Author's note:Thanks to everybody whose still kicking around a few months later. I appreciate you all waiting it out while I got my shit together.
And on THAT note, I'm upping the rating to 'M' because I can't stay away from profanity, plus there will be some subject matter not suitable for kiddies. You'll have to excuse my unladylike tendencies. Thanks for the love, folks… and for not eviscerating me for killing off Jesse!
"Memories, they wash my mind
Like the frozen rain
I am numb here but I can't forget the pain
Death was yesterday
And somewhere I have never seen
So never mind tomorrow boy
Tomorrow's never been
…And I found you at the River of Styx all alone"
- High Holy Days
"Honey I'm home," I muttered darkly, crossing the threshold of my bedroom.
Spike looked up from his spot on the window seat and responded with a sullen glare before going back to licking his paws. The cat, once again my roommate had almost outdone me in terms of moping since Jesse passed away, which I found unspeakably odd considering we're referring to an especially mean feline here.
But, Jesse had loved the thing – more than he loved me I used to tease – and Spike thought he was just peachy for a human. Which was why I couldn't very well take him to an animal shelter after his owner abandoned us for the other side. For his sake, I brought the high-strung fleabag home with me. Mom had understood.
"Nice to see you too."
Tossing my things on the floor in a heap, I used up my last reserves of energy to throw myself on the bed. I wanted to tune out a bit before dinner, try to recover from the sensory overload I'd been experiencing all day.
Nobody warns you about that post-tragedy. The way everything you used to barely acknowledge for its normalcy suddenly becomes loud and intrusive, I mean. All the little mundane details of High School life, from Kelly Prescott talking about her tan to Mr. Walden using the electric pencil sharpener at his desk, are transformed from background noise to rude interruptions.
Your thoughts are no longer able to wander at their leisure, but speed ahead on a collision course with a subject, or rather person you're desperately trying to avoid. Combine this with the added bonus of a certain nemesis/tentative friend taking up your passenger seat and you basically have more going on than you can handle. The last thing you need is Debbie Mancuso throwing herself in your path with questions about Dopey's summer fling with that "RLS slut" who works Wendy's.
Then there were the Jesse comments.
Everybody knew what had happened, and everybody had to express their belated condolences. Don't get me wrong, it was nice and all, but it felt like his funeral all over again which of course just brought up all the memories and attached emotions.
I was supposed to be working on moving on, but my well-meaning classmates insisted on repeatedly reaching inside to rescue all those unwanted feelings from where I'd tried to bury them. Resurfacing pain eroded the repaired portions of my heart like acid, and I subsequently spent most of the day warding off breakdowns. By the end of it, I was exhausted.
So you can see why after all that I just needed to fall out of reality for a while. I wanted to put my head down and confide in my pillow, letting my tired body nudge my troubled mind into the solace of dreams.
I didn't really think it was so much to ask for; I'd paid my dues and played normal (for the most part) at school like a good little girl. Who could begrudge me a little nap?
Well, the spirit world for one. I've said it before that ghosts are rude and have no concept of appropriate social etiquette, particularly involving business hours. A ghost will materialize before you right in the middle of dinner, but won't apologize for the inconvenience. They'll jerk you out of a dead sleep, but you'll never hear a "Sorry to wake you."
Which was why it was with mild surprise and extreme annoyance that I met my latest "client" not two seconds after I'd rested my head on my pillow.
A shimmering specter of a girl a few years older than me appeared at the foot of my bed and poked my sock-clad foot, "Susannah Simon, right?"
I glared at her. She was blonde and petite in an oversized sweatshirt and tattered jeans, hair loose and shiny around her pretty face, gray eyes watching me with amusement.
Her lips twitched wryly, "They told me you'd be difficult."
Oh great. I had to roll my eyes at that one.
"What, you guys like, discuss me now?"
"Over drinks," she shot back cheekily.
I sighed and pushed myself up into a sitting position. Adding to the joys of my wonderful day back at school, I now had to contend with my absolute favorite type of ghost – a wiseass. (And yes, the eye roll is implied).
"Alright, alright," I rested an elbow on my knees and regarded her warily. "Let's just get this over with."
"Nice work ethic," she sarcastically observed, taking a seat on the bed.
"Yeah well, get back to me on that one when the hours and pay begin to approach reasonable." I yawned, "Anyway, this is seriously cutting into my naptime, so if you wouldn't mind getting to the point…"
She picked up a shimmering strand of hair and began twirling it around her finger, "I suppose I should probably introduce myself."
"If it's relevant, then yeah that's a good place to start."
I know, I know. Callous, right? But I was in a rather unreceptive mood. The last thing I needed to deal with in my state was a snarky ghost whose own mood dictated she beat around the bush.
"Angela Grayson; perpetual failure, bad influence, disappointment to her parents, and," she smiled with false cheer, "Junkie."
She rolled up the left sleeve of her enormous sweatshirt, studying her forearm with a pained expression. I took a closer look and… Oh. Now it made sense. Track marks dotted her pale skin in neat little rows, perfectly aligned as though she'd used a ruler to space them out evenly. The fresher ones stood raw and bruised against the old faded scars, a veritable map of when each needle had landed.
"I see," I said finally in a low voice, hostility dissipating.
"Yeah," she pulled the sleeve back down. "That's what did it. Overdose."
A long pause followed in which I tried to think of something consoling to say. I don't know why I felt like I had to; usually my associations with the dead are less about comforting and more about getting down to business. If they want a shoulder to cry on, they can go harass Father Dom – I don't exactly do condolences.
Which isn't to say I don't feel sorry for the lost souls I come into contact with regularly, I mean I'm not heartless. It's just that when you see as many as I do and a good portion of them find it essential to be self-centered, troublesome, and just all around obnoxious you get past the pity stage pretty quickly. Also, I've never been the touchy-feely, here-let-me-give-you-a-hug type. I can throw down like you wouldn't believe, but people skills are something I definitely need to work on.
Anyway, despite all of that, kind words of some sort seemed to be required under these particular circumstances. I mean, if you'd seen her, you'd get it. Her eyes were so sad and regretful as though in the marks on her skin she was witnessing the remains of something she both despised and missed. And she was young; maybe nineteen when she'd died, by the looks of it.
But what really got me was the fact that she didn't look like a drug addict at all. With her cute face and casual clothes she looked like a normal girl. Somebody I could have been friends with.
Finally, when no words came to me that didn't sound flat and artificial, I settled for a faint commiserating smile. An olive branch of sorts – I was willing to sacrifice my nap and help her in any way I could.
"So Angela," I began.
"Angel," she corrected me with a smile stronger than my offering. "My friends all used to call me that. Get it? Like calling Robin Hood's gigantic sidekick little John."
"Irony," I acknowledged. "Funny."
She shrugged, "In a way. You know what's really funny, though?"
"What?" I indulged her.
"I think I am irony now that I'm dead," she informed me. "I mean, the last three years of my life were spent in a wasteland of sorts. The world was colorless and empty when I was sober, it made no sense when I was high. But it was comforting in ways I can't even properly describe now, it was… like I was living to the fullest extentwhile my body was decaying. That final trip that sent me over the edge was the most alive I've ever felt."
She stopped to regard me intently, "Still with me?"
"So there I was, literally dying but painfully, vibrantly, alive," she continued. "And now I am dead and now I see everything I was too out of it to notice when it actually mattered. I'm finally completely sober and not thinking about my next fix, and I can't even smell the roses. I've made a complete recovery, but I've recovered nothing. Tragic irony."
I was a little speechless. The only other ghost I'd ever had really substantial conversations with was Jesse, and Angel's thoughts reminded me of him. Not just because he'd spent so much time analyzing various aspects of life and waxing philosophical, but her words communicated a sense of hopelessness and wistfulness.
Which of course made me think of how Jesse and I would never meet again in this life. I was certain there was a nice dose of tragic irony in our situation and how it had played out. I just didn't think I could handle the pain trying to work it all out would bring. I hurt enough already.
Angel noticed my expression and chuckled softly, "Sorry Susannah. I swear I didn't initially come here to lay a big heavy on you."
"Right," I cleared my throat. "You came because you need guidance to the other side right? Don't worry; I just so happen to be an expert in these matters."
"Actually, I don't need your guidance," she informed me. "Not that I doubt your skills, or anything. It's just that I know what's keeping me here."
"My parents," she explained. "I won't be able to leave until I see for myself that they're finally able to move on and stop blaming themselves for my death. It's kind of a natural progression of things, not something you can really help with."
I saw her point. It was kind of like my dad and why he had to hang around all those years to keep an eye on me. He had to be convinced for himself that both mom and I would be okay without him, and while I'm of the opinion that he could have taken off a lot earlier, he had his own ideas regarding what constituted 'okay.' I had little control over it all.
"Okay…" I watched her closely, "I get it. But then, why did you come here if not for my help?"
She shrugged, "Conversation, I guess. With the living. It gets lonely out here."
This was new and different. Spirits didn't usually come around just to talk. They wanted me to go out of my way to help them move on. That, or they spent a lot of time on the receiving end of my fists for objecting to peacefully crossing over.
But they never actually approached me for a chat and why would they? Most ghosts find the living (that's me, by the way) annoying for their… aliveness. But I guess Angel saw the world a little differently. Like Jesse, I couldn't help but note.
"Yeah. Anyway, you go ahead and take that nap now," she rose from my bed. "I'll see you around."
Then, she disappeared before I could say anything else. I could have called her back, but for what? It was already pretty obvious that she'd be hanging around here periodically now that she'd taken the time to introduce herself and get all deep. I'd see her again soon enough.
In the meantime I fell back onto my pillow… to find that I was no longer tired. Well, actually I was still tired, I just wasn't in that space where physical exhaustion could smoothly transfer to actual sleep. My mind was too busy now, and wouldn't settle down.
Angel's words plagued my thoughts, the track marks marring my vision, a hazy connection forming between the wasteland she claimed her life to be and my life without Jesse.
Falling in love with a ghost, bringing him back to life, and having him die mere months later only to cross over.
I stood up and moved away from the bed towards my door, putting as much distance as I possibly could between myself and the room where it all began. Where I met him, and talked to him, and fell for him. Where I was haunted by memories on top of memories, but not by Jesse.Where suddenly, heartbreakingly, I'd never felt further away from him.
I found myself at the graveyard.
Jesse's headstone stared back at me, rising from the moss and weeds, glum and sullen and here where he wasn't. I placed fresh flowers in the designated pot, watering them with tears that fell unbidden from my face. There was no need for restraint here where I was alone and crying was appropriate. I didn't have to pretend everything was okay or act like I wasn't having so much trouble moving on.
I don't know how long I stood there crying and missing him, before another presence made itself known. It could have been hours, minutes, seconds – time became lost inside my grief. I do know that when he showed up, he was careful not to shatter the silence which had been settling around me since my sobbing became less vocal.
"There is no rule more invariable," Paul followed his low voice to come stand beside me, "than that we are paid for our suspicions by finding what we suspect."
I regarded him in my peripheral vision. A dark curl fell away from the rest of his hair to rest against his forehead, and his eyelashes looked particularly long and thick from this angle.
"Henry David Thoreau," I acknowledged in a hoarse voice, recognizing the poet as a favorite of my dad. I waited a beat before asking, "So what did you suspect?"
"That I'd find you here," he replied, "When you weren't at your house."
I took my eyes off Jesse's gravestone long enough to cast a speculative glance in his direction, "How did you know?"
"His body, six feet under, is the last physical remnant of his life in this world," Paul explained. "You feel the strongest connection to him here."
"Right," I stared at the sullen ground. "Except it's not even close to enough. He feels so far away."
Paul stepped in front of me, filling my vision with his navy blue sweater and the way he filled it out so perfectly. He reached for my face collecting my tears with his deceptively gentle fingers, and I watched him brush them away on his pants.
"He's gone, Suze. You can't change that." He tilted my chin upwards, forcing me to meet his eyes, "I know there's a part of you that still thinks there's some loophole that will bring him back to you, but you're wrong. You need to lose that part of yourself."
"Yeah, you'd just love that, wouldn't you?" I accused. "For me to let go, and forget, and move on. To lose myself in you."
"Everybody wants that for you," he replied, unfazed by my rising irritation. "You can't live in the past forever."
He moved closer, enough for me to absorb his warmth and it spread through me, chasing away the cold. His fingers fell away from my chin to slide down my neck, slowly, drawing faint tremors from my body.
"To continue in the Thoreau vein," his breath caressed my cheek, "live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment."
I couldn't stop myself from trembling as he brought his other hand around to grip my waist. His touch was so familiar, so hot and urgent, eliciting swift response. Sparks of treacherous desire lit up within me, a raw, instinctual reply to his coaxing. It was lust, pure and simple. Biological, chemical, inherent need that ignored my emotional protests, held no reverent memory of Jesse.
But I did, and as such could not allow this to happen. So even while my baser instincts answered favorably to Paul's unspoken questions, I firmly extricated myself from his embrace seconds before his lips touched mine.
"Very tempting Paul," I admitted, angry with myself for almost giving in and him for putting me in the position. "And that's exactly why you came here – to find me alone and vulnerable so you could… could… take advantage."
He held my gaze unflinchingly, annoyance reflected in blue eyes – the same look he wore every time I pushed him away before we could do anything serious. He didn't respond to my accusations, and he wasn't going out of his way to deny them.
"Huh. Right." I rolled my eyes, "The new improved Paul with honorable intentions. What a joke."
"I've changed in many ways Suze, but stop acting so righteously indignant and don't pretend I'm being disingenuous." He stepped forward, invading my personal space once more, "My intentions towards you have never been honorable."
Which was true. He'd been after my body from day one, khaki shorts which made my butt look huge and all.
"I won't do it," I said in a softer voice. "Not standing here literally over my boyfriend's dead body."
He took my hand, pulling me towards him, "Where then?"
"What?" I jerked away, "Not… I mean, Gawd Paul, nowhere."
"Okay, okay, I get it. You would not could not here or there, you would not could not anywhere," he grinned, "That's Dr. Seuss."
A far cry from Thoreau. I couldn't help but smile back.
I didn't know it then, but I was experiencing a turning point. He'd told me to lose a part of myself and I'd protested, but it was already beginning to ebb away.
I did want to lose myself in Paul. I wanted to run to him and collapse, let him surround me, pushing every piece of pain away. I wanted to find all the happiness I'd lost buried inside of him.
He extended his hand towards me once more, a gesture of friendship, and I took it. He led me away from the graveyard, back into the world, and I held on.