Life After Theft
Life After Theft
To Miss Snark, who loved it first;
to Kara, who bugged me for two years to finish,
and to Bill Bernhardt, who showed me how.
About the Publisher
I HATE THIS SCHOOL.
I tugged at the lame plaid tie that was about three milli-meters away from suffocating me, and revised. I hate this tie. The whole uniform get-up—tie, buttoned shirt, slacks, sweater-vest, I kid you not—was worlds away from the baggy cargoes and T-shirt I’d worn to my old high school just last week.
I caught sight of the name tag the chubby advisor with too much lipstick had slapped onto my chest—HI! MY NAME IS JEFF—and changed my mind again. I hate the name tag the most, the tie second, and I still hate this school.
What started out as an idea my dad had six months ago to move us all from Phoenix to Cali had morphed into an exciting but unlikely adventure three months later, and then a nightmare when I literally came home from school and the SOLD sign was up on our house. Yeah, I agreed to it in the beginning, but how many of Dad’s ideas ever came to fruition?
The big ones, I guess. Maybe I should have known better.
I tried to make the case that it was the middle of the school year and transferring credits was going to be a nightmare, but apparently private schools are more interested in bank-account numbers than GPAs.
I looked down at the piece of paper in my hand and then up at the rows of lockers. I was pretty sure my assigned locker was on this floor, but I must have taken a wrong turn out of the office. I backtracked, trying to stay out of the way of the stream of students, and finally found the right corner.
The first thing I saw was the pink bubble gum, four feet lower than it should have been, inches above the ground, framed by a set of perfectly painted lips.
It was one of those huge bubbles you just know is going to pop and cover the girl’s face, and she’ll shriek and yell and whine that her makeup is ruined, blah, blah, blah. But the bubble didn’t pop—she did that thing where you suck all the air back into your mouth, and the bubble deflated into a little pink heap.
The girl and her bubble were lying on the floor.
In the middle of the hallway.
I tilted my head to get a better look at her legs. Maybe this school wasn’t all bad.
A guy came tearing around the corner clutching a bright pink backpack that I had a sneaking suspicion was not his. He pushed a few people out of his way, veering to the side and clipping me with his shoulder before I could move away.
“Watch it, jerk!” I muttered, not quite loud enough for anyone to hear.
Then I realized he was running straight at the girl on the floor. He was looking back over his shoulder, so there was no chance he would see her before he ran right over the top of her.
“Hey!” I yelled, pushing past a guy in front of me. I had to warn her. Or stop him.
But she just rolled her eyes and pulled her arm out of the way an instant before his Eckos pounded down right beside her head. “Look out, asshole,” she said without flinching.
Jerk didn’t even glance back.
I rushed forward. “You okay?”
She looked up at me with wide, surprised eyes. “Are you talking to me?”
Right. Any girl who could look that hot in a black skirt and plaid vest and had the guts to lie in the middle of the hallway was not going to tolerate being talked to by some brand-new nobody like me. “Forget it,” I said, and turned to look for my assigned locker. Again.
I stopped walking but didn’t turn around.
“Were you talking to me?”
I turned and gave her my best I-don’t-care-that-you’re-rich-popular-and-gorgeous look. I admit: I haven’t had much practice with it. “Yeah. And?”
She sat up. “You can see me?”
So that was a pretty weird conversation starter. Still, a hot girl was talking to me; I’m not one to question these things. “I sure can.”
“What color is my skirt?”
What? “Black,” I replied hesitantly, trying to figure out where she was going with this.
She sighed. “Stupid uniforms. What color are my eyes?”
I looked. She fluttered her lashes dramatically. Was this some kind of trick? “Blue?”
“Is that a question?”
“Your eyes are blue, okay?”
She stared at me for a long time in a way that made me want to look over my shoulder. She was . . . impressed. And that certainly didn’t make any sense. I had to be missing something. “You really can see me, can’t you?” she said, sounding—of all stupid things—awestruck.
Our conversation had sailed straight past run-of-the-mill weird and docked in crazytown. Hot or not, I was ready to get away from this girl. “Yeeeeah, well,” I said, looking down at my schedule, “it’s been fun and all, but I have to—”
“Nobody else can see me,” she said. The seriousness in her voice was kind of freaking me out. “No one in this entire school, except you.”
“Sorry, I didn’t notice your invisibility cloak,” I said, edging away. Was everyone in California this nuts? I could feel the crowd around me staring as they walked by, and despite the crazy coming out of her mouth, I had a feeling they weren’t staring at Blond Girl. Fabulous. My chance to make a decent first impression in this school was swiftly and surely melting away.
“How many?” the girl said, holding up two fingers like rabbit ears, then changing her mind and switching to four.
“This is ridiculous.” I was still trying to look cool—or, barring that, casual—but I was on the verge of exploding at her.
“Answer the question, freak.”
Just my luck—it had taken a whole five minutes for the school nut job to latch on to me. Don’t judge a book by its cover, I guess. Or a girl by her hotness. “I’m a freak? You’re lying in the middle of the floor pretending to be invisible, and I’m a freak?”
