Give Up the Ghost
You would think it'd be easy to get along with a person after she's dead. Not Paige. She took her big sister duties very seriously. It'd been four years since she drowned, and she still got on my case.
"You're not really wearing those to school," she said, perched in the air just above the wrought-iron headboard of my bed, her ankles crossed and tipped to the side. It was the way she used to sit at the dinner table, way back when--pretending to be hooked on Dad's every word while her mind wandered off to choicer topics. Except these days she did it without a chair.
"What's wrong with them?" I asked, zipping up my jeans. She was wearing jeans, too. Of course, her jeans were tight, low cut capris. Mine were big and baggy. I'd stepped on the hems so many times they were as thready as my violet carpet, but hey, they were comfortable.
Paige wrinkled her pert nose and shook her head. Very few things got her as worked up as my untapped fashion potential. Most of the time she had this faded tissue-paper look, so filmy I could see right through her. Get her interested, though, and she brightened up like a Chinese lantern. Right then, she was beaming from her bleached-blond hair to her strappy sandals.
A few years ago it would have pissed me off. These days, I was used to it. It was like a game: how bossy could she get, how bratty could I get. Playing at being normal.
"Don't you ever look at yourself, Cassie?" Paige said. "You've got nicer stuff in your closet. It's like you want to be a slob."
"There are more important things than clothes, you know."
"You could at least brush your hair. Please."
I stuck out my lip to blow my bangs away from my eyes, and grinned. "All right, if it's so important to you."
I found my brush in the heap of comic books, dirty dishes, and loose change on top of my dresser and tugged it through the mud-brown mess of my hair. Paige drifted over, her hand grazing my head with a faint tingle. The smell of candied apples and cinnamon wisped from her fingers.
"You could be pretty, Cassie," she murmured. "You've got an okay figure, if you dressed to show it off... A little make-up--I bet your eyes could look really green if you did it right, and a new hair cut..."
Paige groaned. "You want to have friends, don't you? People care about that stuff. You look nice, they're nice to you. You look like a mess, they're laughing about it behind your back."
My smile died. I yanked the brush through a knot, wincing. From what I'd seen, looking nice didn't stop people from making fun of you. I'd dressed pretty decent back in junior high, and it sure as hell hadn't helped me.
But that was ancient history. The kids at Frazer Collegiate weren't laughing at me now. And I had enough dirt on all of them to make sure it stayed that way.
Not that I could tell that to Paige. If she knew what went on at school, she'd be ten times more freaked out than she was about my jeans.
"Do you laugh behind my back?" I asked instead.
Paige gave me her best big sister look: eyebrows arched and lips pursed. Considering she was the same sweet-sixteen as when she'd died and I'd be seventeen in a few months, it was getting harder to take that look seriously.
"Of course not," she said. "You're my sister. I have to look out for you."
"Gee, thanks. Anyway, no one's making fun of me."
I arched my eyebrows right back at her. "Trust me, they're not."
"Okay, okay." Her lower lip curled into a pout. "I'm just concerned. You should look after yourself. You used to... I think you used to make yourself up, get dressed up... Didn't you?"
I looked away. Paige hardly ever talked about things that far back. But she was right--if this had been back at the beginning of seventh grade, I'd have been trying on half a dozen outfits, dabbing lipstick light enough that Mom wouldn't notice it, getting ready for another day of giggling with my friends and blushing around the boys. A lot had changed since then. A lot that Paige hadn't wanted to see when she was alive, and now would probably never understand.
"I'm surviving just fine like this," I said, pulling my hair into an elastic. "Can we talk about something else? Besides, you should be glad. I could have a billion friends and go out every night, and then you'd be bored out of your mind."
Paige hovered over me as I grabbed my backpack from under my desk and stuffed last night's homework into it. She didn't say anything, just watched me with her eyes all worried and her forehead crinkled. It was making me feel twisted up inside. Even after four years, it seemed weird sometimes that she paid so much attention to me.
Right before she died, Paige and I had a pretty defective relationship. Mostly it consisted of me trying to stick myself in her way and Paige doing her best to avoid me. She'd turned into a teen princess in high school, and I was a gawky tween who cramped her style. I didn't get why she didn't want me hanging out with her anymore. She didn't get why I couldn't leave her alone.
I guess I was lucky it hadn't stayed that way. Death had left Paige's fashion sense intact, but it screwed majorly with her memory. Here and there, time got stuck. Some things she talked about as if four years ago were yesterday. When Dad turned her old bedroom into a workshop, it took a month before the change worked its way into her head. Until then, she'd come bolting into my room once or twice a day, wailing about how someone had stolen all her stuff. I'd tell her what was up, she'd calm down, and then eight hours later she'd have forgotten and freak out all over again.
But eventually Paige caught on to the things that stayed different, like the room, and like me getting older, and the 'now' wrote over the 'then.' In her mind, now, we've been best buds forever. And really, despite her nagging, I'd had friends a lot worse than her. At least she said what she was thinking instead of hiding it under smiles and sweet talk. The dead, maybe because they have nothing to lose, are always honest.
I put my hand on the radio. "What station do you want?"
"I don't know." Paige stared out the window gloomily, her glow dimming. "How about the hip hop one?"
"Sure." I turned the dial, and set the volume low enough that Dad wouldn't notice I'd left it on. Paige didn't move. When I looked up, she was so washed out I could see through her to the cracked paint on the window frame.
"I'll be back soon," I reminded her. "Dad should be around. And Mom..." I realized I didn't know where Mom was. A lump like a cherry pit stuck in my throat. Well, that was the way it went with Mom, these days. But Paige wouldn't really brighten until she came back.
