Remembrance, p.16
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       Remembrance, p.16

         Part #7 of The Mediator series by Meg Cabot

  He ignored me. “Then why, precisely, are we here?”

  “To make sure the girls are okay.”

  We had to keep our voices low because Brad and Debbie were inside the house having what they called “a discussion,” but what I thought might better be described as a domestic dispute. Debbie hadn’t been too happy when she’d come home from Pilates to find that she had houseguests.

  I could understand it. I probably wouldn’t be too thrilled, either, to come home from my exercise class to find that my stepsister-in-law and her boyfriend had shown up at my house with their overnight bags.

  Still, it was for a good cause. Too bad we couldn’t explain what it was.

  Every once in a while we could hear Brad’s and Debbie’s voices through the thin walls and vinyl siding of their bi/split level. Their home was lovely, but it hadn’t been made of the soundest construction material. I wondered if Slater Properties had had something to do with it.

  “Why did you have to pick tonight, of all nights, to invite them over?” I could hear Debbie demanding with perfect clarity from inside their kitchen (all stainless-steel appliances, but the dishwasher and trash compactor were often broken, usually at the same time).

  “I told you. They invited themselves over, Debbie.” Brad sounded tired. “Something about a class Suze is taking. She needs to observe kids in their home environment overnight.”

  “Great. So she chooses tonight to do it? With no advance warning?”

  “She’s my sister. What was I supposed to do?”

  “She’s your stepsister. And you could have said no. God, you are such a pushover, Brad. You let everyone walk all over you. Did you lose your balls as well as your brains when you got that concussion playing football in high school?”

  “Hey,” Brad said. “Could you keep it down? They can probably hear you. And it was wrestling, not football.”

  “Ask me how much I care, Brad.”

  “You know, I really don’t understand it,” I said to Jesse, taking a sip of the wine we’d brought, along with a couple of pizzas. “How do you think it happened?”

  “Father Dominic was probably taken off guard,” Jesse said. He reached out to squeeze my hand reassuringly. “But like I said, he’s strong. His vitals were looking much better before we left.”

  I remembered the father’s pale and battered face as I’d last seen it underneath the fluorescent lights of his hospital room, how sunken his eyes had looked beneath those paper-thin lids, the frailness of his hands resting on the blue blanket, the tangle of IV tubes flowing from them.

  If that was “much better,” I’d hate to know what “worse” looked like.

  “And we made good use of those items I ‘borrowed’ from the church,” Jesse went on. “That Medal of Mary we hung over his bed should keep him safe tonight, along with all the holy water.”

  “That isn’t what I meant,” I said. “I meant the girls. How could that have happened? How could they be mediators?”

  “Oh, that,” Jesse said. “Well, as you so astutely explained to me only last night, Susannah, when a man and a woman like each other very much, they make love, and when they do, if they don’t use protection—like your stepbrother and sister-in-law—sometimes the man’s sperm can fertilize the woman’s egg, and if either of them is carrying the genetic chromosome for communicating with the dead, then there’s a chance their baby could turn out to be—”

  I punched him in the shoulder, causing him to slosh some of the wine in his glass. But it was okay, since Max—whom we’d stopped off at the Crossing to bring along, as he’s such an excellent ghost detector—jumped up immediately, eager for the possibility that some food might have been spilled. Disappointed that it was only wine, however, he lay back down at our feet with a sigh.

  “Ow,” Jesse said, rubbing his shoulder where I’d punched him.

  “I didn’t hit you that hard. And that’s exactly what I mean. I don’t think either the Ackerman family or the Mancusos are carrying the mediator gene. I didn’t meet a single person at Brad and Debbie’s wedding who seemed remotely intuitive. Did you?”

  “No.” Jesse poured more wine into his glass. “And sometimes I think you don’t know your own strength. But I’ve always felt that your stepbrother David is very perceptive. Occasionally I was able to communicate with him back when I was . . .”

  “—dead,” I finished for him when he hesitated to say the word.

  “Yes. Thank you.”

