white glow around you, my guess is that you're nervous. Do you want to sit down? Have a glass of juice? An apple? Don't worry- I won't let anyone out there hurt you under my roof."
I don't move.
The man stops in front of me, just far enough inside my personal space bubble that he can reach forward and grab my arm, but too far away for me to do the same thing unless I take a step. He works his gaze up and down my small self, from my scruffy hair to bare toes. "I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't introduce myself. They call me Painter here."
"Don't touch me," I say, unable to tear my eyes from his hand. In my defense, it's a weird hand, with lots of warts and scars all over it. His pointer and his ring finger are both missing. The pinky is only holding on by a shred of skin. Realizing too late that he might get offended, I hurry to add, "I just… I don't know you, and I don't know where I am, and this is all weird, and I don't know if I can trust you, so that- that's why I didn't want to touch. Still don't. Present-tense. Not touching. You prob'ly don't want me to anyway. Sometimes I pick my nose."
"All right." Painter withdraws his weird hand and takes a second look at me (or third; I wasn't counting). "You said you were new to the… to this area? Well, let me be one of the first to welcome you. Do you remember how you got here? Do you need a place to stay? Oh!" He smacks his head with the role of tape. "My manners! You have a name, don't you, kid?"
"My name's… Roger." Every small town has these things called "urban legends" so we can pretend we're cooler than all the other towns with their urban legends, and one of Twigvale's is that if you're walking the six miles to the market in the next town over, and you meet a young redheaded woman with yellow-brown eyes standing by the side of the road next to a horse with a white star on its face, then you can accept her offer of a ride and live. But you can't tell her your first name or she'll skin you alive and turn your body into one of her saddlebags. My gramps swears on the sun and moon that he rode with "the Mirage of Twigvale" three times before he was my sister Poppy's age, and has a chunk from the tip of her braid to "prove" it. But in our family, it's harder to find a pencil than a lock of red hair, so take all of that with a grain of sand.
So that's why I'm not sure if I can give my real first name to Painter (After all, he didn't give me his- Who names their baby that, really?) I always pretended to believe the Mirage story, and all the stories, even though when you boil down to it I really didn't, because I've been the youngest kid in the whole town all my life. When I stop pretending to believe, it'll just make everyone feel awkward, like I just walked into my own surprise party when they were still setting up, and the adults will stop telling our stories. We'll lose something in our tiny Twigvale if I… don't… fill my role…
"I know I'm dead," I say, resisting the urge to brush my hand across my face. Instead I just blink. "So if you have sugar, I want it in candy, not coats. I'm eight and a half now, and I can handle the truth. I know I'm a ghost and I'm in the afterlife. And to be real, it's not as bad as I expected. I pulled enough pranks and teased enough squirrels and broke enough rules that I thought there was going to be more fire and chains when I got here."
Painter chuckles. He gestures for me to take the nearest seat at this table, and this time, slowly, I peel my fingers from the door and accept his offer. "Okay. No sugarcoating. You're in the Ghost Zone now, son. Limbo, to be precise. Some of the old-fashioned folk who've been here for centuries still call it Purgatory, but Limbo is the term that gets penned down on the official immigration documents. Uh. From the way you're dressed, my prediction would be that you drowned?"
"Maybe," I say with a squint. He wrings his hands.
"Yes. See, there are these blips, these portals between the Ghost Zone and the Living Realm that pop up now and again. Always random. Your, um, deceased body would have been swept through the portal when you were gone. All dead things reanimate here in the Ghost Zone, after nine seconds. Nine months to be born, nine seconds to be dead. Ever eaten a steak in nine seconds, Roger? You get used to trying."
"Mmhm. Why's everyone immigrating to Limbo?" He said that part a little fast, like he regretted that sentence halfway through it and was trying to slip it under my radar, his blue eyes darting from my face to my hand, so of course that's the part I latch onto, duh. I used to steal Daisy's hand mirror from her dresser and climb one of the taller trees or head down the stream in my rowboat, and sit there and talk into the mirror until I could manage a good enough poker face that I didn't think I'd get caught when I started pulling the afternoon's pranks. I'm not an expert and sometimes even I can't suppress the giggles and mess up, but I've started to notice the tics. You've gotta stay up pretty late to pull a fast one on ol' Sorrel.
"Big word for a small mouth," says Painter, snapping his eyes back to me. His thin eyebrows bush up.
"Nah, not really. There are bigger ones. 'Immigrate' means they're coming from somewhere else, right? 'Papers' means there's a system with people in charge. A system means there have to be lots of people leaving to make it worth making a system for. So why are they leaving? Is there a big monster chasing them away? Like a ghost T-rex? Are they scared? I bet it's not that scary. I'd yank its tail and get away before it caught me. I never get caught." My own eyes widen as a new thought pops into my head. I straighten up and set my boomerang ball on the table. "Is that place… forbidden?"
Painter's gaze wanders down to my hand. He shakes his head, then gives another laugh. "A far cry from it, son. The first rule of the Ghost Zone is, people move around a lot. Everyone is trying to find the Elsewhereness. People's, ah, homes - these doors? - move around by their own choice, but never wander beyond the political boundaries between 'sectors'. Um, did you learn about political maps in school, by any chance?"
"Why don't the purple doors ever float past the borders?" I ask, trying to distract him before he can change the subject again (I need time to think about that 'E' word and what I want to say about it without making him panic). He keeps acting like he regrets everything he says. Oh, and he was fixing an Easter basket, if anyone was wondering. That's why he had the yellow tape. Just. Wicker basket with tape. I couldn't make this stuff up.
"The borders were invented after the location phenomenon was proven." Painter looks at my hands again and looks away too fast. Not even at my face, but at his kitchen counter over on my right. He scratches behind his neck. "Like I said, these 'ghost homes', called lairs, sometimes wander around the sectors of this world, ahaha…"
Apparently this is funny? Okay.
"It can happen three times a day, or sometimes five weeks go by before my place shifts! As far as I know they still haven't figured out the exact science for that, but we have some bright minds in our world. Lots of smart people. They'll figure it out. It'll be good. Of course, there's an infinite number of sectors," he spills on before I can ask, wrapping his bad hand up in a bit of tape too. His tongue flicks against his cheek. "There are nine main ones everyone knows, and you'll learn them too if you stay here long, and then there are even more. The edges get fuzzier there. Buildings crumble. Things always move. Big messes."
Oh my gosh, he's so awkward. I don't think he even comp… anions how awkward he is. Adults are so helpless when it comes to my gendernation. Someone, please teach him our ways.
I rub my nose with one knuckle. "And this region or sector or whatever - the one we're in right now, I mean - it's called Limbo?"
"Exactly, exactly. Nice place to live here- the most orderly sector. Walker catches the extreme ruffians and keeps it manageable. Still, some of the more interesting folk have to watch their backs for the great hunter, Skulker. He lives in the neighboring sector of Summersphere, but, um, he frequents this place when he wishes to test his skills in a forest without leaves. Clever hunter- you'll want to keep your distance. But this is Limbo, exactly, yes. You catch on quick, don't you? Clever boy, you are. Um." He stands up. "Why don't I let you stay here tonight?"
Is he kidding? I close my eyes for a minute and try to keep my eyebrows from squishing downwards. "Ayuh, okay, that sounds cool and all, but actually I was talking here and I kind of wanted to discuss that other thing you said. The Elza… Elka…"
Painter smiles, and I'm not even going to try describing how strained it is, because wow is it bad. His tape-wrapped hand takes hold of the back of one of the ugly chairs. "In the morning, Roger. Then we'll talk all you want. You've just been reborn. You need your rest."
"But I'm not tired." And he's obviously working on some project, which is why he has the tape and basket. There are no dishes in the sink, and the air is dry and empty, not full of smells and spices like he just had dinner. In light of all that, it's hard for me to believe it's night, even if I'm newly dead. And I like naps, but it feels a little early in the afternoon even for me, you know?
"Oh. Well. When you're ready then, son." The bandaged hand migrates from the back of the chair down to the table. "Food, bath, shelter- what's mine is yours for the night. You can just slide me that little purple ball you have there and we'll call it a done deal, okay? How's that sound?"
I move my eyes from him to the blob to him. "It's valuable?"
"No, no," Painter says, too quickly. His eyes spin around again. He's not very good at this, is he? If he'd let the conversation drag on longer before he suggested bed, maybe I would've believed him. His knuckles tighten then, turning a lighter tint of green as he grips the table's edge. As he leans over, I take up the purple ball and slide my legs around to the other side of the chair. "Dear boy, son, I simply thought we could make a trade, seeing as you so obviously lack the resources otherwise…!"
Gears are clicking in my head. I keep expecting Painter to lunge forward as I lift from my chair and inch my slow way back towards the door. He's been glowing a fiery white around all his edges this whole time, like me. But his glow is sparking and snapping now, with his nerves fraying as his eyes dart about again. I know he knows I don't trust him, and that I'm trying to leave. Even someone as clueless as he is can pick up on it. Still, he lets me get pretty far before he chuckles again. And so, not having any better plans, I raise the ball to my mouth.
"Okay, come any closer and I'll eat it. How would you like that?"
Those darting eyes scoop over me like Painter knows exactly how I came into possession of the glowing orb, and he's debating my squeamishness. I set my jaw. He has no idea that I can't resist a dare.
As he straightens, Painter runs his fingers through his hair. They crackle, pink lightning bolts jumping between the tops of his knuckles. A vein bulges across his forehead. The dim kitchen lights dim even more. The wooden planks creak beneath my feet. Distractedly, I realize I feel like I'm taking two or three steps backwards to match every one it took me to walk to the table. One by one, the curtains draw across the windows ('Draw' means they were pulled shut, by the way, except by some invisible person or something in this case). So yep, it turns out I was right about the whole "Painter is awkward and secretly evil" thing, or whatever. This is gettin' weird.
"Roger?" Painter's tone becomes desperate. Abandoning the table, he starts coming forward. I start hurrying faster, not turning my back to him. It seems like the hall's a lot shorter for him than me. Like I'm moving in slow motion, and he keeps walking at normal speed. "Please, can you just give me that ball? I'm not going to hurt you, I promise. Just please give me the ball."
"You should ask your girlfriend to teach you social skills, but it's not my fault if you're too awkward and creepy to have one."
So it's not my most amazing taunt, but in my defense, I was also fumbling with the wood behind me until my fingers slip through the hole where the door handle is supposed to be. No lock. Painter's powers can seal the windows, dim the lights, and make the space between his table and the door a little longer, but he can't lock his, uh, "lair" entrance if it doesn't have a handle.
"Boy," he snaps, finally reaching me. He grabs my left arm and twists it upward.
"Sorry, I'm late to haunt my brother's step-father's cousin's hamster's… See ya!"
I tear open the door really fast with my right hand and spin around with it. The lady with the gun is on the other side with her weapon drawn (Helpful hint: this time 'drawn' means 'held up and pointed', not drawn like with a pencil or the curtains. It's called a homonym, not a homophone, because those two are spelled the same. That's the last lesson I remember learning in school, and we could talk about how we Mainers have bonus homophones too 'cuz some of the grown-ups from the neighboring towns have thicker accents than most of us guys in Twigvale and can't say the 'r's at the end of some syllables, but that's a whole 'nother story and you'd probably have to like, go to college and learn about Maine to understand all the tricks, and even I don't know some of them so I should probably go to college to study Maine if there's a ghost college but I don't think there is, and anyway that sounds boring and it would be funky because most people I know don't have accents, I think).
So, the blue and pink lady's there. Oops, I forgot about her. I usually only have the attention span to focus on two things at a time max, and you know what they say about out of sight, out of mind. I drop to the ground the instant I notice it, she fires a blast like an electric blue fireball barely above my head, and Painter drops my wrist and goes crashing into the far wall. A ripple passes along the floor. Not giving the pink and blue lady a chance to reload or whatever you do with ghostly blasters, I duck beneath her arm and dive down, down for the forest. I figure the trees will give me more cover than the empty sky.
