Nine

For whatever reason, Chambers did not make a reappearance for the rest of the school day. That would have been perfectly fine, too, had I not known Susannah was planning to seek her out later. Not to say that I thought the Martinson boy deserved to die – of course he did not. But how many undeserved deaths happen every day? Thousands, many thousands of people, all too young, too innocent, too good. Between having the girl harm her inamorato or harm Susannah, I would easily pick the first. Especially considering that neither of the mediators had any way of forcing Chambers from the realm. Better to let her do what she was going to do anyway and then leave. Susannah's plan to intervene would achieve nothing except get her hurt in addition to what was already going to happen.

But who could or would tell her that? More importantly, convince her of it? Only one person, of course. Grimly, I concluded this was why fate had set things up this way. Killed me so that a hundred and fifty years later, I could stop this bullheaded girl from killing herself.

Her confidence in her abilities had persuaded even the Father. Everyone's admiration after the incident was not helping. As I watched little David bob up and down next to her in the car like he might wet himself in excitement, I knew this would not be at all easy.

And here I had been thinking I would not have to reveal myself for another few weeks.

It was worth it, though. She deserved to live normally, worrying about ordinary matters such as what she looked like, as she was doing right now, staring at herself in the automobile's rear view mirror. She was making a slight face like all young women do – I knew from my sisters that they do not even realize that their expressions change when they look at their own reflections. I shook my head, smiling. This was right. This was what should be on her mind, not murderous entities.

I watched them drive away – her and the Ackerman brothers, then went back into the school, in hopes of finding any information that might come in useful later. Knowledge is power, after all.

I had not achieved any new power by the time I got to the priest's office, however, the only thing even halfway worth noting being the dented door of Susannah's locker. Nor did the office prove useful. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the priest's possessions, or his phone or in-person conversations, unless you counted his out of the ordinary kindness and calming influence on people. Still, I stayed until he locked the room and left, just in case. I did note some things of interest. The Father had served as a missionary in the Vietnam War for a couple of years, for instance. He had taught biology and specialized in zoology.

Chambers was still 'hanging around', her anger pulsing as ever. But it was impossible to pinpoint her physical location. Once the Father was gone, I went back to examine the only thing of note – the locker.

I had thought there was something strange about it before, but as I looked at it, it fell into place exactly what it was. After she'd made initial contact with the locker, Chambers had kept pushing at the material, just as if a solid body had fallen into it. Most ghosts would realize very soon after becoming ghosts that they could just walk through solid material. It is standard in any supernatural stories people hear in their lifetime, after all. In fact, it takes a long time and a lot of practice after returning to Earth in this form that we can manipulate matter to behave how we want it to.

Chambers appeared to have the opposite problem. She apparently had not realized how insubstantial we could be. What was amazing was that matter behaved exactly as she expected it to. It had been years until I could make so much as a pockmark in wood, and here she could make dents in metal a simple month after her death. It came with the incredible power of angry spirits, I supposed. Not terribly smart though.

I made one last sweep around the premises, but there was nothing else. In the mellow, golden evening light, everything was quiet in the absence of the students, except the soft tinkling of the fountain, and the thrumming in my head of that ever present pulse. My thought as I dematerialized was if it was too unrealistic to wish it could stay that quiet.

I materialized with barriers up into the Simon-Ackerman living room in time to see Susannah put the receiver back onto their telephone. In the clacking of her mother's fingers on the computer keyboard, and Bradley and Mr. Ackerman's thumbs on the video game devices they were holding, and David's muttering over his homework at the dining room table, her silence went unnoticed by all.

She stared down at the phone. From her incredulous expression, I could tell that I had missed quite a conversation. I looked at the phone too, wondering if it had that recent invention that enabled people to view conversation history. Caller identification, I think it was called.

Susannah turned away and walked to her mother, who was seated before the computer. She bent and put her arms about her mother, saying, "I'm sorry I made you yell up the stairs."

Mrs. Ackerman looked taken aback. She patted her daughter's arm and said, "Oh, it's alright, Suzie. Just try not to have the volume turned up so loud when you have headphones in, okay? It's not good for your ears."

Susannah nodded in concurrence, and then left to go to her room, talking about all the homework she had left to do. Mrs. Ackerman turned away from the computer to give her daughter's back a quizzical glance. Once Susannah was out of sight, she turned back to her work, looking slightly worried. I was glad the good lady did not know what her daughter was planning – if she knew the full extent of the danger her daughter lived with, it would drive her to distraction.

I did not want to follow Susannah into her room. Not unless I knew she was definitely about to leave the house, and from the movements I could sense above us, I think she was in her powder room. Deciding that it would make more sense to come back if I felt something change rather than spy on her and have it turn out she was only getting ready for bed, I dematerialized to my favorite haunt (literally).

The Ronald Reagan Medical Center at the University of California, Los Angeles got some of the largest variety of cases in the whole world. It was perfect for me, because I often got tired when cases I kept tabs on reached the standard recovery phase. Once you see a thousand recuperating periods, you may as well have seen them all. It was getting patients there that was interesting.

Close to midnight, I felt the shift. The tenorsphere revealed that all the minds in the Ackerman residence were sound asleep, save one, which appeared to be gathering its strength. I left the operation theatre immediately.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself in front of the bay window. Susannah, clad in completely black clothing complete with hooded head, stood before her mirror. I felt tension coil suddenly in my stomach – still a strange sensation after all these years of being detached from everything. How best to approach this? She would be angry with me no matter what I did, I thought, but I could at least try to keep it to a minimum. Try not to ruffle her feathers too much.

When you want to approach an irascible cat, it is best to do so very slowly and calmly, almost as if you are not interested. It is also best to appear small and unintimidating, but I did not know what I could do about that, especially since I had so little time. Si, I know it is strange that I keep comparing Susannah to a cat, but what do I say? I had not had much experience with human beings who looked as if they would like to scratch my face off.

I walked over to one of her bed posts, and leaned my shoulder against it. Casual. Uninterested. Just a bystander. I took in one breath to arrange my expression, and as I exhaled, I let the barriers drop.

Susannah froze, her hands behind her ears where she had been tucking her hair away. I had one second to feel the relief that came from ending the exertion demanded by the barriers. Then Susannah said "Jeez" in a voice full of scorn. I had not the slightest idea what Jeez meant. A shortened form of 'Jesus', maybe?

She turned around, her eyes fairly crackling with anger. I am going to try to make this the last cat analogy, but juro, if she had been a feline, her back would have been arched, her fur would have been on end and she would have been hissing to kingdom come. So much for the gradual approach.

"Why are you still hanging around? I thought I told you to get lost."

It was an irrational reaction to have, I suppose, but after days of observing her calmly interact with the people in her life, always speaking in that calm, low-pitched, compelling voice, seeing her angry and hostile again was disappointing. I ignored it, however along with my own silly reaction, and observed her clothing now that she was facing me. The moonlight falling in from the bay window illuminated it. The hood was part of a black sweater, made of thick, comfortable-looking material. Screwdrivers and wire glinted silver in a tool belt around her waist. Black pants. Black shoes. Even the laces were black. No other plan occurred to me, so I decided to keep on with the façade of mild interest.

"It's a little late to be going out, don't you think, Susannah?" I said, returning my gaze to her face, where the scowl had deepened.

She pulled at the hood, to free her peripheral version, I think. For a moment, I forgot everything I was going to say. I had been watching her for days, but it was different, having her look directly at me. The ringing in my ears from that first day returned briefly. I could talk to her and she could hear me. I wondered, as I stood before her, as she glared at me, if I would ever get used to this. She saw me.

And I saw her. In the moonlight, her brown hair had a black shine, and her skin looked smooth as ivory and soft as white chocolate. Even more so where it met the black material at her neck. I do not think she was wearing any cosmetics. She was stunning.