"I know," Paige said, and smiled. "Thank you."
The hall floor creaked. We both went quiet. Then came Dad's trademark knock on the door: one, two, one-two-three.
"Yeah?" I said. Paige started to drift away. Dad and Mom couldn't see or hear her. She still hung out with them sometimes--mostly with Mom, in those brief stints at home between magazine assignments--but it seemed to make her uncomfortable.
Dad eased open the door. "Hello there," he said, studying me through the oval panes of his glasses. He rubbed the thin spot he was getting on the top of his head with his smudged fingers.
"Started the inking?" I asked. Dad took on a lot of different projects, but his favorite illustrations to do were the plain black ink ones. The last few days, he'd been working on a commissioned study of the Church of St. Michael, so wrapped up in it he only came out for meals and our usual after-dinner TV time, when we indulged in our shared weakness for old sitcoms.
He nodded. "The mosaic tiles are quite the challenge."
"You'll have to show me as soon as it's done."
"Of course," he said, and then, "You're looking nice."
I ducked my head. "Thanks."
The funny thing was, Dad meant it. I think I could have had a wasp's nest in my hair and he'd still have thought I was lovely. For an artist, he had a strange conception of beauty.
"I thought..." he began, and cleared his throat. "I need to go downtown to pick up some supplies. Would you like a drive to school?"
I glanced out the window. It was raining, a slow, steady drizzle. On the other hand, the throat-clearing suggested he was working up to an awkward conversation. I hesitated, and instantly felt like a jerk. Dad was the last person who deserved to be snubbed.
"Sure," I said. "That'd be great. When are you leaving?"
"Right now, I was hoping," he said. "But I can wait if it's too early."
"Nah, it's fine. Just let me get my stuff."
I grabbed my pack and hurried down to the front hall. Dad put on his fedora as I laced up my hiking boots. He jingled his keys against his palm with the same tune he used to knock: jing, jing, jing-jing-jing.
"So, your mother will be home for the weekend," he said. "We'll see a bit of her. I think she has another assignment starting Monday."
I shrugged. "Whatever." As if two days of playing happy homemaker could make up for the ten days she was gone. She hardly lived with us anymore.
Dad was silent as we walked out to the car, but it was the loud kind of silence that's full of things about to be said. Rain dripped off my bangs and the T-shirt started to stick to my skin. I thought about walking. Then I thought about sitting through four classes in clammy clothes. Dad pushed open the passenger side door from inside, and I got in.
"She misses you, you know," he said as he put his foot to the gas. The old Ford crept out of the driveway. "She wishes she could be home more."
Sure she did. Mom freelanced. She got to decide which assignments she took and which she didn't. After Paige died, she'd started writing more and more for this travel magazine, which just happened to require that she race off every second week. If she wanted to be home more, she couldn't have been doing less to make it happen.
"It's hard for her to work at home, always being in the house," Dad went on when I stayed quiet. "It reminds her... Well, she thinks a lot about your sister. It helps her to have some time away."
"No big deal," I said. "I'm used to it. Anyway, you're always here."
The buildings slid past the windows as we rolled toward Frazer. Dad hit the brake at a red light, and we jerked to a halt. He looked over at me. The sides of his mouth were straining to keep from frowning.
"I'm sorry," he said, as if it was his fault and not hers. "She's already trying to get more local assignments. By the summer I think you'll be seeing her a lot more."
I'd been hearing that story for a couple years now. Something always came up, some exciting lead she just had to chase, and off she'd go again. That was Mom.
"Sure," I said. Frazer loomed into sight, squatting on the school lawn like a giant quarterback. The rectangular shoulders of the east and west wings hunched behind the helmet-round head of the auditorium above and cafeteria below.
I had my hand on the door before we reached the front walk. The car lurched over a pothole and stopped. I leapt out onto the pavement, dragging my pack behind me.
"Thanks for the ride! Good luck with the inking."
I pushed the door shut before he could answer. He waved at me through the window and drove on.
The morning janitor was out on the lawn, poking at chip bags and pop cans. I hurried past him to the front door and headed up the stairs.
Like always, there were too many breathers in the halls, jostling and snickering and getting kissy-kissy in the corners. They stuck together in clumps, clogging traffic. I couldn't get two steps without some guy's elbow bumping my ribs or some girl's strawberry-kiwi-shampooed hair in my face. The humidity only made it worse.
Under it all, I caught a whiff of something only I could smell: old-fashioned hair oil. It got stronger as the crowd thinned by the hall's dead end, just past the math office, where my locker was. I smiled.
Over the years, Norris must have spent a lot of time perfecting his slouch. He leaned against the lockers, on the verge of but not quite sinking in. You could almost believe he was a real, live 14-year-old, held up by the wall. He raised his translucent hand to me as I squeezed past the last pod of giggling freshmen, then straightened up, lifting a few inches above the floor. He liked to imagine he was taller than me.
"Hey, Cass, how ya doing?" he said, in a voice that would have been more suave if it hadn't crackled every few words. He slicked a hand over his black hair and tugged forward the collar of his army jacket. Norris didn't talk dates much, but I'd seen enough old movies to peg him as a '70s dude the moment I'd met him. He preferred the term 'rebel.'
"I'd be better if I didn't have to be here," I said. I spun the dial on the lock and jerked open the locker door, so it hid the movement of my mouth from the rest of the hall. "You?"
"Same old. But hey." Norris smirked. "The kids have been busy. Wait'll you hear what I've got today."
To read more, buy the book: