Chapter Thirty

WHAT'S BETTER THAN A GRAVY BOAT?!

(Harlow)

The ride home was made in complete silence.

Neither one of us could think of a thing to say - a first in our relationship - and neither one of us could shake the feelings of intense dread that wracked our bodies. Ryan's fingers were white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly, and I was sure my face was a similar hue. The five hour drive went by quicker than I had realized, and before I knew it, we'd made it to and parked in front of my apartment. Ryan turned off the engine, leaned back in his seat, staring blankly out the windshield.

I was still at a loss for words, but I felt a strange wave of calm rush through my body the second I saw my tall complex out the window.

"Home," I said softly, resting a few fingers on the thick glass.

"Home," Ryan agreed, but still seemingly unable to avert his gaze.

"You're coming in?" I asked, unbuckling my seatbelt and peering over at his pale face.

He nodded, undoing his own seatbelt. "Of course."

We both hopped out the dark SUV, and I popped open the back door to grab my suitcase. Ryan followed my lead, grabbing his own and our two crumpled backpacks from the back seat. I tucked my sweater under my arm, grabbed my purse, and bumped the door close with my hip.

The silence followed us up the walkway, through the front doors, down the hall, up the elevator and down thirty steps to the front of my apartment. I fumbled in my purse for a moment, grabbed by keys and unlocked the door hastily. I breathed a sigh of relief - my home, untouched, perfect, welcoming. What I needed.

The two of us walked through the front door, with Ryan closing it softly behind us. I dropped my belongings in a large heap on the front floor, and Ryan followed suit. I smiled, and he attempted without much success to return it. I moved close to him, rested a hand on his firm chest, the other gently on his lean side.

"It's okay," I said softly. "Really, it's alright."

He nodded, but said nothing. His right arm snaked around my waist, his left enveloped my shoulders with a firm but tired grip. I snuggled my face into his chest, taking in that sweet, musky smell I'd grown so fond of.

"Are you hungry?" I asked.

"A little," he responded, rubbing a large hand across the small of my back. "You?"

"I could eat," I said simply. "I'll make some sandwiches, I've got some lunch meat in the fridge. I'm sure it's still good."

He smiled, a small but legitimate one. "Of all the things that could've killed me in my lifetime - it's gonna be your rancid black forest ham that does me in."

I grinned. "I bought it two days before we left. It's not even a week old. I'll do the sniff test, you'll survive you big baby."

He snorted, picked up my suitcase and purse and nodded toward the living room. "I'll take these to your room - gotta go to the bathroom."

I gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and left his side to head towards the kitchen. I looked around absently for any sign of Chick, but couldn't immediately see her. That was alright - I sensed her, so I know she hadn't left.

As I fiddled in the kitchen with slightly stale bread and cut around the rough edges of hardened cheese, I noted the sound of the toilet flushing in the near distance, and heard my squeaky taps and the sink fill with water. I turned around to grab a butter knife, and let out a shrill little squeak -

"Oh, hello," Chick said, in that monotone, empty voice.

"Christ," I muttered, sighing with relief. "How many times have I told you? Don't do that."

"Sincerest apologies," she muttered, moving noiselessly behind me. "Just wanted to say welcome home."

I turned to her, and noticed for the first time the odd expression on her pallid face. It was a mix of genuine relief, but sincere apprehension etched into the faint lines of her cheeks and forehead. Her eyes were gloomy, even for her, and there was an air of legitimate despair hanging around her. I frowned.

"You alright?" I said quietly, eyeing the bedroom door for signs of Ryan - nothing yet. "You look ... a little off."

"I always look a little off," she said simply. "One would require some livelihood, which besides ironic, is nearly impossible."

I rolled my eyes, still straining to hear any sound from the inside of my bedroom. "Not the best word, then. You look glum. What's going on?"

She frowned a little, but didn't answer me immediately. Her eyes were round, and her gaze was staring strangely at the door leading to my room. I glanced over, saw nothing out of the ordinary, and looked back at her.