  “No problem.”

  I took a sip from my glass and looked up at the stars—what I could see of them through the many electric wires intersecting the sky across the yard from Brad and Debbie’s neighbors’ houses—and wondered how I was ever going to get over to Carmel Hills to salt the old house now. It seemed that fate, in the form of Lucia Martinez, was conspiring against me.

  “I agree, David’s a really insightful kid,” I said. I was speaking quietly so neither the girls, who had upon occasion opened their bedroom window to spy on us after being put to bed, nor Debbie or Brad would overhear me. “But David’s not those girls’ dad. Brad is. And Debbie’s their mom. Brad is much less intuitive than good old Max here, and Debbie thinks vaccines cause diseases. So how can their kids see ghosts? And how are we ever going to explain that to their parents?”

  “We’re not going to,” Jesse said. “Any more than I explained to them that in a previous lifetime I watched entire families die from smallpox. If Debbie doesn’t believe the substantial scientific proof that vaccines will protect her children from disease, how likely do you think she is to believe that they—and you and I—can see and speak to ghosts?”

  “Uh, very? Especially now, since that toy the girls had belongs to the ghost of a child who died before they were born—a child who tried to murder their school principal this afternoon. The girls shouldn’t have been able to see it, let alone have possession of it, unless they’re mediators, which they can’t be, because no one on either side of their parents’ families has ever been a mediator—”

  “That we know of.”

  “Fine, that we know of. And yet, they could see that toy. And Lucia, too, apparently.”

  Jesse couldn’t deny it was true. When I’d snatched the toy away from the triplets and asked them where it had come from, Cotton-tail had volunteered, “He belongs to our friend Lucy. But she lets us borrow him sometimes.”

  “Yeah,” Mopsy had said. “Whenever we want, basically.”

  A chill had passed over me even though I’d been wearing my black leather jacket. It had gotten worse when their father had laughed and asked, “You’ve never met Lucy, Suze? What’s wrong with you? Lucy’s their favorite new friend. They play with Lucy all the time at school, don’t you, guys?”

  “Sometimes,” Flopsy had corrected him. “Sometimes she comes to school, sometimes she doesn’t. She wasn’t in school today.”

  “But she’s here now, isn’t she?” Brad had asked. “Lucy’s standing over there, right, Emma?”

  He’d pointed at one of the bougainvillea vines to the left of Mopsy.

  The girls had glanced in the direction their father was pointing, then looked scornfully away.

  “No, Daddy,” Flopsy had said in a pitying voice. “Lucy isn’t here right now. Lucy went home.”

  Brad had given me another sheepish grin and shrugged. “Oops, sorry. Lucy isn’t here right now. I guess she left her toy behind.” He’d said the word toy like it had quotation marks around it.

  I’d looked from the girls to their father, my feeling of horror turning to one of incredulity.

  “Wait a minute,” I’d said to my stepbrother. “Can you see this?” I’d held up the stuffed horse.

  “Sure,” Brad had said. “Of course I can see it.” Then he’d given me a broad wink.

  I still hadn’t been able to tell if Brad could see the toy or was only play-acting for the girls.

  “If you see it,” I’d said to him, “tell me what it is.”

  “An elephant, of
course,” Brad had said.

  The girls had fallen over themselves with laughter that their tall, invincible father had gotten the answer wrong.

  So Debbie and Brad’s daughters were mediators. How could I not have recognized the signs until a very dangerous—and very angry—ghost had decided to use them to deliver a message to me? I couldn’t fathom it.

  But that’s what Lucia’s giving them her toy at the hospital, right under my nose, had to be. A message.

  But about what? To say what? That she could get to the people I loved—the most vulnerable and innocent of all—anytime she wanted?

  Hadn’t she already delivered this message by nearly killing Father Dominic?

  So many things had begun to fall into place. Like this greatgrandmother the girls were always talking about, the one who’d broken her hip, then died of pneumonia. When they mentioned things she’d said, they weren’t things she’d said to them before she’d died, but after.

  And their extraordinarily high energy level, and frequent outbursts, including the one the day before, when they had sensed all the way in the kindergarten classroom Lucia’s attack on me in the office, and Sister Ernestine had been summoned to calm them down.

  All of these were signs not that they had ADHD, as Sister Ernestine suggested, but that they could—and often did—communicate with the dead.

  This gift—as Father Dominic chose to call it—affected different people in different ways. It had caused Paul’s younger brother Jack to withdraw into himself, giving him night terrors and eventually agoraphobia. I’m sure my therapist, Dr. Jo, probably would have said he lacked the “inner resiliency” to handle so much psychic energy coming at him all at once, until I’d shown him how to process it.

  Other people, however—like Paul, and my stepnieces—found this psychic energy stimulating rather than draining, and enjoyed having twice as many playmates as their friends (even if no one but them could see them) . . . or making twice as much money because of it.

  I was already feeling a lot of guilt for not having picked up sooner rather than later on all the clues about the triplets, and for many of the things I’d done to NCDPs in front of them.

  The question now was, how much of it had they understood? And just what, precisely, was their relationship with Lucia? Were their lives really in danger from the little girl? Or was she, as the girls insisted, a playmate? It seemed hard to believe that creature who’d tried to drown me in the pool and nearly killed Father Dominic and seemed slowly to be draining the life from Becca Walters was on friendly terms with anyone.

  I wished, for the hundredth time that evening, that Father Dom were not lying unconscious on the third floor of St. Francis Medical Center. He would have known exactly what to do—not only about the triplets, but about Lucia.

  Then again, his conviction that he’d known what to do about Lucia was how he’d ended up in the ICU in the first place.

  We were on our own with this one.

  We’d had no luck questioning the girls back at the hospital, nor later when we’d arrived bearing pizza. Brad had been anxious to get them bathed and fed before Mommy got home, and the girls had been too excited about having Uncle Jesse and Aunt Suze over to rationally answer any of my questions about their new friend Lucy.

  Then Mommy had returned. Debbie had been none too happy to find us there, even though in addition to pizza, we’d brought her favorite wine—the good kind, from a vineyard in the area that sold their bottles to expensive restaurants in New York City for three times what they cost locally. Debbie had drunk a whole bottle on her own and was working on a second one.

  “I just don’t get it,” I said to Jesse as he poured me some of the very good wine from an extra bottle we’d hidden in the car. “Brad used to tease me that he knew I had a boy in my room, back in high school, because he said he heard us talking. But I think he only overheard my end of the conversation. He never actually saw you. And Debbie never did, either. So how can their children be mediators?”

  “Neither of your parents saw spirits. Obviously it can skip a generation. Maybe even two or more.” Jesse poured a splash of pinot noir into his own glass. “And we don’t know that the girls are full-fledged mediators, necessarily. Children tend to be more sensitive in general to paranormal phenomena than adults. They’re more imaginative, and more open-minded.”

  “Sensitive? Did you see those girls fighting over that horse, Jesse? They each grabbed a leg and pulled. If I hadn’t stopped them, they’d have ripped it apart, then killed each other. I wouldn’t exactly call the Ackerman girls sensitive.”

  “Well . . . a better description might be high-spirited, like their aunt.”

  “I’m not even related to them by blood, remember? None of that is from me.”

  I shivered in the cool night air. The fire from Brad’s pit wasn’t doing much to cut the chill, though the pungent smell of the smoke was pleasant, as was the crackling sound of the wood as it burned.

  “What I don’t get is how this could have happened right under our noses, without us ever noticing. I had no clue. Did you?”

  “The girls had that private language,” he reminded me. “They spoke it among themselves until last year.”

  I straightened. “That’s right! How could I forget? You even wrote that paper on it—cryptophasia. Debbie was so worried the mission was going to put them into special education.”

  “But it’s not unusual for multiples. There’ve been many incidents of siblings—mainly twins, but occasionally triplets and quads—developing their own language. And, like your nieces, they usually grow out of it by the time they get to school.”

