The little boy ran down the street, bare feet slapping loudly on the dirt road. He was laughing and smiling, with a wooden toy sword clutched tightly in one hand. There was to be a Triumph today for the returning legionnaires. He was especially excited because the armored man Mama couldn’t see had said that his father had brought home a surprise for them. The armored man was following after him, passing through the crowd without hesitation.
“Cato, slow. You don’t want to run into someone.”
The boy slowed with a sigh and waited for the man to catch up.
“But I want to see. I heard there were elephants and everything.”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Cato smiled brightly up at the armored man as they walked through the crowd and began to notice. No one else could see the man he spoke to, no one but one of the legionnaires returning home from far Germania. Marcellus smiled when he saw the family Lare standing with his son and his eyes widened when he realized that young Cato could see the spirit as well. If it was coming on him this young, then perhaps, just perhaps, there was a bright future ahead for Cato in the service of the gods. They hadn’t caught it young enough for Marcellus, but they had for Cato, and he would have all the chances he needed to succeed.
There are a few different classifications of dead people, and that’s the problem. Most of them, thank whatever, move on. I don’t know where they go. That’s not my job. My job is the other kinds. The never-were, the lost, the malefactors, and the desperate. That’s what I call them. The never-were are the ones I hate to meet the most. They’re a mixed bag of child spirits, some of them died young and some were just wanted so badly that they couldn’t leave. The lost at least don’t know what they are. They keep going about their lives with no idea that anything’s changed. It can get unnerving with the old ones. They don’t know how the newer buildings work and they end up going through them. The malefactors are pretty much what it says on the tin. They’re bad. If it tries to crawl into someone, kill someone, take over and destroy things, then it’s a malefactor. The scariest though, are the desperate. Malefactors do it because they have to, because evil and destruction is their nature. The desperate want to. They’re trying to find a way to cling to life in any way they can. They ride in other people’s bodies and try to reclaim who they were, they refuse to give up their past. All in all, it’s a bad time. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell what kind you’re dealing with. The lines blur and that’s when things get dangerous. That was probably how I ended up backed into a corner with four children smiling up at me. Their eyes weren’t black when I let them in. I know they weren’t. I know the rules. But today, it looked like the rules were being broken.
“Don’t worry. Our parents are on the way.”
I could hear the front door opening and my pulse hammered in my ears, blotting out the rest of what they said. Slow, deliberate footsteps made their way up my stairs and I turned towards the sound, dreading what I might see. My blood ran cold as I stared into my own eyes. The other me smiled slowly and walked forward, placing a hand on the shoulder of the tallest of the children.
“Now don’t worry, dear, there will be more than enough for all of us to feast.”
This part of the city was always a problem. Somewhere between the cobblestones and the old brownstones, the city had trapped echoes of the past. Granted, Sarah would get that just about anywhere she went, but it was particularly bad here. She staunchly ignored the little bevy of Red Coats arguing with colonists by the old state house. A few more minutes and they’d start shooting again. They did this every day and she just ignored it. It wasn’t like anyone else saw them, anyway. Turning the corner, she changed the music playing through her headphones and stopped to wait for the cross signal. That was when the strange woman grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Please, Miss, you have to help me. There…there was this light and I have no notion what’s happened to me. Everything is…changed. The city…the buildings. I don’t understand. Please, Miss.”
Sarah pulled her headphones off and looked the woman over. The dress was probably 18th century. A colonist then, or an early American. Straddling that line, at least. And not a reenactor. Admittedly, their outfits were very accurate, but there were little details you couldn’t fake. Like handwoven pre-industrial revolution cloth.
“You’re dead. Go into the light or whatever. And leave me alone.”
The young woman gasped and covered her mouth with her small hands.
She looked all around her now, eyes wide and clearly alarmed. Then she started to cry. Sarah sighed. She certainly hadn’t meant to make the ghost-girl cry, but she also just didn’t want to deal with this on a public street again. Pulling her headphones back on, Sarah decided to just ignore the histrionics. Maybe one of the other ghosts would take her in hand, give her the guide book and all that. Then the light changed and Sarah moved to take a step forward. She slammed into the strange girl and they both fell to the ground. With a strangled noise of surprise, Sarah got to her feet and stared at the woman.
“You’re…you’re not… Oh shit.”
Her world was silver and glass and cold as ice. It hadn’t always been like this. Sometimes, she could remember the feeling of the sun on her skin or the warmth of another’s touch. These days, she barely remembered what it was like to have skin. She was a nightmare monster given substance and forced to haunt the slumber party set. She was blood red eyes and terror sealed between silver and glass. She was the specter of midnight and thrice spoken names.
She was a promise in the dark and a crossroads. The words of the game were a key to her prison and the players were her sustenance.
The forms were nearly observed and soon she would feed. Soon, the little sweet sixteen who dared challenge her memory would be nothing more than a statistic and a mystery.
The girl opened her mouth a third time.
They closed the curtains and covered the mirrors, drawing in close and tight and safe. This wasn’t a time for the living, sun in the sky or no. This was one of the four days that belonged to the others, the dead and the never-so, the ones who dwelled in a distant place the living would only see when time had finished marching and their personal hourglass was empty of sand. This was her time. And it had been her time since 1927 and a boy with none of the manners he ought to have. Her hair was still bobbed short and her skirt still swirled around her knees, or at least it did on these days. Any other day and you’d never have picked her out of the crowd of college co-eds. Today, she was free to be herself though and to dance to a record that hadn’t been played anywhere but her mind since that year. Today, she smiled at a pretty girl and held out her hand, promising forever to the newly dead.
They had known about the fire. They had even known the stories the neighborhood kids all seemed to tell about how some night you could still smell the smoke and still see figures at the windows, even when no one lived in the old house. But the Mason family didn’t have a choice. It was what they could afford. The house had been rebuilt, of course. There were all sorts of safety features built in now. Everything was as safe as they could possibly make it. But that did nothing to stop the sounds in the night. Tanya Mason, five years old and exuberantly excited to have her own room for the first time ever, had carefully set her horses out on the new desk that sat in her room as a promise of starting school at the end of the summer. Now, she lay on her bed in the dim light of her night-light and listened. There were the scratches in the walls. Everyone knew about those. Her Daddy said it was probably mice and had laid traps. There were the bangs from the basement. Daddy had called the oil man and he’d said the furnace was just fine. But here was the part that only Tanya knew about: the voices
Every time he looked into the rearview mirror, the same girl was sitting in the back of the bus. It didn’t matter what day, what time, what route. As long as it was the same bus, he would see her sitting back there. He never saw her get off. At the end of the day, he would pull into the depot and park the bus. There she was in the mirror, but when he got off, he was alone. He never knew who she was or why she was there, just that she was.
It was raining. The wipers squeaked as they moved back and forth and back and forth. He didn’t have time to look back to see if she was there, not with how much he had to focus on the road. The rain was getting harder and harder and it was becoming harder and harder to see.
Her voice cut through the air and he slammed his foot on the breaks. The bus screeched to a halt, people jostling by the abrupt stop. The train blasted its horn as it streaked past, just barely in front of them. It wasn’t until that moment that he realized the barriers hadn’t come down. If it hadn’t been for that voice. He looked up into the rearview mirror and saw the girl smiling at him. Then she nodded slowly, confirming that it had been her as she faded away.