Author's Note: sequel to The Family Read's the Shadowland, picks up immediately where I left off, so those who hadn't, you might want to read the first one.
Once they had stopped laughing at a flushed Brad, Jake's stomach began to grumble as well. "Speaking of which, I'm hungry too."
"And we're locked in!" Brad shrieked, slightly panicked. "We're going to die of starvation!"
David rolled his eyes. "I doubt Father Dominic would let it go that far, Brad."
"David's right," Andy said as Brad opened his mouth to speak. "If we look around the room, I'm sure we'll find something to eat."
After hunting around behind the sofas, Brad had triumphantly discovered several large bags of variety crisps, packets of biscuits and a few large bottles of Coke – complete with plastic cups.
"Hallelujah! Father D. is a saint!" Brad yelled as he ripped the crisp bag, snatching out a smaller packet from inside. His brothers immediately leaped at him for their own share. Chaos had broken out as all three boys were wrestling for a bag, so Andy snatched up the diary they had finished reading and used it to bash them over the head. His sons sat whining and rubbing their heads as Andy gathered the food away from them.
"Now, I shall share these out equally and you will eat them slowly so they last for the rest of the night, got that?" Andy announced, holding the food high above his head. Jake and David mumbled their consent. "Got that, Brad?"
"Yes Dad." Brad grumbled, scowling like a three-year-old.
"Good." Andy sighed as he handed out the food equally and poured out drinks, passing them to his sons and wife; then sitting down and picking up the second of Suze's diaries. "Now let's read the second book. I believe its David's turn?"
David took the book and cleared his throat before reading.
Nobody told me about the poison oak.
"Who didn't?" Brad asked, mouth full. Helen winced in disgust.
"Speak without food in your mouth, please."
Brad swallowed. "Sorry."
Oh, they told me about the palm trees. Yeah, they told me plenty about the palm trees, all right. But nobody ever said a word about this poison oak business.
"The thing is, Susannah-"
Father Dominic was talking to me. I was trying to pay attention, but let me tell you something: poison oak itches.
"Don't scratch it, it'll only spread." Andy said instantly. "And listen to Father Dominic; he could be giving you valuable advice."
"I agree." Helen put in.
"As mediators – which is what we are, you and I, Susannah - aid and solace to those unfortunate souls who are suffering in the void between the living and the dead."
I mean, yeah, the palm trees are nice and everything. It had been cool to step off the plane and see those palm trees everywhere, especially since I'd heard how cold it can get at night in northern California.
"Susannah, listen to Father Dominic!" Helen scolded.
But what is the deal with this poison oak? How come nobody ever warned me about that?
"You see, as mediators, Susannah, it is our duty to help lost souls get to where they are supposed to be going. We are their guides, as it were. Their spiritual liaisons between this world and the next." Father Dominic fingered an unopened pack of cigarettes that was sitting on his desk, and regarded me with those big old baby blues of his. "But when one's spiritual liaison takes one's head and slams it into a locker door...well, you can see how that kind of behaviour might not build the sort of trust we'd like to establish with out troubled brothers and sisters."
"She's not listening and even if she was, she wouldn't be agreeing to it. Suze isn't the....Father-Dominic-compassionate type." David muttered, choosing his words carefully so he wouldn't offend his stepsister and stepmother.
"Very true, also with that poison oak rash she won't have the attention span really." Jake agreed.
I looked up from the rash on my hands. Rash. That wasn't even the word for it. It was like a fungus. Worse than a fungus, even. It was a growth. An insidious growth that, given time, would consume every inch of my once smooth, unblemished skin, covering it with red, scaly bumps. That oozed, by the way.
"Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!" Brad spat out half his Cheetos in disgust.
"Yeah, it's revolting." Jake agreed, glaring at his younger brother.
"Brad clean that mess up now!" Ah, Andy was always the conscientious househusband.
"Yeah" I said, "But if our troubled brothers and sisters are giving us a hard time, I don't see why it's such a crime if I just haul off and slug them in the-"
"But don't you see, Susannah?" Father Dominic clenched the pack of cigarettes. I'd only known him a couple of weeks, but whenever he started fondling his cigarettes – which he never, by the way, actually smoked – it meant he was upset about something.