"What's up, Chick?" I asked.

She said nothing again, simply shaking her head and nodding towards the bedroom. With odd speed - a quickness I'd never seen her capable of - she turned and disappeared through the solid kitchen wall, into the pantry. Less then two seconds later, Ryan walked from the bedroom, into the living room, holding a book tightly in his right hand. His thumb marked a page, although I couldn't tell what book he had found.

I peered through the kitchen window into the living room, and cocked an eyebrow. "What's that?"

He held up the book, and I realized with a start exactly what he was holding: my old photo album. The ragged, torn brown cover, yellowing pages, broken strap. That last time I'd even seen that thing was ... well, when Kimmy had been over.

"Where'd you find that?" I asked, slightly defensive.

I didn't like the thought of him going through my bookshelves.

"It was lying open on your bedroom floor," he said, with such sincerity I knew he couldn't be lying.

I frowned, took a quick glance over my shoulder - Chick still hadn't reappeared. What had she been doing, going through my albums?

"Strange," I said, turning back to my half-prepared sandwiches. "Must have fallen off the shelf while we were away."

"Maybe," Ryan said, not looking entirely convinced. "It was open ... on this page."

He lay the withered book on the dark marble of the window, and I peered over to look at the yellowing, slightly crumpled leaf of paper. My heart skipped a beat.

Looking back at me were sunken but oddly fluorescent green eyes. Brody. The dark, chocolate colored hair, long and waved in front of her shoulders. The withered, morose face of a person who'd forgotten how to sleep. The slightly pinched look about her tanned skin, the lips identical to mine, the nose vaguely longer. Her 8 year old self stared up at me, vacant eyes boring furiously into my own.

I rearranged the look of terror and confusion into a bland look of mild surprise. "Weird."

Ryan sighed, hopping up on one of the bar stools. He was watching me, I could feel his stoney gaze, but I refused to look back up.

"Come on, Harlow," he said, voice biting into frustration. "It's more than weird."

"It's a coincidence, Ryan," I said softly. "That's all. The spirit in my house - Chick. She probably did it. I forgot to leave the television on for her, I guess. She's gotta keep herself occupied somehow."

But Ryan didn't look convinced, and I didn't feel all that convinced either - the second after I spoke, I heard Chick's quiet voice from the pantry behind me - "It wasn't me."

I peered up quickly to see if Ryan had heard anything, but he showed no trace of it. Instead, his eyes bore into my own, dark brown looking glazed over and tired. More so than they usually did.

"I don't think it was the ghost, Harlow," he said seriously. "And I know you don't think it was her either."

"Who knew there were two psychics in this house," I mumbled sarcastically.

Ryan didn't respond, but pushed the journal further across the window.

"I've seen her, Harlow," he said simply. "I've seen her in my dreams, more than five times. I saw her in the window at your old house. I see her everytime I close my eyes, I know what her voice sounds like, I know how many freckles she has on each cheek. I've seen her."

"She's dead," I said, with an attempt at finality. "She's dead. You didn't see her. You couldn't have seen her. You saw me, Ryan. You saw me, but younger. You envisioned me, when you dreamnt it. You were having a bad dream, I was another memory, you mixed the two of them together. It's common, in Psychology it's called memory synapse erro - "

"It's not psychology, Harlow!" he said angrily, and for the first time in our entire relationship, I saw a dark fury pass over his face, and his hand clench into a fist. "It's reality! I know what I saw. I know it was her. This is not all a coincidence. This is not all happening in my head. This was a vivid dream, in which - "

"A dream." I said, trying without much success to control the fury in my voice. "A dream, Ryan. A dream. Dreams are not reality. And it was, in fact, happening in your head. You know why? Because it was a dream. Just a dream. Dreams aren't real."

"Then it wasn't a dream," he said, brushing it off. "It was a premonition, then. A warning."

"It was nothing of the sort," I said simply.

"It was," he pressed. "It was."