Except, I'm not sure why I even worry so much about that. People shooting guns always miss in the TV shows. I've never, ever seen the hero actually take a-
"Whoa!" Another blue blast explodes against a floating door so close to me, it makes my hairs prickle, and I think I smell one or two of them burn. The door backflips a bunch of times, steaming with a big dark mark. There's no hole though, even though the door looks like it's just wood. That makes me feel a little better. Maybe these blasts look scarier than they actually are.
Hey, wait a minute! I'm a ghost! Painter said I was right and that I really am dead. I'm stuck here in limbo here in Limbo! What are they gonna do- Kill me again?
I duck behind the sizzling door, giggling as Painter and the blue and pink lady ("Candy", apparently), start fighting over who gets to take me down. She calls him 'Rufus'. No wonder he likes 'Painter'. Rufus is a grandpa name.
I pull myself up to the top of the door and stand there on the thin part. You'd think that would be hard because of the weird gravity, but it's actually not. The door pulls me towards it, and since I'm a ghost I'm too light to tip over. I set my feet and, still clutching my boomerang ball with three fingers of my left hand, stick my thumbs in my ears. "Nah, nah, na na, nah!"
Candy yanks a long cord trailing from her blaster and points it at me again. I've moved away from them, but I can still see its barrel glowing. I wait until the sound it makes reaches the same crescendo as the last few times she tried to shoot me, and then I kick off into the air. Her laser misses me by a lot. I blow a raspberry at her.
"You little brat!" she hollers as I float down, as if flattery will get her anywhere with me. She pulls the cord again, and as she does, Painter finally stumbles to his door. He's leaning over, a hand to his chest where he was hit, catching his breath, I think. I don't hear what he says, but Candy snaps back at him and fires my way again. Shoom! The Ghost Zone sky turns the colors of the real world for once.
"Ha! You missed, you old bat!"
She's starting to come my way, flying towards me even as Painter stumbles after her (Can you stumble when you float? Float… stumble… floamble? Floamble). Her weapon's pretty lame, if it takes so long to recharge after every shot. It's almost not fun.
Almost. I don't even have to dodge her next angry shot.
"Try your other left, candy-for-brains!" I'm snickering so hard now, I actually do fall over backwards. Since Candy and Painter are getting closer, I find another door to hide behind. The blaster almost hits the armpit of my knee when I turn my back. I poke my head out again.
"I've heard of not hitting a guy with glasses, but I'm starting to think you'd miss me even if you were wearing 'em!"
Blam! A small chunk from one of the neighboring isles careens off into empty space.
"Aw, missed again? Take a breath mint before you try kissing me for that!"
Painter is forced to drop the chase then. It's so weird that ghosts need to breathe, but apparently he's having a really hard time with it. The hit he took must have vaporized part of his blue sweater. His chest is showing through, all bright green and glowy. I release my door and bob backwards, taking shelter behind another one, then another, as Candy comes around with her blaster raised. I don't say anything. Three doors away, behind one with a huge peephole on its front, I float-crouch on my toes and watch her.
At first, she doesn't move. She comes close to the place where she thought I was hiding. Kicks the area. Then she turns her head. 'Beady red eyes' is such a cliché, but that's exactly what she looks like, squinting and searching.
"Surrender your heart, little boy, and we can both go about our business."
I keep staying quiet. Staying quiet is one of my biggest skills, and after a few years of practice (and a mess a' sore ears when one of the grown-ups finds you and yanks you out of hiding to make you apologize for blasting cootie-covered girls with the hose, or rigging traps made of fishnets from the trees), I've gotten pretty good. Did you know if you tilt your head back and breathe through your open mouth, you won't make noise? It's true! Ooh- I used to pick on this girl named Hattie. One time I was setting up this prank with butter and chalk powder in her dresser drawers and she came home earlier than I thought, so I hid in her closet. I got stung by a bee or a wasp (I think it was a wasp) that was in there like nine times and didn't make a peep, because she would have found me and told her dad, and I would have had to hear the "you're not allowed to be alone with a girl in a bedroom" talk again, and that would have been worse. Even just getting caught would've hurt my pride and been worse.
I squeeze my purple glow ball in my hand. Candy's going the wrong way. Any second now, she'll figure out where I am and shoot at me fast. I need to be ready to run. Er, fly. I stretch one of my feet back and square my shoulders.
If I can get her to waste another blast, she'll be helpless until her gun reloads. Then I can steal it. I've seen her power it up enough times that I think I know how it works. Once I do that, then I'll have a weapon and be in a much better position than I am right now. I just need her a little closer.
I slide around to the opposite side of the door as Candy begins to make her way in my direction, except she's floating backwards. She's a lot better at moving than I am, sort of flowing, not jerking a bunch.
This goes on for a few minutes, until I start drumming my fingers against my knee. I don't know why she's going so slow, because I didn't have a weapon the last time she saw me so she shouldn't have to be worried that I'll sneak up and shoot her… No wonder it took her so long to figure out I'd hidden in Painter's place.
Just when I'm about to reveal myself, one of the glass-looking doors to her right starts to open. Candy blasts it at once, startling the poor bystander back into his or her (surprisingly unshattered) home, and rips at the cord of her gun so hard, it probably almost breaks. She snorts and hefts the blaster. Leaning my elbow against the side of the door I've been hiding behind for - no joke, five whole minutes now - I whistle twice.
"Wow, that's the most times you've missed me in a row! New record!"
Candy whirls, bringing the gun up to chest level, her arm extended. I dart behind my door to dodge her next attack and charge out again, launching myself towards her, fingers outstretched-
-and realize then that she didn't waste the blast.
I skid, kicking white sparks into the dark and backpedalling my arms. I'd been racing towards her. There is no ground, no friction to stop me. My chest bumps against Candy's gun barrel with a solid jolt. Our gazes lock as it finishes reloading with a chirpy pattern of blue lights and a beep. This wasn't in my plan.
I go for the blaster. Candy goes for the purple ball in my hand. We each grab what we want. Scrambling now, I try to force the gun down and to the side. Then I shove myself backwards as Candy yanks my glowy ball away and fires into my hip.
It hurts a lot.