That something, at this particular moment, appeared to be me.
"Why do I get the feeling she will cause him to keep fondling those cigarettes in all the other diaries?"
"That is why," he explained, "You're called a mediator. You are supposed to be helping to bring these troubled souls to spiritual fulfilment-"
"Look, Father Dom," I said. I tucked my oozing hands out of sight. "I don't know what kind of ghosts you've been dealing with lately-"
"Probably religious ones that knew he was a priest!"
"But the ones I've been running into are about as likely to find spiritual fulfilment as I'm going to find a decent New York City-style slice of pizza in this town. It ain't gonna happen. These folks are going to hell or they're going to heaven or they're going to their next life as a caterpillar in Kathmandu, but any way you slice it, sometimes they're gonna need a little kick in the butt to get them there..."
Everyone sighed. "Give it up Father D., Suze is a lost cause."
"No, no, no" Father Dominic leaned forwards. He couldn't lean forwards too much because a week or so before, one of those troubled souls of his had decided to forego spiritual enlightenment and tried to snap his leg off instead. She also broke a couple of his ribs, gave him a pretty nifty concussion, tore up the school real good, and let's see, what else?
Oh, yeah. She tried to kill me.
"Please don't remind me, I'm going to have nightmares of that night for the rest of my life." Helen shuddered.
"I wish I could kick Heather's arse for all that shit." Jake muttered darkly, cracking his knuckles.
Father Dominic was back at school, but he was wearing a cast that went all the way down to his toes, and disappeared up his long black robe, who knew how far?
Personally, I didn't like to think about it.
"I didn't want to think about it but you still put the thought in my head!"
He was getting pretty handy with those crutches though. He could chase the late kids up and down the halls, if he had to. But since he was the principal, and it was up to the novices to hand out late slips –
"More of Sister's Ernestine's forte, she seems to really hate children," Pointed out David. "I don't understand why she works in a school…"
He didn't have to. Besides, Father Dom was pretty cool, and wouldn't do something like that even if he could.
Though he takes the whole ghost thing a little too seriously, if you ask me.
"Susannah," he said tiredly. "You and I, for better or for worse, were born with an incredible gift – ability to see and speak to the dead."
"But she doesn't see it that way!"
"There you go again," I said, rolling my eyes, "With that gift stuff. Frankly, Father, I don't see it that way."
How could I? Since the age of two – two years old – I've been pestered with, pounded on, plagued by restless spirits. For fourteen years, I've put up with their abuse, helping them when I could, punching them when I could not, always fearful of somebody finding my secret and revealing me to be the biological freak I've always known I am, but have tried so desperately to hide from my sweet, long-suffering mother.
"Oh Suzie honey. Please don't put yourself down for my sake. I love you despite this...gift. You should have never hidden this from me, I would have understood....eventually...."
And then Mom remarried and moved me out to California – in the middle of my sophomore year, thank you very much – where wonder of wonders, I'd actually met someone cursed with the same horrible affliction: Father Dominic.
Only Father Dominic refuses to view our 'gift' in the same light as me. To him, it's a marvellous opportunity to help others in need.
Yeah, okay. That's fine for him. He's a priest. He's not a sixteen-year-old girl who, hello, would like to have a social life.
If you ask me, a 'gift' would have some plus side to it. Like superhuman strength or the ability to read minds, or something.
"That would be so cool!"
But I don't have any of that cool stuff. I'm just an ordinary sixteen-year-old – well, okay, with above ordinary looks, if I do say so myself – who happens to be able to converse with the dead.
"Yeah that isn't really cool after all the beatings from Heather, of all people…"
"Susannah," he said now, very seriously. "We are mediators. We aren't...well terminators. Our duty is to intervene on the spirits' behalf, and lead them to their ultimate destination. We do that by gentle guidance and counselling, not by punching them in the face or by performing Brazilian voodoo exorcisms."
