Remembrance, p.17
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       Remembrance, p.17

         Part #7 of The Mediator series by Meg Cabot

  diecisiete

  I threw my hands over my head, unable to stifle a shriek of my own. I heard Jesse shout beside me, and Max barking as he turned into a vicious guard dog from a prison movie.

  When the shrill banshee shriek finally faded from my ears, I lowered my arms and opened my eyes to find that the light had gone. The yard was once again in darkness, except for the light cast by the thin sliver of moon that had just begun to rise, the warm red glow from the fire pit, and the yellow patches of light cast from the windows of Brad and Debbie’s house. In their reflection I could see Max running around the yard, sniffing frantically to locate the quarry he’d flushed from the playhouse.

  On either side of Brad and Debbie’s house, I saw neighbors parting the curtains and looking through their own windows, wondering what could possibly be going on next door. Nothing at all happened inside Brad and Debbie’s, which was odd. How could they not have heard something that had roused the rest of the block?

  “What,” I whispered to Jesse, knowing we were being watched, “was that?”

  The beam from Jesse’s cordless lamp was still trained against what now looked like a perfectly ordinary pink and white fairy castle . . . with one exception.

  “I think we both know.” He’d sunk down to one knee in front of the three-foot door to the fairy castle. He pointed to something in the grass. “She left something behind.”

  “What is it?” My ears were still ringing from the shrillness of the scream. I wasn’t sure if it was Lucia’s or my own. “It better not be a bloody horse head, or I will lose my shit.”

  Jesse prodded it. “A horse head? Oh, you mean The Godfather.” This was one of the many movies I’d made Jesse watch in order catch up with modern American culture. “No. It’s quite small. I think it’s a flower.”

  “A flower?” I knelt down in the grass beside him. “Are you sure? That sounds awfully tame for Lucia.”

  “Yes.” He lifted a small purple thing from the grass. It was no larger than a tube of my lip gloss. “A flower. Bougainvillea, I think.”

  Bougainvillea? Why did that seem familiar?

  An uneasy feeling—I’d been having way too many of those lately—came over me. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Give me the cordless lamp. I want to see something.”

  He passed me the flashlight, and I leaned over to shine the beam inside the playhouse.

  Then I froze, my blood suddenly going as cool as the evening air around us. “Crap.”

  “What is it?” Jesse joined me in peering inside the fairy castle, but when he saw what I’d seen, his curse was in Spanish, not English, so it sounded a little classier.

  Flowers. That was all. No bloody body parts, no Satanic symbols scrawled on the wall, no bizarre ritualistic runes made of sticks. Only flowers. Not just a few, either, scattered across the floor the way the triplets had been practicing for when they were in our wedding, but hundreds of dead flowers dumped as if someone had been getting rid of their yard waste, using the girls’ fairy castle as a trash receptacle.

  Except that I knew who that someone was, and the yard waste had been carefully selected. It was all bougainvillea, all pink and purple flowers, like the ones that had been growing on the vines on the gazebo outside the hospital, beneath which Jesse and I had sat talking earlier that evening about Lucia Martinez’s murder.

  As if that wasn’t creepy enough, four dolls sat around the table inside the playhouse (the very table at which I’d had pretend tea with the girls last week), their eyes staring unblinkingly at us through the dead bougainvillea blossoms that had been poured over their heads. The dolls were dressed in what I knew to be their “fanciest” outfits—because I’d been the one badgered into buying them—gowns that were now stained brown and yellow by the decomposing flowers.

  I’d seen some pretty upsetting stuff done by the souls of the dead in the past, and even worse done by the living.

  But the blank-eyed gazes of those dolls staring out at me from the darkness, amid that sea of flower corpses, was something I knew was going to haunt me forever.

  I dropped the flashlight in order to press a hand to my mouth, then staggered away from the playhouse.

  Jesse was at my side in an instant.

  “What is it?” he asked, putting his arms around me protectively. “The dolls?”

  I shook my head. “The smell.” Rotting bougainvillea stinks, especially in great quantities.

  But I was lying. I was ashamed to admit how much the dolls had unnerved me. It wasn’t only their dead-eyed stare, but the fact that they looked just like my nieces—or how my nieces thought they looked. The girls had picked out the dolls themselves last Christmas from a catalog that advertised a line of “create your own dolls,” so each girl had selected a doll she felt represented herself. Flopsy and Cotton-tail had chosen mini-me’s, with blue eyes, long brown hair, and fair skin.

  But Mopsy, ever the iconoclast, had scandalized her ultra-conservative maternal grandparents by choosing a doll with brown skin and even darker brown hair and eyes, a fact that had flattered and amused Jesse so much that I’d had to whisper to him during Christmas brunch to settle down, in case Grandpa Mancuso overheard him crowing, “She picked a doll that looks like me! I always told you, Emily’s the smart one. She wants to follow in my footsteps.”

  I certainly hoped he was right, since if Paul got his way, Mopsy was the closest thing to a daughter Jesse was likely to get.

  The fourth doll at the table had been a hand-me-down from one of the girls’ Ackerman cousins. She had blond hair that had been roughly hacked in front to give her the appearance of bangs.

  Her resemblance to Lucia was close enough to cause my stomach to clench.

  “What do you think she’s trying to do?” I asked. “Send us another message?”

  “Yes.” Jesse had retrieved the flashlight from where I’d dropped it. He switched it off, then put it back into his pocket. “I think so.”

  “But what? What’s she trying to say?” I couldn’t believe how creeped out I was. They were only dolls, not severed limbs. “If it’s ‘Don’t go in the playhouse,’ I got it, loud and clear.”

  He put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me to him. “I don’t think that’s what she’s saying. I don’t think she meant to frighten you.”

  “Frighten me?” I had my face buried in the soft suede of his coat. It smelled good, a combination of suede and vanilla and smoke from the wood burning in the fire pit and antibacterial soap from the hospital. In other words, it smelled of Jesse. “Who said I’m frightened? I’m not frightened.” I was scared to death. “Grossed out, maybe. The ad says ‘Say it with flowers,’ not ‘Say it with dead, decomposing flowers.’ That is one weird way to express yourself, even for a child.”

  “Not for a dead child,” Jesse said, stroking my hair. I don’t think he believed me about not being frightened. “Think about it. It makes sense.”

  “What does?”

  “Dead flowers from a dead child. What else does she have to give? When you’re dead, you don’t have many options. You’ve heard of pennies from heaven?”

  I lifted my head to look at him. “Of course I have. People who find pennies in weird places and think that the ghost of a loved one has left them there on purpose for them to find. But Jesse, that’s not a real thing.”

  “Of course it’s a real thing.” He tightened his grip on me, his dark-eyed gaze intensifying on mine. “I get that it’s hard for you to understand. Communication has always come easily for you. You’ve never had a problem talking to anyone, alive or—what do you call them? Oh, right. Even the non-compliant deceased persons. And you’ve certainly never been dead. But supposing there came a day when you tried to reach out to someone you loved, and that person could no longer see or hear you. That’s what’s it like to be dead, but unable to cross over. Can you imagine the kind of living hell that would be?”

  Yes. Like walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

  I could hear it in his voice, and feel it in the way he’d sunk his fingers so deeply into the flesh of my upper arms. My heart twisted for him.

 


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“Of course, Jesse.” I reached up to lay a hand along his cheek, but he flinched, ducking his head away.

  He wasn’t rejecting my caress. I’m not even sure he noticed what he’d done. He simply wanted to finish what he was saying.

  But they were back. The shadows in his eyes. I could see them, even in the dim lighting of the yard.

  You can take the boy out of the darkness.

  He continued in a low, rapid voice, “Of course you’d do whatever you could to signal to that person you’re still there, whether it’s leave a penny, or dead flowers, or shake the house down. You’re so hopeless, you wouldn’t notice what you’re doing is terrifying them. You just want them to know you’re not really gone. You understand that, Susannah, don’t you?”

  But you can’t take the darkness out of the boy.

  “Yes,” I said. “I understand that, Jesse.”