Then she spoke, breaking my foolish trance. "Look, no offence, Jesse," she said, every syllable snapping with all the offence she could muster, "but this is my room. How about you try getting out of it? And my business too, please?"

I smiled. My apologies, querida, but no. "Your mother won't like your going out so late at night."

"My mother," she repeated, the mention of that good lady not allaying her anger one whit. "What would you know about my mother?"

If only she knew. It occurred to me why that scene had stuck in my mind so. The way her mother had patted at her hand had been much like my own used to. She used to accompany it by calling me mijo. For the first time in a long time, I felt a pang of homesickness, for days long gone.

"I like your mother very much," I said. "She is a good woman. You are lucky to have a mother who loves you so very much. It would upset her, I think – ," (I knew), "to see you putting yourself in the path of danger."

She made a sputtering sound. "Yeah, well, news flash, Jesse. I've been sneaking out at night for a long time, and my mom's never said boo about it before. She knows I can take care of myself." She crossed her arms defiantly. Too defiantly. She might as well have added a "so there!" at the end and stuck her tongue out at me.

"Can you?" I asked, amused. She glared at my forehead, I do not know why. I looked at this incredible creature before me, this small, short-tempered, sensitive girl, and then thought of that monster from hell down at the Mission. The idea that the two might actually face off made me laugh under my breath. A cat ought not to pick fights with rabid bulls. "I don't think so, querida," I said, shaking my head. "Not in this case."

She raised both her hands again, in that same gesture she had used after I had been angry at her calling me vaquero. The memory made me bristle a little, but I tried to brush it away. I tended to do a lot of brushing away around this girl.

"OK," she said. "Number one, don't call me stuff in Spanish."

That pulled me up short for a moment. What had I called her in Spanish? I did not have time to revise our conversation, however, because she continued, "Number two, you don't even know where I'm going, so I suggest you just get off my back."

"But I do know where you're going, Susannah," I told her. I had to. I could not let her dismiss my warning because she thought I did not know what was happening. "You are going down to the school to talk to the girl who is trying to kill that boy, that boy you seem…" In love with? No, she was not in love with Martinson. What did they call it these days? In my day, if you danced with a member of the opposite sex more than once at a fiesta, you or your people were likely planning to propose. "…fond of," was the best I could articulate. "But I'm telling you, querida, she is too much for you to handle alone. If you must go, you ought to have the priest with you."

Her mouth fell open. She seemed quite speechless for a moment, and I set my jaw, suddenly gripped by guilt. It had been for her good, after all, had it not? I had stayed away when she was by herself, had I not? Especially since that time…

"What? How could you know all that? Are you…are you stalking me?" She sounded strangled, and it made my neck ache with that old phantom pain.

I abandoned the casual approach altogether, pushing away from the bed post, feeling my muscles tense in defensiveness. Wondering why I felt so guilty. "I don't know what that word means, stalking," I said, although I had a good idea. That was probably the word I had been looking for, when I had first decided to stay away from her when she was alone. There was no denying it, though. I had been spying on her, no matter what the motivation. It was a violation of her right to privacy. I had only one justification: "All I know is that you are walking into harm's way."

She thrust a finger at me, almost poking me in the chest. "You've been following me, haven't you? God, Jesse, I already have an older brother, thank you very much."

This was the last thing I had been expecting her to say. Jacob Ackerman? Martinson's friend? Who had been dozing next to Martinson that morning, and was fast asleep right now, and who had served as the second point of introduction between Martinson and Susannah? Whose bedroom was right next to Susannah's and who, if only he looked out for his stepsister as his father had commanded him to, might have heard her moving about? Thus saving me from having to reveal myself and this guilt that was making me inexplicably want to gnash my teeth together? Susannah continued, "I don't need you going around spying –"

I had to cut in before I possibly set the mirror rattling again. Why had I not come up with a better argument before? I needed to spend less time in operation theaters, I fervently noted. "Oh yes. This brother cares for you very much. Almost as much as he cares about his sleep."