"Levels of processing," I said, trying to cut his sandwich in half but finding my hand was shaking too much to do so. "At the lowest point in the levels of processing, dreaming - "

"I don't want to hear it," he said, jaw set rigid with anger. "It's not psychology. This is not a case study. This is not an exam question, I'm not looking for a definition, I'm not looking for an explanation. I know what it was. Something is happening, Harlow. I've seen her - Brody, I've seen her. So has Chip. So has Katrina. And I guarantee you, I bet you everything I own, that we're not the only ones."

"Shallow processing," I muttered.

Ryan gave a growl of irritation, flipped the page with Brody's face over, and pointed to the picture on the next sheet - Kingston.

"Chip's seen him," he said calmly. "Michelle's seen him. I've seen hi - "

"Impossible," I snapped. "Kingston's alive. Don't believe me? Let me call McFaden's Mental Institution in New Jersey - you can talk to his nurse."

"Then it was someone else," Ryan said quickly, trying with more success than I had to keep his voice calm. "We've all seen Brody, and nearly all of us have seen Kings - the boy."

"Kingston is alive," I said harshly, throwing the badly constructed sandwich onto a plate. "There was only six of us. Only two of us are left, and that's me, and that's Kingston, and - "

"Ollie," Ryan said simply. "Ollie."

I felt the words catch in my throat. Ollie. How could I have forgotten Ollie?

Seemingly encouraged by my sudden silence, Ryan perked up and tapped eagerly on the book in front of him. "Where's Ollie - do you have a picture?"

I leaned over, slammed the book shut and threw it on top of my fridge, where it landed with a thud in a small, porcelain fruit bowl. I dropped the plate and the pathetic sandwich in front of Ryan on the sill, and threw my own into the sink on my left.

"I'm done talking about this," I said quietly, brushing my hands off on my baggy jeans. "I'm done. It's not a premonition, it's a dream, a scary dream that has you spooked. It's nothing. If something was happening, I would know. I would."

And with a final furious glare, I stormed across the living room, into my bedroom, and slammed the door behind me with as much strength as I could possibly muster.

(Emma)

"You don't think they eloped, do you?"

Jenn rolled her eyes across the table, let out a loud belch and tapped her empty mug of beer distractedly.

"Naw," she said, after some deliberation. "No way. They've been together what, 9, 10 months now? Too soon. And they would've called."

"God hope so," Sophie muttered from beside me.

"Oh shush," Jenn said, with that fantastic devilish grin. "You know you can't wait for them to get hitched. You get to spend your hundreds of kajillions of dollars on wedding presents and then - of course! - baby presents!"

Sophie crinkled her nose.

"You'd have to get her something good, you know," I said chipperly, throwing an arm around her slack shoulders. "It can't be a gravy boat."

"Who the fuck buys gravy boats?" Jenn said, shaking her head.

"No kidding," I muttered. "Seriously, and how are they supposed to react when they rip open the paper, and - ta-da! Here's a porcelain dish for you to use twice every year!"

"We thought about getting you a blender," Jenn said cheerfully, in her best Billy Mayes impression. "But we thought 'NO WAY, what this newly wed couple really wants is a gravy boat. A gravy boat."

"Ladle? Fuck no we didn't get you a ladle!" I cried. "SEE THIS DIPPED SPOUT, NO LADLE NECESSARY. YOUR GRAVY BOAT COMES FULLY EQUIPPED."

"GRAVY BOAT, GRAVY BOAT, GRAVY BOAT!"

"CALL NOW AND WE'LL DOUBLE YOUR ORDER!"

"WHAT'S BETTER THAN ONE GRAVY BOAT?!"

"A SECOND GRAVY BOAT COMPLETELY FREE OF CHARGE!"

"LOOK AT THE HOOKED HANDLE, MADE OF PRISTINE PORCELAIN AND SET IN A SEMI CIRCLE EASY GRIP SHAPE."

"NOTE THE DECORATIVE SPIRAL PATTERN HAND ENGRAVED ON THE BODY AND SPOUT."

