Part #7 of The Mediator series by Meg Cabot
Considering what he’d been through, however, this was only natural.
“Look out for yourself, then, all right, querida? The last thing I want is my fiancée being brought in to the ER as a patient.”
“You know that’s never going to happen. I can’t stand doctors, remember? They think they know everything.”
“Because we do know everything, actually. Te amo, querida.”
Thankfully he hung up before he could do any more extrasensory percepting (or turn me into a puddle of desire right there on the phone).
I hung up, too. There was no way on earth I was going to tell Jesse about Paul’s threat, let alone his proposition. It would only make him angry.
Angry? It would set off a thermal nuclear explosion inside his head.
And now—despite Paul’s assertions otherwise—Jesse was a gainfully employed, full-blooded citizen. Unlike before, if he was caught attempting to kill a fellow citizen, he had a lot to lose, what with his fellowship and our planned wedding next year in the basilica at the Carmel Mission. True, the invitations hadn’t gone out yet, but there were two hundred guests and counting on the list . . . none of them family from the groom’s side, of course, all of Jesse’s relatives having died over a century earlier, something Jesse pretended not to mind. But who wouldn’t be bothered by it?
It would be awkward to have to pay back all those deposits due to the groom having been indicted for murder.
And what about the private grant Jesse had applied for that, if he won it, would help pay back a substantial chunk of what he owed in student loans, and also help finance his own practice after he became certified? (As long as he agreed to serve uninsured and low-income patients, something he’d planned on doing anyway. One in five American households lives below the poverty line, even in a community as outwardly glitzy as Carmel.)
Jesse’s chances of winning it out of so many hundreds of applicants would be another miracle that I didn’t think we could count on.
I came out of Ms. Diaz’s office and waved the first-aid kit at the bleeding girl. “Let me take a look at that.”
“No, it’s okay,” Becca protested, backing away from me and pulling her arm close. “I’m fine.”
She was so far from fine this statement was almost hilarious—except no one was laughing. Besides the blood dripping from her arm, some had spilled down the front of her school uniform—the school had reinstituted a uniform policy after having relaxed it in the years I’d been there (I tried not to take the reinstitution personally). Now all students were required to wear a navy blue sweater over a white shirt, with either gray trousers or a blue plaid skirt. This girl had opted for the skirt.
Her mouse brown hair looked as if it had never met conditioner . . . or a brush. Her skin was pale and unhealthily blemished, her uniform a size or two too big on her. She was wearing glasses with frames that appeared to have been purchased in the early 2000s, or perhaps were hand-me-downs from the nineties.
To use the phrasing of a (soon-to-be) professional school counselor, this kid was a hot mess, and that’s not even mentioning the Non-Compliant Deceased Person hanging on to one of the pleats of her too-big navy plaid skirt, dragging it even further askew.
I was the only person in the room who could see it, but I was sure Becca could feel the extra weight. She probably had chronic back or neck pain for which her doctor could find no medical cause.
I knew the cause. It was a ghostly parasite, and I was staring right at it, and at the miserable expression it was provoking from its human host.
Then again, that misery might have been because Becca had just jacked up her wrist so badly, and was being hauled around by one of the state of California’s biggest busybodies.
“You sit down right here, Becca,” Sister Ernestine said, all but shoving the bleeding girl into the mission-style chair across from my desk. Only it wasn’t a chair designed to look mission style, it was a chair likely dating back to the 1700s when Father Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar from Spain who had recently been sainted by Pope Francis, had run up and down the coast of California, frantically building missions so he could beat the Lord’s word into the Native Americans he had captured and held there. Judging by their extreme creakiness, I wouldn’t doubt most of the school’s office furniture has been around since old Father Serra’s time. “Let Miss Simon bandage those cuts. I’m going to telephone your parents.”
“No!” Becca cried, trying to leap back up from the chair. “I told you, Sister, I’m fine! This is stupid. My compass slipped in geometry, is all. You don’t have to call my parents. Mr. Walden was way overreacting—”
“Mr. Walden?” I raised a skeptical eyebrow as I snapped on a pair of latex gloves.
It’s completely humiliating that after nearly six years of postsecondary education, the only place in the entire state of California where I could find employment (and not even paying employment) is my former high school. But there are a few upsides. At least here I can tell when kids are lying to my face about the teachers.
“Mr. Walden doesn’t overreact,” I said. “I had him for my junior and senior years. If he says there’s a problem, there’s a problem. So show me your arm, please.”
The girl stared at me through her overlarge, brown plastic frames.
“Wait,” she said, registering what the nun had called me. “Miss Simon? Are you Suze Simon? The one who knocked the head off the Father Serra statue in the courtyard?”
My gaze slid quickly toward Sister Ernestine, who’d fortunately bustled into her office and was already on the phone, presumably with Becca’s parents.
“Nope,” I said, turning back to Becca. “Never heard of her.”
The girl dropped her voice so the nun couldn’t overhear us. “Yes, you are. Everyone says you knocked Father Serra’s head off with your bare hands during a fight, and that you had to work here in the office to pay to get the statue’s head soldered back on.” Her eyes widened. “Oh, my God. Are they still making you work here to pay it off? Didn’t you graduate, like, ten years ago?”
“Six. Six years ago. How old do people think I am, anyway? Arm, please.”
Reluctantly, the girl stretched her wrist toward me and I plucked the wad of paper towels from it . . . then inhaled almost as sharply as she did, but not for the same reason. Her blood had finally coagulated, and my ripping the paper towels from the wound had torn it open afresh, causing her to cry out in pain.
I gasped because now that I could finally see the injury, I could tell it hadn’t been the result of any accident, though it had definitely been done with a sharp instrument—maybe even like she said, a geometry compass. Carved into the pale flesh of the back of her left wrist were the red letters:
Whoever—or whatever—had done it had been stopped before getting to what I had to assume were the last two letters, ID.
Someone—or something—had tried to carve the word stupid in the flesh of this girl’s arm.
I looked from the scratches—which went from artificial cuts to deep gouges. The U would leave a scar if not properly attended to—to the girl’s face. She was glancing nervously in Sister Ernestine’s direction, then down at the wounds, then at me. Her lips were pale and chapped. She wore no makeup, though she was sixteen, and makeup isn’t against the dress code for high school girls at Junípero Serra Mission Academy.
Something made me doubt Becca had ever applied makeup to her face in her life, however. Her entire look—lank hair, oversize uniform, untidy skin—screamed, Don’t look at me, please.
“Who did this?” I demanded. My mind was awhirl. The NCDP? Had the ghost done it? Whoever it was, he or she was going to get the ass kicking I’d promised Paul earlier. “Who did this to you, Becca? There’s nothing to be afraid of. I won’t hurt them.”
“What? Who—?” Her eyes filled with tears behind the lenses of her glasses, and she shook her head. “No. Oh, no. N
“What?” The word came bursting out of my mouth before I could stop it. But I should have known. We’d covered self-injury in my courses on juvenile and adolescent psychology. But seeing it in real life was entirely different from seeing it in photos, and I couldn’t hold back my second question, either. “Why?”
“I . . . I don’t know,” Becca whispered. I could tell by the color rushing into her cheeks—and the fact that she wouldn’t meet my gaze—that she was telling the truth. Liars—such as Paul—usually have no problem looking you in the eye. “I just . . . I just hate myself sometimes. This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, though, I swear.”
Now she was lying. She looked me full in the face, sweet as pie, lying for all she was worth.
“I’ll never do it again, I promise. Please, please don’t tell. My dad will be so disappointed in me, and my stepmother . . . well, my stepmother won’t like it, either. Please, I’m begging you—don’t tell. Come on. You know what it’s like.”
