Jonathan Blackthorne drove through the hills in an SUV that would make an environmentalist cry, enjoying the night air coming through the windows.
It was a guilty pleasure. He should've been at home, going over tomorrow's presentation or doing something productive. He didn’t have a reason for being there, he'd just had the sudden urge to get some fresh air, and the hills were the only place within a ten-mile radius of the city where he could see stars.
He was just wondering whether or not to park and do some full on stargazing, or to start heading home when she darted out onto the road.
He only saw her for a split second –human, female, wearing something white- before slamming on the breaks. The car came to a screeching stop.
The panic kicked in instantly.
Oh God oh God oh God-
He fumbled with the seat belt. Had he hit her? It didn't feel like he'd hit anything, there hadn't been a thunk- Oh dear God, did he really just think that?- but the car was big, though. Maybe he wouldn't have felt anything-
The belt finally came off. He threw open the door and nearly fell onto the road.
"Hello?" he said. "Are you alright?"
Stupid, stupid, stupid question!
He ran to the front of the car.
Please don’t be hurt, he thought desperately. Oh God, please don’t be hurt. . .
There was no mangled corpse waiting for him. There was no splatter of blood, either on the road or on the car. He looked under the car, then all around the other sides to be sure. No woman, no blood, no sign to show there had been anything at all.
He was fairly certain his heart stopped, and then started again at ten times the usual pace. Jon fell back against the side of the car and slid onto the road. Adrenalin-rushed giddiness crept in.
There was nobody there. Of course there was nobody there.
He picked himself up and dusted himself off. Ridiculous. Why would someone be running around this time of night-
There was a sob from the brush nearby.
It occurred to him that just because there hadn't been any blood, didn't mean he hadn't hit anyone. He whipped out his cellphone and pressed the 'on' button.
Come on, come on. . .
"Hello?" he said, moving towards the sobbing. He crashed into the bushes and started searching. "Ma'am? Are you alright? I'm so sorry, I didn't see you- well I did, but not until it was too late-"
The phone was lit, but still on the loading screen.
"Do you need an ambulance? I'm calling an ambulance. Ma'am? Miss? Hello?"
The phone beeped to life, only to chirp, flash, and die.
Oh damn, we're screwed.
He couldn't find her. He could hear her- she always sounded like she was just out of arms reach- but he couldn't see anything.
"Can you move? Can you talk?"
Oh fuck, what if she can't talk? What if I snapped her neck, or crushed her chest or-
He couldn't see the road anymore.
A thought struck. He stopped flailing around in the brush and chided himself for being so stupid. The sobbing continued, now coming from somewhere behind him.
"Ma'am," he said, raising his hand. "I don't want to alarm you, I'm just going to make it a little easier to see."
He decided not to tell her about the ambulance and lack thereof. Maybe she would have a phone they could use.
He snapped his fingers a few times, muttering under his breath as he did. Finally, on the third try, the tip of his thumb caught fire. It didn't hurt. . . in the same way that an itch technically didn't hurt. He let the fire grow and move until he had a flame roughly the size of a tennis ball sitting in his palm. He grinned and tried to get a better look around.
The sobbing stopped.
"Hello?" He navigated towards where the sobbing had been a second ago, close to the road. “Hello?"
It was right around then that he realized something was wrong. Not that things had been particularly right before that. The temperature dropped a few degrees. He shivered. The hairs on the back of his neck sprang up. Something close by was watching him. Slowly, he turned around.
The woman was there. She stood several inches taller than him, with cold narrow eyes set on an equally narrow face. Her curly black hair would have gone down to her hips had it not been writhing around, floating in a nonexistent wind. She was wearing a long, white dress, without any shoes.
The fire in his hand sputtered out. It didn't matter; he could see her just fine. She was glowing. The light she gave was faint, but unmistakable.
“Ah,” he said, suddenly relieved. It wasn't a dead woman- it was just a ghost.
She looked at him. Not angrily, though he had the feeling that could change if he went about this the wrong way. She didn't even look particularly curious. The air she gave off was completely mild.
"Do need something?"
She tilted her head to the side. Her eyes were gray- not the light, almost blue-gray some people had, but the dark, angry gray of clouds in a storm. There were no pupils, no irises, just the gray.
She turned her head slowly towards the road.
"Oh," he said, almost to himself. "One of those ghosts."
He stepped onto the road and headed for the car. "Well, come on," he said in what he hoped was a cheerful voice. "No use wasting time, eh?" He climbed in.
She stared at him from the outside as he revved up the engine.
"Look," he said, once it had roared to life. "Would you like a ride?"
He sighed and reached across the passenger seat to open the door. "If you'd like a ride, I'd be happy to help you. If not, then I hope you have a nice evening."
For a second, he really thought she'd pass up the offer. She glanced down and off to the side as though she were thinking about it. Finally, she nodded, once. She floated into the seat, a thick mist momentarily surrounding the bits of her that made contact with the cushion and dash as she settled. The door on her side slammed shut without anyone touching it.
Again, she looked at him and nodded.
For the next few minutes, the van was filled with a very thick, very awkward silence. He broke at the ten minute mark.
"So," he said. "You, uh, like haunting?"
It was stupid. He knew it was stupid, but even his stupid blathering would be better than listening to cold nothing.
She gave him a calm, almost calculatory look without answering. He went on in a desperate attempt to fill the silence.
“So yes, haunting,” he said, keeping both eyes on the road. “Sounds like fun. If there’s no other alternative, I suppose. As a break, perhaps? I can see the appeal, though. You get to meet new people, get to scare them. Sounds like an interesting way to pass the years. Not what I would’ve gone for, but-“
She jerked suddenly in her seat. Her eyes went wide, white light streaming out of them and causing a blinding glare in the window. Incorporeal hands grabbed for the steering wheel. There was a brief moment of contact between us as her hand and arm passed through his.
