Presenting a new original story, “Ghost Hedgehog,” by fantasy author Nina Kiriki Hoffman.
With all the places ghosts could go, in this world and the next, why do they keep hanging around Jack?
It’s like I got spikes on my back, and every ghost who wants to stick around on Earth grabs one and hangs on.
Mrs. Jernigan, my fifth-grade teacher, was the first ghost who hooked on to me.
My best friend Mike and I were sitting in the back corner of the classroom like always, near the window and a little beyond the range of Mrs. Jernigan’s chalk-throwing accuracy. We were sitting behind tall girls, so we could duck, too. The old radiator ticked beside me without letting out much heat, and the fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered. Mrs. Jernigan, a brown mountain behind her desk up front, stood and read to us from an account of the Battle of Concord; her voice droned. Spring was waiting just outside the window, but the day was rainy, so I wasn’t totally longing to be outside the way I usually did.
Three shades lingered in our classroom, but they were really old and faded and easy to ignore. Better than my kindergarten classroom had been, where a kid had died from a fall the year before.
Mike leaned over and muttered, “Gah, Jack. How can she make this boring? It’s about a fight!“
Mrs. Jernigan stopped class by slapping her yardstick down on her desk, a tactic she used often. Her face got red. She laid into Mike for talking, but she left me alone, even though I was the one he’d been talking to. Mike was always the one who got in trouble. My superpower was going unnoticed, a skill I had developed as a reaction to getting noticed too much by the wrong people when I was little.
One minute Mrs. Jernigan was this big woman in brown clothes with a wide-open mouth and all kinds of mean words coming out, and the next she sagged sideways and thumped to the floor.
While all the girls were screaming except Laurie Hartnett, who whipped out her cell phone (strictly forbidden and confiscatable in Mrs. Jernigan’s class) and called 911, and all the guys were going, ”Oh, gross,“ something smoked up out of Mrs. Jernigan’s body and dived right for me. I felt this cold tingle in my back that just got worse.
It wasn’t until I looked in a mirror in the boys’ bathroom later that day that I realized I had a new shadow hanging over me, with Mrs. Jernigan’s ominous outline.
My dad said Mrs. Jernigan died of an excess of meanness—she had taught his fifth-grade class, too, and he still remembered her after he turned into a grown-up.
Two days later, I was in the cafeteria when Mrs. Jernigan’s ghost woke up. Everybody in my class was there, our backpacks at our feet as we sat around three of the long brown tables, having our first group session with a counselor, who was supposed to stop us from being traumatized by Mrs. Jernigan’s death. The beige linoleum stank of disinfectant, and the lunch ladies were busy clanking behind the counter, putting together the vats of stuff they called food.
Mrs. Jernigan woke up and argued with the counselor.
”No, I’m not in a better place,“ she yelled. ”I’m in the same place, except everybody ignores me!“
I hunched my shoulders.
”Except you, Jack. What good is that? You’re such a spineless mouse!“ She paced around, yelling so much I couldn’t hear what the counselor said. Mike told me later I hadn’t missed anything.
Mrs. Jernigan was my constant companion. She hung on to my back and heard all the things people said about her after she died, and she saw and heard everything else that went on in my life, which was terminally embarrassing, but you can’t stop yourself from going to the bathroom or taking a shower. Well, not forever, anyway.
So I had Mrs. Jernigan hanging on to my back, and that was a total nightmare, until the night I had a real nightmare.
Six bony monsters twice my height dragged me toward a hole in the ground that was full of fire and wails and screams. I knew I was going down there to be burnt and tortured, and I was struggling without in any way affecting the monsters, when up popped Mrs. Jernigan, wielding a battle-ax. She looked wild, her hair loose from her bun and boiling around her head, and she was huge, even huger than she’d been in life. She was wearing a wild red dress and long red fingernails. Her eyes glowed with green fire, and her mouth was so red I wondered if she’d been drinking blood.
Whack, whack, whack! Mrs. Jernigan swung her ax. Off went the monsters’ arms. They shrieked and fled down into the burning hole. I lay on the dark ground, monster hands still gripping my arms and legs, and me all scraped up from being dragged over rocks. Mrs. Jernigan dropped the ax and knelt beside me, and all the red on her toned down to orange. ”Jack, are you all right?“ she asked, prying monster hands off me and tossing them over her shoulder.