"Yes, I don't approve of that exorcism, young lady! You almost got yourself killed if it wasn't for David, Jake and Jesse! I am very disappointed in you, you should have kept your promise to Father Dominic and waited for his assistance but oh no you had to go charging in there!"
"Err....Mom, maybe you should wait till you actually see Suze to give her the lecture."
He raised his voice on the word exorcisms, even though he knew perfectly well I'd only done that exorcism as a last resort. It's not my fault half the school fell down during it. I mean, technically it was the ghost's fault, not mine.
"She's got a point."
"Andy she almost died!"
"I'm not saying she should have done it, dear, I'm just saying that she has a point, it was Heather's fault that the ceiling fell on top of Suze."
"Okay, okay, already," I said, holding up both hands in an I-surrender sort of gesture. "I'll try it your way from now on. I'll do the touchy-feely stuff. Jees. You West Coasters. It's all backrubs and avocado sandwiches with you guys, isn't it?"
Father Dominic shook his head. "And what would you call your mediation technique, Susannah? Head butts and chokeholds?"
Everyone snorted. "Who knew Father D had such a sense of humour?"
"That's very funny, Father Dom." I said. "Can I go back to class now?"
"Not yet." he puttered around with the cigarettes, tapping the pack like he was actually going to open it. That'll be the day. "How was your weekend?"
"Swell" I said. I held up my hands, knuckles turned towards him. "See?"
He squinted. "Good heavens, Susannah" he said. "What is that?"
"I don't blame him to be disgusted; in fact I'm surprised he didn't have a heart attack. Her hands were hideous!"
"Poison oak. Good thing nobody told me it grows all over this place abound here."
"It doesn't grow all over the place." Father Dominic said. "Only in wooded areas. Were you in a wooded area this weekend?" then his eyes widened behind the lenses of his glasses. "Susannah! You didn't go to the cemetery did you? Not alone. I know you believe yourself to be indomitable, but it isn't all safe for a young girl like yourself to go sneaking around cemeteries even if you are a mediator."
"Suzie, you didn't!"
"Helen, calm down we don't know for sure she went to a cemetery." Andy said. "Although Suze never told us how she got the rash..."
I put down my hands and said, disgustedly, "I didn't catch this in any cemetery. I wasn't working. I got it at Kelly Prescott's pool party Saturday night."
"Kelly Prescott's pool party?" Father Dominic looked confused. "How would you have encountered poison oak there?"
Too late, I realized I probably should have kept my mouth shut.
"Why? Why should have you kept your mouth shut?!"
Now I was going to have to explain – to the principal of my school, who also happened to be a priest, no less – about how a rumour had gone around midway through the party that my step-brother Dopey and this girl named Debbie Mancuso were going at it in the pool house.
"What!" Brad flushed a bright red.
"Whee woo, you sexy beast, losing it in a pool house, hey?" Jake teased.
"I do hope you practised safe sex, Brad." David said as he adjusted his glasses.
"Bradley, tell me you didn't." Andy was clearly disappointed.
"I didn't, I never had sex at that party!" Brad growled, cheeks brighter than ever.
I had of course denied the possibility since I knew Dopey was grounded. Dopey's dad – my new stepfather, who, for a mostly laid-back, California kind of guy, had turned out to be a pretty stern disciplinarian-
"I'm only treating my children the way I was treated." Andy said calmly. "With respect, love and discipline."
– had grounded Dopey for calling a friend of mine a fag.
So when the rumour went around at the party that Dopey and Debbie Mancuso were doing the nasty in the pool house, I was pretty sure everyone was mistaken. Brad, I kept insisting – everyone but me calls Dopey Brad, which is his real name, but believe me, Dopey fits him much better – was back home listening to Marilyn Manson through headphones, since his father had also confiscated his stereo speakers.
"So these rumours better remain rumours otherwise it's a month of grounding." Andy said sternly.
Brad attempted to look innocent.
But then someone said, "Go take a look for yourself," and I made the mistake of doing so, tiptoeing up to the small window they'd indicated, and peering through it.