"LID? WHAT LID, ASSHOLE? YOUR GRAVY IS GOING TO BE SO FUCKING POPULAR IN THIS DIPPED SPOUT PORCELAIN GRAVY BOAT, YOU'RE GONNA NEED TO KEEP REFILLING THIS SHIT."

"You guys are fucking morons," Sophie muttered, as Jenn and I legit nearly keeled over with laughter.

Across the table from Sophie and myself, next to Jenn in her fit of giggles, was Lindsey. Her mouth curved slightly into a tired grin, but she didn't join in the laugh riot. As she rarely had these last few months.

Today, Jenn and I had managed to convince Grouch-O Sophie to come out for a lovely, fancy, classy dinner. And when I say lovely, fancy, classy dinner, I meant all you can eat honey ribs and bottomless beer night at our local Applebees. Who in their right mind, may I ask you, could turn something like that down? Would you? No way you wouldn't, because I can tell you're a smart bunch of folks who know that no sane person can pass on unlimited ribs, and surely, by that logic, can't pass on those and bottomless beer!

So after coercing Sophie (although frankly, it took barely any effort at all) to come and have a Bro night with little ol' Jenny and I, we figured we'd push our luck just a liiiittle further. We gave Linds a call.

Holed up in her apartment for the better part of the last five months, no one on the volleyball team had seen Lindsey more than two or three times in that nearly 25 week span. She barely returned phone calls, never came out to dinner or for drinks or to parties. She'd become an anti-social hermit, the exact opposite of the person she had been. Did we blame her? Of course not.

Kimmy and Linds had been inseperable. They were the non-psychotic version of Sophie and Harlow. You couldn't find one without running into the other. If one of them was angry at you, you could bet your right asscheek so was the other. You didn't see one smile without the other, and you didn't see one sad without seeing misery on the opposite's face. They were connected by more than just similar interests. They were on a whole other level of friendship, past anything I had ever experienced, past anything I'd ever witnessed. They were together, a whole.

But now the other half to that whole was gone, and the other half was left with a hole. How does life go on when the reason for living vanishes? How do you learn to smile when half your will has been snatched away? How do you come back from the dead when you're already gone? This was the conundrum facing Lindsey.

Shockingly, she'd accepted our invitation and met us here nearly an hour ago. In the hour she'd been here, she'd barely spoken, only talked when talked to, and had averted eye contact with us for the majority of the evening. Her face, although no longer the mirror image of a skeleton's, had a distinctive look of wither. Her eyes were sunken, sad. Her mouth turned permanently downward. Her arms were sticks, skin was pale, hair was lank. Her body, her face, her movements, her personality - they were tired. Exhausted. Not from grief, not from sadness. Simply from the exhaustion and the all consuming pit of weary that we know as life.

I gave Sophie a subtle little nudge, and it was astonishing how quickly she caught on.

"You think they got married, Linds?" she asked, digging with astounding daintiness into the next basket of ribs.

Linds shook her head, poking glumly at her own untouched basket. "I have my doubts."

"But they're in lurve," Jenn reasoned, pouring another overflowing mug of beer. "Who're we to say they aren't gonna get hitched?"

Lindsey didn't respond.

"Ah fine," Jenn sighed. "I can dream, can't I?"

"I envy you Jenn," I said sincerely. "You dream as you live."

"Whatcha mean by that?"

"In a state of constant inebreation."

She grinned, took a long swig of beer and clunked her mug down on the table. "Usually. Last night I had a bit of a strange dream though."

"Could you see straight in it?" Sophie asked between mouthfuls. "Because that - would be astounding."

Jenn flipped her the bird, but smiled in spite of herself. "Vividly, thank you very much!"

"What was it about?" Lindsey asked softly, giving us all a start.

Jenn recovered quicker than Soph and I. "I don't even remember that well. I remember there being a little girl in it, probably eight or nine years old? Tiny little thing, but really pretty. I do remember that, she was gorgeous."

"What a creep," Sophie muttered, grinning cheekily at Jenn.

