Maybe this time will be different, I thought as I stared at the last box of packed clothes in my new bedroom.
What was the harm of wishful thinking?
Maybe this time we’ll actually stay. I’ll make friends. NORMAL friends—
I stopped myself. There was no point in pretending. Year after year it was always the same.
A new town.
A new roster of names and faces that I wouldn’t remember…people who wouldn’t talk to me, anyway.
No one ever talks to the crazy girl.
And then we’d leave. Hit the reset button, and…
“Raven’s Winter Clothes,” the box read, in my so-called nanny Grace's distinct scrawl. I sighed.
Will we even make it to winter in this bleak little town?
I pushed the box to the foot of my bed.
I’d developed a habit of leaving one box packed over the years, and it looked like this was the winner this time, despite having plenty of room in my walk-in closet.
It felt strange having so much space.
My dad’s job always took us to big cities. I hadn’t lived in an actual house since before my mom disappeared.
Before my dad had decided that the only way to cope with the pain was to become a workaholic.
Who had to pay someone else to take care of his daughter.
If it weren’t for Grace, I would have been completely alone in the world. Over the years, she had become the older sister I'd never had, the only person I could talk to.
But even Grace didn’t know about my secret…
I jumped as the overhead light in my bedroom suddenly went out and my room was plunged into darkness.
The air stirred behind me, raising the hairs on the back of my neck, and the temperature in the room noticeably dropped.
I turned around slowly.
There was nothing but an eerie, swollen silence.
I begged my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but their leisurely pace refused to comply.
Even still, I could feel it.
I’m not alone.
“Raven…,” A sinister whisper crawled across the shadows.
The air around me grew even more frigid as some unseen figure drew near.
I could feel it practically on top of me.
As my reluctant eyes adjusted to the light, I finally discerned a tall, thin mass of darkness just steps away—
“What, are you allergic to sunlight now?”
The light suddenly switched back on, and Grace stood in the doorway with her arms crossed.
My eyes snapped back to the middle of the room, to a hooded figure standing motionless.
One that Grace couldn’t see, which looked like…
I rolled my eyes.
…the Grim Reaper.
Ugh, I should have known.
“You know, sometimes I worry about you, kiddo,” Grace continued, oblivious, crossing the room and pulling back the thick drapery from my window.
The afternoon sunlight poured into my bedroom.
Grace took a step back, satisfied. “We so need to replace these curtains. They’re heinous.”
Of course she couldn’t see that I wasn’t alone.
She couldn’t see him.
No one could, in fact. Just me.
Because he wasn’t, strictly speaking, alive.
Just like the others—the spirits who were constantly showing up in my life and asking that I help them pass into the light.
It was a little confusing when I was younger. I mean, everyone has imaginary friends when they’re little.
But then I got older. And they didn’t go away.
The only person who ever believed me was my grandma Pearl, who my dad so affectionately referred to as “Crazy Pearl.”
Grandma Pearl could see them too, and often recited the ancient Korean myths of our ancestors—stories about seers and shamans and demigods.
Visits to my grandma’s house were few and far between.
My parents didn’t want their only daughter’s head being filled with what they considered to be nonsense.
I learned the hard way that if I didn’t want to spend my entire childhood in psychiatrists’ offices, I should just stay silent. So I did.
I also shut up and pretended to listen when Grace sat me down and gave me her usual spiel about my need to make friends in this new town and blah, blah, blah.
“Oh, by the way, I need you to run an errand,” Grace said as she handed me a piece of paper.
My “nanny” was always devising transparent schemes to get me to make friends.
“Seriously?” I groaned as I looked down at a grocery list. “You can’t do this?”
“I’ve gotta get the kitchen and living room set up, kiddo. Anyway, you should get outta the house. It’ll do you good.”
All through the conversation my eyes remained glued to him.
“Never mind the fact that you can drive and I can’t,” I replied.
Perks of having a father who insisted on teaching me himself, even though he hardly had the time to read the newspaper in the morning.
With a smile, Grace left the room, closing the door behind her.
The moment I was alone, I grabbed the closest thing to me—a hardback mystery novel sitting on my dresser—and hurled it directly at the Reaper.
Well, through him.
“Randy!” I exclaimed. “What’s your problem?”
The figure pulled back his hood to reveal a head of strawberry-blond hair and a dastardly smirk.
Randy, a fan of his own sadistic jokes, was doubled over in laughter. “You—you should’ve seen your—”
“I wasn’t scared! And you’re not funny!”
God, sometimes I wish I could murder the dead.
Randy wiped a tear from his pale eyes and sighed contently. “What, no ‘nice to see you, Randy’? ‘I missed you, Randy’?”
I’d met Randy a little over two years before, when we were living in Dallas, and he’d followed me around ever since.
Except for the past two months, when he’d gone radio silent. I’d just assumed he’d finally decided to move on.
I should have known better.
But I was glad to see him, even in his cheap Halloween costume.
Ghosts typically appeared in whatever clothes they’d died in.
And Randy? Well, he was stuck dressed as the Grim Reaper—plastic scythe and all—for the rest of his afterlife.
Oh, the irony.
“I missed you, Randy,” I said finally, rolling my eyes. “Where were you, anyway? And how’d you do that thing with the lights?”
Randy shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve been looking for more people like me.”
I raised my eyebrows. “People like what?”
“Spirits who aren’t lost or trying to get out of here. People who’ve been around for a while.”
“Because they can teach me things. Like how to move objects in the physical world.”
He lowered his gaze. “Well, they tried to teach me. That thing with the lights is pretty much all I’m capable of so far. It’s pathetic.”
He shrugged again. “Oh well. I tried. Guess I’ll just have to think of other ways to annoy you.”
It was nice to have someone to talk to.
“Well,” I said, waving the shopping list at him, “you care to check this town out?”
Fifteen minutes later, I’d pocketed the shopping list—which was completely ridiculous, anyway—as Randy and I headed to the only coffee shop that popped up on Google.
“This is downtown? That’s it?” asked Randy incredulously when we reached Main Street.
Downtown Elk Springs was an underwhelming collection of mom-and-pop shops, and it seemed that there only existed one of everything.
That’s when we saw the little boy.
He couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, and was standing on the corner between the ice cream parlor and coffee shop, a familiar disoriented look on his face.
A gash ran along the edge of his forehead, and his neck and torso were caked in blood.
“Mommy?” he was calling, his eyes welling up with tears. “Does anyone know where my mommy is?”
Despite the considerable flow of pedestrians, no one stopped.
Because no one could see him.
Ghosts of children were always the hardest.
Randy was usually helpful with that sort of thing…speaking to people who didn’t know they were dead, or convincing them that the bright light they saw was a good place.
A safe place.
In this case, however, his costume—no matter how cheap or synthetic-looking—would only scare the little boy.
“I’ll just leave you to it,” Randy said, shooting me a knowing look before vanishing.
I hurried over to where he stood on the corner and dropped to a knee, pretending to tie my shoelaces.
“Are you lost?” I asked the little boy softly, keeping my head down.
The last thing I needed was people seeing the new girl talking to herself.
“You can see me?” he asked. “No one—no one can—”
“I know,” I replied. “I can help you, if you want. But you have to follow me.”
I ducked into the alley beside the coffee shop and waited behind a dumpster.
After a moment, the ghost appeared, sniffling.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“And when was the last time you saw your mom, Charlie?”
He thought for a moment. “She was driving me to practice and—and then we were upside down.”
A tear rolled down his cheek. “And then some people came and tried to wake her up, but she wouldn’t. They put her inside of this big black bag and took her away.”
At least they’ll be together, I thought.
I would never wish death upon anyone, but in cases like this, it almost seemed like a kinder fate. A tiny silver lining.
“Do you see a bright light anywhere?” I asked Charlie.
The little boy nodded, his eyebrows knitting together. “It’s been following me since—since…” He trailed off. “There’s voices inside of it. It’s scary.”
“Don’t be scared,” I said softly. “Your mom is on the other side of that light. So all you have to do is walk into it. Okay?”
“You promise?” Charlie asked, his lip trembling.
I watched the boy suddenly fade into the air, his body growing fainter and brighter until it disappeared in a tiny flash.
I took a step back and bumped into something solid.
Actually, into someone.
“Ow!” I spun around. “Watch where you’re—”
I stopped, mesmerized by the pair of intense dark brown eyes staring down into mine, sizing me up.
“—going,” I whispered.
The boy, whose face was mere inches from mine, took a step back but kept his gaze firm and steady.
I finally got a good look at him.
He looked roughly my age and was tall and lean, with a sharp jawline, an angular nose, and flawless pale skin. His dark hair was wild and unruly.
A single shiver raced down my spine; there was something about him that was just so…
Menacing, I thought to myself.
He looks like someone who’s looked death in the eye.
The guy stiffened and raised a hand to sweep some rogue strands of hair from his face.
And that’s when I noticed the gloves.
Despite the heat of the summer afternoon, he wore a pair of black leather gloves, which were tucked into the sleeves of his denim jacket.
In fact, there wasn’t an inch of skin visible below his neck.
Suddenly, his face softened into a disorientingly charming smile.
“Hi,” he said, flashing his perfect teeth at me. “Sorry if I startled you. It was an accident.”
“I, uhm,” I said, flustered. I reached to tuck my black hair behind my ear, fidgeting.
Act normal. Say something. Anything.
“Hi,” I finally replied.
Seriously? He’s not even THAT good-looking.
Alright, yes he is. But still.
“Hi,” he repeated, grinning.
His ability to entirely alter his demeanor in a split second was almost unsettling.
“I’m Cade, by the way,” he continued. “And…you are?”
“Raven,” I said quickly. “Raven Zheng.”
“Raven Zheng,” he echoed thoughtfully. Somehow my name sounded better when he said it.
Cade smiled again. “Well, Raven, can I ask you something?”
“Oh—okay,” I said slowly. “Shoot.”
“Who were you talking to just now?”
My stomach dropped. “I—I wasn’t—” I stuttered, squirming under his harrowing eye contact.
“Oh—and what is ‘the light’?”
My first day in town and I had already been caught looking like a psycho.