"What a pervert!" Brad exclaimed. "Dad you should ground her for being a peeping tom."
"Don't think you're going to get out of a month of grounding Bradley."
I had never particularly cared to see any of my stepbrothers in the buff.
Not that they are bad-looking or anything. Sleepy, the oldest one, is actually considered something of a stud by most of the girls at Junipero Serra Mission Academy, where he is a senior and I am a sophomore. But that doesn't mean I have any desire to see him strutting around the house without his boxers.
Jake sighed in relief. "That's a fear that I'm fully over now."
"You feared Suze would fancy you?" Helen asked, bewildered.
"Well yeah, I never lived with a girl before and knowing most girls in school...well I was worried and a bit terrified."
"Dude, I think it's safe to say that Suze doesn't fancy any of us." Brad said. "Not that she would have a chance with any of us, anyway."
"Like you ever had a chance with her." David muttered.
And of course Doc, the youngest, is only twelve, totally adorable with his red hair and sticky-outy ears, but not what you'd call a babe.
Jake and Brad sniggered. "She's got a point little bro." David merely blushed a light pink.
"You're forgetting that incest is illegal anyway."
And as for Dopey...well I particularly never wanted to see Dopey in his altogether. In fact, Dopey is just about the last person on earth I'd ever wish to see naked.
Jake and David laughed out loud. "Oh Shuddup!" Brad growled - they laughed louder.
Fortunately, when I looked through that window I saw that the reports of my stepbrother's state of undress – as well as his sexual prowess – had been greatly exaggerated. He and Debbie were only making out. This is not to say that I wasn't completely repulsed. I mean, I wasn't exactly proud that my stepbrothers was in there tongue wrestling with the second stupidest person in our class, after himself.
"And I am not proud that my son disobeyed my orders and went out to a party that not only served alcohol but started a physical relationship with a young lady. One month, trapped in your room without your stereo speakers."
"Aw man, c'mon Dad it was well over a year ago!"
"I'm not hearing of it. You're grounded and so is Suze for all the other things she's done. Jake and David are also being punished for what happened in the last book. You're all being treated fairly."
I looked away immediately of course, I mean, we've got Showtime at home, for God's sake. I've seen plenty of French kissing before. I wasn't about to stand there gawking while my stepbrother engaged in it. And as for Debbie Mancuso, well, all I can say is, she ought to lay off the sauce. She can't afford to lose any more brain cells than she already has, what with all the hair spry she slathers on in the girls' room between classes.
It was as I staggered away in disgust from the pool-house window, which was situated above a small gravel path that I believe I stumbled into some poison oak. I don't remember coming into contact with plant life at any other time this past weekend, being a generally indoors kind of girl.
"And that's how she got it. So everything is all well and there were no graveyards involved."
And let me tell you, I really stumbled into those plants. I was feeling light-headed from the horror of what I'd just seen – you know, the tongues and all – plus I had on my platform mules and I sort of lost my balance. The plants I grabbed on to were all that saved me from the ignominy of collapsing on Kelly Prescott's redwood pool deck.
What I told Father Dominic, however, was an abridged version. I said I must have staggered into some poison oak as I was getting out of the Prescott's hot tub.
"Best thing to tell him" Jake agreed. "He would definitely have a heart attack if he knew the truth."
Father Dominic seemed to accept this and said, "Well, some hydrocortisone ought to clear that up. You should see the nurse after this. Be sure not to scratch it or it will spread"
"Yeah, thanks. I'll be sure not to breathe either. That'll probably be just about as easy."
"Suze! Less lip towards your elders!"
Father Dominic ignored my sarcasm. It's funny about us two both being mediators. I've never met anybody else who happened to be one – in fact, until a couple weeks ago; I thought I was the only mediator in the whole wide world.
"A bit impossible I believe" David said, "Probably just so very few, so little that there isn't enough to even make a secret community."