First there's the sensa… sensible… the feeling of flying. Candy's blaster doesn't just plug me with a bullet and pat itself on the back for doing its good deed for the day. It sends me rocketing away and downwards. I spiral like a… an injured snowflake that didn't melt, bashing into one of the other floating doors. For a second I stick there, and then my body (Do ghosts have bodies?) peels itself off and flops downwards towards the trees. I fall faster than the last time, I think because I got hit. The glow around my arms and legs is flickering a lot like Painter's was back in his house. Er, lair. But it's still kind of a slow fall because of the whole "not a lot of gravity" thing, so I start swimming as soon as my vision stops.
Stops swimming, I mean. I was trying to sound poetic or something, but that got all heavy like I went blind. I just meant my vision stopped swimming.
Anyway, Candy actually does miss the next shot, but not by much. My right foot burns with how close the heat was. I press my hand hard against my side, trying to keep my head on straight.
This is starting to be less fun.
"I hate adults," I gasp between kicks. I can't- I can't go up anymore, and I'm dropping fast. "Who shoots little kids?"
My feet shimmer. An instant later, they're moving at the same time, back and forth like a needle jumping in and out of cloth. That's the trick, I figure out as I tumble downwards, back towards the dark forest that blocks out most of the green sky. To swim like a ghost, you can't swim like a human. Once you get your tail, you have to use it like fish and sharks do, not like dolphins. You have to move it sideways.
I plunge into a tree, because of course there would be a tree. Sharp, dead branches lash across my face, tearing skin… if you want to argue that it's still skin when you're a spirit even thought it feels so wispy and babyish and cold. The tree yanks me around, slapping me, tossing me, tearing at me, until I fall with a plop on one of the twisting roots that pokes above the black mud. That's a weird feeling, landing. Apparently I don't have a rib cage anymore to hold my form, so my chest gets all crushed into me. Dirt and a weird minty taste fills my mouth. Not good mint. I'd been expecting the saltiness of blood, but this is more like sticky pine sap. You know scented candles? Lots and lots of them burning in a really small space until it makes you want to throw up? That's what it tastes like. Moving slowly, I push my fingers through my floppy bangs without opening my eyes.
"I might have deserved that," I manage to wheeze. "Not all of it. Maybe… a little. Ow."
Still dizzy, I drag my hand against the bark of the withered tree and pull myself up. Luckily I'm practiced at standing on rocking boats. Then I check out the place near my hip where I got shot. When I touch it, my hand comes away with sticky green ooze. I stare at it for longer than I should, kind of numb or in shock, trying to figure out what to do here.
Everyone in Twigvale, even the youngest ones like me, knows how to tie a tourniquet in case of, I dunno, shark or wild dog attacks or tree-chopping accidents or something. I don't remember learning what to do if you get shot about six inches to the left of your belly button. I think you're not supposed to move. Moving makes you bleed faster. Am I supposed to lie on my good side so gravity pulls the blood back into my body?
Well, I know that I'm supposed to keep pressure on it. I'm still wearing my swim trunks. No shirt that I can tie around it. Okay… I lick my lips and peer around the dark woods. The trees are all bare, and either they're like that all year long, or someone has a 100% raking record, because there are no leaves around I could use to stop the flow. Bummer.
It should be okay to use my hand. I have a pretty big hole in my side now, but my freaky green ghost blood moves pretty slowly. I guess I'll be okay for a little while.
I think… I think if you lose too much blood, that's really bad. That's true for living people, and maybe for ghosts. I don't know if ghosts can die… I don't know anything about ghosts. I didn't used to believe in ghosts, but now it's… I'm a ghost, and this is, well, a fry.
… Candy has my purple ball now. I don't know what to think about that. I still don't know what it even is, but it was mine, and she and Painter had wanted it, so I'd hoped to keep them from getting it. What more is there to say? But it's gone now, and I have nothing but my swim trunks and a huge hole in my side.
"Heh," I choke out. "At least she just wanted the ball, right? I think she just shot me because I annoyed her, but she won't really chase me down here. I'll be okay."
I lean my head back against the tree trunk and squeeze my eyes shut. My hand presses closer to my waist, slipping in all the green goop leaking out of it. Droplets patter to the dirt like literal acid rain, speckling it with glowy freckles.
I've never been bleeding and had nowhere to go before. We were tight, back in Twigvale. Even all the times I went west to the market with my mom or east out on the boats with my dad - literally the two farthest places I've ever been from home before - I always had them. I always had Milo. I always had my sisters. I always had a human who I knew would give me a bandage (I never took any pieces of candy, though, because I don't trust food from strangers, remember) and who would help me find someone I recognized if I was lost. Since I died this morning, I've met two people, and both of them have tried to hurt me.
Oh yeah. It's actually three or four people if you count the green skeletons. Who are coming towards me now.
"Five more minutes," I groan as the largest lurches through the trees, dragging his leg behind him. I mean, he's holding a disconnected femur or something, and pulling it like that. "Please guys, don't do this."
Both skeletons - there are two - answer with gurgling moans, like lame Halloween decorations. I guess they don't talk. One of them has an eye hanging all the way down his face so it's practically in his bony mouth. Ew. Hey, do skeletons eat? Painter made it sound like ghosts eat, and I wonder if skeletons do too.
They are coming towards me, so… I guess I look tasty. That would answer that. I glance around for a rock to throw at one of them, hoping I can knock off his crooked head, but even turning makes my side hurt. Not trusting my ability to throw well, and not being dumb enough to keep standing around, I push myself off the tree and force my feet to trudge into the dark. Soft mud squishes between my pale toes.
Okay… okay… Um. Even though it will probably just get darker the deeper I go, I'd rather walk down a hill when I'm injured than up one. What happens next needs to win me a blue ribbon for slowest chase scene ever. Obviously I've been shot, and that makes floambling through the dead bushes and trees a little hard even though I'm still trying to move fast. And I don't know about the skeletons, but if they pulled themselves out of the ground like the ones I saw earlier, maybe they're still trying to wake up, and they probably haven't had breakfast.
So I take the lead of our moaning traveling party, paying very close attention to the ground and following every single little curve and slope that leads down. The relations… the revelation… The kind of flat landscape becomes more steep as we continue on, until I really am picking my way very carefully down a hill. One time, the smaller skeleton trips and goes rolling past me. Luckily he hits a tree and falls apart. Chuckling hurts like the dickens, but I manage to get one out as I sort of limp and sort of float past his scattered bones. Flimp.
I start to wonder if skeletons can climb trees. If ghosts need sleep then sooner or later I'm going to have to rest. If they can't climb then I can get the high ground on this guy, and maybe poke him with a branch or throw fruit at him until he leaves. If they can, I'm in trouble, because I don't think I'll be able to make the jump from my tree to the next one.
And I also wish I knew which direction was which, because I'm not used to not knowing and it makes me feel gross. I'm not constant that moss grows on the north side down in the Ghost Zone.
The bigger skeleton makes another gurgling noise then. I snap around and shout, "Would you stop saying that? It's annoying and I don't like you stealing my spotlight."
He growls at me again. I growl right back, snarling mostly. The cocky skeleton comes forward again, lifting the arm that's holding his unattached leg. I stand my ground because I'm not gonna let this guy think I'll lick his boots if he threatens me, and I've already died, been shot out of the sky, and fallen through a tree today and I can't imagine being smacked with a bone is going to be much worse than that, when we hear a noise that makes us both stiffen up.
It's a loud noise, followed by lots of yelling. It starts way far off in the distance, but me and the skeleton just stand there for a minute in surprise, trying to figure out what it is and where it's coming from. Okay, I read lots of books, and I know there are lots of chase scenes through forests, but I also live right next to a forest so I know some things writers sometimes don't, like how you probably can't really run or ride a horse through the forest because there's too much undergrowth and stuff.
Apparently, nobody told this to the giant bear made only out of bones, because he crashes through everything, tearing it up and ripping a huge path behind him. He glows white, so I can see him through the black and the dead trees. I don't know if he notices us or what, because he's pretty far off and he doesn't come our way. He just runs down the hill over there, snarling and tumbling. Voices tail him, though there's no sign of the purses yet. The pursuers, I mean. I bring this up because this is when I take the chance to hobble away from the green skeleton who's been chasing me, and I walk downhill for awhile and he doesn't come back, so I guess he's gone for now, I dunno.
When I reach the foot of the hill, I can't help but choke out another laugh. This time it's a relieved laugh. There's water here! A decent-sized stream - dotted with stepping stones and all - runs across my way. It's too bad it looks all dark and murky. I can see pebbles at the bottom, but only barely. Is that just the way water is in the Ghost Zone, or is it still bad?
Judging from all the mud I've been walking through or floating over, it rained recently. There could be lots of germs in the stream. That probably means I should walk upstream before I rinse off the hole in my side.
Upstream is the direction the bear was. I can still hear the shouts of the people who were probably chasing him, though the hill blocks my view a little.
I can get shot, and I can bleed. I don't really want to get infected. But I also don't want to meet that angry skeleton bear.
Deciding that I'm too bold and too stupid to let a bit of dirty water dictate how I live my life, I creep down to the bank. Hey, at least I'm already wearing swim trunks. If I really am stuck wearing what I died in for life (er, for afterlife), there are worse things to wear than swim trunks. Like wow, can you imagine being trussed up in church clothes forever? Yuck. Not giving myself the chance to test the water's temperature and spend a few minutes to gripe about it, I hop straight in.
The instant my feet leave the ground, I regret all my choices, because what if water burns when you're dead? If witches dissolve in water, will ghosts too? And isn't there a river in Greek myths that's full of people's souls? So, ayep. Admittedly not one of my best ideas. In the air, I resolve to check all ghost water before I jump into it from now on.
Today I get lucky. Nothing bad happens when I stand in the stream, or at least nothing obvious. It comes up to my chest. Although I can float, the current pushes me around when I do that, but if I force myself to stand on the pebbles then it doesn't move fast enough to knock me over or make wading hard. That's good. And instead of being cold, it actually feels pretty nice and warm.
Almost too warm. I hope it's not warm for gross reasons, but if it is, oh well. Too late. I'm already in here, and so is the hole in my side. I peel my hand from my skin and watch glowing green blood twirl away in the gentle current. It's from my fingers, I think- the wound itself has mostly clotted. My hip's been burning ever since Candy shot me. Even though the water doesn't magically heal me, it does make me feel a little better.
Well, I'm not really bleeding anymore… What are the things you need if you get lost and have to spend the night in the woods? Food, water, and shelter, I think. I have water now, and although I'm thirsty, I still want to wait until I can confirm the water is clean before I drink it. Rubbing some of the water over my lips and face helps take the edge off. As for shelter, it will take me awhile, but I think I can climb up in a tree, and that will have to do for one night. Check.
I search the stream, but after a few minutes of swirling the water and poking around, I don't find any signs of fish or ducks. Not a single scale or feather. I wish I could set a trap for forest creatures. Aside from the bear, I don't know if there are animals in this world. Small ones, anyway. And the bear was a skeleton with no meat on his bones. Painter made it sound like meat came from… somewhere else. I don't have any materials to build traps with.
I've also never set a trap for forest animals in my life- just lobsters. I prank, but I only prank the kids and adults in town. No rabbit would fall for the dollar on a string trick. I used to set up traps with fishing nets that I pretended would catch people, but I don't know how to make them catch animals when I'm not watching, and none of them have ever actually worked right when I've yanked them anyway.
Maybe someone else has set a trap around here? I'm not always the best at noticing hidden things like that. But when I'm looking for one, maybe I'll find it. Then I can hide close by and wait for something to walk into it.
That could take awhile, so I'd better get started. I climb onto the bank and, still keeping one hand to my side even though it's not bleeding anymore, start flimping downstream.
This part's kinda boring - I was gonna talk about the Ghost Zone plants I saw, but they decided to be lame and black and dead instead - so I'll skip forward. After like, I dunno, anywhere between five and thirty minutes (I'm not good with numbers), I find two things that I was definitely not expecting to find in a world full of dead people.
