This was written for a specific market that didn’t want it, making it pointless to continue writing it. I briefly entertained the idea of doing it anyway as a Gumroad serial (and possibly even recording audio as Storytime with Auntie Ren), but these things are worth the time and effort required only when one has a following larger than mine.
If you’re joining us late, here’s Part 1.
2. Silent Shadow
“You’re not limited to the body you died in,” I advise my close-mouthed companion.
The only statement the boy has made since Drexler brought him into the diner was barfing up a grave’s worth of dirt. We haven’t moved from the spot beside my booth where he put on that performance. I give him high marks for theatrics, but a simple statement of his killer’s name would be more helpful.
Since he’s new to being a ghost, risen only the night before last, I offer him the benefit of my decades of experience. “Your perception of your old self may be comforting right now, but you’ll feel even better if you rewind your appearance to before the filth and mutilation.”
Not to mention how much less unsettling it will be for sensitives who have to look at him.
Kelvin, my favorite intermediary between the living and the lifeless, is twitchy even in his sleep. If I inflict this toothless, tongueless manifestation of a dead ten-year-old on him, I’ll have to find another medium to call an ambulance for him again.
Regardless of whether I’m genuinely concerned about Kelvin’s health or simply dread the prospect of being stuck with some parlor-trick spiritualist if he’s not around, I prefer not to traumatize him more than absolutely necessary.
The boy’s impassive stare rests upon my face as dully as the dirt that covers his. I’d think he doesn’t understand what I’m saying if not for the fact that language barriers don’t exist on this side of death. Between projection and reception, meaning translates itself, as if the only thing standing in the way of communication has always been the physical brain’s objection that it hasn’t learned a foreign tongue.
I continue the ghosting lesson undaunted. If nothing else, he might speak up to tell me to stop talking. “I wasn’t much older than you when I died. I don’t even remember what color my skin was when I was alive, so I couldn’t appear as that girl if I wanted to. I choose a look that suits my mood and slip it on like a change of clothes.”
I even took the form of a man once, briefly. My medium of choice at the time suddenly decided nudity and a pottery wheel would improve her psychic abilities, which made my side of our relationship awkward.
I borrowed my current guise from a woman who walked past the diner. Her purposeful stride moved her in and out of the frame of the window within two seconds, more than enough time to sear her image into my memory. She had straight black hair with the indigo sheen of crow feathers and luminous bronze skin in striking contrast to bright blue eyes. She paired the proud bearing of a queen with the sinuous ease of a seductress. I was stricken with the fanciful notion she was not of this world.
The desire to be her buried its teeth in me. If the devil appeared at that instant to offer a taste of otherworldly power, I wouldn’t have hesitated before making a fool’s bargain.
The devil hunted fools elsewhere that day. Without his intervention, I couldn’t become her, but I could take her face.
The instant I had that thought, she looked directly at me and smiled as if I’d said something wildly amusing.
I’ve since convinced myself I’d already begun my transformation and she thought she glimpsed her reflection in the glass, but in that moment, I felt in the marrow of bones I no longer possess that I’d made a terrible mistake.
Time means little to ghosts, but I’ve looked this way since before I met Kelvin as a boy of five, and he’s in college now. In all those years, the only ill effect of my face-snatching has been certain seers refusing to speak to me because they don’t traffic with “Injuns,” Mexicans, Roma, or whichever group they decide I belong to that they consider beneath them.
I have the luxury of being able to make myself look like a Dutch milkmaid to gain the cooperation of bigots, but I like to know in advance if someone’s going to fail me the first time I need to communicate with someone who has skin darker than unbaked pie crust.
The only power this face gives me is exposing uselessness in those able to see it. The meager nature of the gift may be the source of its original owner’s amusement, but since gifts of any kind are rare post life, I’ll keep it.
I’d consider a temporary trade for the ability to guess why the boy won’t cooperate in solving his own murder. “Do you want the person who did this to you to be caught?”
The mutinously tight set of his lips contradicts his one stiff nod.