I did not. But apparently, because she’d heard I’d had troubles of my own in my day, she thought I did.
My kind of trouble had never involved gouging myself with sharp objects, though. Only other people trying to gouge me with them.
I tried to remember what I’d studied about individuals who self-harm. They don’t do it to get attention—in fact, they almost always try to keep their cutting a secret, and usually succeed, except in cases like Becca’s, where something goes wrong and they get caught. The brief release of endorphins from the physical pain serves as a balm for whatever emotional trauma or stress they’re suffering.
That’s why in the long run, cutting doesn’t work: the balm is temporary, lasting just as long as the pain itself. Only by getting to the root of the emotional pain (usually through talk therapy with a trained professional) can the patient truly begin to heal.
Obviously something was tormenting Becca. The pitiful ghost child clinging to her—the one that only I could see—was a pretty big clue, and one I could easily handle.
Self-harm, though? Way over my nonexistent pay grade.
And now I couldn’t toss it over to Sister Ernestine, because Becca had asked me not to tell. School counselors can’t do their jobs effectively if students think they can’t trust them not to violate their right to privacy. We’re not allowed to inform parents what’s going on unless there’s a clear threat to their child’s safety (or the safety of others).
I didn’t have any proof—yet—that Becca’s life was in danger, only that she was hurting—and badly—both inside and out.
So all I could say was, “Fine,” and reach into the first-aid kit for a disinfectant pad. “But your first time, Becca? Really? That line might work on Sister Ernestine, but unlike her, I just work in a rectory, I don’t actually live in one. I’m not that gullible. What’s going on? Why do you, uh, hate yourself so badly that you’d want to hurt yourself like this?”
Bringing up the elephant—or NCDP—in the room is never easy. I’ve been doing it for years, and I still haven’t figured out the best method. The subtle approach tends to go right over people’s heads—“Has there been a death in the family recently?”—but bluntly stating, “There’s a ghost behind you,” can lead to ridicule or worse.
I wasn’t sure which strategy to take with Becca. She was in crisis, but it looked as if she’d been that way for some time. I didn’t know if the spook was a symptom or the cause.
“Look,” I said when she only stared down into her lap. “Don’t worry, you can tell me. I’m an expert on self-hatred.”
Becca made a noise that was somewhere between a laugh and a snort of disgust. “You? What have you got to hate yourself for? Look at you, with all that hair. You’re perfect.”
It’s true, my hair is pretty amazing. But that wasn’t the point.
“No one’s perfect, Becca,” I said. “And don’t try to tell me that you did this because you hate the way you look. You’re a smart girl, and smart girls know how to change their look if they’re unhappy with it. You obviously don’t want to. So what’s really going on?”
In a perfect world, this should have led to her blurting, “My little sister died last year, and I miss her so much!”
Then I’d have said, “I’m so, so sorry to hear that, Becca. But, wow, what a coincidence. I happen to be able to see the dead, and your little sister’s spirit is standing right next to you! She misses you, too. But your clinging to her memory is causing her to cling to your love, and that’s keeping her from being able to pass on into the afterlife. So both of you need to say good-bye now so she can go into the light, and I can go to lunch with my awesome boyfriend. Okay? Okay.”
But of course this isn’t a perfect world. And considering the day I was having, it was crazy of me to have thought even for one second that there was a possibility this was going to happen.
Instead, Becca pressed her lips together and stubbornly refused to reply to my question.
So I said, “Fine, suit yourself,” and laid the disinfectant-soaked pad I’d opened over her arm.
This was a huge mistake—a lot like my having called Paul. But I didn’t realize it then.
Becca gave a little squeak and tried to yank her wrist from me as the alcohol seeped into her wounds, but I held on, keeping the pad pressed to the cuts so the disinfectant could do its work.
“Sorry, Becca,” I said. “I should have warned you it was going to sting. But we can’t let you risk an infection. Anyway, I would have thought you’d enjoy it, hating yourself so much, and all.”