The first one's a nice beaver dam made from black logs (and, strangely, with strips of a green tree woven in), so the stream trickles off around here. Some water leaks through the cracks and around the edges, making a smaller stream on the other side that keeps going, but yeah, mostly it just pools into a pond. So, ghost beavers exist. I don't know if they're skeletons or if I can eat them yet, but at least I know they're here. This is really interesting. I mean, if there are ghost animals, does that mean there are ghost bugs? I didn't see any bugs when I was walking through the forest. Of course, it was dark and I was bleeding and being chased by a skeleton, so.
It gets freakier. Just past the beaver dam is a picnic blanket. A checkered picnic blanket spread over lumpy rocks and stuff on the bank, covered in shiny blue plates and a big green basket, and with no people around.
I hover off to the side, too suspicious to approach. Maybe the person or people having the picnic left to do what the bear skeleton is probably doing in the woods. If it was as urgent as it probably was for the bear, they could be gone awhile. Maybe they'll share their food with me. I'm a cunning lost kid, so it's worth a shot.
But if they're mean, I don't think I'll get another chance to see the basket unguarded like this.
I think about my morals for ten seconds. Then I decide to just go for it. If they're nice, they'll forgive me for taking the food first anyway, and they'll probably give me more because I'm poor and starving or whatever. If they come back and get mad, the joke's on them because I'll have at least eaten something. Like I said, I don't trust strangers who give me food (I think it's mostly because I'm a pranker by nature and believe me, I know how to slip in laxatives, and I also have a peanut allergy and sometimes people don't know that), but if these guys were going to have a picnic, I think the stuff they were planning to eat should be okay.
So I drift across the blanket and land next to the basket. Since there are no forks out and it is, after all, a picnic basket, I was expecting cute sandwiches and maybe a bottle of orange juice or something. I was absolutely not expecting something under the blanket to lurch up at me when I touch down.
My hand goes to my mouth to kill the scream as I fall over backwards. Even if I can't see it, I've watched enough TV to know what it is. It's one of those steel legtraps with the springs and the jaws! It's chomped on my foot!
I struggle backwards on my rear, fumbling in the blanket ruffles and then the mud with my hands. It's on a rope or chain sunk into the dirt, so I can't go very far. After a few hopeless yanks, I flop over on my stomach. The words, Who covers a steel trap with a picnic blanket? burn on my tongue like broiled salmon, but I absolutely do not give my position away. One time I was playing around in the Shaw's boat with Camellia and Aster where we kids aren't supposed to be because there's always a mess a' rusted hooks and there are sharp fishbones on the floor sometimes. We were trying to be careful, but I accidentally stepped on one of those old fishhooks and bled all the way back home without making a big deal about it. Then Ginger fixed me up in the bathroom before Mom and Dad found out. That was when I was like, four, too. See, I'm just not a crier and not a screamer. Especially not in a freaky haunted forest when something might be hunting me.
"Wait a minute," I sputter-whisper, pushing myself up on my elbows. "Who puts a big metal trap next to a beaver dam? Beavers are nice. Come here, you." I yank the trap closer, plates clattering as they slide together. Aha, just as I thought. The master of this artwork left his signature on the piece.
"'Skulker'? Huh. Painter wasn't kidding when he told me to watch out for this guy. See, this is why I don't take food from strangers. This exact situation."
I play with the trap for a few minutes more, trying not to attract a lot of attention to myself because I don't want any more of those green skeletons to find me when I'm chained down. Geez, I just had to be the fisherwoman's kid, not the trapper's, huh? I don't have a clue how this thing works. And it's under the picnic blanket, so that doesn't help.
At least it doesn't have giant spiked teeth. Or if it does, I can't see them. A green stain is starting to leak through the slippery fabric. Whether the blood is from the trap or because I kicked a sharp root or bit of metal, I don't really want to know.
I take a moment to let go of the trap and calm down. It's my left foot that's stuck. When I wiggle, it responds. Okay, that's good. And on the bright side, suddenly that hole in my side doesn't bother me so much!
Maybe Skulker will be here to check his traps soon, if he hasn't come today already. You'd think he'd wait until evening. If there is an evening in the Ghost Zone- I haven't seen a sun yet. When he realizes I'm a person and not an animal, he'll probably let me go.
Ayuh, I'm sure that's why he set it right next to a picnic basket with plates and a blanket.
When I stop rubbing my forehead and look up, I draw in a gasp (That's the third time I've used 'draw' in a different way today!), then slap my left hand over my mouth. The bear skeleton is back, on the other side of the dam. He's paddling in the pond, bones clattering, and I don't know if he's seen me yet. Did he follow me? Oh my gosh, I think he followed me.
I lower myself behind the dam until I can't see him anymore. So I'm lying flat on my back here in the mud, a blaster hole in my side and my foot in a steel trap, trying not to cry out because on top of those things I don't want to get mauled by a dead bear. Wow. I had none of these things on my to-do list today.
Then I realize that I can still hear the shouts of those guys who were chasing him. He's led them this way. Hey, they'll probably help me. I just have to try not getting mauled. Sitting up again, I peek around the corner of the dam, and jerk my head back really fast.
The bear is right there. The only reason he didn't see me is because he checked behind him to see if those people were almost here yet. For one instant, we're kind of the same, both of us pressed flat against the beaver dam with our hearts pounding. Um. If ghosts have hearts, I mean.
Then the branches behind me begin to shift, scratching my ear. Bones rattle. Claws scrape. Water spurts from between a new gap and soaks my shoulder. It finally clicks in my head that the bear is heaving himself up on top of the dam, so I try scurrying around to the side. I only make it two crawls before the legtrap I'm caught in yanks me back.
It makes a noise. An obvious one. Clattering metal. Muscles still frozen from my inchworming to freedom, I rotate my eyes upward and see the stunning skeletal bear perched majestically on the dam, a burlap sack swinging from his jaws-
… Okay, I kid. He's there all right, but instead of standing, he's scrambling, spurred on by panic at the sound of the approaching voices. I hear a distant whirr of blasters charging up. The potato sack dangling from his mouth has a long tear at the bottom, and when he swings his startled head around to stare at me, it finally splits. Glowy purple balls rain down on my head, ricotta off, and go rolling in the mud. In fact, he's so surprised to see me, he falls over too and hits so hard, his shoulder makes a popping noise. The mud squelches between his bones.
