chapters 24, 25, 26.

24.

Mom called to tell me that Travis had recorded his findings before returning to Texas.  After examining the car in the impound yard, he concluded that someone had loosened the lug nuts on the wheel of Eva’s car.  The assumption Travis made was that my father had not tightened them down properly when he’d replaced her brakes, since we didn’t know of anyone else who had done work on her car during the summer.

My father was devastated.

Mom said that he had taken to coming home very late from work and had been spending a lot of time in his workshop.

“Tell him I love him, okay?” I said.

“Okay.”

We were silent for a few minutes.  There wasn’t anything I could say that could make things better for Dad.  I didn’t really understand how he could possibly have made a mistake that had resulted in the horror and pain of Eva’s death.  Whenever I tried to understand or put meaning on the idea that Eva might have died as a result of an error on the part of my father, my brain short-circuited.  And I was overcome by the senselessness of it.  All there was to feel was helpless resignation over something I couldn’t understand much less change.  Impossible, after all of those years of working on our family’s cars.  It just couldn’t be.

Nothing to do.  Poor Dad.

“Mom, I have a question.”

“Sure, honey,” she said, sounding solicitous.

“Do you remember me leaving my shell ring in Eva’s casket at the wake?”

“Yes, why?” she asked, a little note of concern creeping into her voice.

“Umm, just trying to remember, that’s all,” I said, looking down at the ring on my finger.

“Yes, Eva was wearing hers and you placed your own next to her in the casket when we kneeled down next to her body.  I’m surprised you don’t remember, honey,” she said.

“I do now, Mom.  Thanks.”

A wave of relief had washed over me with Mom’s confirmation that I had in fact left the ring in Eva’s casket.  It was the proof I needed.  The evidence I wasn’t crazy or alone.  Not really.  But as I made my way down the big, impersonal hall of our dormitory hall toward my room I did feel alone.  Really alone.  And I wanted to make the feeling go away.

I thought about Jen.  I wanted to tell her Travis’ findings, about the horrible party.  How bad I felt.  About Eva’s appearances.  I needed to talk to a friend.

I went to our room but Gretchen was there.  Downstairs on the first floor of Randall Hall there was a bank of old payphones, mercifully situated inside of little booths with doors.  I could have a private conversation there.

“Hello?”  It was so good to hear her sharp, clear voice on the other end of the line.

“Jen.  It’s me.”

“Hey sweetie-pie.  How’s it going up there?” she asked.

“Like hell.”

“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice dropping to a worried tone.

“Oh, what isn’t going on?” I asked, my voice cracking.  I fought the tears back.      “I nearly got gang raped at a party the other night.  Marc had to come and drag my pathetic ass out of there.  And Travis has concluded that my father is probably to blame for Eva’s accident, because he’s the only person we know of that did any work on her car in the weeks and months leading up to the accident.”

There was an audible, sharp intake of breath, before Jen answered.  “Okay, try not to cry.”

I nodded, my chest heaving up and down.  I covered the receiver.

“Let’s have one thing at a time.  The party.  What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, it was a fraternity party.  Just about every girl on the second floor of the dormitory went to this thing.  It was at the Zeta house.  Somebody put something in a beer that I drank, and I wound up upstairs in one of the bedrooms.  I couldn’t open my eyes, talk, anything.  I couldn’t move.  I fell asleep, or passed out or something.  I came to because I heard Marc yelling and I thought he was yelling at me.  I couldn’t open my eyes, couldn’t talk.  He wound up carrying me out of there and across campus,” I paused there, mortified at both the memory and the story.

“It was horrible.  I can’t believe I was so stupid.  I knew something was up when they gave me the beer.  It all just seemed so …” I searched for a word, “premeditated,” I said.

“Wow.” Jen said, whistling.

“I’m glad you’re okay, little one.  I’m glad he got you out of there in time.  Thank him for me, will you?” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, wiping at my eyes with my sleeve.

“Okay, but you’re okay.  That’s what’s important.  They didn’t get to you, right?”

“No,” I said, thinking it was no thanks to me.

“That’s what’s important.  It’s over, you’re okay.”  She was matter-of-fact, which helped calm me down.  I stopped crying.

“Not to rush you here, but the next thing, then, Travis.  What’s happening there?” she asked.

I told her what Travis had concluded.

“You’re kidding.”

“I wish I was kidding, Jen.  It doesn’t seem possible.  Dad’s always so careful, so thorough.  And one of our neighbors was here that day.  He came by to borrow one of Dad’s tools when he saw him in the driveway working on her car.  Apparently, he stayed and talked while Dad worked.  He, Mr. O’Brien, is saying he’s prepared to testify that he saw Dad tighten the lug nuts down, which is a help.  But no one else touched the car that we know of.  It’s all so unbelievable,” my voice trailed off.

“No kidding.  It is bizarre.  How’s your Dad taking it?”

“Bad.  He’s really distant.  Mom says he’s not around much and he’s lost weight.”  I sighed, the weight of my sadness lying on my chest and overpowering me.  How was I going to get through this? I wondered.

“And there’s something else.” I paused, wondering if I should tell her about the ghost.  Bad enough Marc thought I was losing my mind.  I wasn’t sure I wanted them to talk and agree to have me hospitalized.  I felt sure my parents would force me to withdraw from school and see a shrink if I told them about Eva’s ghostly visits.  I considered.

Celeste first.  I’d tell her about that.

“Okay,” she said.

“I saw Celeste.  She didn’t know anything about the suit her father filed against us.”

“Wow,” she was incredulous.  “How can that be?  Celeste is so on the ball. How could she not know?”

“I have absolutely no idea.  It’s so weird.  It was weird to have to tell her.  I’m not even sure she believed me.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously,” I said. “And Mom said they’ve scheduled a deposition for November, and I’m going to have to be present for it. The case won’t settle out of court until that’s done, I guess.”

“Oh, the joy,” she said, sounding anything but joyful.  “Where will that be?  In court?”

“No, the lawyer’s office.”

“Oh,” she said.

There was silence for a few moments.

“There’s something else I need to tell you.  It’s heavy and it’s bizarre.  Are you sitting?”

“There’s more?”

“Yeah.  Are you sitting?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve been seeing a ghost.”

Silence on the line.  Then I heard her breathe in sharply.  “I’ve been seeing Eva’s ghost,” I said, and waited for her to answer me.

“A ghost,” she finally said, her voice thick with sarcasm and disbelief.

“Yes, a ghost.”

“What kind of ghost?” she asked.

“A gray one,” I answered, unable to resist returning a little of her sarcasm.

“Don’t be wise.”

“Eva’s ghost,” I said.

“Like Eva’s spirit?  Before or after the party?  Does it talk to you?”

“Some.  She gave me back the shell ring I left in the casket at the wake.  Before the party. I saw her before the party. This is not an after-affect of the drugs.” I said, guessing where she was going with the question.

“She gave you something? What?” she asked.

“The ring she bought for me at the beach last summer.  There were two friendship rings.  I left mine in her casket at the wake.  The ghost gave it to me the other night,” I said, trying to sound as deliberate and lucid as I could.  I had to admit, though, that I did sound like I was losing my mind.  Even to myself.

“You weren’t taking anything?” she asked.  “What do you think they gave you at the party?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Jen.  Whatever it was I didn’t taste it.  And no.  I wasn’t taking anything the night I saw her.  I was alone that night.  And the first time she appeared was before the party, anyway.” I finished, aggravated.

She didn’t answer me.

“I know this sounds completely unseated.  But she’s appeared twice.  Once at the boat landing near my house before I left for school and once in my dorm room during the night.”  I paused to consider my argument for another moment.  “You know about the ghost Sue and I saw, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, well?  I can produce the ring and a witness that I left it in Eva’s casket the night of the wake.”