But Jenn didn't seem to notice - she was deep in thought. "And I don't remember where we were. Outside somewhere. Near a forest, I think? Definitely outdoors. And she kept telling me something ... she was warning me, I think? I'm not sure. And then she started screaming, and her body started falling apart .. "

Jenn gave an involuntary shudder and shook her head. "That's all I remember - but damn, it was creepy."

I turned to exchange a slightly bemused glance with Soph - but realized that she was still looking at Jenn. There was a slightly stricken look to her, a little like she'd just been slapped. She blinked once, twice, then shook her head.

"I swear to God," she said softly. "I've had that exact same dream before ... Like, exact. Down to the body falling apart and everything."

Jenn frowned. "Really?"

Soph nodded. "When you say her body started falling apart, you mean chunks of her - "

"Skin."

We all looked, in none-too-subtle shock, across the table. Lindsey, for the first time in over an hour, had spoken of her own free will.

Sophie took the least time to rebound, but there was a tinge of horror marring her generally calm face. "Yeah, her skin."

"I've seen her too," Lindsey said, her voice hoarse from months of unuse. "Three or four times now. And a little boy."

I frowned, shooting a glance over at Jenn - her eyes were wide and boring into Lindsey's.

"And her skin," Jenn said, nearly as hoarse as Linds. "It fell apart?"

"Like it was melting off," Lindsey said.

A silence enveloped the table - Sophie, Jenn and Lindsey staring wildly at one another. Me, face covered in rib sauce, looking between each of them in turn.

"The eyes," Lindsey said softly.

"Familar," Jenn said, looking down at her hands.

"Harlow's," Sophie finished.

Harlequin green, fresh as grass, bright as the stars - there were no other pair like them in the world.

(Ryan)

"I don't want to talk about it anymore."

I curled up next to her, snaking a hand across her shallow stomach. She turned her head towards me, eyes burning and wet with unshed tears. I nudged closer, until my head was just beneath hers.

"Okay," I said simply, no more will to argue, no more want to see her sad.

She said nothing for another moment or two, before sliding over onto her side, wrapping an arm around the back of my head. I felt her warm breath pass over the nape of my neck, her nose nuzzle slightly into my hair.

"I know you'll still think about it," she murmured softly. "And I know even if I tell you not to, you won't be able to help it."

"Both true," I agreed, her sweet, airy scent overpowering all of my senses.

"But try not to think about it," she said quietly. "Try to keep your mind off of it. You're busy, I'm busy - we don't have time for dreams. Not those kind."

Vanilla and coconut, numbing my brain, slowing my heart, warming my skin. I held her tighter, pulling her small self closer to me.

"I'll try," I agreed, soft cotton of her shirt light against my cheek.

She inched back slightly, propping herself up. I peered up at her face, that beautiful face, resting lightly in the palm of her hand. The sun, slowly sinking behind the horizon, cast one last ray of light that fell over her like a spotlight. Radiance, incomparable to anyone. Hair alight, eyes shining jewels, skin a flawless cinnamon. The slight hollow in her neck, the light muscle lining her arms. Jaw sharp, lips full - perfection.

I reached a hand towards the beauty, the bliss. Felt it wrap around the impossibly warm skin. Saw the smile, brilliant and pure and beautiful, cross her face. Smelt that sweet musk, the faint lick of flowers. Heard the soft giggle, tasted the sweet balm on her lips.

She could tell me to drive off a bridge tomorrow, and I'd do it.

For her?

Anything.

"I love you," I said softly, words slurred against her lips.

She pressed warm fingers against my cheek, nose brushing against my own.

"I love you," she whispered. "Forever."

Forever.

(Unknown)

"He was making such progress ... "

She shook her head. "He's been on and off for over a decade, Jamie."

"But he'd had months of on," I argued softly. "Longest run he'd had in ... years, probably."

She shrugged, shaking her dark braids behind her shoulders. "It happens from time to time. Tremendous improvement, and then ... bam."