For a brief moment, his mind was filled with unfamiliar images.
Sirens cutting the air, flashing red and blue lights, Someone crying near by, and a searing pain in his side-
The car veered off to the left and narrowly avoided crashing into the trees. The world was a dizzying, vomit inducing blur as the seat belt cut into his chest and his neck jerked to the side. He floored the breaks and the van skidded to a halt, winding up almost backwards and sticking halfway off the road.
“What,” he said, gasping, “was that?”
Her eyes met his own. The glow around her had gotten several times stronger- enough to make her uncomfortable to look at. Black hair flowed around her head like a dark halo, and her mouth moved though no sounds came out. She looked pissed off.
Well he could play that, too. He might not have been a necromancer, or anything like that, but that didn't mean he'd have to put up with this sort of nonsense.
“Listen,” he snarled, pulling the key out of the ignition. “I don’t give a damn about how you normally deal with people, but you do not try and cause a wreck, you got that?”
She bared her teeth in a sufficiently angry way, and the light around her grew blinding.
He didn't look away, despite the pain. “No,” he said. “Don’t try and pull this with me. I’ve come across scarier things than you. If you want any sort of help then you damn well better start trying to act like a civil human being.” He thought about what he had just said. “Post-human being.”
He wasn’t sure she’d listen. He partly expected her to just leave- maybe freezing up the engine as she went (it had happened before). Instead, the light dimmed.
When the light-spots had gone, he saw her sitting innocently, both hands folded on her lap. When she saw him looking, she pointed to the window on her side. Through the slight glare caused by the dim light she was still giving off, he could just barely make out a stark fork in the road. There was the main road –which he'd been taking, and a small dirt one that divided off at a sharp ninety degree angle. She was pointing at the dirt one insistently.
“Okay.” He took a deep breath and started up the engine. “Just- please don’t do that again, okay?"
Another nod, and they were off.
He pulled down the dirt road. The drive went smoothly enough- his vehicle could take on anything thrown at it. But the dirt road was long and narrow, and unlike the paved ones that barely swerved along the hills and cut across flat terrain in a straight line, this one wound constantly, hugging the hill's natural curves. Left, right, left, right- it was only a few minutes before he began to feel queasy.
In retrospect, that might've been a blessing: he was too carsick to actually try and strike up another conversation.
After what felt like several uncomfortably nauseous hours later (but was probably only twenty minutes or so), she once again jerked in her seat. This time, at least, she didn't try and cause a wreck. Instead, she pointed frantically out the window and into the night. Thick gray mist rose up around her. It filled up the car and fogged up the windows. He got the message and pulled over.
She was out of the car before he'd taken the keys out of the ignition. There was no flash or cloud of mist: she had simply gone and appeared outside. He left the car to join her.
She was standing by the side of the road. Near her was a death-marker A cross probably set up by her friends and family, covered in ribbons and pinwheels.
He stopped a few respectable feet away while she knelt down in front of the marker.
The light emanating from her grew brighter, lighting up everything within a several foot radius. He tucked my hands in to the pockets of his jacket; the otherwise pleasant summer night had suddenly become quite cold.
He didn't know how long he stood there, just watching her kneeling beside the cross. It was heart breaking.
"Hey," he said, unable to stand it any longer. "Are you alright?"
She started, as though she'd forgotten he was there.
"Is that your grave?"
After a moment, she shook her head, slowly, and gestured for him to come closer.
The cross had been painted white. Ribbons were woven around it, and several bouquets of flowers had been strewn around the base with pinwheels sticking up out of them at random intervals. What he hadn't seen before, however, were the small toys -stuffed animals, a little action figure, race cars- nestled up between the flowers. In the center of it all, resting against the cross itself, was a photo someone had thoughtfully laminated to last against foul weather..
It was of a little boy. He was four, maybe five, and missing two of his front teeth. Dark eyes peered out from under a mop of black hair, a mischievous grin just below. Beneath the photo was a weathered note, yellowed with age and bleached from the sun. It read, in bold lettering just starting to fade;
Daddy misses you.
"Was-" he stopped and took a deep, shuddering breath. "Is that your son?"
She shook her head again, keeping her eyes on the boy's face. He'd been a cute kid.
"Did you know him?"
She shook her head again and stood up. Her glow began to fade: instead of emanating off of her in waves as it had before, it shrank back until it looked as though it was contained within her. Mists swirled just on the surface of her not-quite-real flesh. Small droplets of white light trickled down her cheek and fell to the ground. It took him a moment to realize they were tears.
“You killed him.”
It wasn’t a question. She glanced up at him, nodded once, then returned her gaze to the cross. Light streaked down from her eyes and sank into the dirt.
He suddenly saw it all, perfectly.
She’d been driving. Maybe drunk, maybe tired- it didn’t matter; the story still ended the same. She hit someone. She’d been killed in the crash, but that wasn’t the important bit. The important bit was the baby boy in the other car who’d died along side her.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not quite sure what else to do. There was no way for him to tell if the boy’s spirit was around somewhere as well, haunting on his own, but he sincerely doubted it.
In fact- No. The longer he though about it, the surer he became. Kids’ souls didn’t have enough guilt weighing them down like that. The only spirit tied to the crash was hers.
The grey mist began again, rising up from her feet and spreading out, blanketing the ground. She began to fade, eyes still focused on the cross- on the boy’s face. Within seconds she was gone.
He stood there for a while, staring at nothing and trying to think of something he could do- anything at all. There was nothing else to do. There was nothing he could do.
He got into the car and went home.