The sound of metal grinding against metal split the air. Glass broke, scattering all over the intersection. Dark, slick blood began to coat the debris.
The drunk drivers had smashed right into the side of the car opposite them. They were killed on impact.
Crashes like this didn't happen as often as one would think in the city of Baxborough. The bustle of the city slowed for the next couple of hours, the shock of the crash sinking in. The police closed off the intersection, attempting to shield the view from the public's eyes.
The man in the opposite car was still alive, they discovered. The first name on his license was too difficult to discern, but the last name read Puckett. The paramedics strapped the body to a stretcher and moved out, starting up the ambulance's siren and speeding off into the night.
Mr. Puckett began to wake about a day later. His mind was still fuzzy, his eyes a bit bleary, but he could see the shapes of two small bodies in the room. The smell of iodine began to register, as did the blank white walls, sheets, and practically everything else in the room. The sunlight streaming through the window only made it worse. Shaking his head a bit, Mr. Puckett went to rub his eyes.
"He's awake!" squeaked the smaller figure with a small hiccup that sounded like she'd been crying.
"Yeah," the other one said, beginning to stand.
The smaller figure stepped closer to Mr. Puckett, until he could see her more clearly. It was his youngest daughter, Zoey.
"Zoey!" Mr. Puckett grinned at her. He moved his arms up to hug her, and she jumped into them. He still couldn't see her too clearly, and he remembered he needed his glasses. He put a hand on the table next to him, where he usually kept them, but they weren't there. His older son, Max, stepped closer, holding out something in his hand.
"I brought your extra pair from home. Your old ones… broke. Uh, in the crash, I mean," he said slowly.
It took him a minute to remember. The blinding headlights to his left that shouldn't have been there, the crunch of the car as it caved in on the side. And a searing pain. Mr. Puckett blinked, but accepted his glasses. He could see now that Zoey's eyes were pink from crying. She continued to hug him as if she was afraid that when she let go, he would disappear into oblivion again. Max looked pale, maybe even a little shaken, but he had never been one for showing fear. He looked intently at his dad right now.
Mr. Puckett's grin became bigger, and he held his arms open wider to allow Max in. Max looked a bit hesitant, but Zoey grabbed him and tugged him into the hug. The family was together again.
Mr. Puckett felt a twinging sensation of pain and let go of his kids. They jumped back. "Are you okay? Do I need to get the doctor?" Zoey asked, afraid they might have hurt his healing injuries. He gave them a smile. "I'm fine. I'm still recovering, I guess."
The door opened, and in walked a man dressed in medical attire. He glanced at Mr. Puckett and gave him a grin. "Hello, Mr. Puckett. I see you're awake," he said. "I'm Doctor Graham. I've been the one in charge of you since your accident." He walked over and shook Mr. Puckett's hand.
"I must say, you're very lucky to be alive. I'd call that a near death experience," he said with a creepy cheerfulness.
At those words, Max started. Zoey looked at him, concerned. Max had known that, hadn't he? It wasn't anything he hadn't already assumed, right?
"The collision caused your pelvis to fracture. Lots of internal bleeding in those," the doctor stated matter-of-factly, nodding his head. God, Max though, that's really creepy. Do all doctors here act like this? Why couldn't they just move him to a hospital in Mayview? Closer to the store anyway.
The doctor continued, "We were able to clean up that massive amount of blood, but you had lost a lot. We gave you an emergency blood transplant. Should be okay by now. Your pelvis will be sore for a couple weeks, but it'll be okay. Now what was it I was supposed to tell you…?"
He took a minute to think. Why the heck do they let this guy work here, Max thought disgustedly. But near death experience… is it possible Dad might become a…
"Oh, that's right!" Graham said, dramatically slapping his forehead. Zoey was having misgivings about this guy just as much as Max. Her dad seemed cool with him though, so she kept quiet. "The crash also caused temporary paralysis of your legs. You're going to need therapy for the next couple of days, but it's not severe enough to keep you from walking for the rest of your life."
Mr. Puckett frowned a bit and tried to wiggle his toes. They moved the tiniest bit, but he couldn't make them move any farther. "The therapy is pretty easy; you should be home very quickly, within the next week or two," Graham smiled. "I already explained to your children about how your brain may have been damaged as well. You son was kind enough to inform me that had probably already been there!" "Hey, wait, I was joking, you can't just-" "I'll check up on you in a couple hours. See you then!"