"Hey! He works nights, OK? He's saving up for a Camaro!"

What on earth was a Camaro? Why were we talking about this in the first place? It was time to return the conversation to the original point. I made a dismissive gesture, and said, as firmly as I could around the guilt and around those accusingly narrowed eyes, "You aren't going anywhere."

Susannah shook her head, one corner of her mouth turned up. "Oh, yeah? Try and stop me, cadaver breath."

She turned away before she could see it was my turn to have my mouth fall open. She had a way of getting on your nerves if she wanted to, Susannah did. First vaquero. Now this. She could touch me...did I have a smell for her too? Here I had felt...alive was not even the word for it. Meaningful, came close. Significant. Like I had some purpose, after frankly feeling like a cobweb all these years. But apparently all I was in reality, was a reanimated corpse. I thought of the grotesque hour when I had stood above my own body, limp as a ragdoll in that cabrón Diego's hands. Imagine having a dream where you die, but on waking up when the moment of death comes, realizing it was real. Looking down at your own face, lying glassy-eyed and misshapen before you.

The good thing was that this angered me enough to allay the guilt for a while. Susannah had just reached the door when I sent out my own ropes of energy, wrapping around the old deadbolt Mr. Ackerman had not been able to remove, and pulling until it met its slot in the frame.

Susannah struggled with the knob, and the longer she did, the quicker the guilt returned. Now I was violating her right to free movement, in addition to her right to privacy. Once this ordeal was over, I swore to myself, I would talk this through with her, and never resort to either of these methods again.

She looked so delicate, her back to me, her shoulders slumped, pulling at that knob pointlessly. I knew she was strong and could throw a mean punch, but in times like this, her slender frame and the fact that she was so much smaller than me made that easy to forget.

She turned around, brushing her hair away from her eyes. "OK, Jesse." There was no anger in her voice now. This did not help. "This is way uncool."

"I can't," I said. "Susannah. Don't go. This woman," I corrected myself. I had been about to say 'this woman from hell', but that might have seemed overdramatic to her. Besides, why would she believe me in her current state of distrust? " – this girl, Heather. She isn't like other spirits you might have known in the past. She's filled with hate. She'll kill you if she can."

Susannah just smiled, unfazed. "Then it's up to me to get rid of her, right? Come on. Unlock the door now."

I could see why the Father had fallen for it. When she turned that expression on you, it really made you feel like you were an idiot for underestimating her. I almost did unlock that door. If she actually had some aces up her sleeves, if she knew something I did not, did I have the right, being a stranger, to take away her right to choose what to do? Even if she did not, did I have the right?

Then I recalled the pulse of Chambers' power. Susannah did not know about it. She would be crushed. I could not let her just stroll to her death. I crossed my arms.

Her smile faded away. She shrugged. "Suit yourself." She brushed past me, heading toward the window.

I watched, frozen as a sped up version of the should I/should I not debate took place in my head again. Then she slung a leg over the windowsill, preparing to land on the porch roof where I spent so much of my time, and I lurched forward.

"Susannah," I said. She had turned, and was now staring at me as I tried to formulate an argument that would win her over. Her brows were creased. Then she lowered her eyes to her hand, and so did I, realizing what I had done.

For a half second, we both stared at our hands. Her wrist was small and my hand easily closed in a full fist around it. Her skin was warm and silken in my grasp. I released her immediately, aware of the absence of any kind of ringing or tingling now. Somehow, touching her for the second time had felt dangerously natural. She did not give me any time to apologize. She looked back up, her lips pressed together, and swung her other leg over the sill.

I watched her skip down. When her feet hit the bed of pine needles, I realized that the term she had protested against, the term I had called her in Spanish, was querida.


Note: If you leave a review, please do tell me one thing you wish were different for every thing you tell me you liked. Criticism is extremely helpful for any author.