His eyes are brilliant green, like lime. Our gazes lock. They move as one to the bouncing purple balls, then meet each other again. Time jumpstarts with a snap. I throw myself into the streambed and snatch the nearest orb, straining for a second one that's barely out of my reach, me being chained to the ground and all.
As I start clawing at the pebbles and wet dirt, hoping to dislodge the ball in my direction, the bear sweeps a bunch of them up with a single paw. There are ten in total, I think, and once he has the loose ones, he turns his attention on me. Instinctively, I pull myself back onto the bank with its yellow-gray grass and, oh yeah, I can't just leave because my leg is stuck in a steel trap and the trap is tied underground or something.
"Whoa, what are we running away from?" the bear asks, voice low and kind of rumbling. His bones click every time he moves. Without drawing his eyes away from me (Man, I am on a roll with that word today!), he hooks one of the chain's links with a claw and yanks. My feet fly forward like I'm possessed, and I plop back into the streambed with a squish. It's not a very long chain, but when the bear flattens himself on his skeletal belly and lifts me over his head, he's able to dangle me upside-down. A flap of the picnic blanket falls in my face, and I kick it off again. My chain twists one way in his grip, then the other, so I only see flashes of his bones and flashes of the black and green dam. Y'know, for once I'd like to see some red or yellow in this world- the only thing yellow so far has been the band tying my ponytail back, and there was a red apple in Painter's fruit bowl. I think. Maybe it was brown. Wait, no. He said dying things get new life in the Ghost Zone, so it would have to be red.
Oh. That means all those plants I've been calling dead and ugly are really alive and ugly. Now I feel bad. Even if they're living, I hope they can't think or talk and don't know I called them ugly, because then I'd feel really, really bad. I start getting more nervous about this when I remember that bears didn't talk when I was alive. Oh no, I'm going to survive getting shot, falling out of the sky, a skeleton attack, getting my leg stuck in a trap, a bear mauling, and then die a second time thanks to angry flowers.
Trying to keep my head on straight, I do my best to angle the chain between me and the bear skeleton's mouth. Maybe he can break through it with a bite? That sounds fake, but I live my life always trying to check out unexpected situations and find something for my updated to-do list from the start. That's the secret to not panicking, I think. You can't get stuck in the present. You just have to keep changing with the times and looking ahead.
"These balls are mine," I say, hugging my two against my chest. "I already had my first one stolen from me today. Don't be selfish. You don't need like ten."
"There are six," he drawls back without glancing around to double-check.
"Well, then you don't need six, duh! That's how sharing works." As I speak, the slow twisting of the chain makes me bob around so my back is to him again. I try kicking myself the other way. "Look, I'm not going to pretend I'm pure, because then I'd probably be an angel in heaven or whatever instead of a ghost in Limbo, but my mom still taught me manners, and she says sharing-"
"I don't have time for this." He rattles the chain, bouncing me like a puppet on a rollercoaster. "Hand those over if you want to avoid your neck being sliced through by my teeth."
I shoot him a classic Sorrel smirk. "If the other choice is being killed to the power of two by flowers, I don't think I have much to lose. By the way, you should use active voice in your threats, not passive voice. It'll have a stronger impact. I figured that out even before my sister Marigold told me that."
"You little twit," he snarls then, pulling back his head as if he's dumbo… dumbfind… Okay, this time I actually know the word, I just can't think of it. "How dare you correct my grammar? Do you have any idea who I am? You ought to be lying prostrate at my feet, begging for me to act with Sojourn's mercy."
"Dude, I'm not the one who got scared of a little noise and fell off the dam wall."
"Oh, shut up, brat." This whole time we've been arguing, he's been groping for me, trying to close his huge bear paw (which looks way more like a hand than I thought it would) around at least one of the two purple balls I'm hugging. The chain has kept him back so far, as have my kicks and grunts, but it won't last much longer. "What would your mother say if she heard your mouth has been soiled with that sort of language?"
"Hey, I try really hard not to swear like a sailor the way my parents do, thanks. And you used the passive voice again."
"I will gouge your eyes out," he threatens, raising his thumbclaw towards my face.
"Wait… bears have thumbs?" Then I blink and shake my head. Gotta stay focused on the most important stuff here. "I can teach you how to use active voice if you want- Trust me, if you grew up in my house, you would have known these things from the time you were seven. We're big on books."
"All right," he snaps before I finish. He shoots the dam a glance, then drops me to the pebbles and mud. I tumble with a clink of metal and whoosh of picnic blanket fabric. "You want the kywtici? Then you can have them. All of them. I'll be back for you when the coast is clear."
"It's a stream in the forest; it doesn't have a coast," I say, for no reason except to annoy him, but he doesn't answer. I trail off in the middle of that sentence, because he's… melting. His bones are falling apart, starting with his shoulders. His head shrinks in size, but grows longer. It curves at the end like a…
… beak. I- I don't- it happened so fast, but then he's not a bear anymore. He's a bird. A skeleton bird, like a crow or a parrot or magpie or seagull or something. Completely ignoring even the balls that he already had, he glides to a large rock jabbing out of the mud and checks over one shoulder. When he confirms he still has my attention, he sticks up his tail and waves his - pardon my sailor talk - butt at me before taking off with a flap and a chuckle.
"Hey!" Spitting, I jump up and take a step after him, only to trip and plop on my face in the mud. "Just- Wait! I'm still stuck, I- That's not fair!"
I rave and rant for a minute more, my hands around my leg as I heave with all my strength and try, still without success, to wrench it free. I only stop when a… Well, it's a… I guess it's a shadow (even though it's more of a glow) falls over me. When I realize it's there, I stop yelling and turn around.
There are two ghost people in front of me. The first one is shorter, but has bigger muscles, and no shirt so that he can show off those muscles. His skin is kind of purple and kind of blue, his jaw sharp and square. He wears a red cape (Yay! Red exists!) and has his right eye covered in an eyepatch. I mean, his left eye. For me it's on the right, but it's his left eye. The second guy is really, really tall, but looks a little less cool. He's got glowing green eyes without pupils and wears a black hat with a brim and a white stripe and a white suit that has smears of mud caked on it now.
The suit's on his body, I mean, not on his hat. That would be weird.
"Off the blanket, son," the taller guy orders. His voice is a weird gruff mixture between an army commander's and being all dull and flat, I think. I don't always listen to adults, but this seems like a good time to start a new habit. I step to the side, holding my foot up so it's not technically pressing the picnic blanket to the ground, even though it's still kind of wrapped around my lower leg.
I do that too. The guy with the white suit crouches down and examines the space under the picnic blanket. I crane my neck as he folds it back and finds the legtrap. There's a bit of flat metal, like a wing or something, on each side of it. The guy pushes down on both of them, probably with more weight than my body could have managed if I'd known what to do anyway. That's all it takes. The jaws pop open. I crab-crawl away while I have the chance. Glowing green droplets splatter the mud. Still gasping, I drag my left foot onto my right knee. Then I clap my hand to my chest.
"Phew! For awhile, I totally thought I was gonna lose this limb."
The white-suited guy beckons me forward with a twitch of his finger. "You ain't free yet, son. Don't bother trying to make a break for it. My forces are closing in on this area as we speak."
"Really?" I check my foot again. "It looks like I'm free to me."
"Thievery, possession of stolen goods," the eyepatch guy lists off. "He counts those as two. And if you keep this up, now you'll be resisting arrest."
My mind starts racing. I don't know how I can feel it, but somehow I can. My throat tightens up. "But- I didn't steal anything."
That's probably a dumb thing to say when I'm still holding one of the purple balls under the crook of my arm. The suited guy holds out his hand. I hesitate for only a second before I give it to him. I'm in enough trouble. As I nervously start edging backwards, he waves his hand over the orb's surface. Some sort of powder (or maybe a dust mote) shimmers. Green prints begin to pop up. Only mine, which he points out when he grabs my wrist and does the trick again. The fingertips on my right hand - the only one I used to touch that particular ball - begin to glow green too.
"Oh, come on! The guy who stole those from you was a skeleton! A giant bear skeleton or something. Didn't you see him? He gave them to me and took off so you'd be mad at me while he escapes. Go, go after him! He went that way!"
The man with the white suit rubs his chin. "Well, ain't that a real story. Under the circumstances then, I'd say that renders you an accomplice here."
"What? No! It makes me a witness! I need- I need to go into witness protection, like on the detective shows!" I wiggle underneath the huge, clamping hand he's placed on my shoulder. It forces my floating feet back to the (living, not-so-ugly) grass and makes my knees buckle. "Are you… Skulker?"
"The name's Walker, punk, and you've been causing us trouble for a long time."
"Oh. Heh heh. In that case, call me 'runner'." Tearing away from his grip, I book it for the other bank as fast as my hurt leg can carry me. I make it halfway across the stream before the eyepatch guy clasps the back of my neck and hauls me up to his face.
"No fair!" I aim a kick at his pointed nose. This doesn't work much because my feet turn into a tail again. Man, that's annoying. It's probably like getting slapped with a couple of tissues. So I give up on the whole squirming thing and cross my arms. "I do a mess a' things wrong, but nothing so bad I should get thrown in jail! I demand a recount! I don't have to tell you anything else! I know my rights!"
Walker sizes me up. Then, disinterested, he crouches down to drag the abandoned sack from the mud. "Now there, son, where around these parts did you obtain this real world material? It's water portals that open mostly 'round this side a' Limbo."
I keep my mouth shut and grit my teeth at him. The guy holding my neck gives me a light shake.
"And where exactly would your parents be at, kid?"
I continue to remain silent. The eyepatch guy holds me further away from his body me as Walker finishes gathering the glowing orbs before he pushes himself back to his feet.
"Hmm. We've got a buddin' juvenile delinquent on our hands t'day, boys." Then he leans down to take my chin between his thumb and pointer finger. "Of course, I keep a special room at my prison for ages ten and under just to lock up miscr'ants like you. Those are the rules."
"Wait- wait!" This is happening. The eyepatch guy hooks glowing green handcuffs around my wrists and then attaches a line between them so he can pull me along like a puppy on a leash. This is actually happening. I drag my heels in the dirt, but my leg isn't all that strong right now, and one tug sends me tripping forward. As Walker saunters up behind me, swinging the sack over his shoulder, I reach my bound hands out towards him. My head barely comes up to his stomach, he's that huge. "I'm only eight! An impression of a child! A little kid?" I try more desperately when that still prompts no response from him. "A tyke? Tot? Ankle-biter? Youngblood? Going to jail will ruin me for like my afterlife. Maybe you should go to jail for child neglect."
Walker turns me around by the shoulder and sends me after his buddy with a pat on the back. "Pack your suitcase and break out the scrapbookin' materials then, youngblood, because you've just earned yerself your first ticket to ride in the shame-mobile on your one-way trip to my prison."
Our driver meets us a few minutes later as we're on our way upstream (Sure, flying cars are a thing, but I can't defend my innocence in ghost court fair and square? Okay). The "shame-mobile" is a square truck that looks kind of like an ambulance, except it's gray and has vertical bars across all the windows, and instead of a red plus sign on the side it just says GZPD. In it, there are metal slabs like benches on the left and the right. No other people. "Very 'Lady and the Tramp'," I manage as Walker and Mr. Eyepatch scoop me up and toss me in, because I don't know what else to say. Out of spite, I sit down cross-legged in the middle of the hard floor instead. The door locks behind me with a clang when they slam it shut.
"Don't stress yerself out too much, punk," says Walker as he hops up on the back bumper. I guess he's going to ride like that the whole way, clinging to a handle next to the door, just to make sure I don't escape. I don't turn around when he brings his face to the back window, but the floor in front of me is so shiny that I can see the glow of his bright green eyes reflected in it anyway. His voice carries a grim, almost sarcastic smirk when he says, "It'll just be 'til your parents arrive ta pick you up."