"You all right, Ryan?" Alexx asks.
Ryan glances up, blinking his eyes hard several times. "Hmm? Just tired."
"He hasn't been getting a lot of sleep," I tell Alexx. "His apartment has recently become haunted."
For a week, I accompanied Eric home after work, rather than lurking in my locker room. At first, being with Eric made me happy, because I felt like I finally had some connection to the living. I kept telling myself that soon, I would be able to contact him. But that never happened, and in truth, I didn't bother to try. I don't know if it was hopelessness or fear, but every night, I stayed out of the way and just watched Eric live his life. And every night, Eric would go out, while I sat at "home" alone. Seeing Eric get ready to leave every night, seeing him move on… It was too much.
One day at work, things crumbled at my feet when I realized that Eric was starting to warm up to my replacement. During a case, Eric and Calleigh decided to haze him, thereby giving him their seal of approval, as far as lab etiquette goes. Raw and bitter, I climbed into Ryan's car that night, thirsting for horrible vengeance. Okay, I didn't go over the top. But I did decide to live up to my ghostly duties that night.
The haunting started out small. I would rattle things and knock on doors. Ryan was startled by the noises, but he's a little braver than I gave him credit for. So, I kicked things up a bit. I started to whisper his name and open doors. These past few weeks, he's been getting pretty edgy.
Sucks to be him.
"Ryan," Alexx says suddenly, "Our vic has something interesting on his arms. What do you think that is?"
"Looks like chalk dust," I say.
"Looks like chalk dust," Ryan echoes.
I glare. "Didn't I just say that?" With a smirk, I flick him on the arm.
He grabs his bicep. "Ow."
"What is it?" Alexx asks, gazing at Ryan.
At first, Ryan looks startled that Alexx would ask such a thing. Then, he flashes a smile. "Cramp or something."
I flick him again, this time on the shoulder. He winces, but keeps his mouth shut.
Alexx turns all business again and says, "I'm pretty sure it is chalk dust, but I'll give you a sample to take to trace."
"Really, Ryan," I chide. "You should have asked for the sample the second she brought it up."
"Yeah," he says. "Thanks, Alexx. I'm pretty sure it's chalk dust, though." He blinks again.
Alexx narrows her eyes. "Baby, maybe you'd better tell Horatio you need to go home. You're no good to anyone tired."
He shakes his head. "Well, then tell the county we can't work any more triples."
"I hear you," she says.
Casually, I slink up behind Ryan and touch his back. He jolts into the air and spins around, swatting at the air.
"Ryan," Alexx says. "What's the matter with you?"
Gasping, Ryan crosses his arms. "I thought somebody touched me. Sorry."
"Do I need to call Horatio and tell him you're overly tired?"
Ryan looks dazed. "No," he snaps. "I'm all right."
"That's a little trooper," I say.
I should feel guilty, but I'm enjoying this all too much. Leaning against the autopsy table, I say, "I'm a ghost, Alexx. I haunt, right? It's an accepted behavior pattern where ghosts are concerned? It's kind of my duty to be a bad ass ghost and haunt people. Isn't it? Of course it is. So, really, I was slacking off in my duties before I started haunting Ryan."
Alexx ignores me and instead turns to poor Ryan. "You know, you could ask Delko to help you. He just finished his case."
"Please," Ryan says dismissively. "I'm not going to Delko and telling him I need to take a nap before I can solve crimes."
"He understands the stress, Ryan. He and Speed used to have each other's backs all the time."
Ryan glares. "I'm not Speed."
"You're damn right, you ass," I grouse. Clenching my jaw, I reach over and knock a clipboard off the table. As it clatters to the floor, both Ryan and Alexx jerk away from the sound. Wide-eyed, Ryan gapes at the clipboard.
"I've got to go," he stammers.
Alexx takes a step forward. "Ryan, wait," she says.
"I'm going to run this to trace," he says breathlessly and flings himself toward the exit.
Letting out a breath, Alexx kneels down beside the clipboard and gingerly touches it with her thumb. Then, she glances up and lets her eyes scan the room, as if she's searching for someone. After several long seconds, she stands up and mutters something to herself. She speaks too low for me to hear everything she says, but I think I hear my own name.
Trace confirmed that the substance on our vic's arm was chalk dust. This new information led us to a high school over near where Megan and Sean Donner used to live. Calleigh, Ryan, and I climb out of the Hummer and trudge up the walk toward the school. Boy, I miss my high school days. They were some of the greatest days of my life. Sure, I got picked on. But I had great teachers, a best friend who turned out to be more, and a lot of books at my disposal. Life wasn't bad.
As we walk past the school library, I let my eyes fall on the rows of books. I have to do a double-take, because I see someone I never expected to see again—Mr. Chernitski, my old Biology teacher. Mr. Chernitski was my favorite teacher. He's the guy who encouraged me to go to Columbia, and he's the guy who listened to my constant, hair-splitting questions in lab. During my second year of college, I heard he was moving to Miami to be closer to his mother, who was in a retirement community in Coral Gables. By the time I got here, though, Mr. Chernitski had already died after falling from a roof. It appears he never left.