I knew that much was true ... hadn't I seen it before? Mrs. Whiteshell, blooming and brilliant for nearly a year before it sucked her back under. Mickaela Fenton, tall and beautiful, head held high for over six months. It took only five minutes to slip back into the abyss. And Mr. Monroe. He fell into the dark three years ago - hasn't been back since.

"How'd it happen?" I asked.

Linda shrugged her broad shoulders. "We don't know. Fine one day. Journal entries normal, functioning as well as he has in years. Went to bed, and just ... never quite woke up."

I frowned. "Has he said anything?"

"His sister's name. Shouted her name for hours before his voice went."

"Has anyone called her?"

She shook her head. "No use. He'll get worse before he gets better - no use worrying the girl."

"And if he doesn't get better?"

Linda frowned. "Sometimes they don't. That's the hard part."

"I know," I said quietly. "I know. It's just ... sad. Heartbreaking, really."

She nodded, giving me a slight pat on the back. "You'll learn to be immune, Jamie."

"I don't want to be immune. I still want to be able to feel."

"Immunity isn't unfeeling," she replied softly. "Immunity is protection. Immunity is a coat of steel. You watch this, these people, for another ten, twenty years. You can care plenty. But care too much, and you'll fall apart."

She placed a hand on my shoulder, gave a soft squeeze. "Be alert. Be empathetic. Be patient. Don't be broken. Once you're broken - you may never come back."

I sighed, but said no more. Linda shot me a glance, tucked her clipboard back under her arm, and padded softly down the pristine hall. I heard the door snap behind her, but I couldn't find the will to move away from the window.

There'd always been something beautiful about him - through his good days and bad. Something so careless, so glamorously lazy about his quick walk. His skin, pinched and pale as Alabaster, but flawless. There was some kind of spark left in his fizzled but sharp face, still some soft glow burning in the eyes. Those eyes. Green as Spring grass, bright as the stars. Even on his bad days, the worst of the worst, they still shone. Captured you, warmed you like the morning sun. Most days, they said, he was barely more than comatose. Medicated into near unconsciousness. But all days - the good, the bad, the doped - he kept that shine. That spark. The brilliance.

My hand found the glass, but fell far away from him.

Cross-legged, head resting against the wall behind him. His hands, those long fingers, thin as branches, knotted tightly in front of him. He gazed up at the opposite wall, full lips moving in incoherence. He was gone again. Gone as fast as he'd come back.

"Kings," I said quietly. "Come on, Kingston. Fight it."

Who was I kidding? There was nothing left to fight for - he'd battled for years, grit his teeth and fought tooth and nail, all for nothing. For peace, for calm, for serenity. Against madness, insanity and bedlam.

But ultimately, no matter how many fights he went into, no matter how hard he forged on ...

He'd never win this war.

A physical war could never maim as fiercely as a mental. The most dangerous weapon in the world isn't a gun, or a knife, or a bomb.

It's your own mind.


Author's Note:

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHSfkjsdhf ikwehfilewhfigohewighewilghw ielfoiwsnw!

I'm back! I'm sorry! I suck! You all rock!

Legit, this is what happened. The day was February 10th, it was cold, it was blustery ... I spilled my entire XL coffee all over my keyboard. Lost everything... OR SO I THOUGHT. 2 months ago, dug this bad boy outta the back of my closet, thought "HAH, if it turns on, I'll legit go sit and study for four hours .." Guess what turned on? Honestly, almost cried with relief. And yes, dear readers, after about 30 minutes of crying and rolling around with it, I studied. And NOW, I've finished the chapter that's been like 9 months in the making ...

I will not lie, I have no idea when my next update will be ... School is making a shitshow out of me, and I barely have time to breathe and consume my normal8 cups of coffee in one day, but I will absolutely make an effort to work on the next couple of chapters!

Thanks for sticking with me, and for this long. You. Are. All. Amazing. Pats on the back for everyone. I thank you for your dedication, your patience, and the tremendous amount of love I've gotten from all your reviews and wonderful (albeit slightly angry) PM's. Be back (hopefully) soon!

All my love!

love, ellah!