But Father Dom says there are others. He's not sure how many, or even how, exactly, we precious few happened to be picked for our illustrious – have I mentioned unpaid? – Careers. I'm thinking we should maybe start a newsletter or something. The Mediator News. And have conferences. I could give a seminar on five easy ways to kick a ghost's butt and not mess up your hair.
Everyone snorted. "Like anyone but her cares."
Anyway, about me and Father Dom. For two people who have the same weird ability to talk to the dead, we are about as different as can be. Besides the age thing, Father Dom being sixty and me being sixteen, he's Mister Nice himself whereas I'm...
"See! She even admits it!"
Not that I don't try to be. It's just that one thing I've learned from all of this is that we don't have very much time here on earth. So why waste it putting up with other people's crap? Particularly people who are already dead, anyway.
"Besides the poison oak," Father Dominic said. "Is there anything else going on in your life you think I should know about?"
Anything else going on in my life that I thought he should know about. Let me see...
How about the fact that I'm sixteen, and so far, unlike my stepbrother Dopey, I still haven't been kissed, much less asked out?
"Loser." Brad coughed.
Not a major big deal – especially to Father Dom, a guy who took a vow of chastity about thirty years before I was even born – but humiliating, just the same. There'd been a lot of kissing going on at Kelly Prescott's pool party – and some heavier stuff, even – but no one had tried to lock lips with me.
"Probably because they knew she would sucker punch them." Brad grumbled.
A boy I didn't know did ask me to slow dance at one point though. And I said yes, but only because Kelly yelled at me after I turned him down the first time he asked. Apparently this boy was someone she'd had a crush on for a while. How my slow dancing with him was supposed to get him to like Kelly, I don't know -
"Bloody hell girls are weird and stupid." Complained Jake.
But after I turned him down the first time, she cornered me in her bedroom, where I'd gone to check my hair, and, with actual tears in her eyes, informed me that I had ruined her party.
"Ruined you party?" I genuinely astonished. I'd lived in California for all of two weeks by then, so it amazed me that I had managed to make myself a social pariah in such a short period of time. Kelly was already mad at me, I knew, because I had invited my friends Cee Cee and Adam, whom she and just about everyone else in the sophomore class at the Mission Academy consider freaks -
"Because they are freaks!"
"Do you want to make that two months Brad?"
To her party. Now I had apparently added insult to injury by not agreeing to dance with some boy I didn't even know.
"Girls!" Jake stared at the ceiling in wonderment.
"It's ridiculous" Helen agreed. "I can't make sense of it either."
"Jesus." Kelly said when she heard this. "He's a junior at Robert Louis Stevenson, ok? He's the star forward on their basketball team. He won last year's regatta at Pebble Beach, and he's the hottest guy in the Valley, after Bryce Martinson. Suze, if you don't dance with him, I swear I'll never speak to you again."
I said, "All right, already. What is your glitch, anyway?"
"I just," Kelly said, wiping her eyes with a manicured finger, "want everything to go really well. I've had my eye on this guy for a while now and-"
"Oh yeah, Kel," I said. "Getting me to dance with him is sure to make him like you."
When I pointed out this fallacy in her thought process, however, all she said was, "Just do it." Only not the way they say it in Nike ads. She said it the way the Wicked Witch of the West said it to the winged monkeys when she sent them out to kill Dorothy and her little dog too.
Everyone shuddered. "She does seem...a bit obsessive...." Helen muttered.
I'm not scared of Kelly or anything, but really, who needs the grief?
So I went back outside and stood there in my Calvin Klein once-piece - with a sarong tied ever so casually around the waist – totally not knowing I had just stumbled into a bunch of poison oak, while Kelly went over to her dream date and asked him to ask me to dance again.
As I stood there, I tried not to think that the only reason he wanted to dance with me in the first place was that I was the only girl at the party in a swimsuit. Having never been invited to a pool party before in my life, I had erroneously believed people actually swam at them, and had dressed accordingly.
"Yeah a bit stupid that," Brad muttered.
"I don't know Brad, one would expect to swim at one's pool party," David said. "It's very logical."
"And how many pool parties have you gone to, geek?"