I caught my breath and managed not to cry. ”Yes, Mrs. Jernigan. Thanks for saving me.“
”Yes, well,“ she said. She sounded grumpy, the way she used to when a kid in her class sassed her. She pulled the last monster hand off me with a jerk that joggled my elbow. ”You better wake up now, or you’ll be late for school.“
Just like that, I woke up in my own bed, looking up at the pterodactyl flying above, and the little biplane next to it, and the zeppelin, and Mince the dragon, and the fuzzy puppet bat that was bigger than the dragon and the pterodactyl put together. Dad had helped me hang all those guys from my ceiling. I usually fell asleep deciding who was fighting who.
I could tell by the light shining sideways on them that it was morning.
I grabbed clothes and headed to the bathroom to pee and dress.
When I took off my pajama shirt, I saw bruises on my arms like bony fingermarks, and just like that all my blood whooshed somewhere like my feet, leaving me dizzy.
”Steady,“ said Mrs. Jernigan, appearing behind me in the mirror. She looked like her teacher self, with a beige sweater over a brown dress, and thick glasses, her hair back in its too-tight bun. Only, instead of her usual glare and scowl, she looked almost . . . nice. ”Steady, Jack.“
”What happened?“ I touched my new bruises. They hurt.
She sat on the edge of the tub. I turned around and looked at her straight. ”You know you’re a special boy,“ she said.
”Yeah, sure,“ I said, sarcastically. Special was my fourteen-year-old sister Amy, who could play the flute like somebody on a record, and got straight As. Me, I did a half-assed job on schoolwork and tried to avoid notice.
”Come on, Jack. You can see things other kids can’t. Like me, for instance. Ever notice how no one else can see or hear me?“
”Of course,“ I said. That had totally bugged me.
I had tried talking to Mike about it after Mrs. Jernigan died. He just laughed at me, and then he started avoiding me.
And all the time, Mrs. Jernigan was nagging at me. ”Do your homework, stand up straight, don’t sass your mother, stop whispering in class. Eat your vegetables. Stop sniffling. Don’t burp like that. It’s disgusting.“ She was a total pain.
”And nobody else sees the shades around us,“ she said now.
”Yeah, yeah,“ I said. I’d been seeing shadows in the air when there was no one to cast them since I was little, before I could even talk about it. And pretty soon after I learned to talk, I learned not to talk about that. Amy shut me down. She kept punching me or telling me to shut up when I mentioned the shadows. She spooked easily, and she was lots bigger and stronger than me.
”You’re special,” Mrs. Jernigan repeated. “More sensitive to the dead, and more susceptible to the entities that drift around the human realm and might do you harm.“
”Great,“ I said. The good news just kept on coming.
”It is great,“ she said, ”if you look at it from the right angle.“
”Which angle is that?“ I asked.
”The angle where you look at me.“
”No offense, Mrs. Jernigan, but looking at you isn’t that fun. Although in the dream, you looked—different.“
”Oh yeah.“ If she hadn’t been helping me, I would have been so scared of her. That combo of screaming red witch and demon. Kind of how I used to see her before I ran into real nightmare creatures.
”I’m not talking about how I look,“ she said, then frowned and adjusted her glasses. ”I’m talking about what I can do for you.“
”Aside from nag me, and watch me when I wish you wouldn’t?“
”That’s right,“ she said.
Before she could say anything else, Amy pounded on the bathroom door. ”Jack! You better get your ass out of there. You’re already late, you little jerk.“
I finished dressing, covering up the evidence of my dream adventure. If I had real bruises, had that hole in the ground been real, too?
I sort of got what Mrs. Jernigan had been saying. I could look in her direction and see someone who had protected me from that.
I picked up my second ghost later that day.
Shades were constant in certain locations, like the two kids who had died in a car crash at the crosswalk on Fourth and Bethel, and the shadows in the alley behind the Blue Goose Tavern, where I guess some homeless guys had died of cold, and shades in the cemetery. Some shades were really faint, and some were fresh and dark.
Some weren’t stuck, but followed people around, or seemed connected to things that moved, like cars and trains.
Some of the shades had colors in them and looked more like people. Those were the ones I’d been ducking since I learned to walk.
Although I remembered one shady fady lady who had hovered near my bed when I was really little and told me all kinds of strange stories I couldn’t understand at first, and later when I could, I realized they were kind of scary, although the kids in the stories sometimes survived. She wouldn’t come in my room if Mom or Dad were there reading me to sleep. Sometimes I preferred my parents’ stories, and sometimes I wanted Vo-Ma’s. She left, though, when I was about four, and I never knew why. Mom didn’t understand what I was crying about.
I was walking past the 7-Eleven on my way home from school, without having finished my discussion with Mrs. Jernigan (we didn’t talk in public, a rule she came up with early on when I got in trouble with Ms. Arpel, Mrs. Jernigan’s replacement, for talking to myself), when my second hedgehog ghost hooked on. I was looking toward the lighted windows of the store, thinking about Coke, thinking I didn’t have enough money to get one, when a man standing just inside the double window doors came out, heading for me, although I didn’t see the doors open or close, and there was no jingle from the bell.
He was a tall guy with short, spiky, bleached blond hair, an eyebrow piercing, black pointy-toed boots, striped black-and-white pants, and a white shirt with a big red stain over his chest. I wasn’t even sure he was dead when he walked over to me, although I couldn’t look away from that bloodstain on his shirt even enough to see what color his eyes were (gray-green, I found out later).
”Hi,“ he said to me. ”You’re strangely attractive.“
Before I could even ponder this, Mrs. Jernigan asked, ”What do you need?“
That was when I knew something strange was happening. She didn’t talk directly to people around us, though she sometimes muttered mean things about them, or mean funny things, which made me laugh for reasons live people didn’t understand and resented.
”My mother doesn’t know what happened to me,“ said the guy. ”She’s been losing her mind in bits, and I couldn’t call anyone to take care of her before this—“ He waved at the stain on his chest, and frowned, only it was the kind of frown with sad eyes that meant he was trying not to cry, an expression I had never seen on a grown man’s face before. ”I don’t—“
”Come,“ said Mrs. Jernigan. She held out her hand, and the blond guy took it. I felt an intense chill on my back, then a kind of snap-suck, then a shudder, and the new guy was part of me.
And also behind me. Mrs. Jernigan had been like that at first, too—stuck behind me so I only saw her in the mirror—but then she got a little looser and could move around near me so I could look her in the face.
”This is Jack Wronski,“ Mrs. Jernigan said, ”and I’m Betty Jernigan.“
”Nice to meet you,“ said the new ghost. ”Roger Quicksilver. Jack, what are you?“
”Weird,“ I said.
”But you— But I— You’re the first live person I’ve seen since this happened who—“
”Jack is special,“ Mrs. Jernigan said.
”Oh, please,“ I said.
”He’ll make some calls for you,“ Mrs. Jernigan said.
Which bugged me. How much more of a pain could she be, telling strangers to hook on to me, and introducing me, and then telling strangers I’d do stuff for them, all without even asking me?
“Jack, would you do that?” Roger asked.
“Yeah, yeah,“ I said. By this time I was home, climbing the steps up to our front porch. I stamped my feet and scraped the bottom of my shoes on the outdoor mat, the one with stiff bristles that got the mud off. ”Now shut up until I get upstairs, okay?“ I unlocked the door and walked in. The foyer was dark, but light came from down the hall toward the kitchen and Mom’s studio. ”I’m home,“ I yelled.
”There’s a snack on the kitchen counter for you,“ Mom yelled back from the studio. I went in and found a plate with carrots and celery and a sliced apple on it. Great. Just what I craved through that long stretch of school after lunch, when I got more and more starving. I grabbed the plate and ran upstairs. I picked up the phone handset off the upstairs hall cradle as I passed. I took everything into the bathroom and closed and locked the door.
Then I stood in front of the mirror so I could see Roger again, a black, white, red, and bleached-blond vision against the petunia-spattered shower curtain. Mrs. Jernigan settled on the closed toilet beside me.
”When did you die?“ I asked Roger. Mrs. Jernigan had taken a couple of days to get color back after her smoky start, and at least that long before she started talking.
”I’m not sure. What’s today?“
”It was Monday when I headed for work and stopped at the Seven-Eleven for coffee. Oh, my poor mother.“ His face twisted again.
I got a notebook and pencil out of my school backpack and set them on the counter. ”Who do I call?“
”Mrs. Rivera, she’s Mom’s caretaker during the day.“ He told me a number and I wrote it down.
”What am I gonna say?“ I asked Mrs. Jernigan.
”What’s your mother’s name?“ Mrs. Jernigan asked Roger.
”Put the phone on speaker,“ Mrs. Jernigan said.
I dialed the number Roger had told me and pressed the speakerphone button. A woman answered.
”Is this Mrs. Rivera?“ I asked.
”Who is this?“
”You don’t know me. I’m a friend of Roger’s.“
”Roger,“ she said, and started crying.
”She knows,“ I mouthed to Roger in the mirror. He nodded.
”Is Roger’s mom okay? Are you taking care of her?“ I asked.
”They took her away. She’s not safe on her own, and I can’t stay with her round the clock,“ she said.
”Has she seen her?“ Roger asked.
”Have you seen her? Is she okay?“ I asked.
”Who are you, again?“ Mrs. Rivera said.
”Do you know where they took her?“ I asked.
”I got caller ID. Your name is Wronski and I have your number, kid. You quit bugging me or I’ll call the phone company and report you.” She hung up.
“Who else can Jack call?” Mrs. Jernigan asked.
Which I guess I could have asked, only I hadn’t thought of it yet, and I was irritated by Mrs. Jernigan again.
“My sister,” said Roger slowly, “except she hasn’t spoken to me since I came out two years ago, and she moved away so she wouldn’t have to take care of Mom. Other than that, I don’t know who.”
“Well, this last call worked out so well,” I said. “Might as well try.”
Roger gave me the number, and I dialed it and switched on the speakerphone. “What’s her name?” I asked as the phone rang.
“Debbie,” said Roger. “Debbie McFarlane.”
“McFarlane residence,” said a woman’s voice. “How may I help you?”
“Is Debbie there?”
“Deborah. Speaking,” she said.
“Hi,” I said, and didn’t know what to say next.
“Tell her you’re Roger’s friend,” said Mrs. Jernigan.
But if she wasn’t speaking to Roger— I shrugged. “I’m a friend of Roger’s,” I said.
“Why are you calling me?” she asked.
I looked at Roger in the mirror, and Mrs. Jernigan on the toilet.
“Did you know Roger’s dead?” I asked before they could give me another idea.
“What?” It came out on a huff of air. Then a kind of strangled choking sound, and then some sobs.
I sagged against the edge of the bathtub and held the phone in my lap, listening to a stranger cry miles away from where I was. I so didn’t know what to do next.
“Roger’s dead, and he’s worried about his mom,” I said at last.
“What?” she said, and sniffled. “Is this a prank call?” Now she was getting mad.
“No,” I said. I swallowed. “I know this sounds weird. I’m sorry. I’m new at this. Roger got shot on Monday at work—”
“I was getting coffee at the store on my way to work,” Roger said.
“Sorry. He stopped in a store to get coffee and got shot. And I see ghosts, and he’s here, and he’s so worried about his mom. Mrs. Rivera wouldn’t tell us where they took her.”
“What?” said Deborah. “What? Are you insane?” Then she hung up.
I punched the Off button on the phone and shrugged at Roger in the mirror. I felt tired and sad. And weirdly alone for someone in a small room with two other people.
Someone pounded on the bathroom door. “Jack, what are you doing in there?” Amy yelled. “What is it with you and the bathroom? Are you on the phone? I need it!”
“I’m sorry, Roger,” I muttered. I unlocked the door and handed the phone to Amy. Leaving the plate of fruit and vegetables on the counter, I grabbed my notebook and backpack and headed for my room, towing my ghosts. What with the nightmare, I hadn’t slept well the night before. I was starving, I had new ghost trouble, and all I wanted was a nap.
“But I—” Roger said, and “Shh,” said Mrs. Jernigan, and then I was on my bed below all my flying things, and I fell asleep. No dreams.
Mom woke me at suppertime. When I sat up, I saw Roger and Mrs. Jernigan sitting on my desk. I lifted one shoulder and then the other. The two spots where I connected to them were still cool and tingly, but now Roger had a longer leash. He still looked sad, but not like he was about to cry.
“We’ve had a nice talk,” Mrs. Jernigan said. “We’ll work something out.”
“Good,” I said, and went downstairs.
I knew they were still with me, but I guess Mrs. Jernigan taught Roger some ghost tricks, like going invisible, and getting farther away from me. They stayed quiet and unseeable during dinner and the two hours of TV Mom and Dad allowed me and Amy if we’d finished our homework, which I hadn’t.
Back in my room at curfew, Mrs. Jernigan appeared long enough to tell me she’d be watching my dreams, and then she faded.
The next day my ghosts kept their distance and talked quietly to each other. When I got home, Mom said I had a phone message from some Deborah, and who was she?
“She’s my friend Roger’s sister,” I said.
“Who’s Roger?” asked Mom.
“A guy I know,” I said.
“Well, she sounded crazy, but she wants you to call her back—if it is you—some kid who called from this number was what she said. It was you, right? She said she thought it was a boy.”
“It was me,” I said.
“What is this about, Jack?” Mom asked.
“I’m trying to do my friend a favor,” I said.
“You’re not pestering this woman, are you?”
“Is she pestering you?”
“Not yet. Mom, could I please call her?”
She stared at me, then handed me the phone and the message slip. I went into the front hall closet, turned on the light, and made the call. Roger and Mrs. Jernigan were present but not visible, so I didn’t know quite how they squished in there among the coats with me. At least Amy wouldn’t get after me for being in the bathroom if I was in the closet.
“Mr. Wronski?” said Deborah when she answered.
“My name’s Jack,” I said.
“How old are you?”
She took a big breath, then said, “Okay, Jack. Sorry I hung up on you yesterday. I called a bunch of places trying to track down Roger, and I found out you were telling the truth. I don’t know why you called me—”
“Roger thought maybe you could find out about his mom, where she is and if she’s okay. It’s, like, haunting him.” Ha ha, I thought. So few people got my idea of a joke. One of the tragedies of my life. Kind of a small one, considering. I switched the phone to speaker and set it on my dad’s rubber boots. Roger and Mrs. Jernigan appeared, him half in the wall and her half in the door. They both bent closer to listen.
“Well, okay,” Deborah said. “Mom’s in Green Haven Rest Home now, and it sounds like they’re taking good care of her. She’s confused about why she’s there, but what can you do. I’m flying out tomorrow to check on that and make arrangements for Roger’s—Roger’s—” She stopped talking and sniffled. “I can’t believe I’m telling some kid these things.
”He’s not the only one you’re talking to, Pidge,“ Roger muttered.
”Roger says I’m not the only one you’re talking to, Pidge,“ I said.
She gasped and dropped the phone. We waited.
”Tell me your address,“ she said.
I looked at Roger and he nodded, so I told Deborah where I lived and she said she’d see me tomorrow.
The next day was Saturday. Mike came over to play basketball in our driveway the way he usually did on weekends, his ball and our net. I was so happy to be doing something normal I played a lot longer than I usually did. I was afraid that as soon as I stopped, I’d get into ghost business. And I was glad Mike was coming over again after the freeze he’d given me when I told him about Mrs. Jernigan’s ghost.
Mike had lunch with me and Mom and Dad—Amy was at the movies—and Roger and Mrs. Jernigan, though he didn’t know that part. They sat on the stove, anyway. The rest of us sat around the kitchen table eating sandwiches we’d put together from ingredients Dad had lined up on the kitchen counter. Dad asked Mike what kind of trouble he’d gotten into lately at school, and Mike had plenty to say, and he made it all funny.
Mrs. Jernigan had said lots of mean things to Mike while she was alive, but she hadn’t managed to wilt him much, whereas, when she had said stuff to me about not being any stupider than I had to be, I crumpled up and stopped raising my hand in class. She’d eased up on the name-calling since she died. A few times when she muttered something about could I find a dumber way to do something, or did I know what an idiot I was being, I stopped talking to her for a while. I had leverage. The silent treatment worked pretty well, since I was the only one she could talk to who heard her.
During lunch, she said Mike was a nicer person than she remembered.
Deborah knocked on the kitchen door while we were eating brownies. She was thin, like Roger, but her hair was dark. She wore gray slacks and a darker gray jacket, and she carried a big purse. She looked like someone who didn’t know how to relax.
Mom let her in without asking too many questions and gave her some brownies, but then Mom said to me, “Deborah’s your friend Roger’s sister? How old is Roger?”
I glanced at Roger. “Twenty-three,” he said, and I repeated it.
“Jack, where did you meet him?” Dad asked.
If they only knew how stupid it was to worry about stranger danger now. I heaved a sigh. “I met him yesterday by the Seven-Eleven. He’s been dead since Monday.”
“Oh, Jack,” Mom said, “not again.”
I knew she’d say that.
“If you’re starting up that dead stuff again, I’m leaving,” Mike said, which was different from what he said when we were at summer camp telling ghost stories around a campfire. Maybe it took burnt marshmallows to make it okay.
Deborah took a notebook and a pen out of her purse. “Can you tell me what kind of memorial service Roger wants?”
I glanced at Roger. I was getting used to the red stain on his shirt. It almost looked like a flower to me now. “I’d like if she’d get the album out of the cupboard under Mom’s TV,” he said, “and find the pictures of when we were little, before Deb told me she’d never speak to me again. If she could look at those, and maybe light a candle, that would be good.”
I repeated all that. When I got to the part about her never speaking to him again, she covered her eyes with her hands and asked me to stop. In a little while, she let me finish. Mom and Dad stared at me. Mike stood up, but he didn’t leave.
“Does he have friends he wants at the service?” Deborah asked.
“That is so sweet,” Roger said. “There are three people who might care. Can you write down their names and phone numbers for me?”
I got a pad of paper and a pencil, wrote down what he said, and handed the paper to his sister. “Did you see your mom yet?” I asked.
“She’s not okay, but she’s being taken care of,” she said.
“Could you take me to see her? Roger did this thing where he’s—” I looked at my parents and Mike. I didn’t want to say this in front of them, but I couldn’t think of a way to talk to Deborah alone. “He’s with me. I don’t think he can get there on his own.”
“Would that be okay, Mrs. Wronski?” Deborah asked.
“None of this is okay,” said Mom.
“Do you really believe the fantasies of a child?” Dad said.
“How did he know my childhood nickname? How does he know—” She stared down at her hands, one of which clutched the piece of paper I had given her. “About our photo album? I do believe.”
“Jack,” said Dad.
I stood up, my ghosts at my back, and studied my father. There were so many things I didn’t understand, things I ran into every day. Shades I saw but mostly didn’t hear, shades who didn’t notice me, and now two ghosts who lived with me. Dream monsters who left real-world bruises.
I didn’t know what had connected me to Roger and Mrs. Jernigan, or whether I’d ever be able to get rid of them. They were closer to me than my parents now. I turned to them. Mrs. Jernigan no longer looked quite so mean, and Roger smiled at me, tired, but maybe happy that his sister was helping him do what he wanted.
I felt like they cared about me.
Mom was fed up with my ghosts. Dad thought I was making it all up. Mike, my best friend since kindergarten, kept saying he’d leave.
“What can I tell you?” I asked my father.
“You didn’t grow out of this—this—” He waved his hand as though shooing away flies.
That so didn’t work with ghosts. It just made your hand cold if you brushed it through them.
“No,” I said. “They’re still around, but I learned not to talk about them. This is different.”
“You’re not taking my son anywhere without me,” Mom said to Deborah.
“Fine by me,” said Deborah.
Mrs. Jernigan got me my third ghost on the way to the nursing home.
Dad was driving. Mom was in the front passenger seat. Deborah sat next to me in the back seat, and Roger was curled up in the cargo space behind me. Mike had finally gone home, though he didn’t seem to want to by the time he left.
We were passing a big stone church with a square tower. It looked like a castle, kind of a mean one. I noticed a man and a girl on the front stairs, but I didn’t see what they were doing.
Mrs. Jernigan, who was sitting halfway out the door next to me, stretched away from me, flying like a witch, except she had no broom. She grabbed the girl from the man. The man howled and grew three times his size and came screaming after Mrs. Jernigan, but she tripled in size, too, and smote him. I mean, her arm turned into a giant wooden-looking club, and she whacked him up the side of the head. He roared in pain and flew away like a popped balloon, deflating as he went.
“Whoa,” said Roger, “how’d she do that?”
She snapped back to me like she was attached by a bungee cord, the girl still in her embrace. A new spot above my right shoulder blade froze. There was that smack-suck feeling, and I knew someone else was part of me.
“Stop that,” I said.
“Stop what?” asked Deborah.
“I was talking to someone else,” I said. “Stop putting more people on me.”
“You didn’t see what he was doing to her,” Mrs. Jernigan said. “With us, these things can go on forever. She might never get away.”
I knew the feeling.
The girl was behind me, in the cargo space of the station wagon with Roger, I guessed. I didn’t know how much space ghosts actually needed. Mrs. Jernigan was half in and half out of the car again, her face on my side of the window, at least, which made it easier for me to hear her. So she didn’t need to take up much room, but she seemed attached to the shape she wore, except when she changed into a monster, or got bigger, or both.
“Forever,” I said.
“You give us the chance to change,” she said.
“How do you know?”
Mom turned around in the front seat and stared at me. “Is this how you’re going to be now, Jack? Talking to yourself?”
“I don’t know.”
Mrs. Jernigan said, “Let’s see how it goes with Roger’s mother.”
“Did Roger tell you who killed him?” Deborah asked.
“No,” I said. He hadn’t mentioned anything about the shooting, really, except what he told me to say on the phone.
“Ask him if he’d know the shooter if he saw them again. Someone should pay,” said Deborah.
“It was an accident,” Roger said, and I repeated it.
“It’s never an accident when someone brings a loaded gun somewhere,” said Dad. “I didn’t get the whole story. Did this happen during a robbery?”
Roger and I said yes.
“Don’t you want justice?” asked Deborah. “Don’t you want to make sure the killer doesn’t kill anyone else?”
“I have no focus there,” Roger said.
I didn’t understand that. I glanced back at him with my eyebrows up, and he said, “I just don’t care about that.“
I repeated it.
”Turn here.“ Deborah pointed, and Dad turned between tall green hedges into a driveway that crossed lawn and went between trees. It took us to a big pale green building that looked kind of like a school, with a big front entrance covered by a porch roof with white columns, but all the windows had grilles over them. A small sign said Green Haven Rest Home by the steps leading up to the front door. We parked in a slot marked Visitor and got out of the car.
Deborah led us into the building.
I hadn’t even gotten a good look at my new ghost. She hadn’t made a sound yet. Roger and Mrs. Jernigan walked beside me. The new passenger followed.
An older woman with big puffy hair an unlikely color of reddish brown sat behind a desk that faced a small waiting room full of overstuffed furniture, dusty plants, and paintings of little kids in long-ago clothes. The air smelled like air freshener, one of those ones that pretends to be a forest but smells more like chemicals. ”May I help you?“ asked the woman, and then, ”Oh, it’s you again, Deborah. Did you want to see your mother again?“
”Yes, please. Is she allowed this many visitors?“
”Of course,“ said the woman. She stood. She was wearing a green-and-brown striped business suit. “Hello. I’m Jackie. There’s the door into the home.” It was in an alcove. She pointed to a sign on the wall with numbers on it, near a touchpad with buttons. “If you could memorize the door code, it will let you out from the other side as well, or if you forget, ask one of the attendants. Just don’t tell the residents, all right?”
“Fine,” said Deborah. She pressed buttons on the keypad. A buzzer sounded and she pulled the door open. We followed her through and she closed it behind her. I looked back. The door had a ledge on it, covered with fake plants. The ledge ran along the wall on both sides of the door so it almost looked like the door wasn’t there, except there was another keypad on this side.
Mom and Dad and I followed Deborah down a green carpeted hall to the right. There were a few scattered armchairs along the right wall with old people sitting in them, and doors opening off the hall with nameplates on them. Some of the doors were half-open. I saw hospital beds and houseplants, framed photographs, a few frail, white-haired people in bed watching little TVs. The smell was Lysol and pee.
There were shades everywhere.
Some of them were in bed with the living people. Some sat in chairs, half in and half out of the old men and ladies. Some drifted up the hall ahead of us or passed through us going the other way. They barely raised a chill in me, and most of them were pretty faded.
Deborah stopped at a door that had a handwritten sign taped to it: HESTER McFARLANE. She knocked and walked in. We followed.
“Mom?” Roger said, rushing to the bed.
That was when things got really weird.
The woman in the bed was holding some paper napkins. She had torn them in half, and in half again. She stacked the ragged-edged pieces on top of each other, scattered them, and stacked them. She stared at the pieces in her lap.
“Mom,” said Deborah. The woman didn’t look up.
The shade sitting beside her did, though. A colored shade who looked a lot like the live woman. She smiled. She didn’t look as old as her living twin, and her smile was really nice. “Debbie? Roger!” she cried.
“Mom?” said Roger.
“Oh, Roger,” she said. “What happened to you?” She stared at the stain on his chest.
“Mom? What happened to you?” Roger asked.
The shade stood up. She gazed down at the woman playing with little squares of paper and smiled, patted the woman’s curly white hair. “I got old, sweetie.” She glanced at him. A tear ran down her cheek. “I guess that’s not going to happen to you. I’m so sorry, Roger.”
“Are you okay?” he asked. He put his hand on her cheek, and she leaned into it and gave him a sideways smile.
“One way and another,” she said.
Deborah walked right through both of them and gently stroked the older woman’s shoulder. “Mom?” she said.
The living woman peered up and smiled. Her eyes looked fuzzy and out of focus. “Is it wisteria?” she asked. “They keep putting the limo in a brown package. I don’t like that.”
“Oh, Mom.” Deborah gripped her shoulder and started to cry. Her shoulders shook, but she didn’t make much noise.
“There’s not a lot of me left in there,” said the shadow mother. “Things are unraveling.” She kissed Roger on the cheek. “Thank you for taking such good care of me. I’ll be all right. You go on ahead, now, sweetie. I’ll catch up.”
Roger hugged her and looked back at me. “Thanks, Jack.” He twisted and spun from a person-looking ghost into streaks of woven light, and then he vanished.
Warmth stroked up my spine.
“Did something— I almost felt— What happened, Jack?” Deborah asked.
I swallowed. My throat felt thick. “Roger left.”
“Tell Pidge I can stay here,” said the shadow mother. “The nurses are nice.”