Doctor Graham flounced out of the room. Max yelled after him, "HEY! THAT WAS NOT COOL!" He looked at his dad, "I joke when I'm nervous, you can't take that-"
"It's okay, Max. Really." Mr. Puckett smiled. "I'm just glad to have you guys with me! It looks like I'll be here for a while though." He frowned. "And you guys still need to go to school. Would you be okay without me for a couple days?"
"I'll be okay. It's Max you need to be worried for." Zoey smirked at Max. "What are you talking about? At least I can reach the top shelves of the store without a ladder." "Yeah, right-"
Mr. Puckett was about to interrupt when a cursory glance out the window stopped him. Was that a… dragon?
A quick gasp escaped his lips, and Zoey's head snapped toward him. "Are you sure you're okay?" she said.
Mr. Puckett looked out the window again. There was nothing there.
"Oh, I'm fine!" he said, grinning. It was probably just his mind playing tricks on him, what with all the drugs the doctors had probably put him on. "Hey, do know if there's a cafeteria around? Or a vending machine? I say we celebrate my not-dying with all the candy we can eat!"
Zoey thought it probably wasn't the best idea for him to be eating things not prescribed by a doctor the day after the accident, but considering the doctor her dad had, it probably wouldn't matter. She grabbed Max by the arm and began pulling him toward the door. Max walked with her, taking note of the dragon-like spirit out the window that had been circling the building all day.
Max wove through the halls of his school. It was the first day of school since his dad's accident. Zoey had bugged him to talk to their father every night on the phone (they'd gone home the day after, since they needed to work the Corner Store), so he knew the physical therapy was going well. Hopefully, Dad would be home in six or seven days. Good, Max thought, then things can get back to normal. He still wasn't sure how to take the news about how his dad had had a near death experience. On one hand, people exaggerated about that all the time (that doctor definitely seemed the type to do it, God). But on the other, what if his dad became a spectral? Max didn't really know how to feel about that. Jeez, he didn't even know how he felt about himself, and he'd been a spectral for months.
The end of the day was nearing. He walked into his last class. Mr. Spender looked up from his book and waved at him. It was weird that Mr. Spender had forgiven him so easily for the whole 'blackmailing him to get answers' thing. Max sat in his desk and took out his supplies.
It was another boring day in class, Mr. Spender going into yet another long, dramatic speech about how scientists are theorizing aliens were actually responsible for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and how World War I had really been a huge scheme to tear the human race apart. The bell finally rang (thank God), and he could go home. Except-
"A word, Maxwell!" Mr. Spender shouted over the bustle of the students trying to leave as quickly as possible.
"What'd you do this time, Max?" Isabel whispered jokingly as she passed him on her way out.
Max glared at her and walked up to his teacher's desk. Mr. Spender waited for the rest of the students to leave before he started.
"I'm sorry to hear about you father, Maxwell," Mr. Spender said, concern in his voice.
Max tried not to roll his eyes. Word traveled fast around Mayview. He'd heard that all day, from his friends, his teachers, some of Johnny's gang (privately, of course, Johnny wouldn't approve), even random people who had come to the Corner Store. "It's fine. He's doing pretty well, he'll be back in a few days," he said quickly.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Mr. Spender. "Now, about the accident… do you know what exactly happened? What injuries he acquired?"
Well, that's certainly not personal, thought Max. He squinted at his teacher. "Why do you want to know?"
"I'm sure you remember your first time with the Activity Club, the day on which we tried to recruit you."
"And wouldn't answer any of my questions and almost got me killed by giving me paper cuts over every inch of my body? Yeah, I'd say I remember pretty well."
"Er, yes," Mr. Spender replied. "But do you remember the ways in which we said you could gain supernatural powers?"
Now Max had some idea of where this was going. "Yes…"
"And they are…?"
Because no teacher can do something without forcing you to learn, thought Max. "Near death experience…" He paused. "Exposure to supernatural stuff, and eating a ton of oranges."
Mr. Spender frowned. "Not entirely, but for now we only want to focus on the first. Near death experiences are very hard to define. Though one may have been close to death, it is very difficult to decide the circumstances which would be needed in order for one to gain supernatural abilities. We cannot determine if your dad has been in one of those situations just by examining it. If it wouldn't be too much for you, I wish to give you an extra assignment."
Yup, Max definitely knew where this was going.
"When your dad gets home, I would like for you to monitor him. If he shows any signs of becoming one of us, let me know. Would you do that?"
Max was silent for a bit, his thoughts racing. Mr. Spender looked at him expectantly.
A week later, Max's dad had returned from Baxborough Hospital. His paralysis had almost completely worn off, but he was still using a cane to aid his walking. He was also rather jumpy (er, jumpier than usual). Zoey assumed it was from the psychological trauma of the crash, but Max wasn't so sure.