Not so, apparently. Aside from my stepbrother, who'd apparently become over warm while in Debbie Mancuso's impassioned embrace and had stripped off his shirt, I was wearing the least clothes of anybody there.
Including Kelly's dream date. He sauntered up a few minutes later, wearing a serious expression, a pair of white chinos and a black silk shirt. Very Jersey, but then, this was the West Coast, so how was he to know?
"Do you want to dance?" he asked me in this really soft voice. I could barely hear him above the strains of Sheryl Crow, booming out from the pool deck's speakers.
"Look," I said putting down my Diet Coke. "I don't even know your name."
"It's Tad." he said.
And then without another word, he put his arms around my waist, pulled me up to him, and started swaying in time to the music.
"He didn't even bother to ask her, her name? My opinion of this boy has gone down a notch." Helen said disappointedly. She had actually liked Tad Beaumont and his father, it was a shame that they moved not long after Suze started dating Tad…
"He always seemed rather dim to me." Andy argued.
With the exception of the time I threw myself at Bryce Martinson in order to knock him out of the way when a ghost was trying to crush his skull with a large chunk of wood, this was as close to the body of a boy – a live boy, one who was still breathing – I had ever been.
"I don't like the sound of that, how many dead guys has she been up close and personal with?" Jake asked glaring at the book.
"Just remember Jake, you can't kill a dead man." David pointed out causing Jake to blush.
And let me tell you, black silk shirt not withstanding, I liked it. This guy felt good. He was all warm – it was kind of chilly in my bathing suit; being January of course, it was supposed to be too chilly for bathing suits, but this was California, after all – and smelt like some kind of really nice, expensive soap. Plus he was just taller enough than me for his breath to kind of brush against my cheek in this provocative, romance novel sort of way.
"Could I at least kill this guy? He was obviously thinking dirty thoughts about my little sister!"
"No, Jake you cannot kill your sister's ex-boyfriend!"
Let me tell you, I closed my eyes, put my arms around this guy's neck, and swayed with him for two of the longest, most blissful minutes of my life.
"And what has this guy done that's wrong? He made Suze happy, yes only for a short time - but still!"
"Mom he touched her!"
"So has Jesse!"
"Yeah, well that's another dead man walking isn't it?"
"So will you be if you kill Jesse." David said calmly. "Now I have almost finished this entry, so please be quiet."
Then the song ended.
Tad said, "Thank you." in the same soft voice he'd used before, and let go of me.
And that was it. he turned around, and walked back over to this group of guys who were hanging out by the keg Kelly's dad had brought for her on the condition she didn't let anybody drive home drunk, a condition Kelly was sticking strictly to, by not drinking herself and by carrying around a cell phone with the number of Carmel Cab on redial.
And then for the rest of the party, Tad avoided me. He didn't dance with anybody else. But he didn't speak to me again.
Game over, as Dopey would say, but I didn't think Father Dominic wanted to hear about my dating travails.
"Of course he wouldn't, I would like to have not heard all that." Andy muttered. "No one likes to hear their daughter figure discuss their romantic life."
So I said, "Nope. Nada. Nothing."
"Strange." Father Dominic said, looking thoughtful. "I would have thought there'd be some paranormal activity-"
"Oh" I said. "You mean has any ghost stuff been going on?"
"Well, duh, I can't see Father D being interested in your love life."
Now he didn't look thoughtful. He looked kind of annoyed. "Well yes, Susannah," he said taking off his glasses, and pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger like he had a headache all of a sudden.
"Suze can be very headache inducing, I should know."
"Of course, that's what I mean." he put his glasses back on. "Why? Has something happened? Have you encountered anyone? I mean, since the unfortunate incident that resulted in the destruction of the school?"
"I hope not. I hope what has happened with the school would be the last ghostly activity until whatever makes Jesse come back alive happens!" Helen retorted.
"Somehow I doubt that would ever happen." Jake said.
I said slowly. "Well..."
"Yes, I can see, I don't like it though." Helen grumbled.
"Well that's the end of the entry. Dad's turn to read now." David replied, passing the book to his father.