  I realized how far Jesse had come, in one evening, from wanting to exorcise Lucia to identifying with her, and possibly even sympathizing with her.

  I also realized that he was finally talking about what being dead had been like for him.

  I wondered if he realized it, too. But I didn’t want to push him too far by asking. Instead, I asked, “So what do you think Lucia was trying to say with those flowers?”

  He glanced at the playhouse. “That she’s sorry.”

  “Sorry?” My jaw dropped. “She’s sorry?”

  “Why not? They’re the same flowers from the bougainvillea tree outside the hospital. It’s likely she saw you there with your nieces.”

  “You were there, too. You’re the one who gave them all the gum.”

  Jesse grinned. Every time he grinned, it was like sunshine after a week of overcast days. Or maybe coming home after spending way too long in the valley of the shadow of death.

  “That’s what I’m saying. I think she saw us with the girls and realized we’re friends, not foes. The flowers are her way of trying to make up for what she did.”

  “In that case, she delivered them to the wrong place. They should be in Father Dom’s room in the ICU.”

  “I’
d have enjoyed seeing that,” Jesse said, a wistful look in his eyes.

  “Me, too.”

  I tried to match his light tone, but inside, I didn’t feel nearly as playful. Maybe because I knew he was right . . . Lucia had left the flowers for me, her first attempt to reach out to an adult she thought she could trust, and how had we repaid her? By allowing—even encouraging—Max to chase her off from my stepnieces’ yard, probably the only place in the world where she’d felt free to be the child she’d once been, frightening her half out of her wits (if that piercing scream had been any indication).

  Worse, Jesse’s heartfelt admission about the loneliness he’d suffered when he was dead—how he’d longed to reach out to those he’d loved, but had been unable to—had reminded me of someone else from my past, someone who definitely did not have anywhere near the issues of Jesse or Lucia, but who was almost as messed up, in his own way.

  What was it my mother had said on the phone about Paul? Oh, right: He was one of those kids who always received plenty of money from his family, but no love or attention.

  How different was that from being a ghost, by Jesse’s definition, someone who kept reaching out to people and having those people not be able to see or hear him?

  I had way too many ghosts in my life right now, clamoring for my attention. For the first time, I wasn’t sure I could handle them all on my own. One of the things that had become clear in my sessions with Dr. Jo was that I “compartmentalized” too much and “wasn’t open” about whatever “trauma” it was I’d experienced in my past. This, she felt, was holding me back, and was probably causing my insomnia.

  Of course, I had good reason not to reveal my past to Dr. Jo.

  But if Jesse was going to open up to me about his past, maybe I needed to be more honest with him about mine. Not just my past, but about the danger he was in . . . that we were both in, if Paul succeeded in his plan.

  “Jesse,” I said, reaching for his hand. “I have something I think I need to tell you.”

  He looked concerned. “What is it, querida?”

  “I was going to tell you before, but I was worried you’d get mad.”

  “I could never get mad at you.”

  I laughed. “That’s actually a good one.”

  Naturally, he got mad. “Susannah, you never make me angry. Sometimes the things you do make me angry—well, annoyed—because you don’t always seem to think things through before you—”

  “See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. I haven’t even told you what it is, and you’re already mad.”

  Jesse’s dark eyebrows came rushing together. “I didn’t say I was mad. I said I was annoyed. You’re annoying me by telling me how I’m going to feel. You’re a very perceptive woman, Susannah, but you don’t live inside my head, so you can’t tell me what I’m going to feel.”

  I didn’t like how this was going. I especially didn’t like the little muscle I saw begin to leap in his jaw, visible even in the darkness of the yard.

  “Let’s just drop it, okay?”

  “Susannah, you can’t just—”

  I heard the scrape of a screen door.

  “Suze? Jesse?” Debbie’s voice called out to us from the back porch. She was struggling to pull her shirt back on. So now I knew why it had taken her and Brad so long to check on us: they’d made up from their fight, probably all over the kitchen floor. “What are you guys doing out here? What was Max barking at before?”

  I pulled my hand from Jesse’s, a surge of relief flooding through me. I don’t think I’d ever been so grateful to see Debbie before in my life.

  Screw Dr. Jo. Screw Paul. Screw ancient Egyptian curses and bloggers who wouldn’t call me back. I’d handle this one on my own. Some secrets were better off staying secret.

  “Nothing’s wrong, Debbie,” I called to her. “There was just a . . . a raccoon in the playhouse. Max scared him off.”

  “A raccoon?” Brad joined his wife on the back porch, sounding excited. “Which way did he go? Hold on, let me get my rifle.”

  Oh, God.

  “Susannah,” Jesse said, catching my arm as I began striding back toward the house. “What is it? What were you going to tell me?”

  “Seriously, forget it. It was nothing.”

  “It didn’t sound like nothing.”

  “Well, it was.”

  Fortunately a childish voice called from the open window upstairs. “Mommy? What’s going on?”

  “Oh, great.” Debbie sounded irritated. “Now the kids are up. Nothing, sweetie. Just a raccoon. Max chased it away. Go back to sleep.”

  “Mommy.” Mopsy sounded drowsy, but upset. “It wasn’t a raccoon. It was Lucy. Max scared her. Don’t let Daddy shoot her.”

  Looking up, I saw three small, dark silhouettes crowding one of the upstairs windows. I could dimly make out the girls’ faces as they stared down at us, their expressions concerned in the moonlight.

  “Girls.” Debbie came down into the yard until she stood beneath the girls’ window. She’d done an amazing job of whipping her body back into shape after their delivery with both Pilates and a tummy tuck (paid for by her father, the Mercedes King), and she knew it. She liked to show off her great figure by wearing a lot of Spandex. She stood craning her neck to look up at the girls, a glass of barely touched wine in her hand. “You know perfectly well Lucy isn’t real. I’ve asked you repeatedly to quit making up stories about her. Now get back in bed, all of you.”

  Mopsy ignored her mother, and shifted her appeal to me. “Aunt Suze, don’t let Max get Lucy. She’s our friend.”

  I glanced at Jesse. I didn’t have to say anything out loud. He nodded and said, “I’ll get the dog.” He started after Max, who’d found his way back to the playhouse and was digging through the bougainvillea, where he’d apparently picked up the odor of something edible. Jesse hauled him out by his collar, though Max put up a struggle. “That’s enough for tonight, Max,” I heard Jesse saying to the dog. “Good boy.”

  “Don’t worry, girls,” I said, crossing the yard until I stood beside their mother. I looked up at the three worried little faces, barely discernible in the moonlight. “Max can’t hurt Lucy, and neither can your dad. Lucy’s a ghost, and dogs and guns can’t hurt ghosts. Now do as your mother says, and go back to bed.”

  “Okay, Aunt Suze,” the girls said in tones of bitter disappointment—not about their ghost friend, but about having to go back to bed. One by one, their little heads disappeared from the window.

  When I turned back toward their mother, I found her staring at me in disbelief.

  “What?” I asked.

  “Suze,” Debbie said. “Lucy’s their invisible friend.”

  “So?”

  “She’s a figment of their imagination. You just called her a ghost. I know how popular that stupid video game Ghost Mediator is, and I’m fairly certain some of the parents in the girls’ class let their children play it, even though it’s age inappropriate and much too violent. But Brad and I are actively trying to discourage the girls from believing in the supernatural.”

  I stared back at her. “Oh . . . kay.”

  “Deborah.” Jesse came by, dragging Max by the collar behind him. “You send the girls to Catholic school. Part of their religious education involves instruction in the Holy Trinity, which includes the Holy Spirit.”

  “Oh, that’s different,” Debbie said, using the simpering tone she always adopted whenever addressing my fiancé. It was like Jesse gave off pheromones that some women couldn’t help reacting to. Obviously I was one of those women, but at least I tried not to show it . . . in public, anyway. “We obviously want them to have strong moral beliefs. But with the exception of the Holy Ghost, ghosts aren’t real.”

  I’d had enough. “How do you know they aren’t real?” I walked around her, back toward my lawn chair, in order to retrieve my glass of wine. “They could be.”

 
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