I’m used to ghosts; I was raised among spirits. But I’ll never get used to victims.
Pressing my hand to the K-9 unit lettering on the fender of the Palo Alto police cruiser, I took three measured breaths and focused on calming my skittish heart. Then I counted backward from ten, slowly, as a commercial jet sliced through the perfect bowl of turquoise sky above my head. The afternoon sun painted everything with a buttery light. Blue scrub jays and a variety of mottled brown sparrows chittered and sang around the birdfeeders in our small community of townhomes. It was a picture perfect day. It was definitely not the sort of day for a Hollywood ghost story. Then again, Hollywood usually gets it wrong and every day of my life is a freaking ghost story.
I could have walked away. Mother didn’t expect me home from school for another hour. Maybe I should have walked away. Instead, I forced my feet to shuffle closer to the front door. I knew this police vehicle. This wasn’t just any officer; this was my mother’s cousin, Detective LaShawna Simmons. And if LaShawna was here, it was a safe bet her partner Kota had also come to visit. I loved LaShawna; she was our only family in this part of the world, and Kota was my favorite police officer on the planet. I never missed an opportunity to visit with either of them, even if they were here on official business.
When I opened the gate and caught sight of our tiny front porch, I stopped again. The front door was slightly ajar, which should have made it easy to slip in quietly. But there was an unnatural shadow around the door—a roiling, boiling sort of gloom. I clenched my teeth. Nothing about this visit was going to be easy.
Another deep breath was required before I could force myself to move forward and ease the door back so I could slip through. Kota was five feet from the threshold, stretched out in his down position. His beautiful black face swiveled toward me, one ear twitching in recognition before he looked back at the far corner of our living room. Anyone unfamiliar with a K-9 police officer might think Kota was relaxing, but I could see the bunched muscles under his tan fur and the tension in his perfectly still tail.
This was not a happy dog.
This was not a happy visit.
Moving in triple slow motion, I knelt next to him and buried my fingers in the thick ruff of fur at his neck. Kota continued to monitor one corner of the living room. I watched the drama unfolding in the open kitchen. Both of us were on alert, still and tense, allies in a strange land.
LaShawna stood with one hip pressed against the kitchen counter clutching a glass of iced tea in both hands. Her eyes were ringed with dark circles, and her lips were pressed together in a tight line. Her posture indicated she was restraining herself from getting too close to the chair where my mother sat hunched over a glossy photograph. I focused on the turquoise running shoe in Mother’s left hand and ignored the flickering shadow in the corner of the living room Kota was watching with fierce concentration.
Promise me, Asha. My father’s voice echoed in my memory. Stay out of your mother’s crazy crusades. Promise you won’t let her pull you in.
The shadow in the living room throbbed with wild, desperate tension.
Mother heaved a tremendous sigh and pressed her bejeweled right hand to her heart.
“Nothing. I’m getting nothing.” She twisted in her chair to look up at our visitor with a look of benign peace plastered on her face. LaShawna’s eyes narrowed to slits and her nostrils flared, but she remained silent. “Don’t look at me like that, Shaw. This is good news. I don’t think this girl is dead. She’s probably hiding out with a boyfriend or something.”
A molten wave of foreign emotions flooded my senses – shock followed by white hot anger and sickening panic caused my gut to twist. Without thinking, I gasped and clutched my stomach.
LaShawna’s topaz eyes flicked over me briefly before turning back toward my mother. “This girl has a name. Her name is Ivy Brennan.” Jaw clenched, she was grinding out each word. “This girl is an honor student. A star athlete. A devoted sister. In the past year she has logged hundreds of volunteer hours with my youth league. She has no history of trouble. No red flags!” She turned and thumped her fist on our kitchen counter.
“She’s the same age as Asha,” she finished quietly.
“Ivy,” my mother repeated the name with a bemused expression. “I used to go to school with a girl named Ivy. We called her Poison Ivy. Total wild child.”
LaShawna pressed her lips back into a tight line and glared at my mother, frustration making her eyes unnaturally wide.
“No red flags?” Xia pressed on, blithely ignoring the warning signs in her cousin’s expression. “This girl’s mother was a junkie, wasn’t she? Didn’t Mommy die of a drug overdose when the kid was eight? I call that a big old red flag, Shaw.”
My focus slipped toward the shadow. Images flickered rapidly at the center of the writhing darkness – feet jogging on wet asphalt, white roses draped over a closed casket, a toddler hugging a dirty yellow teddy bear. The living room wall behind the shadow seemed to grow transparent and, like a hologram projection inside tinted glass, a blonde girl around my age appeared. She was sitting on a window seat, knees tucked inside her Palo Alto Vikings sweatshirt while tears streamed down her pale, freckled cheeks. An electric current rippled through my body, causing me to flinch and suck in air.
In the projection, the girl looked up. Her pale blue eyes widened. “You see me?” she asked. The pulsing, shadowy version of her spirit suddenly appeared next to my right shoulder, surging with emotion. I shuddered again and leaned away from the chaotic apparition, touching my forehead to Kota’s neck while my mother said something about the erratic nature of all teenage girls.
“You hear me!” Ivy exclaimed while LaShawna begged my mother to try again.
Promise me, Asha.
I’d made a promise to my father nearly a year ago, right before he disappeared from our lives. The only way to keep that promise was to run away now, run away into the sunlight and bird chatter outside and keep running.
Instead, I peeked up toward the kitchen, silently begging my mother to get control of this mess. Holding the running shoe in both hands, she took a deep breath, straightened her spine and closed her eyes. My hopes lifted.
“I get the sense of water,” my mother said after several tense seconds. Her upper body began to sway a few inches side to side. “A large body of water but not the ocean.”
Ivy appeared in front of me, blocking my line of sight into the kitchen. Her image cracked and dissolved into dust before reappearing, blue eyes boring into mine. I gulped, fighting the acrid dryness crawling up my throat.
No. No water where she was buried. Her grave was bone dry.
Xia Celeste was getting it all wrong. If I didn’t do something, my mother would send LaShawna searching down dead ends all over the Bay Area. The purplish shadows around LaShawna’s eyes indicated her fierce determination was barely covering terrible exhaustion. How many false visions had she already investigated?
“Sorry, Daddy,” I whispered.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish