Jamie Miller was absent from English class that day. The teenage girl was in her stead and sat in on the classes as a reminder that while he was learning, someone was dying.
In calculus she sat directly in front of him, so he had to peer through her to see the overhead projector. Looking through a ghost was kind of like peering into a body of water after skipping a rock across it. The asymptotes were rippling on the projection screen—as if they weren’t complicated enough to figure out already.
In his comparative literature class, he sat in the back row with the teenage girl right beside him. His eyes were relieved to not have to look through her for fifty minutes. Instead of paying attention to the lesson, she spent the whole period facing his direction, ogling him with her large batty eyes emphasized with black mascara. When Mr. Howard called on him to read the next section of act four of Oedipus Rex, he had to find the page again and blushed with embarrassment.
“I know it’s no Game of Thrones, but—” Mr. Howard stopped himself mid-comment. “Actually, there’s tons of gore, incest, and a bunch of people die. This is exactly like Game of Thrones.”
Several students in the front row giggled, and Robert was grateful that he avoided scrutiny. He found his place and started to read. The other students leaned in to listen to the boy who barely spoke to anyone as he read the chorus’ next lines.
He later walked the halls with the spirits of the girl and the old woman on either side of him. When Ted Riley ran through the old woman, she shimmered a bit, like a stepped-in puddle. The girl was more apt to move around people as if she were still alive. An all-too-giddy freshman bolted down the hall with four textbooks in hand. Robert had to sway one way while the girl jumped the other, both briefly worried that the freshman would knock them to the ground if they had not moved. The old woman raised her eyebrows from behind her pink shawl but said nothing. As usual, neither of them said anything.
But it wasn’t just the dead that didn’t speak to him that day. Aside from being called upon in class, no one living bothered to acknowledge him. Nobody addressed him in the halls or sent him texts in class. When Charlie Whitmeyer waved in his direction on the courtyard, he was actually waving to Kyler Reed behind him. Sophie Tumbolt said “excuse me,” but only because she was actively squeezing herself between him and a senior cheerleader in uniform so that she could get past. Allie Jones turned around in history to ask him a question, but then she thought better of it and wrote something in her notebook instead. During lunchtime, he wasn’t that awkward kid who stood with a blue tray full of food in the cafeteria, looking for a group to sit with. He was the kid that didn’t go to the cafeteria at all.
During the period he served as a TA in Mr. Gould’s biology class, that had a substitute, he went to the library and sat at the back table. Usually, Robert would be needed in the absence of the actual teacher, but the class was watching the second half of a Discovery Channel documentary that day. He had no desire to sit there are watch it with them.
He nibbled on his ham sandwich while he surfed the web on his laptop, thinking about better times. Mrs. Ellis, the librarian, would have said something about him being there if he had not caught her watching her soaps on the TV designated for PBS specials and the news. Even when she got up to get back to work, she continued to leave him in peace.
He scrolled through a file of photos that had been taken during the middle school year and the beginning of freshman year, before the accident. A slight smile spread across his face.
Most of the photos were of him and his buddies Matt and Brad playing soccer, or of him and his then-girlfriend Jeanine. He told Julia that he had deleted the pictures of her after she confessed how insecure Jeanine made her feel. Jeanine and her family came to the States from London. Often when she’d ramble on about the differences between England and the US, he would drown in her cute accent. There was hardly a day after school when they didn’t hang out at the park or at one another’s house. They went on camping trips together with his family and explored pieces of the city with hers. They hiked Mount Rainier together; they did the underground tour of Old Seattle and the ghost tour in the Paramount Theater (back before Robert started getting visitors). He saw more of his home with her in the months they spent together than he had seen in his whole lifetime, but then her father’s old company offered him a position he couldn’t refuse back in London. It broke his heart when she left, and after his dad died, it broke his heart even further because he had to end the friendships he had struggled so hard to build. He could still feel that coziness that the memories of the past gave him, back before real life happened.
He closed the folder and maneuvered himself so that if the librarian or any other students came by, they couldn’t see what he was doing. He continued surfing the net, reading a series of articles and documents about recent murders in the Seattle area. He’d been doing research ever since he connected the Messenger’s “murder” to the appearance of the teenage girl. He suspected that she was a year or two younger than he was, which should have narrowed down the search, but after three weeks he had found no victims of murder in the Seattle area that matched either the silent girl or the old woman.
The two peered over his shoulder while he did the research, but he paid them no attention. If they weren’t going to help him, he had no desire to interact with them.
The research felt like a waste of time. The Messenger was his only vocal lead, and all it ever muttered was “murder.” How was he supposed to find out to whom it was referring before they died?
Julia entered the library and approached the main desk. She was stunning today, in her white V-neck and a blue miniskirt. When she noticed him, she broke into a smile and waved. He’d forgotten that she worked in the library during fourth period this semester. He should’ve found somewhere else to sneak away.
He closed the tabs on his laptop as she walked up and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I didn’t know you’d be in here. What a sweet surprise!”
He smiled back as she wrapped her arms around his side. Robert couldn’t remember when they started dating or even how it happened, but Julia seemed to enjoy his company. Even her friends didn’t understand why, but that didn’t seem to bother her.
“How’s your day so far? I missed you at lunch.” She noticed the crumbs atop the crumpled up sandwich bag before he could slyly conceal it.
As Robert opened his mouth to rebuttal, the vibrations of Julia’s phone cut him off. She withdrew her cell phone and cocked her head. Whoever was calling her must not have done it frequently. She stood up and said, “Hello?” while taking a few steps back.
He got a chill. It was very similar to the sensation that the Messenger had given him when its distorted skull grazed the edge of his shoulder blade and breathed on him with its wet, mossy breath.
“Oh, hey, Alexis,” Julia said, disappearing behind a row of biographies.
Robert turned and found the cracked lips of the old woman within an inch of his ear. Non-corporeal fibers from the pink cashmere shawl tickled his neck.
“Channel seven,” muttered a cold, raspy voice.
Robert spun around so quickly that he nearly knocked his laptop to the floor. “You speak!” He kept his voice to a whisper. He didn’t want Julia to think that he was talking to himself. The television and couch in front of it were both vacant, so he closed his laptop and carried it with him over to the lounge area.
“What? Oh my God!” Julia exclaimed, ogling Robert’s movements as she reemerged from between the bookshelves.
He heard her coming up behind him as he reached for the remote and turned on the television. “Babe, turn on channel—” he switched to seven before she finished speaking. Robert saw Julia blink with surprise, but chose to ignore it. A blonde news anchor appeared on the screen next to a man with perfect teeth and salt-and-pepper hair. The blonde began to read a report from the teleprompter.
“In other news today, dozens of Seattleites were given quite a shock when James Hawthorne, a real estate mogul, died after falling from the roof of the seven-story-tall city hall building this afternoon. Currently, there’s no evidence pointing to whether this was death by suicide or if foul play was involved. The city hall is located directly across from the downtown Seattle Police Department. Though police and medics were able to reach the scene quickly, they were unable to revive Hawthorne. Detective Joseph Forester of the Seattle PD was the first on the scene.”
The television cut to an interview with Detective Forester directly in front of the ‘City Hall’ sign.
“Oh my God, it’s Joseph!” Julia exclaimed.
“I was in the lobby of the department at the time when I saw Mr. Hawthorne fall.” A stoic looking Forester said into a microphone held to his mouth by an unidentified hand. “I couldn’t believe it at first. You never expect to see someone die right before your eyes—and in such a way! My condolences go out to Mr. Hawthorne’s friends, family, and other loved ones and I urge the Seattle community to show them support. Mr. Hawthorne’s death is truly a tragedy for everyone in this community.”
The news crew reverted back to the anchor desk where the blonde continued her report. “While Hawthorne’s death was a shock and horrified all those who witnessed it, twenty-year-old news reporter Alexis Kearns of the Seattle Chronicle was not only one of the onlookers, but also captured some amazing footage, and interviews on her camera phone before any other news crew arrived at the scene.”
Julia shrieked with glee.
The next image was from Alexis’ phone pointing at a teenager who resembled one of the emo students in his third-period class. The words “Tim Ashbury – Witness” appeared at the bottom of the screen.
“My girlfriend and I are on our way to Westlake Center when I looked up and saw a man on the ledge of that building right here.” He pointed to the city hall, which Alexis panned to with her phone and then returned to his face before he continued. “I… I didn’t realize that it was a man at first. I thought it was a large bird or something.”
The screen cut to another man with the byline “Ted Covington – witness.”
“I was just jogging, and then I saw someone falling from that building over there. I nearly stopped in the middle of the street because I was in such shock.”
“Alexis, that… This is insane! You were seriously there? You got all of this on film—and they aired it?”
Robert half expected a librarian to shush her, but they must have been out of earshot.
The camera cut back to the anchor desk where the blonde spoke again. “Again, authorities are still trying to figure out whether Hawthorne’s death was a suicide or a possible homicide. If anyone has any information regarding James Hawthorne’s death, please contact the Seattle Police Department.”
The camera returned to an establishing shot of both news anchors. Julia removed herself from the lounge area to continue her conversation with Alexis.
The male reporter with salt-and-pepper hair turned to his co-anchor. “It’s not every day that we air footage that is taken from a reporter who’s not affiliated with our station, but I must say that that is truly an act of courage and great journalism on Alexis Kearns’ part.”
The blonde nodded. “Indeed! I’m sure Seattle will see a lot more from her in the future.”
Robert would most likely be seeing her at the Kearns’ family dinner that weekend.
“Up next, Congressman Waverly’s scandal takes yet another interesting turn. Stay tuned.”
He turned the television off. That segment was all he cared to see. “Was that what you wanted to show me?” He leaned back to look at the spirit of the old woman, but neither she nor the girl were still present. They must have disappeared sometime during the report.
He grimaced. It had taken him weeks to finally get a word out of one of them, and now they had vanished yet again. What was significant about a news story that his girlfriend’s older sister and her ex-boyfriend happened to be a part of? Could it have involved James Hawthorne and his mysterious death? Was he the murder victim that the Messenger was referring to last night?
He sat on the floral couch in front of the TV and reopened his laptop, but shut it abruptly when Julia returned to the lounge area.
“Isn’t that crazy? That was Alexis’ footage! She did that!”
“Yeah, I saw.” He feigned enthusiasm. She didn’t need to see that his mind was riddled with questions, and it was no secret that he and Alexis weren’t exactly close. Gun-lovers and tree-huggers were likely to have more in common.
“That’s just… It’s out of this world. She’s not even that kind of reporter! She’s a print journalist, not a broadcaster.”
“Well, obviously she’s talented enough.”
She shrugged and smiled. “I just think that it’s cool, that’s all.”
He nodded and allowed for a silence reminiscent of last night’s dinner to overcome them. Finally, a rosy color appeared on Julia’s cheeks, and she told him that she had to check in with the library staff to see what they needed her to do.
He went back to his laptop when she left. James Hawthorne had to have been the newest victim. Why else would the old woman have finally spoken to him? Jumping from a building was hardly murder though unless someone else had been on the roof with him and managed to get off before anyone realized they were there.
A gentle breeze caressed the top of his head, knocking a few strands of product-free hair out of place. He spun around in search of an open window, but there were none to be seen. The girl and the old woman were absent as well, and if the Messenger were coming to visit, he would have sensed its presence by now.
He strained his ears to focus on the near silence that claimed the room, with nothing but the distant murmurings of Julia and a school librarian in the background. Things were too quiet, resembling the two or three seconds of stillness in a movie right before an atomic bomb goes off and desecrates half of a city. There was a soft, yet prevalent grumble similar to the second half of a snore. It was coming from an entity that didn’t belong there. It didn’t feel like the girl or the old woman, but it wasn’t the Messenger either. No, this was something different.
A man materialized in front of him a blink later.
“Huh?” Robert blurted out.
The man’s transparent body sat on the arm of the chartreuse and yellow floral couch, staring into Robert’s eyes with a combination of anger and confusion. The longer he stared, the softer his brows became, and the ridges on his forehead began to recede.
The news report didn’t display an image of the deceased, but it wasn’t hard for Robert to figure out who it was in front of him. “James…”
James Hawthorne didn’t respond.
Robert wasn’t surprised. He was still reeling from the old woman’s contact. He couldn’t think of what to say. Ten or twenty seconds must have gone by before he thought of something, even if it lacked all relevance. “I’m sorry.”
James clasped his hands in his lap and continued to stare Robert down. There was frustration in his otherwise soft eyes—not anger or disdain, just frustration. James’ face was free of stress wrinkles or frown lines, and his mouth too small to have been used for much yelling. It was doubtful that his fuse was ignited very often, but Robert still didn’t want to risk it. He’d never angered a spirit before, and he didn’t wish to start now.
“I…” He sighed, “I wanted to help you. I wanted to help them too, but none of you are giving me anything to go on.” He lifted his laptop. “I’ve been trying for weeks to figure it out, and it seems like none of you have even been murdered. Am I getting the wrong message?”
The old woman and the girl reappeared at James’ sides as his expression receded to an empty stare. The women echoed his facial cues as if they weren’t looking at Robert but rather the white walls behind him.
“Okay… Well, I know now that your name is James Hawthorne. Will the two of you at least tell me your names?”
The teenage girl faced the floor and started to sob again. It was all she ever seemed to do, so Robert kept most of his attention on James and the old woman. “Is there a connection between the three of you?”
The old woman took a deep breath (which he found ironic since she no longer required air). Her lips parted, but only slightly. She wanted to say something, but no words issued from her mouth.
“There is a connection, isn’t there.”
The girl vanished. He was surprised that it had taken her that long. She was always the timid one.
Robert put the laptop aside and rose from his seat. He approached the old woman, who had to look up at him to still see his face. Her back was hunched over, and her gray eyes were watering the valley of wrinkles that covered her face. What he saw in them was something he was surprised that he hadn’t noticed before. It could have explained why they never spoke to him.
“Are you afraid?” Robert asked. She had vanished before he even finished asking the question.
James was a little taller than he was and didn’t seem to be as afraid as the old woman had been, but he wasn’t speaking either.
“I just got more answers in the last five minutes than I have in the last three weeks,” Robert said. “Are you starting to understand why I’ve had so much trouble helping you?”
James was motionless.
“Wh—what are they afraid of?”
Still motionless. Robert took a second to let this new information sink in. What was it that the dead had to fear? Were they still reeling from the causes of their deaths, or was there more to it than that? And if they were afraid, should he be worried also?
“What are you afraid of?”
James’ bottom lip trembled. He seemed to be braver than either of the women, but not immune to the fear that plagued them. He slowly began to fade away, but not before Robert heard his quiet, desperate plea.