I knew Dr. Jo, my school-appointed therapist—everyone getting a master’s in counseling has to undergo a few semesters of personal counseling themselves—would disapprove. Counselors (and mediators) are supposed to show compassion toward their clients. We aren’t supposed to hurt them, even while cleaning their wounds with disinfectant pads.
But sometimes a little pain can help. Radiation kills cancer cells. Skin grafts heal burns.
I told myself that Becca’s reaction was good. It showed spirit. Her ghost-barnacle hadn’t completely sucked the will to survive out of her . . . yet.
“My God,” Becca whispered. Another good sign—she still didn’t want Sister Ernestine overhearing our conversation, even though the nun would definitely have put a stop to my unorthodox nursing methods. “You did knock the head off that statue, like everyone says. You’re crazy!”
“Yeah,” I whispered back. “I am. Be sure to complain to your parents about the crazy woman in the office. That way you’ll have to show them your arm to explain how you got sent here in the first place. Then they’ll know that you’ve been hurting yourself, and maybe get you the help you—”
“Get away from her!”
Becca wasn’t the only one showing some spirit. For the first time the little ghost girl showed some, too, lifting her blond head and taking an interest in what was happening around her.
And she definitely didn’t like what she saw . . . namely, me.
Stepping out from behind the shadow of Becca’s chair, she drew her brows together in a pout, and, hugging the stuffed animal she was holding—a threadbare horse—she pointed at me and said in a low, guttural voice, “Stop. You’re hurting Becca.”
It could have been comical, being bossed around by such a tiny sprite.
Except that where ghosts are concerned, size doesn’t matter. I’ve had my butt kicked by some NCDPs who seemed completely harmless . . . until their hands were wrapped around my throat.
Plus, there was nothing comical about the burning hatred in her eyes, or the throaty anger in her voice.
“I’m not hurting Becca,” I explained to the dead girl in my most reasonable tone. “Becca’s been hurting herself, and I’m trying to help her.”
Becca, perplexed, glanced in the direction I was speaking, but didn’t see anyone standing there. “Uh . . . Miss Simon? Are you all right?”
“I’m trying to help you, too, kid,” I said to the ghost. “Who are you, anyway?”
Big mistake. Really, my third biggest mistake of the morning, after calling Paul, then slapping the disinfectant pad on Becca.
Though in my defense, you really shouldn’t let the undead run around unsupervised, any more than you should let wounds go too long without cleaning them.
The tiny ghost reacted by reeling backward, so stunned that after however many years she’d been dead someone could finally see her—let alone had communicated with her. She landed with a thump on the cool stone floor . . . a thump that left her looking shocked and humiliated.
But what followed was no girlish tantrum. She may have seemed cute with her blond bangs, stuffed horse, and riding boots and jodhpurs—apparently she’d been an aspiring equestrian in life—but she was by no means an angel (certainly not yet, as something was keeping her earthbound). She leveled me with a menacing stare.
“Lucia,” she screamed, with enough force that my hair was lifted back from my face and shoulders and the panes in the windows shook. “And no one hurts Becca!”
And that’s when the simple mediation I’d been planning went to complete hell.
The stone tiles beneath my feet began to pitch and buckle . . . which was some feat, because they were stone pavers, each more than two feet wide. They had been laid there three hundred years earlier by true believers at the behest of Father Serra. They’d never shown so much as a crack despite all the earthquakes that had since shaken Northern California.
And now some little girl ghost venting her wrath at me had the ancient floors splitting, and the three-foot-thick mission walls trembling, and the fluorescent lights overhead swaying, even the glass in the casement windows tinkling.
“Stop!” I cried, reaching out to grab the arms of the chair in which Becca sat, both to steady myself as well as to shield her from any glass that might start falling. Becca’s eyes were wide with terror. She still couldn’t hear or see Lucia, and so had no idea what was going on.
Remembrance by Meg Cabot / Romance & Love / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes