The problem isn’t that there’s a ghost standing in front of me or that I have to help him move on. I’ve gotten used to that since Jin spared my life and turned me into his ghost-ferrying, soul-reaping apprentice.
The problem is that I know him.
Roger Lowry goes to my school. Or, he did, I guess.
He was in my chemistry class last year. We were lab partners. He’s only seventeen and now he’s dead, his body crumpled over his steering wheel. His ghost is looking at me with the lost expression common of the recently deceased. It’s one they all wear, even before they realize they’re dead.
“My car,” he says, eyes flicking to the tangled mess of metal that used to be his black BMW. “My parents are going to kill me.”
If Jin were here, he’d probably laugh at that. For the first time since I got the text message telling me to go this one alone, I’m almost glad he’s not here. Almost. Except that inside the car I can see far too much mangled flesh for my liking, and I wish I could hang back and let Jin do the dirty work. I’m not squeamish but it’s not pretty. Roger is only seeing the car for the moment, blind to the thing he doesn’t want to see.
“I think they’ll understand,” I say. I’m pretty sure they’re going to have bigger things to worry about.
Roger looks at my car, parked on the shoulder across the street and creases his brow. “Wait,” he says, tilting his head. “What are you doing out here, Drea? You weren’t at Matt’s party.”
It’s a reasonable question. It’s six in the morning on a Saturday in the middle of June. We’re standing on a curved underpass beneath the mostly-empty freeway. I’m wearing clean clothes, jeans and a t-shirt, not the sort of thing that would suggest I just came from an all-night party like Roger did.
Roger’s car slammed headfirst into the cement wall of the underpass, crushing the front so the hood is almost non-existent, meaning he truly lost control. I’m guessing he wasn’t sober. His accident is hidden from the freeway but it’s only a matter of time before someone notices. It’s taking all of my willpower not to dial 9-1-1. It feels wrong not to call the authorities.
Although in a way, I am the authority here. Besides, it’s not like it’ll do Roger any good at this point.
“Just passing by,” I lie.
Roger ignores me, and steps closer to examine the damage. And then it happens: he spots his body. His face contorts, twists into the most pained, awful expression I’ve ever seen. “Is that… Who is that?”
He knows. I watch the realization dawn on him. Having been out of my body for a panicked two minutes once, I know the feeling all too well. But I got a reprieve and he’s not going to.
He bends down to get a closer look, then jerks back. “Oh god,” he wails. “But how? I’m here!” He holds his hands up in front of his face. He glances back at his corpse and then down at his feet, which wear the perfect imitation of the expensive sneakers he wore in life. His ghostly countenance turns slightly green. If he were still alive, he’d probably puke all over the place. “I’m dead, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” I confirm. The Rules of Reaping, according to Jin, my supernatural boss, state that it’s best to make clear, firm statements to the departed. Don’t sugar coat. Don’t deny. Acknowledge their situation and then help them move on. Anything else creates unnecessary complications for both parties.
But then, so does the fact that Roger is my classmate.
“I’m such an idiot. I knew better than to drink that punch but I wanted Tyler to think I was cool, you know.” He slumps against the cement wall. “Fat lot of good it’s going to do me now that I’m a… a ghost.” He slams his fist against the cement. “Is that what I am?”
“Yes,” I say. “You’re a ghost.”
His eyes flick to the car but he turns away quickly and shakes his head. “Why is this happening to me?”
“You made a mistake,” I say. Talk about stating the obvious.
“Wait, why can you see me?”
“That’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time.”
“No, you don’t, and neither do I.” The longer I wait around, the greater the chance someone will see me lurking at the accident scene, and I do not need that. As far as my parents know, I’m at home in bed, sleeping in like the normal teenager they think I am. “Come here, Roger.”
He eyes me suspiciously and doesn’t move. “What for?”
“This is going to sound a little crazy, but I’m here to help you move on.”
“You?” He practically spits the word, which does not help a girl’s confidence, let me tell you. “Why you? I barely know you, Drea.”
“It’s not about me,” I say.
“Shouldn’t I be seeing my grandma, or my Uncle Casey, or, or,” he stands and wrings his fists. “Or Tyler?”
“You really want Tyler Rothchild to see you like that?” I ask, gesturing to Roger’s corpse.
He considers, then his shoulders slump. “No.”
“That’s what I thought.” I extend my hand to him. “Come on.”
“I can’t go yet.”
“You don’t exactly have a choice here.”