I linger by the doorway to the library and watch as Ryan and Calleigh move toward the crime scene. After they disappear up the stairs, I take a breath and step into the library. This is ridiculous. My old science teacher isn't going to recognize me.
Licking my lips, I walk over to the lean man with brownish hair. "Mr. Chernitski?" I say.
Mr. Chernitski glances up at me and narrows his eyes. Shaking his finger, he says, "Give me a moment. I know your name." After a few seconds, he takes a step toward me and smiles. "Tim Speedle."
"You remember me?" I say, beaming like an idiot.
"How could I forget the kid who took our Science Club to nationals?" He crosses his arms. "So, I heard you'd left Columbia."
"I did for a while," I say. "After Aaron died." I wince at the memory of Aaron's snowmobile accident. It hadn't killed him right away. He lived for a couple more years, but they said his death was due to "complications" from his injuries. So basically, the accident took two long years to kill him.
"I'm sorry about that, Tim," he says. "I guess you didn't make it long yourself. Either that, or you have an amazing tolerance for talking to dead people."
Letting out a dry chuckle, I say, "I died a few months ago. Shot in the line of duty. I was a cop."
"A crime scene investigator."
Mr. Chernitski nods. "I always thought you'd go to into research."
I shrug. "It didn't seem important after Aaron died. Actually, I guess he's the reason I do this job. To honor him."
For a while, we just stare at each other. Finally, Mr. Chernitski walks over and drops into a chair next to a table full of science magazines. I follow suit.
"I have a lot of questions," I say. "About all this. This existence."
"I don't have a lot of answers, Tim," he says. "One minute, I'm falling off the roof, and the next, I'm watching my students walk into class like an average day. Only, they weren't expecting to see me. Instead, it was that dumbass gym teacher. What does he know about science?"
"How much time had passed?"
He rubs his nose. "A few days, I guess. The students kept asking questions about me, and for a while, I couldn't understand what was happening." He cocks his head. "And then I figured it out."
"Are there any other ghosts around?"
"In the school? Yeah." Mr. Chernitski shifts in his seat. "There's a guy who haunts the music room. Kid from the seventies."
"What about outside the school?"
He raises an eyebrow. "You haven't seen any other ghosts?"
"A few," I say, "But this is all still new. And I don't get out much."
"Well," Mr. Chernitski says, rubbing his bottom lip with his index finger. "There are ghosts all over the place. Some have been around for centuries."
"Really?" I say, my mouth open. "So does everyone become a ghost?"
Mr. Chernitski leans back in his chair. "I don't think so. There wouldn't be a lot of room if everyone became a ghost."
"Good point," I nod. Taking a breath, I lean forward. This is the first real veteran ghost I've had a chance to talk to. There's so much to ask the guy. "Do you know how long we stay? Or why we become ghosts?"
He reaches over and arranges the magazines into a pile. "Maybe we have unfinished business," he says. "I've been asking myself that for years. I mean, I was single. All I had were my mother and my students. Now, I wasn't excited about dying. But my mom was well taken care of, and I wasn't leaving a wife or kids. I don't know why I stayed here."
"How about contacting people? Do you appear to people? I've only done it once, and I wasn't trying."
"Well, I've been seen by students when I didn't know they were around. I almost appeared to my mother once, but I settle for chatting with her while she sleeps."
"Have you appeared to anyone on purpose?"
"One time, yeah. One of my students was in trouble, depressed. So I let him see me." He rests his elbows lazily on the table and says, "You concentrate on wanting to be seen. Sometimes manifesting is difficult, depending on how solid you become."
I lurch forward and choke, "Solid?"
He nods. "Ghosts can become solid for a brief period of time, but it uses a lot of energy, so you're usually unable to manifest for a while after."
"How long can you manifest? A couple of hours, I've heard. I've only done it once, and it was draining. The guy upstairs does it all the time."
"So essentially, we're made of energy," I say. I suspected that, but I wasn't sure.
"That's my assessment, Timmy." He gazes at me. "Who do you want to contact?"
I glance into the hall, suddenly interested in a poster that's advertising a school play. "My friends," I say. "I think the ME knows I'm still here, but I can't seem to manifest to her."
"Why do you think that is, Timmy?"
Swallowing, I glance up. Suddenly, I feel like I'm in 9th Grade Honors Biology, and Mr. Chernitski is trying to talk me into joining the Science Team.
"Maybe I don't know how," I say.
Mr. Chernitski leans forward. "Maybe it's psychological. You're afraid of hurting them. Or being rejected."
Lowering my voice for some asinine reason, I say, "The only guy I've been manifest to is the loser they hired to replace me. My best friend and my old boss—they've felt me touch them. And my old boss heard my voice."
"Why do you want to contact them? Do you have a message?"
I clamp down on my bottom lip. "I have a theory, actually."
"Okay. Lay it on me."
"Well," I say. "I don't think we're dead. I mean, I still crave things, Mr. Chernitski. I want people. And I cry. Does that sound dead to you, because it doesn't to me." I lean closer. "Mr. Chernitski," I say. "I think we're still alive. We're just…body-deprived."