Yeah, his dad was still the cheerful, random person he'd grown up with, and despite his annoyance towards it, he still loved his dad and all his silly ways (though he'd never admit it, I mean, come on), but something was bothering Mr. Puckett. And Max didn't think it was just fear of being hit by another freaking truck.
Since Max's dad had returned, Max had kept to his promise and watched him, not just for Spender's purposes, but for his own as well. Would it be cool if his dad became a spectral? He guessed they could be a father/son spectral pair of crime fighters if it came down to it (he hoped it didn't, that would be really cliché). But he watched him, nonetheless.
A few days later, Max trudged home from school and into the Corner Store. He watched as a pair of Gobbledygooks floated into the store, scaring the smaller spirits and ghosts, but not eating them since Max was around to enforce justice if need be. He also watched as his dad looked up, eyes wide as he looked at the spirits, floating right next to him. According to Lefty and P.J., whom Max had recruited to help out with his task, this had happened several times before, but Max wasn't yet sure if he could trust their accounts (mostly because Lefty couldn't really speak and P.J. was completely paranoid). Now, Max knew what was happening. Should he wait a bit to tell Spender? Or get in touch right now?
Max walked further into the store. "Hey, Dad, how's it hanging?" he said casually.
Mr. Puckett snapped his attention to Max. "What"
Then he saw Max and relaxed a bit. "Oh, hey, Buddy Bear, how was school?" he said distractedly.
"It was cool. What're you looking at?" he asked.
"Hmm? Oh, it's nothing. Just thought there were… some bats or something. Y'know, inside the store. I've heard they like to eat… Apple Thangs and, uh, Cat Food for Dogs, so they're not real great for business."
Mr. Puckett was never concerned about his business (well, not in that way at least, he never did seem to care what items he stocked). And he had correctly identified the spirits as bats.
"Okay, well, I'm gonna go up to my room. Do some homework." Max walked calmly upstairs. About halfway across the living room, he heard a yelp.
Max ran to the top of the stairs in time to see his father attempting to douse some colored vapor flowing from his hand. Spectral energy, Max thought. He left the top of the stairs without attracting his dad's attention (which would've been hard to do as Mr. Puckett was currently absorbed in beating away what he thought was a flame of death, so bestowed upon him by the ancient people of Mayview coming to take him away and force him to join their cult). Max raced to his room and slammed the door.
Mr. Spender was talking to the other seventh grade teachers in the teachers' lounge. His phone buzzed as he got a text. He excused himself from the crowd. Upon opening his phone, he found the following message:
He is undeniably, without a doubt, a spectral.
Mr. Spender apologized and informed the others he had to leave. He grabbed his coat and walked out the door at a brisk pace.
Mr. Puckett wasn't sure what was wrong with him. Maybe there had been brain damage from the accident? Whatever it was, he wasn't totally sure what to do about it. He kept seeing strange creatures floating by, people that weren't really there. It was like a weird, lucid dream, except he was awake, for Pete's sake! He had just calmed down from the terrifying flame of death episode (stupid Mayview cultists, man, there were a lot of them) when someone came through the automatic doors of the Corner Store. Mr. Puckett shook his head to clear it and put a smile on his face. He'd just go back to the doctor or something. Yeah, that was it. Nothing to worry about… right?
"Hello, welcome to the Corner Store!" he said cheerfully.
"Ah, yes, hello," said the man who had come in. He was fairly young, with blond hair and sunglasses (even though he was indoors now, he still didn't take them off), and looked vaguely familiar. "You're Mr. Puckett, correct?" he said, coming up to the counter.
"Yep!" Mr. Puckett said, still smiling. "What can I help you with?"
"I'm afraid it may be me helping you," he said. "I'm one of Max's teachers, Rick Spender."
That was where he'd seen him. Parent/teacher conferences and such. "Oh, yeah! World History, right?"
"Yes, also the leader of the Activity Club," Spender said. "Forgive me if I'm wrong, but you've been seeing things, yes? As in purple creatures moving about? Maybe in more color now? Or people you can touch one second but aren't really there when you look back?"
Mr. Puckett stared at him. "Are you saying you see them too?" he asked cautiously.
Spender smiled. "Of course. Don't be worried. You're just viewing some of the most amazing creatures this world and the next has to offer. The paranatural, if I may say so."
It had been a lot to take in, and Rick sure could talk. All Mr. Puckett could really remember was that he could see ghosts and spirits, and that ghosts and spirits actually existed (which was so cool), and that the others in town who had powers like his used them to fight all the bad spirits and keep the paranormal (what was the word Rick had used? Paranatural?) beings safe.
But even after all that, he kept going back to what Rick had said about ghosts. That they existed. That people who died could turn into ghosts and could stay on Earth for a long, long time.
And he couldn't help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, his wife had come back.
He had loved her more than anything in the world. Was it possible? For her to still be here on the Earth? For him to see her again?
He was snapped out of his reverie as Max began to climb down the stairs, watching his dad. His dad's eyes twinkled as he watched Max descend. "So, you see ghosts, huh?"
Max paused on the last step, but began to smile as he stepped off. "Duh. But watch it. Ghosts and spirits are" He made air quotes "'Like totally a secret, okay?'" he said, mocking Isabel.
Max's dad laughed. "So, is it your job to be my sensei in the way of all things spectral?"
"No, because that's stupid. If I had to learn how to use the giant time-freezing snake spirit inside my baseball bat all on my own, then you can figure out your own powers."
"You have a giant time-freezing snake spirit in that bat?"
"Didn't I just say that?"
"That's pretty cool!" his dad said excitedly.
Max grinned. "Yeah, it really is."
Max's phone began to ring. He answered it.
"Hey, Max? It's Isaac."
"Oh, hey, you big dork. What's up?"
He heard Isaac's exasperated sigh on the other end.
"Oh, nothing, just a huge weasel-snail spirit on the north side of town that can regenerate faster than anything you've ever seen in your entire life. We need backup. Where are you?"
"Uh, at my house? Where else would I be?"
There was a huge crash on the other end of the line.
"Well, just get over here, okay?"
"What's the magic word?"
"Yes, my name makes a pretty awesome magic word, doesn't it? I'll be there as fast as I can."
Max closed his phone and turned to his dad. "I've gotta help beat some stupid spirit. I'll be back soon, okay?"
Max raced towards the automatic doors of the store, despite his father's protesting. He paused to allow them to open (because everyone knows if you run at automatic doors, they won't open in time, and you'll run into them) and looked back. "Hey, Dad?"
"Remember that one morning? When you saw that red mystery substance on the broken freezer glass? And wondered how it happened?"
Mr. Puckett remembered that day. There was still some debate between Zoey and him as to how it had occurred. "Of course."
"Your fourth theory: A large, frog-like phantom breaks into the store, repeatedly eats itself, and is then slain by magical children. Yeah, that one was actually right."
Max smirked and ran out of the store, grabbing his baseball bat, which he'd left by the door.
Mr. Puckett smiled. He knew he had been right. Zoey, who had been at the top of the stairs and heard the last part of the conversation, thought they were both crazy.
The house was quiet. Zoey had gone to sleep about an hour ago. Max still hadn't returned, but had called to inform his dad he'd gone to an impromptu Activity Club meeting after the spirit had been defeated and wouldn't be back until midnight. Mr. Puckett had closed up the store and was relaxing upstairs in the living room. It had been a long day. He glanced over to the picture he had on the table, one of the pictures he still had of his wife. He still missed her. Missed her more than anything in the world. He'd never forget her.
He sat there, quiet. The spirits floating around the house had come into clear view for him now. It was a little uncomfortable at first, but he'd grown used to them pretty quickly. A couple huge goldfish were circling the ceiling right now, but otherwise the room was silent.
But then he did hear something. Something whispered, right in front of him. If he had heard it correctly, a voice had said… his name?
He heard it again, much louder this time. He looked away from the ceiling.
There, floating gently in front of him, was his wife.
He stood up abruptly, eyes wide in shock. His legs were still weak from the accident, but that's not why they were shaking now. In fact, his whole body was shaking.
He whispered her name. She was floating there, as beautiful as she had been the day she died. The day of her funeral. Her hair swept down her back, just as it always had. Her eyes sparkled, tears beginning to form, and her smile was sweet and sexy at the same time. He began to smile, realizing this wasn't a dream. She was here, with him, at last. They were together again. They wouldn't get torn apart, like last time. They would be together, forever.
She floated closer. They were mere inches from each other now.
Then he threw his arms around her, and she did the same around him. Tears streaked down both their faces, and they never wanted to let each other go. Not again. He knew what Zoey had felt in the hospital, never wanting to let someone go in case they slipped through your fingers again, back into oblivion.
"I never stopped loving you," she choked through the tears. "Not even in death."
"Neither did I," he said, holding her tighter.
They stayed like that for a while.