“I know. I mean,” he rubs his wrist with one hand and looks over at his corpse again. He shudders. A pang of guilt goes through me for not saving him, not that it was ever an option. “I just have something I need to do first.”
I sigh. He can’t do whatever it is. I don’t understand the logistics of it but I know that the newly departed have a window and if they don’t make it through, they get stuck. It might be decades or eons before their window opens again. Jin hasn’t given me any particulars about Roger’s window but it’s a safe bet he doesn’t have long.
“What?” I ask anyhow, because I know that saying a flat-out no will only cause problems.
Roger looks at the car and swears again. “I just need to tell my Dad something.”
“No can do. You can’t speak to the living.” Roger raises an eyebrow and starts to protest. I point to myself. ”Exception to the rule,” I explain.
“I’ll find a way,” he insists, putting on the same determined expression he used to wear before giving presentation or taking a test in class. He starts walking.
I jog to catch up with him. If he can fly or float or otherwise move faster, he doesn’t know it yet and I’d like to keep it that way. “Roger, wait. Tell me. I’ll pass the message along.”
“It’s personal.” Roger walks on the gravel without making a sound. I catch up with him and grab his shoulder. He jolts, surprised, and shrugs away, but he stops walking. “I’m not ready.”
“I know. I wouldn’t be either. Look, I shouldn’t do this,” I say, and look anxiously back at the wreck, and my own car parked off to the side of the road. “But how about I drive you?”
Roger considers, his fingers fiddling with the elastic keychain attached to his pocket. I’ve seen two dozen ghosts at this point and it still stuns me how detailed they are, down to the littlest things. “Won’t you get in trouble or something?”
I shrug, and try to look unsure. “I’m new at this but…” I force a smile. “No one said I can’t let you see your parents one last time. It should be okay if we’re quick.”
Roger steps toward me. “Are you sure?”
“Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?”
He grins. “That’s the Drea I know.”
Roger follows me to my car. He tries to open the door and frowns as his hand goes right through the handle.
“This is so messed up.” He rakes his fingers through his blond ghost-hair.
“Just go through the door.”
“If I can do that, won’t I sink through the car floor?”
“Let’s find out.”
He doesn’t. He sits in the car and gives me directions to his house, which is painfully close to the scene of the accident. He was almost home when he died. That makes it worse somehow.
When we pull onto his street, he gestures toward a blue two-story, Colonial-style house with white trim and a basketball hoop over the garage. The picture of the ideal family home. I park on the street. The house is silent; his parents are probably still asleep, blissfully unaware of what’s happened.
Roger puts his arm through the car door.
“Wait,” I say. “I should warn you.”
He looks at me expectantly. When I don’t continue, he asks, “About what?”
I grab his non-corporeal hand. I’m able to grip it as if it were solid.
“What–” he starts, but then the coldness spreads out of me. He tries to pull away but I hold tight, and the icy energy that flows from my fingertips keeps him locked in my grasp as it permeates through him.
“But, you promised–”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him, which is the truth. I’m sorry he’s dead and sorry that I tricked him. That all I could give him was a last look at his home, not a last meeting with his parents. Another pang of guilt thrums through me as the chill fills the car. Roger’s ghost absorbs the cold. It turns him a pale shade of blue. And then poof! He vanishes. A cloud of frigid mist hangs in the air where he had been but he’s gone, and soon the cloud dissipates.
I take a deep breath, letting the chill wash over me. It seems cruel that the last thing the departed feel in this world is freezing cold. I hope it’s warmer wherever they end up (just not from warmth of the hellfire variety).
I pull away from the curb and get on the freeway. I hear sirens as I drive above the overpass where Roger’s mangled body remains. There are flashing lights and a fire truck parked below. The exit is blocked off by signs pointing to a detour. Guess someone found him.
When I get home, I pull into the apartment complex’s parking garage and park in my spot.
Jin materializes in the passenger seat. It startles me–it always does–but I regain my composure quickly.
“You did well,” he says. He scratches the black stubble on his chin. “I wasn’t sure you could handle him on your own. The young are so wily.”
“Can you blame them?” The bitterness in my tone is plain.
“I knew he was an acquaintance of yours. But that’s a lesson you have to learn, Andrea. Everyone dies, and when they do, it’s your job to see them to the other side.”
“I know that.”
Jin nods once, curtly. “Good work. We’ll be in touch.” He vanishes as quickly as he arrived.
When I’m sure he’s gone for good and I’m finally alone, I let myself cry.
Stay tuned for a Special Guest’s No Rules Friday next week.