  “That’s why it took so long for us to catch on.” I relaxed a little. “And all of us thinking it was so cute probably only encouraged them to use it more, and be more secretive. Well, all of us except Debbie. She didn’t think it was cute. And she was right! Jesse, they must have been talking to each other about the ghosts they were seeing. Could we have been bigger idiots?”

  “I think you’re being a little hard on yourself,” Jesse said mildly.

  “Do you really think Lucia plays with them, like they said, or is she only setting them up to push them down the stairs, too, when they least suspect it?”

  “You’re the one who keeps insisting she’s an innocent child in pain.”

  “She is,” I said hastily. “I’m sure.”

  “You’d better hope so. Otherwise, if she murders Brad and Debbie in their sleep tonight, we’ll end up with custody of your nieces, since we’re their appointed legal guardians.”

  “Why do you think we’re here? Brad and Debbie don’t have life insurance. We can’t let them croak. We’ll have to put off having our own kids in order to be able to afford to raise theirs.”

  He glanced around the balding, toy-strewn lawn and muttered something rapidly in Spanish. I didn’t understand what he said, but I understood the tone.

  “Oh, my God, Jesse, I was kidding! Would you stop worrying so much about money? I told you, I have plenty. And we can get on the having children of our own thing tonight, if you want.” I laid a hand upon his knee. “I’m pretty sure their guest room door has a lock on it.”

  The look he gave me was crushing. “Really, Susannah? That’s where you’d like for us to make love for the first time, in your brother Brad’s guest room, where he keeps his wrestling trophies?”

  “Stepbrother. God.” I removed my hand. “Way to ruin the moment. When are you going to—”

  Max leapt suddenly to his feet. But this time it wasn’t because either of us had dropped food, or even spilled our wine. Max had sensed something he didn’t like in the darkest corner of the yard, over by the girls’ pink and white fairy playhouse, big enough only for three very small girls (and one sheepish step-aunt) to squeeze into.

  “What—?” I began, but Jesse shushed me.

  All the fur on Max’s back had risen, and he began to growl, deep in his throat. For an elderly dog of such a mild, friendly temperame
nt, Max had reverted with startling abruptness to his lupine ancestry. His lips were curled to reveal yellowed fangs I was certain I’d never seen before.

  Now Jesse placed a hand on my knee, but unfortunately it was only to keep me in my seat, since my instinctive reaction had been to rise and head toward the fairy playhouse sitting so benignly in the blackness.

  “Stay where you are,” Jesse whispered, his own gaze never leaving the innocuous plastic structure. He’d risen and begun following Max, who’d sunk down to his haunches and was creeping toward the dark corner of the yard like a wolf stalking prey.

  “I’m sure it’s only a raccoon,” I said, not believing for an instant that it was only a raccoon.

  Jesse confirmed this suspicion when he said, “Max has never growled like that at a raccoon.” He’d reached into the pocket of his coat and extracted a small shiny object that he pointed in the direction of the playhouse.

  My heart skipped a beat. I don’t know if I was more frightened or impressed. “Is that a gun?”

  “Of course it’s not a gun, Susannah. It’s a cordless lamp.” Jesse noticed I hadn’t obeyed his command to stay where I was and was creeping along behind him. “What are you doing? Get back to the house.”

  “Don’t be stupid. What’s a cordless lamp? Oh, you mean a flashlight. Oh, Jesus.”

  Jesse had switched on his flashlight and trained the bright blue beam at the playhouse. As soon as he did, it seemed to startle whatever was inside.

  What happened next came in quick succession. Max snarled, then lunged at what came bursting through one of the playhouse’s windows.

  At first, because it made a flapping sound, I assumed it was a bird.

  But since it was also very large and glowing with the intensity of a pair of car headlights, right into my eyes, and let out a scream as piercing and shrill as a kettle left too long on a hot burner, I knew it was no bird. It was something otherworldly.

  And it was very unhappy to have been disturbed.

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