“Okay, Rowan.  Let me see if I understand this.  You’ve seen the ghost of Eva Verdano twice.  She left you a physical object, a ring.  Have I got that right?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Does anyone else know about this?”

“Marc.”

She didn’t speak for a little while.  Presumably she was thinking.  Finally, she said, “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt because if you’re crazy then I probably am too, and besides you’ve been psychic before.  But this is insane and I’ve gotta tell you I don’t like the sound of it.”

“I know.”

“Did the ghost say anything to you?” she asked.

“Yes.  She said ‘Look what he did,’ but I don’t know who ‘he’ is,” I answered as matter-of-factly as I could.

She whistled.  “Jesus H. Christ,” she said, pausing for a moment.  Then, “What do you think she meant?”

“I don’t know.  I hope I’ll find out.”

“Yeah,” Jen said, sounding far off as she thought that over.

“Maybe I’ll call Celeste and see what’s going on.  We haven’t talked since everyone left for school.  I could just say I’m calling to see how she’s doing,” Jen said.  That sounded about right.  Jen was definitely about action.  Fixing things.  Doing things.  Not one to sit still and contemplate or overly analyze anything.

“I said I’d be in touch when I saw her at the funeral.  Maybe she’s talked to her Dad,” she said.

“If you turn anything up, call me?” I asked, the feeling of being very alone creeping back over me.

“You bet.  Say hi to your parents for me and keep your chin up. I’m coming home next weekend.  Are you going to be there?”

“If Marc’s going back.  Otherwise I haven’t got a ride.”

“Stay out of the fraternity houses, will you?  I’ll call you.”

25.

The following Friday Celeste paid me a visit.

“I’m taking you out to lunch,” she said, walking into my room without waiting to be invited.  “We need to talk.”

As usual, she looked beautiful.  She wore blue jeans and a soft black leather jacket.  The first chill of fall was in the air.  I took my own coat, a secondhand brown suede number that had been miraculously preserved from the 70s, complete with lapels.         We went out.

“Eva used to say you were psychic,” she began when we’d left the dormitory.

“Yeah?” I asked, not sure where she was going with this.

“Yeah,” she sounded out of breath.  We were walking toward Main Street.  I wondered where she was taking me.   “How about Nick’s Pizza?” she asked.

“Sure.  Anything beats the dining hall,” I said. We walked for a few minutes in silence before she said anything else.

“Rowan, have you seen anything strange lately?  Like … ” she paused, “oh, I don’t know, anything strange?”

She sounded nervous.  I looked at her and noticed that she looked nervous, too.  She was fidgeting with the buttons of her coat, which was buttoned.  “Strange?  Like strange how?” I asked, thankful to be on the offensive for a change.

“Like weird strange.  Unbelievable.  Cuckoo.  Like over-the-top.” We were walking in time, our strides matching.  There weren’t a lot of people on the sidewalk, which made it easy to talk and walk together.  She looked at me for a moment.  “Like ghosts,” she said, seeming to nearly choke the last word out.

So that was it.  She’d seen Eva.  I smiled, despite myself.

“Like ghosts,” I said, pausing dramatically.  “You’re seeing ghosts, Celeste?” I asked, trying to sound solicitous.   I couldn’t resist a little levity at my friend’s expense.  Unkind, perhaps.

“Yeah.  I think so.   I think I might have seen Eva’s ghost.  Or something.  Maybe not.  Maybe I imagined it.” She was looking at the ground as she walked, clearly not sure she should have told me.  We had fallen out of stride.

“If you’re asking if I’ve seen Eva’s ghost I will have to tell you that I have,” I said, knowing it would be a relief to her to know she wasn’t alone in her unlikely and decidedly unusual perception.  It wasn’t the first psychic experience I’d ever had, and I had the ring.  Something solid to prove I had actually seen Eva.  Eva’s older sister was very level-headed, unassuming, and known to be very critical at times.  This would be difficult for her.

She sighed loudly.  It was almost a groan.

“Thank God,” she said.  “I thought I was coming completely unhinged,” she said, giving me a grateful smile.

“Well, you’re not the only one who has seen the ghost, but I can’t speak for your mental state,” I said with a smile.  She looked sideways at me and I realized she hadn’t understood I was teasing her.

“Joke, Celeste.  A joke!”  I said, trying to lighten the mood. While it may have been half-baked, humor was my way of trying to reconnect with her.  The lawsuit had driven a hard cold divider between us, at a time when we really needed to be friends.  Now it seemed our shared experience of the ghost might help us overcome that.

“How many times have you seen her?” I asked, noticing we’d fallen back into step.

“Twice.  Once on the night of the funeral.  She appeared next to my bed during the night.  I thought I had imagined it.  But then I saw her again last night.  She was standing beside my bed again.”  She broke off, staring ahead, her mouth open in a way that suggested shock.  “It was so disturbing.  She seemed so sad, so angry, so haunted.”

Angry?  That word surprised me.  Haunted I could square with.  More normal, if such a word could be used under the circumstances.  But, haunted?

“Yes, well it was a ghost after all,” I said this in order to offer a response in the absence of anything helpful to say.  I was trying to absorb what she’d said.  Trying to decide if Eva had been angry when I’d seen her.  I didn’t think so.  Walking with Celeste, I could sense something else was bothering her, but I didn’t know what it was.  She looked pale and tired.  I wondered if she was okay.  She didn’t seem okay.

“I imagine if we’ve both seen her she must have something to say.  The ghost said everything wasn’t all right, which, to me, is the big clue.  But I don’t remember thinking she seemed angry … ”  I broke off, wanting to avoid bringing up the accident.  Our fathers were locked in a legal battle over the question of blame and the last thing I wanted to do was to introduce the same struggle between Celeste and me.

“Yes,” she murmured.  “She seemed angry.”  Her voice was distant.  It didn’t seem like a good time to mention the ring Eva’s ghost had left with me.  It seemed safe to assume that Celeste hadn’t received any gifts.  I wasn’t sure whether it would be upsetting to Celeste to hear her sister had left me the ring, or a relief.  Rather than talk about how I had experienced Eva, I felt safer trying to learn more about how she had seemed to Celeste.

“So she appeared by your bed here.  And the time before that?”

She nodded. “At home.  I had gone into her room one night,” she said, looking at me apologetically.  As if she shouldn’t have been in Eva’s room.  “I thought I’d heard her voice calling me.  Strange, huh?  So I went and sat in her room.  It was very eerie.  All of her things there, untouched, as if she was coming home again.  She’d started a pile of things to bring to school.  Clothes, mostly.”

“Anyway, that was when I saw her.  In her room.  I thought I was going crazy,”  she finished awkwardly as she opened the heavy wooden door to Nick’s Pizza.

The name suggested a pizzeria with formica booths, but this place was nothing of the sort.  It was a restaurant, where you could sit in a real seat at a real table made of real wood.  There were pitchers of beer and a hostess.  Though it was not expensive, it was way more than I could afford on my meager allowance.

We waited for the hostess to come back to the front of the restaurant and seat us.              When the hostess left us at our table, Celeste continued. “Have you seen these sorts of things before?  I never thought they were real.” Her expression was incredulous, and her voice carried a slightly conspiratorial tone.  As if we were telling secrets.  She paused, her eyebrows furrowing as she contemplated the possibility.

After all, perhaps ghosts weren’t real.

Then she asked, “What did she look like to you?  What did she say?  Do?”  Celeste suddenly seemed very unhappy.  There was something else.  Something she wasn’t telling me.  Something that was bothering her. “Was she angry?  Did she seem angry to you?” she demanded.

I decided to answer her first question.  “Yes, I once saw a ghost.  It was about a year ago, I was in a car with my girlfriend Sue. We were on our way to a party one Friday night.  It was fall.  We were in her mother’s Subaru and we were driving through Auburn.”  Auburn was a tiny little farm town with one public building and no streetlights that I knew of.  Being a small town in southern New Hampshire, it was fully of hilly, windy, tree-lined streets.

“We came down a hill and around a bend and we both saw a man standing on the edge of the road with his dog.  He was tall and thin, and his dog was a German shepherd.  They both stood right at the edge of the road; so close, in fact, that we had to swerve to miss them.  That was strange, of course. But what was even stranger was that both of them, the man and his dog, were gray.  Completely gray.  And almost transparent.  Though we could make their images out very clearly,” I paused, remembering the surreal image.

Continuing, I recounted the story with a chill in my spine.  “Sue said ‘Did you see that?’ and of course I had, so I said ‘yes’.  We drove in silence for what had to be less than another thirty seconds before the same vision appeared by the road again, but this time he was on the left.  Because the ghosts appeared on the other side of the street, we were not in danger of hitting them.  But as we were rounding the bend to the right, the headlights swung directly onto them, and I saw the eyes of the man clearly.  He was staring right at us, as if he could see into the car past our headlights. You can imagine headlights would have bothered the eyes of a person walking in the dark, but he was unaffected.  I remember his gaze was very penetrating and frightening.”  I paused, my heart leaping a little at the memory and looking at Celeste to see how she was responding to the story.  She was listening carefully, her eyes slightly narrowed and riveted on me.

Deciding she wanted me to continue, I said, “It completely freaked both of us out.  Sue said ‘I’m not getting out of this car.  We’re going home right now!  And we’re not going back the way we came!’”

I smiled at the memory of Sue.  In retrospect, her reaction was funny.  Coming back to the table, I looked at Celeste.  She was still staring at me, absorbed.  I realized that this discussion would represent a significant shift in her thinking, particularly because Celeste was a science student.

“Anyway, Sue knew another way home so we took a different road through Auburn.  We didn’t see the ghost again.  That’s the only other ghost I’ve seen.  Besides Eva,” I finished.

Celeste sat there looking distracted.  Her forehead was creased.  “So I didn’t imagine it,” she said.             She nodded to herself and then sat there quietly, a shadow passing behind her eyes.  She seemed to be thinking or remembering something as she looked at me.  Her expression was a million miles away.

Then she suddenly seemed to go cold.

“Well, I think this is different from your experience on the road.  Eva was my sister, not a random man with a dog,” she said, her voice rising.  “She was so altered, so full of torment, so scary.  Eva!  Scary,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.  “Rowan, my sister is dead.  How can it be?  How can this be?”  She put her face in her hands.

“I realize this is much more personal than my experience of a man beside the road,” I said, “But you did ask if I’d seen any other ghosts.”  I didn’t know how to talk to her about the emotional aspect of seeing Eva’s angry ghost.  There was nothing comforting to say, nothing that could remove the image she undoubtedly held, as I did, of the apparition.  It must be so much more intense for a sister than for a friend, I realized.

I tried to imagine Kori appearing as a ghost.  I couldn’t.

I felt sorry for Celeste.

The waitress came and greeted us, smiling at Celeste.  Celeste returned the smile, ordering a pitcher of beer and a cheese pizza.  We were both under age and the waitress didn’t card her.  I sat watching Celeste and wondering how she was getting away with ordering the beer.  She seemed nervous.  She was fiddling with her silverware, setting it down, picking it up, arranging it on either side of her.

“How did you do that?”  I asked, absolutely incredulous.

“Oh, she’s a friend,” Celeste said, her tone dismissive.

“Really?  She didn’t say hello,” I said.

“Right, well if she’s going to serve a minor it’s probably best not to make it too obvious, wouldn’t you think?” she asked, looking at me like I was stupid.  I was a freshman, which was a close second to being stupid.  I obviously didn’t know how things worked around here yet.

“Okay.  Well, about Eva and how she appeared,” I said. Celeste was now twirling the salt and pepper shakers as I spoke, “She appeared near my house one night and she seemed upset.  She seemed to want to say something,” I broke off, deliberately not mentioning the ghost’s words: “Look what he did!”

“The second time — I’ve seen her twice, too — was in my dorm room.  One night I woke up and she was standing by my bed.  Both times she was in the clothes I last saw her in.  Dressed to go to work at the lake.  Shorts and her lifeguard tank top,” I said, pausing at the memory.

“Did she say or do anything?” Celeste asked.

“No,” I lied.  I didn’t want to tell her about the ring because my own image of comfort seemed unfair held up against the torment Celeste was experiencing over Eva’s appearance to her.

“Something is wrong, Rowan.  I thought she was going to hurt me.  I was so freaked out,” Celeste said, teardrops and fear glistening in her eyes.  “Can a ghost do that?  Hurt a person?” she asked.

I pondered.  “I would imagine so, yes.  They can shock a person, scare a person.  Make physical things happen?  I’ve read stories like that,” I said.  “But I don’t think Eva would ever hurt you, Celeste.  You are her sister.  She loves you.”

I looked at her, into her eyes, which were as big as saucers.

“I’m sorry to ask an indelicate question, Celeste, but is something else bothering you?  What was it about the ghost that scared you?  Just her appearance?  Something she said?”

“No.  She didn’t say anything,” she answered faintly. She seemed distracted, her voice’s resolution and intention faded, somehow.  I wondered if she was telling me the truth.  “She made the room very cold,” she added, almost whispering, the afterthought a revelation in itself.

“Yes, I felt the cold both times I saw her,” I said, remembering.  “Celeste, why would she be scary?” I repeated, feeling sure now that Eva was appearing for some reason other than an attachment to the life she’d lost.  “Just because she was a ghost or was it something about her appearance?”

“I don’t know,” Celeste said, avoiding my eyes.

She was lying.

I wondered what Celeste wouldn’t tell me.  What was she hiding?

Then Celeste came alive for a moment, realizing she wanted to share something.  She met my eyes.  “But she did say something. She said ‘It’s not over.’”

That struck a cord.

“Yes!  She said that same thing to me!” I said, just remembering her words from her appearance at boat launch.  “But what’s not over?”

Celeste continued to avoid my eyes.  “I can’t imagine,” she said.  But something in her tone made me think that she could imagine very well what it meant.  If she was trying to hide something, it was odd that she had come looking for me, odd that she had chosen to share so much about her experience of the apparition.  I wondered if Celeste had anyone else to talk to, confide this strange story in.  One other person, perhaps.

Her sister, Venus.

“Have you had a chance to talk to your Dad?” I asked.

Again, she avoided my eyes.  “No, I haven’t.  I called, but he wasn’t around.”

Our beer came.

“I saw Venus at a party the other night,” I said, lifting my voice to sound perky.

Celeste looked surprised.  “At a party?  Where?”

“At the Zeta house,” I said, drinking some of my beer.  The taste reminded me of the party and my distaste for beer.

“Oh?  Well, sometimes she goes to those.  Did you talk to her?”

“No.  She didn’t see me.  I tried to follow her, but she disappeared and I didn’t see her after that,” I said, hoping she might be able to shed some light on the mystery of Venus’ disappearance behind the locked door.  But she didn’t answer or comment.

“It was some party,” I offered.

But the party didn’t capture her interest.  She changed the subject back to the ghost.  “So do you think we’ll be seeing the ghost again?” she asked.

“Seems possible.  She seems to have something to say, doesn’t she?” I asked, watching her for a reaction.

Our pizza came.

“I don’t know, does she?” she answered.  Her tone was almost defensive.  Interesting, I thought, sighing.   I didn’t want to speculate about something so emotional, so improbable, so bizarre, over lunch at Nick’s Pizza with Celeste.  For now it was clear she wasn’t going to tell me whatever she was withholding and that, I felt, was the key.

“Maybe.  I guess time will tell.”

26.

After Celeste left me I went back to my room to do some homework.  I looked scornfully at my Probability and Statistics book, opting instead to work on a writing assignment.  But I couldn’t concentrate.  I kept thinking about lunch, and Celeste’s experience with Eva’s ghost.

I couldn’t square with the image of Eva threatening Celeste.  It was so hard to imagine her connected with anything violent.  Perhaps Celeste’s fear was unfounded.  What did Eva want?  Why was she appearing?

I sat at my desk not doing my homework.  Two hours passed that way, and I was still sitting there not doing my homework when Marc came by.

“Hi,” he said, coming in and standing behind me.

My head was in my hands, the paper in front of me still blank.

“How long have you been here?” he asked, sounding a little concerned.

“Oh, I don’t know.  A while,” I answered, looking up at him.  My eyes felt tired, my head was hurting.  He put his hands on my shoulders, which I realized were hunched up around my ears.

“C’mon.  Come with me.  You need a change of scenery.  It’s Friday night.  Let’s go into Portsmouth and have a walk or something,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, grateful for being saved from myself.  Grateful for being saved from the Zeta brothers.  Just plain grateful he was there.

We took the bus to Portsmouth, sitting quietly together in our seats.  The bus was nearly empty, so we had a good size section of it to ourselves.  We sat sideways, me leaning on his chest, and his arm around me.  He seemed to know something was up, because he didn’t say anything.

“I saw Celeste today,” I said.

“Oh, yeah? How is she?” he asked, his voice full of its usual smooth warmth.

“Well, I’d say she’s upset,” I said quietly.  “She’s seen Eva’s ghost, too.”

That got his attention.

“Really?”

“Really.”

He considered.  “Well, I guess we know you’re not completely crazy, then.”

I could hear a smile in his voice, and I wondered if he was entirely sure of that.  I gave a little laugh.  “You think?”

He didn’t answer.

I held up my hand to show him the ring.  “Remember this?”

He looked at it, but the significance didn’t register.

“This is the shell ring that Eva bought me last summer.  It’s the same ring I left in her casket at the wake,” I stopped and turned to look at him.  I wanted to see if he was catching on.

He was.  His expression registered his confusion immediately.

“So?”

“So, the ghost left this with me the other night,” I said, settling back against his chest, fully aware that this was going to be very hard for him to believe.  He didn’t answer me, but I could feel his heart was beating faster.

“When she appeared next to my bed, she held this out to me.  I guess she wanted me to have it.”  I paused, spinning the ring on my finger.  Feeling something beyond happiness at having it.  More than satisfaction.  Something like hope and comfort woven together into the most beautiful ribbon.  It represented so much.  Proof of spirit surviving the death of the body, yes.  But more, even.  Proof Eva was aware of so much.  Proof she’d been aware of my grief and my gesture in choosing to leave it in her casket with her.  Proof she valued our friendship, even when she passed over to some other kind of place.  Proof she could contact me.  Proof that it was worth considering and valuing things I’d been afraid to think about, much less talk about.  Proof my grief wasn’t just about me, but that it meant something to my friend as well.

“So I get a present.  Celeste, on the other hand, is visited by a vision of Eva that she says was scary and made her feel threatened.  As if Eva might hurt her.”

“You know I don’t think you’re crazy.  But this is so hard to believe.  If there really is such a thing as ghosts, why haven’t I ever seen one?” he asked. “And, for that matter, why haven’t so many other people?”

“Don’t know,” I replied thoughtfully.  “Having seen at least one in a completely separate, impersonal, unrelated circumstance, this doesn’t seem so unbelievable to me.  One thing does start to be obvious to me, though.  Eva seems to need something, wouldn’t you say?”  I asked.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he said.  I could feel his apprehension.

Maybe he thought I was imagining or making up putting the ring in Eva’s casket.  Adding this ghost business together with having to come and save me from the fraternity brothers over at the Zeta house, I could understand that it was beginning to seem like I wasn’t fully in command of myself.  But my mother had seen me leave it, and I had been in company when I’d seen the ghost by the road.  I could trust myself.

Turning, I looked up into his face.

His expression was distant, disconnected.  He was somewhere else.  “Marc, I know this seems crazy.  I know the scene at the party the other night was out of control.  I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have gone.  It was a mistake.”  He didn’t answer, which made me feel like I needed to defend myself.  “I went along with my dorm mates.  I thought it would be okay.”

Still quiet.

Thinking?

“Please, stay with me here, Marc.  I need you.”

“I’m trying, Rowan.  But you have to admit that things have been way out of hand since school started.  And I feel like you’re out of control,” he said, sounding very grown up and not a little critical.

Easy for him to say, I thought caustically.  I had lost my best friend, my father was being sued, I’d nearly been raped, and I was seeing a ghost.

And what, exactly, did he have to deal with?

His coursework.

And me.  His potentially crazy girlfriend.  Realizing it wasn’t fair to blame him for what was happening, I tried in vain to put my anger aside.  The bus pulled into Portsmouth Center.  We got off and started to walk, holding hands, toward the waterfront.  We walked up Bow Street toward Prescott Park, passing storefronts and restaurants, glimpsing the water behind the buildings.  I wasn’t feeling romantic.  I was angry with him for doubting me.  It was hard not to yank my hand away from his and glare at him.

But I didn’t.

I realized while we were walking that my anger had the effect of arousing me.  The rhythm of my own walking, my awareness of my own warm center, was getting the best of me, and I had chills running up and down my spine.  By the time we found a bench in the park, I was squirming in my jeans.   I really just wanted to be close to him, kiss him, breathe in the scent of his skin.  I wanted to sit on his lap, feel him inside of me.  I wanted to forget everything else for a while and just touch him, hear his voice.  I didn’t care that I was mad at him anymore.

Instead I sat down beside him, and we stayed there quietly for a few minutes.  He seemed like he was a million miles away, lost in his thoughts.

“Things will calm down,” I said in an effort to be reassuring.  It sounded more like a sales pitch when I said it, though.  Probably delivered as much for my own benefit as his, and decidedly not convincing.

I waited for him to look at me.

He didn’t.

Instead, he played with my hands, tracing the lines on my palms with his index finger, not speaking.  He was thinking something, and I was afraid of what he might say next.  So I decided to cut any serious talk, any intention of introducing limits or distance, off at the pass.

I raised his hand to my mouth and kissed his fingers, opening his hand with my lips.  Starting at the base of his middle finger, I ran my tongue along its full length, reaching the tip of his finger before sucking on it.

I closed my eyes, and did it again.  When I looked up at him, he was smiling and his eyes were glazing over.

It was getting dark and we were alone in the park. There was the sound of water lapping up against a boat moored nearby.  I looked around.  There wasn’t much privacy, just a few trees.  Not enough.

I kissed him, swinging my leg over his lap and coming to rest on his legs, facing him.  He was warming up, smiling, returning my kisses.

“I think,” I said, “If we walk over by the theater there’s a private landing.”

“And?” he asked.

“And maybe a good place to lean,” I said, kissing him gently, little butterfly kisses.

“Lean?” he asked, his smile spreading.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Lean,” reaching down between his legs to stroke him through his pants.

He was laughing now.  “Great! Which way do we go?” he asked.

We got up and walked along the waterfront until we came to the private landing I’d been thinking of.  A wide set of stairs led down from the street to a wooden dock where several boats were moored.  Happily, there wasn’t anyone around.  I led him to a spot the streetlights couldn’t see, against a wall that shored up the sidewalk, facing the pier and the water.  The wall was a vertical stack of wood beams, made damp by the night air.  We leaned into them, the smell of the wet beams mingled with the ocean air all around us, kissing.  From where we stood, we also faced the windows of two banks of apartment buildings that overlooked the harbor.   Their lights shone out against the night.

I didn’t care.

The water lapped against resident boats docked at the pier, a kind of sensual meeting of fluid against their firm bodies.  Rhythmic.  Sail masts were swaying and bobbing in the breeze, their metal fittings tinkling in the air.

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