I gently squeeze the dirty little hand trapped in mine. “Right now, the nice detective responsible for putting your killer in a cage has no clues to investigate. You’re the only one with information that can help him do his job.”
The boy points to the exit with his free hand and tugs against my grip with the other. The meaning of the pantomime is clear.
Hoping he plans to take me to his murderer’s home address, I dial down my will to stay at the diner until the boy’s will to leave is greater and let him tow me where he wants to go.
Space is as slippery as time for ghosts. So much of life is consumed by the act of moving from one place to the next. What happens upon reaching the destination has to be scheduled around the time it takes to transport the participants to and from the location. Mass transit has the tightest stranglehold on who can do what and when and where.
Ghosts, who ironically have no pressing engagements, simply will themselves where they want to be. The only prerequisite is a memory of the place, during life or after.
I’ve tagged along with countless diner patrons, employees, delivery drivers, and random strangers encountered during those jaunts. I have better coverage of the city and its outlying areas than any wireless carrier. I can’t send myself to Disney World or the sunny beach resort in a TV commercial, but I can be at or near any location within a thirty-mile radius in the time it takes to think of it.
The boy thinks of the cramped, thin-shelled interior of a trailer. It’s cluttered by virtue of being too small to tidily store the trappings of human life, but it’s as clean as anyplace this old and thoroughly used can be. A drawerless dresser stuffed with diapers, toys, and tiny clothes supports a small television tuned to cartoons. A young white guy who barely looks old enough to shave lies asleep on the sofa with a diapered infant napping on his chest.
I announce our arrival with a loud “Hello?” that elicits not so much as a twitch of response from man or baby.
My silent shadow gives me a mystified look.
I shrug. “Whether we’re stealthy or not isn’t up to us. I’d rather know in advance if I’m going to get caught poking around somebody’s house.”
The boy drifts toward the short, narrow hallway connecting the communal area to the lone bedroom at the back of the trailer.
“Is this your family?” I examine the living and see no resemblance to the ghost boy, but he could be a stepchild or foster kid.
Child support from his other parent or the state might be reason enough to put off reporting they misplaced the child they’re paid to keep.
When he doesn’t speak, I follow to see if he’s miming an answer.
He stands by the bathroom door, staring at the frame. The surface has been scrubbed like everything in the trailer, but it will take more than bleach and elbow grease to remove the marker ink soaked deep into the bare wood. Horizontal lines stain the wood at irregular intervals. Several notations are legible between the lowest 3y and the uppermost 8y, written with the same loopy, feminine lettering.
With a level hand, I measure the boy’s current height against the frame. “You kept growing.”
He doesn’t correct my assumption the growth chart is his, which means either someone cared enough to memorialize his growth for five years or he’s determined to tell me nothing.
“Is this a sentimental trip down memory lane or a clue? Were you abducted when you were eight years old? Did the person who wrote this leave you?”
He shifts his blank stare from the marks to me. I’m not a mind reader, so I’m forced to gather what little information the environment has to offer.
He trails behind when I pass through the wall. There’s no number on the outside of the trailer, but 8690 is painted on the battered mailbox by the street.
The boy clutches my forearm with both hands and shakes his head.
“If you brought me here for some reason other than getting the address, now’s the time to spit it out.”
I expect a defiant outpouring of dirt, if nothing else, but he doesn’t open his mouth even for that. He continues shaking his head while I inspect a street sign that identifies our location as Boulder Lane.
An address isn’t much, but it’s more than Drexler knew when I saw him. Maybe he’ll be able to figure out how it relates to our victim.
I lock my fingers around the boy’s wrist like he’s a toddler in danger of running into nonexistent traffic. Cars can’t hurt him now, but there are new threats he hasn’t yet learned to beware of. I can’t risk him getting left behind. “Next stop is my choice.”
A thought transports us from the trailer park to the entryway of a small house on the west side of town. The living room to the right is unoccupied and quiet. To the left, purple velvet drapery panels close off what was once a dining room.
This resident will definitely see me. I call out to warn him he has company. “Knock knock!”
A prolonged sigh comes from behind the curtains. “Come in, Raven.”
I pass through the barrier without disturbing the fabric. A bed, sunken in the middle and neatly covered with a quilt, fills one corner of the room. Beside it stands a dresser, atop which snoozes a ginger-colored cat. A new bookshelf has been added and filled since my last visit, contents organized by size and color because Kelvin is more likely to remember how a book’s spine looks than the title or author’s name. A long, narrow table stretches the length of one wall, home to three computers I don’t have the technological savvy to understand the need for.
The center of the floor is clear so Kelvin can maneuver his wheelchair. He backs away from the keyboard at an angle and rolls forward to face me. He looks like he could play one of those football positions that relies on immovable mass to stop the opposition, but he lacks the underlying muscle of an athlete. He pinches and tugs at a spot at the top of the short afro he’s grown in my absence.
I get down to business before he plucks another bald spot and has to shave his head to hide the damage. “I have information for Drexler.”
“Nice to see you, too. School is going well. Gran’s in good health. Thanks for asking.”
So much for trying to save his hair. “Where are my manners? How selfish of me not to indulge in small talk just because somebody who murders little boys is running around free.”
Biting sarcasm soothes his nerves, or at least reminds him to pretend he’s not nervous. He clasps his fidgeting hands on top of his belly and nods toward the boy lurking behind me. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
“This is Kelvin Deschain, executive communications specialist for the deceased. Kelvin, this is the boy found in the woods the night before last. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but he won’t tell me his name.”
He offers the boy a wry smile. “I shudder to think what Raven’s been calling you.”
“I might pick something salty next time I ask him a question he doesn’t answer, but ‘hey you’ will do for now.”
“And you wonder why he won’t talk to you.”
“I’ve been perfectly pleasant so far.”
The cat lifts its head to squint at that claim. I scratch between its ears, and feline skepticism recedes with a rumbling purr.
Cats are a mystery, simultaneously dwelling among the living and the dead. They may exist in seven additional realms I can’t see, one for each of their rumored lives, all their odd behavior easily explained by forces beyond my perception but well within theirs.
Unprovoked, Kelvin states, “That’s my mom. She died when I was five.”
I return my attention to the boy, who’s looking at a framed photo of a smiling young woman between two of Kelvin’s monitors. “Don’t talk to him until he talks to you.”
“Come on, Rave. He’s just a kid. In case you hadn’t noticed, he’s had a hard time, and getting stuck with the babysitter from hell can’t be helping.”
The boy pats Kelvin’s arm in silent agreement.
If I’m such bad company, I’m happy to leave them to their boys-only club. “Have fun playing charades with him. Let Drexler know what you find out.”
“All right, all right.” Kelvin reaches for the landline on the makeshift desk. “What do you want me to tell him?”
“8690 Boulder Lane. The current occupants might not be relevant, so find the landlord and ask about tenants more than two years back.”
He resumes plucking at his hair while he taps in Drexler’s number. The delay wasn’t just to annoy me. The police rush to judgment when a young black man comes forth with detailed knowledge about a murder. Even an established informant has reason to be wary.
Kelvin closes his eyes and wilts sideways in his chair, his personal sign language for a call going to voicemail. He repeats my exact words preceded by “Raven says” and then fumbles the phone back to its base. He shakes his hands as if the call made them slimy.
Time to leave and let him recuperate from the ordeal. “I’ll be back when I get something else out of the kid. Don’t wait up.”
“You can’t keep calling him ‘the kid.’”
At our current rate of progress, the boy and I might be stuck with each other forever, and I’ll have to refer to him somehow. I could be kind with my name selection, or I could choose something guaranteed to goad a reaction out of him.
Kind really isn’t my style, but neither is being deliberately cruel to newly dead children. It’s possible he can’t remember his name. I don’t know mine, but I was dead at least a decade before Wallis Lovell stumbled across my bones and awakened my ghost. This kid is fresh. He hasn’t had time for his memories to fade.
Unless something other than time steals memories.
Dread settles over my face like a spider web, weightless but inescapable.
The web doesn’t worry me nearly as much as the thing that wove it.
© 2018 Ren Benton. Archived.