I opened and closed my hands, clenched them into fists so tight it hurt.
Mom put her hand on my shoulder. “Jack, are you all right?” she asked.
I swallowed again, and said, “Yeah, I guess.”
“Tell the girl, Jack,” said Mrs. Jernigan. She patted my other shoulder.
I opened my hands and stared down at them. I had little fingernail crescent marks in my palms, but they faded fast. My stomach was churning. I was thinking: Mrs. Jernigan was right. Things could change.
If I told Deborah what her mom said—
Hell. I was already a freak.
I stared at the carpet. It was pondwater green, with a few splotchy stains here and there. “Your mom says she can stay here. The nurses are nice,” I muttered.
“But Jack,” said Mom. “How could you know— She’s not—”
Deborah slowly lowered herself to sit on the bed next to her mom. She took her mom’s hand, scattering the torn pieces of napkin. Her mom moaned, slipped her hand out of Deborah’s, and gathered up the napkin scraps.
“Jack,” Deborah whispered.
The shadow mother knelt beside Deborah. “Tell her she doesn’t have to hold on to the beads now that the string has broken,” she said. “Nobody could keep track of them all.”
I cleared my throat and said that, and Deborah burst into noisy sobs and ran out of the room.
There was a kind of crushing in my chest. I had trouble getting breath.
“Jack, what the hell are you talking about?” Dad asked.
“I don’t know,” I wheezed.
“Straighten up, Jack.” Mrs. Jernigan whacked me on the back.
I stumbled, stared over my shoulder at her. How had she done that?
“Shoulders back, chest out. Think calming thoughts.” Her brown dress and sweater and shoes looked yellower, and her hair was loose again, swirling around her head. “Upsy daisy.” She grabbed my shoulders and pulled me up straight, and darned if I didn’t start breathing easier, even though her fingers were freezing. “You did a fine job.”
“But—” I pointed toward the door where Deborah had disappeared.
“She’ll be all right,” said Deborah’s shadow mom. The live mom was crooning and playing with the paper scraps again. The shadow mom sat beside her, smiling.
I looked up at my mom. “Can we go home now?”
“You’re ready for that?” Mom asked.
I nodded. She hugged me tight, and I let her. It felt good.
“Good-bye, Mrs. McFarlane,” Mom said. The live woman on the bed didn’t respond. The shadow woman smiled and waved.
Dad put his arm around Mom, Mom put her arm around me, and we all left.
Deborah was sitting on a bench in the sunshine outside. She followed us to the car and climbed into the back seat next to me without saying anything. Mrs. Jernigan sat in the cargo space and spoke softly to my third ghost, whom I still hadn’t seen. I leaned back and fell asleep.
Amy was home from the movies when we pulled into the driveway. She ran outside to meet us, waving Mom’s note as we climbed out of the car. “What were you doing at a nursing home?” She quieted when she noticed Deborah. “Sorry. Didn’t know we had company.”
Deborah ignored her. “It was when I was a little kid,” she said to me. “Mom had this long necklace of beautiful green beads. Sometimes she let me wear it. One day the string broke because I pulled too hard, and the beads fell all over the floor, and I couldn’t catch them. They bounced and rolled. I couldn’t— I couldn’t fix it. She said it was okay.” She fiddled with a zipper on her purse, and said, “I’ll call you and let you know about Roger’s memorial service, okay?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Thanks.” She kissed me on the ear, ran to her car, and drove away.
“What a day,” said Dad.
“What happened? What happened? What happened?” Amy yelled, dancing around us.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” I did an end run around my sister and rushed upstairs. I didn’t want to be around when Amy found out I was talking to ghosts again. She was still bigger than me and packed quite a punch.
And anyway, I had to find out what my new ghost looked like.
“This is Christie,” Mrs. Jernigan told me. I stared in the mirror at the pale girl behind me. She was wearing a light blue dress and blue shoes that looked like ballet slippers. She had large dark eyes, long, wavy brown hair, and shadowy finger marks around her neck. She tilted her head and smiled at me.
I swallowed. I was never going to drink anything again. How could I pee with Christie around?
“We had time to talk while you slept in the car,” Mrs. Jernigan said. “She needs a different kind of help, the kind you can only give in dreams.”
I fingered the bruises on my upper arms and shivered.
“Don’t worry. I’ll come with you,” said Mrs. Jernigan. “There are things I can teach you.”
“Like where to find a battle-ax?”
“Lesson one,” she said.
“Ghost Hedgehog” copyright © 2011 Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Art copyright © 2011 Goni Montes