The Truth of the Matter

It was the little things that made Bea realize that Jake might have had a problem.

The sudden start when in an otherwise quiet room. Staring off into space as if listening to a distant conversation. Glowers were directed into empty corners. Regular low mutterings whenever he was by himself.  Tripping over nothing, flinching away from shadows, rolling his eyes when no one had said anything, and even bursting out in laughter at inopportune moments.

Not to mention how he was pulling away from his regular friends, had curtailed his bullying – likely what had once been his favorite hobby – and was even cutting back on the amount of practices he was participating in.  Considering the fact that the fellow was a member of just about every sports team available to him, that was really saying something. Instead he was hanging out with Jo and her friends more often and leaving school almost as soon as the final bell had rang.

If it wasn’t for the fact that he was so good at what he did, he likely would have been cut already from any number of them.

It was all of those little things which had left Bea suspicious so she was wholly unsurprised to walk into the library one morning and witness Jake arguing with a dead boy.

First and foremost, it should be established that everyone knew that St. Agnes High School was haunted.  There had been stories dating back for over a century now, and some of the stories even lined up with actual events if one put in the necessary research.

But surviving an abduction by cultists intent on committing human sacrifice and managing to crawl out of some hereto unknown crypt beneath the school, Bea’s perspective had changed a bit.  A lot of things had changed, in fact. Now she knew there were ghosts – she could see the blasted things crawling all over the place, especially their high school. A whole new world had opened up before her, and she was left with a choice – she could either adamantly deny it all existed, sticking wholeheartedly to her belief in reality, or she could accept that there were things out there she just didn’t yet understand and work towards protecting herself from them.

She chose the latter.

Histrionics were so very not her thing.

It was a fine winter day. The sky was clear, for once, belying the fact that there were several inches of snow on the ground. The snow made it seem that much brighter, a whispered promise of spring, though it was all just a clever lie. The roads and sidewalks were all properly cleared, and even the courtyard at the school had been swept free and the steps properly salted.

Bea had gotten to school early that day, slipping into the side entrance that was generally left unlocked for jocks with their early practices and nerds with their incessant need to study.  She fell into that second group, and was rather proud of that fact. Through the side door and an immediate right at the main hall, and at the first major intersection, she took another right towards the library where the jocks would have taken a left towards the gymnasium.

She was expecting to be the only one there at this hour – that was the usual, at any rate.  Other students would start drifting in around seven, give or take, so that gave her a good hour to get a head start. She offered the librarian a warm smile as she stepped through the doors, bobbing her head in greeting to the old nun who volunteered to come in so early – it was a different one who kept the library open late.  The woman returned the smile warmly, waving a hand as she often did before returning her attention to the latest novel she was pouring over. A sharp left, then straight back to where the reference books resided.

“Stop. Following. Me. Around.” One could practically hear the finger jabs punctuating each word, and the rage beneath them brought her to a full halt. “This is your last warning.”

For a moment, she believed someone was accusing her of the aforementioned wronging, but she could think of no one beyond Jo who would accuse her of such a thing, and that was a man yelling…

… snarling…

But curiosity got the better of her, and she moved more slowly towards that voice as quietly as she could manage.  She slipped down an aisle, neck craning to peer around the upcoming cross section. There was a softer reply from whoever the man had been so angry at, but the words were too low, too muffled to properly make out.

“Gah!” The frustration in the exclamation made her pause – she had been closer than she thought! Her heart leapt into her throat, and yet she somehow managed to keep from yelping in surprise, instead slapping one hand firmly over her mouth to muffle herself. Between the books she could just barely see Jake, dragging both hands back through his short hair.

He was a mess – it looked as if he had slept in his uniform and only just rolled out of bed to come to school, though with the bags under his eyes, it’s unlikely he’s been getting much in the way of sleep at all. He visibly shook himself, frowning down at…

…. Holy shit, Robbie Carpenter.

She could only just make out the dead boy’s shadowy form.  Even in death, he was sporting his St. Agnes High uniform, though that didn’t seem quite fair, all things considering. His uniform was as it often had been in life – neat and prestinely pressed – so not so much a residue of his final moments.  Bea knew that he had been found without his jacket or shirt, instead stripped down to the waist while he had cut sigils into his own flesh in an attempt…

Bea forcibly pushed the memories of the White Lady and her cult aside – there was a time and a place for such things, and now was neither.

Robbie said something else, of that she was certain, though while she could see the lips moving of the specter and could hear murmurings, the actual words were all but impossible to determine. Whatever was said left the larger jock pale and trembling, his lips pressed to a thin line as he shook his head emphatically in the negative.

“Never again,” he whispered.  “Your death was not my fault.”

Not directly, in any case.

The dead boy’s lips moved again, twisting upwards into a malicious smile, the lower murmurings starting to scrape on the inside of her head. His eyes were large, dark, fathomless pits as they suddenly swung in her direction.  She met his gaze and held it for a moment before she realized what she was doing.

Her attention dropped immediately, and she cleared her throat, playing at skimming of the titles on the shelf before her.  Her stomach twisted as she felt the temperature in the library drop by several degrees. What had she been thinking? Closing her eyes, she felt color stain her cheeks – she was not good at this kind of thing.  

The ghost breathed a few words that shivered along her skin, and she could feel him drawing close to her, stepping through the shelf.  She opened her eyes, but kept her gaze fixed on those precious books, refusing to look to the side into the dead boy’s face once more.  

“Bea?” Jake sounded incredulous, and she could see him duck down, peering between the books at her. “What are you doing here?”

Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.

“Just trying to get a bit more study in,” she tried her damndest to sound flippant and at ease, but she couldn’t quite keep the tremble from her tone. “I was going to ask the same of you…” She bowed her head more, staring at her toes rather than risk looking sideways into the spirit’s face again.

She could see the toes of his loafers next to her own, blood dripping to pool on the floor beside her.  So maybe he wasn’t as well preserved in death as he had appeared at first blush.

“I’m…” Jake stuttered over the excuse.  “… studying?”

Turning her back on Robbie, Bea looked up through the stacks, arching a brow at Jake. “Studying?  Really?” She could only offer him a sad smile. “I think you can do better than that.”

Robbie’s whisper caused her to shiver again, and she could practically see her breath in the air before her, but she refused to look back at him.  Even this close, she couldn’t understand the actual words – they were like whispers from across the room, too distorted to hear anything beyond a low, general hum. “That’s stup-” he started to snap only to shake his head. “Sorry.  I was practicing a play.” He sounded more confident with this answer, but still uncertain.

Her hand lifted to rest upon the books nearest to her as she leaned in towards him. “You’re a miserable liar,” she pointed out instead in a low whisper, pitching her voice for his ears alone.  From the corner of her eye, she could see a translucent hand settle next to her own. “We’re worried about you.”

“‘We’?” the jock asked, the one word tinged with an excess of sarcasm. “‘We’?” he repeated, shaking his head. “Look, tell whoever ‘we’ is to back off. I’m fine.”

Sighing softly, Bea could only shake her head. “No, you’re not,” she returned gently. “You’re frightened.” That caused his back to stiffen, his shoulders to roll back, his chin to shoot up. Mayhaps telling an alpha-type eighteen year old boy he was scared was not the best tactic.  “It’s not a bad thing,” she assured him quickly.  “I was, too, at first…”

That was cryptic enough to take some of the wind out of his sails. “At first…?” he echoed, giving a small shake of his head – he wasn’t following.

“When I first…” she trailed off.

When spirits had first realized she could see them, they wouldn’t leave her alone.  At first she simply tried to ignore them – heaven knows she had tried – but it had been tough going.  There was always something they could do to draw her attention.  Even if she just flinched at something appearing too close, it was often enough to egg them on. None of them ever hurt her, but they certainly knew how to make a nuisance out of themselves. Realizing that wasn’t getting her very far, she started doing the one thing she felt confident in doing.

Research.

Why were ghosts here? What did they want?  How could one help them? How could one keep them away…?

She had perfected a few tricks over the past several months if the spirits were being too insistent, though it was always best if they left on their own.  She turned slowly to meet the dead boy’s eyes, studying his features intently. “Robert, you are being quiet rude,” she warned, her voice just as prim, just as proper as she could make it.  Even a fine tremor underlined the words, no one could fault her for that. She lifted her chin, brows arching high, expression expectant.

The dead boy blinked several times as she met and held is gaze, his lips parting as those same, inarticulate murmurs emitted from him. He shook his head, pointing accusingly towards the jock on the other side of the shelf as he continued to complain, though she still could not understand a blessed thing he was actually saying.

But it was enough to get the jist of the matter.

Slowly, she shook her head.  “It was your hand on the knife,” she pointed out to him. “It was you who attempted to summon some ancient…” Evil, was it?  Bea shook her head again. “You can’t blame Jake for your actions.” At least, that’s what she assumed he was trying to say.

The spirit’s lips drew back into a furious grimace.  More, emphatic murmurs as he gestured again at Jake, his hand swinging through the books and the shelf, but there was not so much as a breeze from his actions. No matter how angry he was becoming – more evident by the sudden chill in the air – his words remained indistinct whispers. It was less about listening and more about watching and reading his expressions. As the seconds ticked by, the angrier, the more emphatic he became.

He wasn’t leaving any time soon.

Reaching into the pocket of her jacket, she pulled out the small baggy hidden within filled with a fine red powder.  Without looking away, she pulled it open, the pepper immediately hitting the air. The boy didn’t so much as stutter, not knowing what it was she held or what was about to happen.  Mid-sentence – at least, she assumed it was mid-sentence – she flung the contents in a tiny red arch through the spirit, and he was simply gone.

The room began to warm to something close to normal – she hadn’t realized quite how chilly it had begun – and the murmurs on the air had ceased.  It even seemed brighter, as if the shades over the high windows in the room had been pulled back to let in the bright sun.

“What did you just do?” The whisper came from just behind her, and she couldn’t repress the startled yelp.  Both hands clutching at her chest as she worked to calm her hammering heart, she turned enough to glare up at the boy. “Sorry,” he muttered, taking a step back from her to provide a bit more breathing room. “You know, if I had done that to Jo, she would have hit me…”

“I’m not Jo,” Bea pointed out, giving herself a good mental shake.  She hadn’t hit him, but she wanted to scream and swat at him, only just barely having managed to resist.

“So what was that?” He pointed with his chin towards the spray of red chilli powder direct before her as he dug his hands deeper into his pockets. “How did you make him stop?”

Bea glanced down at the crumbled bag still clutched in her hand, trying to figure out how best to put it. “Red pepper,” she managed absently, shoving the baggy into her pocket only to withdraw three more matching bags, still full.  Those she handed over. “I don’t quite understand how it works, but every ghost I’ve come across has fled this stuff. If they’re getting too nasty, fling some of this at them, and poof, they’re gone. At least for a little bit.”

He accepted the bags with a frown, lifting one to the light to examine it. “They run away from chilli powder? How does that even make sense?”

“I… have no idea,” Bea admitted after a moment consideration. “I just know it’s one of the few things that actually work every time I’ve done it, so I stick with it.”

“And you do this… often?” He seemed skeptical to say the least as his regard shifted to her. “I mean, deal with… you know.”

“Just because you say ‘ghost’ doesn’t mean one is going to pop out of the woodwork,” she pointed out with a roll of her eyes, turning on her heel to head back the way she had come.  “‘Sides, considering who you’ve been spending all your time with, I’m not sure you really have a place to judge me.”

“You know about Jo, too?” he asked in a startled whisper, fast on her heels.

Bea paused, tilting her head to look up at him. “I was talking about Robert. Jo isn’t dead.”

“But she is a god.”

“Say what now?”

Jake flushed a deep shade of red, quickly looking away, clearing his throat. “Nothing. Nevermind…”

Bea couldn’t help but laugh, shaking her head as she continued on towards her usual table. “Jo Rider is not a god. She saved you, too, didn’t she?” She could only shake her head again, highly amused by that particular turn.  “She’s something, but please, for all our sakes, don’t deify her.”

“What is she?”

“Ah, the question of the ages,” Bea sighed, settling her bookbag onto the table before sliding into her seat. “I have no idea,” she admitted, reaching for her usual stack of books.  The librarians had given up shuffling them away, knowing she would be returning the next day to simply pull them out again.

“So how do you know about…” he trailed off, jerking his head back the way he had come, color still riding high in his cheeks.

“Ghosts?” Bea sighed. “This blasted school…” She worried at the inside of her cheeks, considering.  The jock stood nearby, hands stuck deep in his pockets, shoulders pulled forward as if he could somehow make himself somehow smaller.  It was his eyes, though, that really gave the panic, the frustration, shame, the certainty that he was going insane. His gaze darted all about the room, fixing for only a brief moment on any given item before flitting away.  It was as if he were afraid to look at any one thing for too long, and looking at her was simply impossible.

She knew the feeling all too well.

“Do you know where the South Street Diner is?”

That question was unexpected enough to snap his attention to her with a fresh frown. “Over on Keenland?”

“That’s the one,” she murmured, digging into her jacket pocket once more.  “Meet me there at eight.”

“Aren’t you dating my cousin?”

“Don’t be cute, Jacob,” she sniffed indignantly, holding her hand out to him. “Keep this on you until then.

“You’re giving me charcoal?” The skepticism was shining bright.

She could only roll her eyes as she pulled the book closer.  “Black tourmaline,” she corrected lightly. “Now go away – I have to study.”

“But…”

“Eight o’clock, Jacob,” she said with a sigh, purposefully flipping the page.  The boy paused for several long moments before sighing to himself and shuffling away.

Was she really ready for this…?

 

*****

 

“Are you ever not studying?”

Bea didn’t bother looking up from the book she was reading, her notebook at her elbow filled with her neat scrawling of the most vital aspects she was picking up.  “It’s not studying,” she returned lightly. “Not really. More has to do with our issue.” Just one more paragraph, and she’d give him her full and undivided attention… “Let me finish this bit first – just have a seat.”

She had picked a back booth and the small, old-fashioned diner. She’d already been there for an hour, just after the dinner rush was starting to die down. It was a small, stand alone building that looked more like an oversized, metal trailer with curved edges. Large windows lined the front and sides, allowing all there to gaze out over passing traffic if they so wished. It’s more that it allowed the place to feel larger than it was.  One could take a booth, as she did, or sit at the counter. It had that feel of the fifties and sixties which she found comforting for some reason. She’d been a regular for a couple of months now, and the staff had come to recognize her, leaving her to her studies of a more esoteric nature.

Damn… she was studying.

The one paragraph became two which became a page then the end of the chapter, but she finally closed the book after her last couple of notes, and looked up only to flush.  Jake was sitting there quietly, arms crossed over his chest, an empty plate before him with the last few crumbs of what might have been a burger and fries. Color worked its way into her features, and she cleared her throat, gently pushing the book further away from her and folding her hands primly on the table before her. “Sorry,” she muttered, wrinkling her nose.

The jock, who was comfortably dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt rolled his eyes, shaking his head.  “Not sure what I was expecting, but somehow, this?” he gestured to the small pile of books and her own notes, or perhaps he was indicating her sitting there, still in her school uniform. “This seems just about right.” Another roll of his eyes, as if he were mentally chastising himself before he huffed a sigh. He seemed so much more like his old self away from the school, it was a comfort to see. “So what is it you wanted from me?”

Direct and to the point – that should help things move along.

She hoped.

“Ghosts are real,” she stated simply, but the words caused him to start. “And so are dozens of other things we all thought were just a bunch of bedtime stories,” she continued just as he was opening his mouth to argue. “It’s easiest to start with the understanding before we move any further along with things.”

He looked about, slouching on his side of the bench as if he were trying to hide from the embarrassment of the conversation while making sure no one was actually  catching them talking about such things. “Voice down,” he hissed. “Gah, do you have to be so…” he trailed off at a loss of words, shoving a frustrated hand back through his hair. “… you?”

She considered that accusation for a long moment before bobbing her head. “I don’t know any other way to be, Jacob,” she pointed out. “So let’s hear you say it. Ghosts are real…”

Further down in his seat he went, looking back over his shoulder towards the waitress who was ignoring them as she wiped down the counter. “Ghosts are real,” he mumbled at long last before looking back at her. “But what do we do about them?”

Wasn’t that the question of the ages?  

Bea slid the book she had been reading across the table towards him, arching both brows high, expression expectant. Then waited.

Jake looked down at the book, flipping it open to peer at the first few pages of the old journal before snapping it shut sliding it back in her direction.  “Your answer is read?”

Ah, poor boy.  Good as he was at certain things, he was well out of practice of using that head of his. She had to lead him right to the water if she wanted him to drink.  One corner of her mouth flitted briefly upwards. “The answer is nothing,” she corrected. “Not yet.  We learn how to defend ourselves. Then.. then we figure out what to do next.” She was still working on that step.

Nothing?” he repeated. “Like… nothing at all?”

She somehow knew that would be his reaction. “What do you want to do?”

“Get rid of them!”

“All of them?” she asked with a curious cant of the head.

Now he paused, pursing his lips. He had sat up straighter in his seat, leaning in towards her with forearms on the edge of the table. “How many of them are there?” he asked cautiously.

“Quite a few,” Bea admitted. “How many have you seen?”

He frowned, settling back in his seat. “Just Robbie.”

Now that was curious – their school was lowsy with spooks. “And you’ve seen what Jo can do?”

“Kick ass?” He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, kinda hard to miss.”

“But…” she trailed off, urging him to finish what else.  He had called her a ‘god’ earlier – that couldn’t just be because she was a badass.

“But…” he echoed before expelling a low, frustrated curse. “She… made a castle appear and sort of tore it down,” he admitted. Different, then, from the fire Be had witnessed in the crypt beneath the school. “And that bodyguard of hers, right?” he seemed to be on a roll as he issued a whistle. “I swear, I damn near wet my pants when I saw that dude. All claws and fangs… is he a vampire?”

“Bodyguard?” it was her time to echo him dimly. “Mr. Hamilton?”

“The young one.”

Hunter?” She knew the man was scary, but vampire? “Wait, fangs?”

The expression that tripped over Jake’s features could only be described as ‘smug.’  The jerk. “Ah, the great Beatrice Jacobs doesn’t know something,” he crowed. “Yeah. Dude’s totally a vampire. Scary as all fu-”

“Jacob,” she sharply interrupted. “Language.”

“Get out,” he amended. “Jeeze, Bea. Chill.” He rolled his eyes yet again – if he wasn’t careful, they were going to pop out of his skull. “So, yeah. We’re kinda surrounded by… creepy things.”

“And you want to get rid of them all?  Even Jo?”

The question gave him pause, and he worried at his lower lip as he considered for entirely too long for Bea’s taste, but she gave him the time he needed to contemplate.  At last, he shook his head. “No, not all of them. Jo’s alright, and her bodyguard is on our side, so he can’t be all bad, right? I mean, he didn’t eat me or anything. But Robbie…” He trailed off with a shiver – he was truly terrified of the dead boy, and with good reason. Seemed the spirit was actively out to get him even after his attempted possession failed months ago.

“How do we decide what goes and what stays?”

A full furrow bloomed across Jake’s brow. “If they hurt someone…”

“Jo hurts people all the time.  She had to in order to save you.”

“But that was saving. And she hurt bad people.”

“So how do we tell who the ‘bad people’ are?”

“I mean, if they have guns, that’s a pretty clear indication…”

“Jo’s brother carries a gun…”

“He’s a fed or something though, right?  He can’t be bad.” Ah, how cute. Bea cleared her throat delicately, causing Jake to sigh. “Ok, fine. Not all feds are ‘good guys.’ So… so how the hell are we supposed to figure it out? You seem to have all the answers.”

“We learn.”

It’s as if they were going in circles, but this time, he seemed to get it, that light sparking in his eyes. “So we do … we do nothing while we figure it out…” It was a statement rather than a question.

“Right. And meanwhile, we learn to protect ourselves… and others, Jake.”

“Others?”

“Would you have rather me walked out of the library this morning when Robert was pestering you?” A pregnant pause, and he sighed, giving a slow shake of his head, seeing her point, but refusing to give it for her. “So how could we leave someone else to such a fate?”

“God, I hate that you’re so logical,” he muttered darkly. “I feel sorry for my cousin.”

“Brian is a delight,” Bea sniffed indignantly, instantly coming to the defense of her beau.

“He’s with you.”

“And?”

“I kinda feel like he needs rescuing…”

“Oh shush, Jacob… Read your damn book.”

“Language…”

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