She gasped. “It’s really true! You can see me. This is the best day of my . . . well, more than a year, anyway. I thought this would never happen. But now you’re here. You’re here . . . um . . .” She glanced at my loser label. “Jeff.” She scrunched up her nose. “Jeff? Ew.” When I rolled my eyes she raised her hands in surrender. “I take it back. Jeff’s fine. But can I call you Jeffrey at least? That is your whole name, right?”
“Can I call you that anyway?”
“No.” I gotta get out of here. People were starting to seriously gawk.
“Fine, we’ll work on the name later. We have so much to do!” And then, I kid you not, she started bouncing up and down on her toes.
“Stop!” No, really, for the love of all that is holy, stop. I held up both hands. “Who are you?”
I’m not sure what made me ask—a name to put on the restraining order, maybe?—but she gestured to herself like she was a celebrity I should recognize instantly. Maybe she was—this was Santa Monica, after all. “Kimberlee Schaffer? The Kimberlee Schaffer?”
She sighed dramatically. “Come with me.” I followed her down a hallway and into the main foyer, where she backed up against a wall and gave me a cheesy, toothy grimace—more sarcasm than smile. She gestured grandly to her left at an eleven-by-fourteen framed picture of herself.
“So . . . your parents paid for the school?” I asked. Maybe it was the only way they’d let this psycho in.
She rolled her eyes and pointed a long, fake fingernail at a small bronze plaque beneath the portrait.
IN MEMORY OF KIMBERLEE SCHAFFER
I glanced at her, then back at the photo. “That’s really funny.” I made myself look her in the eyes, my best fake smile plastered into place. “You almost had me. Ha-ha. Joke on the new guy. That’s really good. Now if you’re finished, I have to go to class.” Preferably before everyone starts staring again.
“Can I come?” she asked all chipper, like she hadn’t just pulled the world’s lamest joke on me. Pretending to be a dead girl—that was seriously messed up. And stupid.
I’m such a moron.
“No, it’s school. You go to your class; I’ll go to mine.” I knew I should feel flattered that a hot girl wanted anything to do with me, but there’s a saying about what you don’t do with crazy people.
She jumped in front of me. “Listen, Jeff.” She said my name like it was a bad word. “You don’t get it. I’m dead. Ask anyone. I’ve been stuck for a year and a half and no one has been able to see or hear me except you.”
“Look, your little trick worked, Kim. Isn’t that—”
“Kimberlee. With two e’s. No one calls me Kim.”
Unbelievable. “Forget it. Just leave me alone, okay?” I stepped around her and continued walking. Maybe I could blend in with the other sweater-vests all over the place and get away. Sadly, this wasn’t my old, overcrowded public high school, and disappearing would take more work than I was used to despite the matching uniforms.
She trotted alongside me. “What class do you have?”
“Like I’m going to tell you.”
“I’ll help you find it.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” I stopped and turned to her. “Then you could get me totally lost and ditch me. A special welcome for the new guy. Just leave me alone!”
A tall brunette edged away from me like a first-grader who had just learned about boy cooties. “What a dork,” she said, loud enough for everyone within ten feet to hear her.
“Really, Jeff,” Kimberlee said, far too calmly. “You should stop yelling at me. People are going to think you’re schizo.”
I looked down at my schedule and pretended Kimberlee wasn’t there.
“You gotta go upstairs for Bleekman’s classroom.”
I gritted my teeth, and hurried up the stairs hoping I could lose her. In the hallway I slowed down and counted off room numbers.
Damn. She was standing outside room 207.
“Clever boy. You found it all by yourself.”
There must be an elevator . . . somewhere. I let my eyes slide by her and walked into the half-full classroom, hurrying to plant myself in the last seat on the back row.
“I wouldn’t sit there if I were you. That’s Langdon’s spot,” Kimberlee said, sounding almost bored.
Ignore, ignore, ignore.
“Fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
I kept my head down and pulled out a notebook as more students filed in, quickly filling the remaining seats.
“Dude. If you’re not out of my desk by the time I count to two, I personally guarantee your life will end before lunch hour.”
I looked up at what appeared to be a non-green version of the Incredible Hulk.
“One. One and a half . . .”
I jumped up from the desk so fast I cracked my knee against one of the legs and had to bite off a yelp. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Didn’t know.”
“Liar!” Kimberlee yelled from across the room, where she was lounging on a windowsill.
Shut up! I glared at her and looked for another seat. The only one left that wasn’t in the front row was over by Kimberlee’s windowsill.
I sat in the front row.
The bell rang and Mr. Bleekman rose from his desk. He was a perfect caricature of every English teacher on TV: tall, painfully thin, with a comb-over sprayed crispy, and thick glasses. Finally, some normalcy. He stood in front of my desk and studied my name tag. “Mr. Clayson, I presume?”
“Yes, sir,” Mr. Bleekman and Kimberlee corrected in stereo.
I refused to even look at her. “Yes, sir,” I repeated.
“Take notes for now, but stay after and I’ll give you the material you’ll need to catch up.”
I nodded as Kimberlee walked over and plunked herself down on top of my notebook. “I’ve taken this class already. I’ll help you.”
I raised my hand.
“Yes, Mr. Clayson?”
“Could you please tell Kim to get off my desk, sir?”
“Excuse me?” Bleekman asked, looking right past Kimberlee and staring at me like I’d sprouted an extra head.
I glanced at Kimberlee for just a second. Something was seriously wrong. There was no way this teacher was part of the joke. “Oh, shit,” I said, the words slipping out before my brain caught up enough to stop me.
Bleekman’s eyes widened. “Mr. Clayson. I will let you off with a warning because this is your first day. But in the future, any use of profanity at Whitestone Academy will result in detention. Do you understand?”
I gaped at Kimberlee, unwilling to believe she could possibly be telling the truth.
“I told you,” she said, studying her fake nails. “No one can see or hear me but you.” Her eyes flicked to Mr. Bleekman. “You’d better say ‘yes, sir,’ before Bleeker has a coronary.”
“Yes, sir,” I said quickly, snapping my gaze back to the front of the room.
Bleekman stared at me for a few seconds as the rest of the class snickered. He finally looked away and started droning on about Victor Hugo.
I waited a few minutes for everyone to turn their attention away from me. “You’re not joking anymore, are you?” I hissed at Kimberlee through clenched teeth.
“Never was,” she said at full volume.
No one even glanced in our direction.
“What do I have to do to get you to stop acting like the freak you are?” She paused. “You want me to walk through a wall?”
I glared at her but refused to snap at the bait. This can’t be real.
She slid off my desk. “No, I mean it. If I walk through that wall, will you believe I’m dead?”
I rolled my eyes. But I nodded.
She stuck her nose in the air and lifted an eyebrow. Her eyes never left me as she walked to the wall and, without slowing, slid right through it.
“I’M HOME,” I YELLED. I wasn’t sure I’d ever been so happy to see my own house. After Bleekman’s class—and seeing Kimberlee walk through the wall—my head basically exploded. I still couldn’t digest what I’d seen, or figure out how it could be real. I didn’t believe in ghosts! Somehow, for some reason, I was hallucinating; Kimberlee was a figment of my imagination—and that meant ignoring her for the rest of the day.
Easier said than done. She followed me everywhere and got louder and louder. By the time I dropped my schedule card full of signatures in the basket at the front office I had a pounding headache and a ghostly companion.
“Jeff, there you are.” My mom sniffed as she came into the room. Her eyes were red and wet.
“Wrong?” She looked at me cluelessly. “Oh, the tears?” She laughed. “I’m just rehearsing, sweetie. I have a funeral scene tomorrow.”
My mom’s an actress. Always has been. Community theaters and stuff. But part of moving to California was so she could pursue an acting career for real, in Hollywood. And apparently she’s good because even without an agent or anything, she went out the first day and came home with a walk-on part in CBS’s latest cop thriller. Now she’s got a couple gigs lined up, dramedies or something. It’s all very surreal.
I reached into the fridge and pulled out a Coke. “That’s great, Mom,” I said absently. “What show’s it for?”
She shook her finger at me and clicked her tongue. “Ah, ah, ah. If I told you that you’d know someone was dying next season.” She reached her hand out and ruffled my hair. “Trade secret.”
My mom’s only thirty-three. I was thirteen when I first realized that I was born while she was in high school. She always wanted to be an actress; she’d been the lead in every high-school play and musical until the year she was pregnant with me. Somehow, her theater director just couldn’t handle an eight-months-pregnant Ado Annie belting “I Cain’t Say No.” Go figure.
The nice thing about having me when she was so young is that now she’s just the right age to start a new career in Hollywood as a “mature woman.” Which means she plays twenty-five-year-olds.
She’s married to my dad. Like, my biological dad. They got married the night they graduated high school; I was one. My dad is supersmart and he always told my mom he’d make up for getting her life off track. So when he was offered a small ownership stake in a startup venture—social networking on the internet; everyone said it would never last, right—he took it and ran with it. The company survived the “Dot Bomb,” but for a while there Dad was drawing stock more often than a paycheck. Fortunately, it was a risk that paid off. After twelve years of accumulating ownership, he cashed out, bought us three new BMWs for Christmas, sold our house in Phoenix, and moved us to Santa Monica so Mom could chase her dream.
And now, instead of an inner-city school with a 62 percent graduation rate, I get to go to a spoiled-brat private school that feeds more or less straight into Yale. Lucky me.
I really should be grateful—the lockers stay closed at Whitestone and I suspect their PE equipment is less than fifty years old, but despite the advantages, I missed my friends. Even after just a week, it was obvious I wasn’t cut out for the long-distance friendship thing. I figured I’d make new friends, but, well, these Whitestone kids weren’t really my type.
“So how was your first day?”
Ummmm. “It was fine.”
“Fine? Is that all?”
I took a breath and smiled. “I think it’s going to be a good school for me,” I lied. Well, sort of lied. It really was a great school, academics-wise. Apparently not so good if you want to keep your sanity intact.
“I hope so,” she said, putting on her special-moment face. “You deserve to go to a great college. You have so much potential.”
“Thanks, Mom.” I don’t know why she has to be so mushy about stuff sometimes. Maybe it’s an actress thing. Still, I wasn’t above taking advantage of her good mood.
I wasn’t sure quite how to start—maybe there wasn’t a good way—so I just dived right in. “Hey, I was thinking . . .” I paused. “Is there any history of . . . craziness in our family?”
She looked at me with one eyebrow cocked, a smirk ticking at the corner of her mouth. “You mean before you at this moment?”
“I’m serious,” I said. She had no idea just how serious I was. “Do I have any crazy old uncles or anything? Murderers, public nudity”—I hesitated—“schizos?”
Mom thought about it for a second. “Well, my granddad had dementia pretty bad for the last two years before he died. And I think your dad’s uncle Fred—you know, the one with the yogurt-carton collection?—I’m pretty sure he doesn’t play with a full deck. Why the sudden interest?”
“Uh . . . we had a discussion about mental health in . . .” Oh, great. I wasn’t in any classes that this particular subject fit into. “Lit-er-a-ture,” I finished, dragging the word out syllable by syllable.
“Yeah, you know, Les Mis.” Whatever that meant. “I’m gonna go play some games,” I said, making my escape before Mom could ask any more probing questions.
I went upstairs to my sitting room—no lie, I have a sitting room—and turned on the TV, lying back on my humongous beanbag. This whole Kimberlee thing had to be my imagination. Stress of the first day in a new school and all that. Or maybe I’d wake up tomorrow and realize this was just a long, very vivid dream and that I was about to start my real first day of school.
“Okay, don’t freak, but we seriously need to talk.”
I sprang to my feet and spun to find Kimberlee standing right in the middle of my room.
“Listen, I know you’re wigging out, but the fact is, I have no one else to turn to, so I’m not going away.”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten before opening them and turning my head. There she was, looking far too real to be a figment of my imagination.
“You’re not real and you need to leave me alone,” I said slowly, carefully.
She rolled her eyes. “Look, I’m trying to make nice here, and trust me, I understand where you’re coming from. You know how long it took me to convince myself I was real? Ages.”
You’d think that if my head was going to make someone up it would give me someone nice. I was feeling officially betrayed. “Not real, not real, not real,” I whispered under my breath.
“This’ll be a really long year if you’re going to walk around muttering that all the time. I am real; it’s just that no one else can see me.”
“How convenient!” I laughed. “Give me one logical reason for that.” Why am I still talking to it? Her. No, me. I’m talking to myself; it is not real.
She crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow. “Beats the hell out of me. I’ve been screaming at every student in that school—new kids included—for ages. Apparently, you won the medium’s lottery. Wait,” she said, stepping forward. “Maybe that’s why. Do you see other ghosts?”
I backed away from her as though she had some kind of contagious disease. A not-real contagious disease. “No! I don’t see anything. Technically I don’t see you; you’re not real.”
“Oh,” she said, her mouth drooping. “Well, whatever. You can see me and that’s all that matters. I need your help.”
“No! No help. No nothing. Not for fake people.”
She shot me a nasty look and put her hands on her hips. “Fine, I’ll prove it. Get out your computer, now!”
There is something irrationally terrifying about being ordered around by a hallucination.
I pulled my laptop out of my backpack and set it on my messy desk. Couldn’t hurt. If nothing else, I could catch up on XKCD while she spouted her nonsense.
“Go to Google.”
At least my alter ego knew what Google was.
“Type in my name.”
I had gotten to the first of the double ee’s when I stopped. “Wait a second,” I said. “If I Google your name, all that proves is that there is some dead girl out there named Kimberlee Schaffer. You tell me about yourself first and then I’ll Google and see if you’re right.” Oh yes, outwitting my own brain. Sweet.
But Kimberlee shrugged nonchalantly. “Fine. What do you want to know?”
“How’d you die?”
Drowned? That’s the best my subconscious could come up with? “You drowned? Like, you didn’t know how to swim?”
“Of course I know how to swim, moron; I live . . . lived on a private beach. The same one I drowned at, actually.” A touch of something resembling real emotion clouded Kimberlee’s eyes for an instant before she ran her fingers through her hair; whatever it was I’d seen was erased by that casual gesture. “I got caught in a riptide,” she said softly. “It happens.”
“Dude, riptide. Move on!” Kimberlee snapped, scowling.
“Fine. Uh, what color of flowers did you have at your funeral?”
She bit her bottom lip. “I don’t know,” she admitted. Score one for me. “I didn’t go. I was so busy trying to figure out what the hell was going on that I didn’t really start going anywhere until about two weeks after the funeral.”
“Convenient,” I scoffed.
“What else do you want?” she said. “I drowned in a riptide, I went to Whitestone, I was seventeen, my dad’s a judge, my mom’s a CFO, I’m an only child. Good enough?”
“I guess,” I muttered, turning back to the screen and typing the rest of her name.
“S-c,” Kimberlee corrected from behind me.
“Get over there!” I said, pointing to the opposite side of the room. “You are not allowed to see this!”
“Fine!” she said, sulking away.
I pressed Enter, fully prepared to bask in the proof of my own brilliance.
But the first page of more than 4,000 results popped up on my screen.
Teen Dies in Tragic Accident. Local Judge Mourns the Death of His Only Child. Prominent Prep School Suffers Tragic Loss. Teen’s Body Found on Private Beach. Missing Seventeen-Year-Old Confirmed Dead.
I skimmed the articles, my jaw dropping as the details swirled in front of my face, complete with a number of photographs that were unmistakably Kimberlee. Not the least of which was one of her in her freaking coffin.
“I—I could have read this last year,” I said, scrambling for an excuse—totally not ready to accept this.
“Eventually you’re going to have to stop trying to talk yourself out of this and believe me. Besides,” she said, turning to face me now. “Who tries to convince themselves they’re insane instead of accepting the fairly rational explanation of someone being a ghost? Maybe you really are a nut job. Like a hypochondriac, but for craziness.”
I’m agnostic, but that moment was the first time in memory I wished I did believe in a god. Then I would have someone to beg to deliver me from this demented undead. “Whatever,” I mumbled, clicking through website after website, skimming each for mere seconds before scrolling to the next one. It was possible, wasn’t it? That my brain had unconsciously stored the details of something I’d read and “forgotten,” then used that info to spit out a made-up person? Now I was really starting to sound crazy. About being crazy. I was double crazy.
“Your email,” I said, coming up with one last test. “You have a Yahoo or Gmail account or something?”
“I did,” Kimberlee said, clearly not following my stream of logic.
“Okay, tell me your username and password. There’s no way I could know that, so if it works it would prove that you’re not some figment of my imagination.” Cool, calm, logical. I can do this.
“Not a chance,” Kimberlee said.
“I don’t want you cyberspying on me!”
“It’s not cyberspying—it’s proving your story.”
“My email is private. Don’t go there.”
I hesitated. “Facebook?”
She snorted. “That’s hardly better.” After a moment of hesitation: “How about my MySpace page? I didn’t use it for, like, years before I died, but it’s still there and definitely mine.”
I nodded. “That’ll work. What is it?”
After a few moments’ thought she rattled off her MySpace username and I found the page. Not surprisingly, it was pink and seizure-inducingly sparkly.
And covered with pictures of a definitely alive Kimberlee from junior high school. She looked a little different but it was definitely her. I squinted at a couple of group shots and recognized Langdon, the guy who had almost squished me to a pulp today. “Hey!” I said, pointing. “That’s Langdon.”
Kimberlee rolled her eyes. “So?”
I turned back to the computer and took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said, “this is definitely Kimberlee Schaffer’s MySpace page. What’s the password? And none of this guessing stuff. You nail it the first try, or I ignore you for the rest of my life.”
“Fine,” Kimberlee said, leaning forward with a predatory look in her eye, “but I get a part in this deal, too. If the password works you believe me, one hundred percent. No more made-up-person stuff. Deal?”
I swallowed hard. “Deal.”
“UMMM,” I SAID SLOWLY AS I stared at the screen.
“What?” Kimberlee said, tension spiking her voice about two octaves. “It didn’t work? You typed it wrong, then—do it again!”
“You have over three thousand new messages.”
“Oh,” Kimberlee said. Then she straightened casually, as though she hadn’t been on the verge of hysteria an instant ago. “Well, dying makes you popular.”
I stared at Kimberlee as if seeing her for the first time. All the ghosts in movies were see-through and white and did that glowing thing. And they floated. Kimberlee looked solid and walked right on the ground like anyone else. The lights made her hair shine a little, but she definitely wasn’t glowing. “Can I touch you?” I asked curiously.
She put her hands on her hips and pushed her chest out. “I admit, I haven’t gotten any action in a while.”
“Not like that,” I protested, mortified. “I mean in terms of, uh, physics. Can I touch your arm, or will I go right through?”
Kimberlee studied her arm quizzically. “Everyone else goes right through. Course, none of them can see or hear me either. You can try.” She held out her arm.
I lifted my hand for a second before wussing out and turning back to my computer. “I don’t want to.”
“Come on,” she said. “If you don’t, I will.”
I felt something cold pass through my shoulder and a massive chill shot down my spine. “Okay,” I said when I could talk again. “That was the creepiest thing that’s ever happened to me. And after today, that’s really saying something.”
But when I turned to her, she looked disappointed.
She gave me a one-shouldered shrug. “I—I hoped you’d be different, that’s all.”
“Sorry,” I muttered. Not that I could help it. “So,” I said, feeling suddenly very awkward. “You’re a ghost, huh?”
“Nothing gets past you, does it?” she said, rolling her eyes. “Are you going to help me now, or what?”
“Uh . . .”
Her perfectly plucked eyebrows furrowed. “Look,” she began hesitantly, “you can see me. And hear me. So you’re the only one who can help me. You have to say yes.”
I sighed. “What do you need help with?”
“My unfinished business.”
“In books and movies people become ghosts when they have unfinished business. That must be why I’m still here.”
“Did someone tell you that? Did you have some, I don’t know, angel, I guess, tell you what you need to do?”
She shook her head. “Uh-uh. I just woke up in the middle of the school and I was dead. I’m guessing on the rest.”
“What’s your unfinished business?”
She twisted a ring around on her finger. “I kind of stole some stuff when I was alive and I think I need to return it.”
“That’s it? No unrequited love? Revenge unrealized?”
“And you want me to return it so you can be on your merry way?”
“That’s the plan. It’s the only thing I can think of. I had a great life. Pretty much everyone loved me—except the people who wanted to be me—and I had everything I ever wanted.”
“Which forced you into a life of crime?” I have never under- stood rich people stealing.
“Whatever. Will you help me?”
I laid my arms on the desk and let my head rest against them. “I return a couple a things for you and you leave me alone?” I asked, more to the carpet than her.
“I promise.” She laughed. “I’d pinky swear, but, you know.”
I did know—and I didn’t want to do that again.
I was kinda starting to miss just being crazy.
I looked over at her. Her smirk was gone. So was her pout.
“Please?” she asked, her tone completely genuine.
I’m such a pushover. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
She squealed and clasped her hands together. “Thank you thank you thank you!” and then in the same breath, “We gotta go to the cave.”
“It’s where the stuff is.”
“You’re in Santa Monica and you hid stuff in a cave?”
“It’s on my parents’ private beach. I found it when I was, like, ten. It’s been my secret place ever since.”
“Okay,” I said. “We can go tomorrow.”
“Why can’t we go today?”
I dug around in my backpack and held up a copy of Les Misérables, and not the abridged version. “Because I have a hundred pages of this to read tonight. Not to mention calculus homework and a history outline everyone else has already been working on for a week.” The thought of all the homework I’d had heaped on me today was almost enough to make my ghost problem seem small.
“Unlike some people, I still have a life,” I muttered.
Kimberlee’s lips pressed into a straight line and before I could apologize, she spun on her heel and disappeared through my bedroom door.
When Kimberlee popped up silently beside my locker the next morning, I tried to apologize for my harsh comment. “I was stressed,” I said quietly, hoping no one was close enough to catch me talking to myself. Again. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“Whatever,” she said, not meeting my eyes as I slammed my locker shut. “I just want to get this over with.”
I had almost reached the stairs that would take me up to Bleekman’s room when a flash of red grabbed my eye. I tuned Kimberlee out and my eyes tracked the redhead.
Finally, something good about Whitestone.
Fingers snapped in front of my face. “Hello? Focus!”
Kimberlee. It was a testament to the sheer hotness of the other girl that I had, for ten seconds, managed to forget Kimberlee entirely.
Hot Girl was standing less than twenty feet away, digging through her locker with her back to me. I was trying to figure out a nonlame way to approach her when she stopped and turned. I glanced away, afraid she’d been able to sense my eyes burning a hole in her back. Maybe a few inches below her back. After what I hoped was a safe amount of time, I glanced in her direction again. It took me a few seconds to find her.
Hugging a guy in a letter jacket.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the two of them. It was like a car wreck—you don’t really want to see the guy all mangled inside, but you can’t look away. And it wasn’t some third-string nobody—this guy was majorly ripped and could probably break my neck with two fingers. Maybe one. It took me a second to realize that he wasn’t very tall—but what’s a little height when you’ve got shoulders like steel girders? The redhead leaned against the lockers next to him and smiled.
I knew that kind of smile. It was a special smile reserved for special people. Like, boyfriend people.
But really, why wouldn’t she be taken? She was totally gorgeous and—considering she was at Whitestone—almost certainly rich. Girls like that don’t just wander around single.
“Enjoy your little trip down fantasy lane, loverboy?” Kimberlee was leaning against my locker looking totally bored.
But I couldn’t help glancing back at the hot girl again.
“Trust me; leave that one alone,” Kimberlee said, following my gaze. “She was this total slut as a freshman, but she doesn’t really date now. Probably not even into guys anymore.”
I looked over at Kimberlee with my best duh face and flicked my head in her direction. “Human tractor over there?”
“Wait, wait,” she said, laughing. “Him? Mikhail?”
She would think this was funny.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree. Mikhail is—” Her mouth snapped shut and her eyes took on this funny look. She sighed melodramatically. “I must be wrong. After all, just because he was dating someone a few months ago doesn’t mean they’re still together. I’m so out of the loop.” She sighed again.
Was she being sarcastic? I felt like I’d missed something, but couldn’t imagine what.
“You really better stay away from her now,” Kimberlee continued. “Mikhail could break you in half without even trying.”
“Just tell me her name,” I whispered.
“Why?” Kimberlee shot back. “So I can help you keep ‘having a life’?” So much for her whatever.
“I’m helping you,” I reminded her.
“Fine,” she said, sounding way more pissy than I thought my request could possibly justify. “It’s Serafina. Serafina Hewitt. I’ll meet you outside of Keller’s class at three fifteen sharp so we can go to the cave. Back out and you’ll be sorry.” She shot a finger gun at me and walked through the wall of lockers.
AS SHE’D PROMISED, KIMBERLEE WAS waiting for me after school, just inside the front doors. “Finally,” she muttered.
I pushed open the door and instinctively held it a few seconds to let Kimberlee out. She snickered as she walked by. “Holding the door for your imaginary friend?”
“That’s only an insult to yourself.”
She tossed her hair. “Whatever. Where’s your car?” she asked.
I grinned. I couldn’t help it. A black BMW Z4 con- vertible was my mom’s idea of a good, sensible car. Something about them lasting forever? I turned to Kimberlee. “This way.”
I headed to the farthest end of the lot, where almost no one parked. The spaces on both sides of my Z4 were empty. That was worth the walk.
Kimberlee stroked her fingers along the black hood as though she could actually feel something. “I saw this yesterday when I followed you home,” she said, as if following people home was completely normal. “Daddy’s?”
I put my shades on as I pressed the unlock button on my keychain. “Nope. She’s all mine. Kimberlee, meet Halle.”
It’s not that I’m embarrassed that I named my car, but, well, it’s kind of personal.
Kimberlee stood outside the door. After almost thirty seconds I rolled down the window. “You coming?”
“I thought you were going to open the door for me.”
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to do stuff like that for my imaginary friend.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She slipped through the door and settled in the seat.
I stared at her, everything I’d learned in physics screaming that this made no sense. “Why don’t you fall through the bottom of the car?” I finally asked.
“I don’t know,” she said testily. “Why don’t you?”
I shook my head and put the key in the ignition.
“Should I put on my seat belt?”
That shut her up.
“Come on, why Halle?”
Okay, not completely. “Not telling you.”
I didn’t have the stamina for another battle of wills with Kimberlee. “I named her after Halle Berry. She played Storm in the X-Men movies.”
“You’re such a nerd. Why her?”
I could feel my face getting hot. “Well, you know . . . ’cause she’s hot. And black. And my car is hot, and black.”
Kimberlee smirked. “So you want to ride her all over town?”
“What? No, it’s a compliment! Like naming a boat! I just—it’s just a stupid . . . Forget I said anything. Can we just drop it now?”
“Whatever you say, Grand Wizard.”
I shook my head and started the car. She was just baiting me. Again. How did I keep walking into her traps?
“You drive like my grandma,” Kimberlee said after a few minutes of inching along.
“You think that’s an insult? Try harder.” I knew what this car could do. The first week I got it I took a trip to Vegas and made it from Phoenix to the Hoover Dam in just over two hours. My car is fast. And I admit, I roared into school moving pretty quick yesterday, but then I realized the kids here all drive like they’re on crack. Seriously. So after a near miss with a red Miata, I’d decided that slower was better.
At least until I got out of the parking lot.
Kimberlee pointed me down several streets, each wider and more stately than the last, until I pulled up in front of a huge white mansion.
“Whoa, sweet.” Our house was supernice, but this was the kind of house you see on the home-design shows my mom watches. The feature homes.
“Turn down that little road over there. It’ll take you to the beach,” Kimberlee said, clearly not impressed.
“Are you sure nobody’s going to arrest me for being here?” Because I was most definitely not sure.
“Nah. There’s a gate. I’ll tell you the code.”
I pulled onto the drive on the right side of the house and stopped next to a keypad.
I punched in the numbers, then my finger hovered over the star. I closed my eyes and pushed, expecting flashing lights and cops with their guns drawn. I could almost hear the megaphone. Step out of your car with your hands up! But all I actually heard was the quiet whir of the gate sliding open. So far, so good.
The road sloped sharply before ending in a ten-space parking lot in front of a gorgeous white beach, surrounded on both sides by tall cliffs. “Whoa!” I said as I climbed out of my car, feeling more like I was on a movie set than what was essentially someone’s backyard.
Kimberlee glared at the foamy green waves. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t share your enthusiasm.”
“Why? ’Cause you died here?”
“Let’s just get to the cave.”
“You’re reading my mind.”
She stayed a few feet ahead of me as we trekked across the sand.
She didn’t leave footprints.
“This whole ghost thing is still freaking me out,” I said, my eyes fixed on her feet.
“Yeah,” she said without looking back. “Took me about a month to really get a handle on it, too.”
When we reached what looked like the face of a mini- cliff, she took two running steps and jumped, then basically floated into the cave.
I was stuck ten feet below. “You suck,” I shouted.
“Wimp. There are handholds all the way up. That’s how I did it when I was alive.”
I found a ledge for my foot and stepped up to reach for one with my arms. In a few seconds I had four limbs on little ledges and was sure I looked like a bug clinging to the wall for dear life—all of three feet above a sandy beach. I looked up to Kimberlee for help. She was staring out at the sea. A gust of wind made her skirt flutter suddenly, giving me an eyeful. I froze, lost my balance, and slid down the rock. Or, more accurately, fell sprawling into the sand.
“Perv,” Kimberlee said with a sinister laugh that made me remember that wind couldn’t touch her clothes. Only Kimberlee had any effect on Kimberlee’s clothes.
“Don’t do that again,” I said darkly. At least not while I’m clinging to the side of a cliff. Without looking at Kimberlee I started to climb again, more carefully this time. It took me about three tries and at least ten minutes, but I made it. I peered back down at the beach. The climb looked a lot shorter from up top. “Okay,” I said as I scrambled to my feet. “Where’s the stuff?”
She tilted her head to the back of the cave. I turned and blinked, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. When they finally did, my jaw dropped.
There must have been a hundred boxes stacked in the back of the cave, which was way deeper than I’d expected. “A few things? A few things! Are you insane?” My voice echoed through the cave, repeating my words back to me.
“Jeff . . .” Her voice was uncharacteristically quiet.
“This is ridiculous. You lied to me.”
“I did not.”
“No one in their right mind would ever classify this as ‘a few things.’ You lied to get me up here and hoped you could just flutter your eyes and it would be all better. Well, it’s not.” I backed away from the massive pile of boxes. “I’m not doing this.”
“Jeff . . .”
“I should call the cops,” I said as I backed away. No way could I return all this stuff on my own, not in any reasonable amount of time. “I’ll bet they could—”
“No!” Kimberlee shouted, running after me. “They’d just confiscate it all. Then I’d be stuck here forever! Jeff, please.”
“No. I’m leaving,” I said, as much to myself as to Kimberlee, “and I am not coming back.” I looked over the edge and tried to find the handholds I had used climbing up. It’s only ten feet. Just jump! I let myself down as far as I could while holding on to the ledge, then tried to fall slowly. My feet hit the sand a moment before my ass did. My tailbone stung, but at least I was out of the klepto cave. I looked over at my car and forced myself to walk calmly instead of running—which would probably make me fall and look like an idiot.
Kimberlee was right beside me. “They’re organized,” she pleaded. “It’ll be easy. A bag for each person. The boxes are sorted by category. A couple of trips and we’ll be done.”
By category? “A couple of trips? A couple of trips? Maybe if I had a semi. That,” I said pointing up at the cave, “is a lot of stuff, Kimberlee. You have a problem.”
She shrugged. “Can’t do it anymore, can I?” She laughed shakily for a few seconds before falling silent.
“Real funny,” I scoffed. I ducked into my car and slammed the door before she could say anything else. As I drove I stared at Kimberlee in the rearview mirror until the road curved and cut her out of sight. As soon as I got out of her cul-de-sac, I stomped my foot on the gas and drove home as fast as I dared.
How the hell was I going to get out of this?
When I got to the house, Mom was gone, but Tina—our housekeeper—was washing down countertops and a good smell was coming from the oven.
“Ah, Jeff, there you are,” Tina said. “Your mother is at a taping and your father is on a conference call. You know, the ones your mother keeps telling him to stop taking. I have to take off as soon as I pull the muffins out of the oven. Healthy ones—don’t tell your father. Tell him they are cupcakes and he will eat them.” Tina had only been with us for two weeks, but she was already determined to make my dad into a health-food junkie—clandestinely, of course, though her methods were hardly James Bond.
I slumped down on the counter and let my backpack slip to the floor.
“You look awful.”
Actually, Tina, it was swell. I saw this girl—of course, she’s totally untouchable, for me, anyway. Oh, and there’s this other girl—she’s untouchable, too, for everyone! But she’s all mine, whether I want her or not.
“Just long,” I said with a shrug. “Lots of homework.”
She reached up and patted my head in a way that was comforting in spite of the awkward grandmotherliness of it. “You’ll get it all done. You’re a smart boy.”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling a little. “I better go upstairs and get to work.”
But rather than start on my homework, I fired up my Xbox. After what I’d just seen, I deserved to chill out a little. I played GTA for about an hour and imagined everything my car ran into was Kimberlee, or one of her boxes of stolen stuff. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see her or hear one of her smart-ass comments, but all I heard was the cathartic symphony of gunfire and people screaming.
Why was this whole ghost thing happening to me? Kimberlee said I was the first person to see her—ever. Nothing in my life was all that special. I certainly wasn’t special.
Maybe it was something about Santa Monica. In the three weeks since we’d moved here my life had turned upside down. My mom was on TV, my dad was a retired workaholic who couldn’t keep his fingers out of the old business, and I had a ghost. And a housekeeper. A year ago, any of those things would have sounded like a joke. Getting them all at once—well, who could blame me if I needed some time to adjust? But last time I checked, seeing ghosts wasn’t a symptom of homesickness or stress.
I did have to give Santa Monica points for the redhead I’d spotted at school, though. Serafina, Kimberlee had said. Man, she was gorgeous. But I couldn’t even think about her for more than a few seconds before coming back to the same humongous problem that suddenly overshadowed every aspect of my life.
I wondered if Santa Monica had any good exorcists.
“I’m up, Mom.”
“Open your eyes, Jeff.”
I rubbed my face with my hands and squinted with one eye.
“Holy hell!” I shouted as Kimberlee came into focus. I jerked away from her and pulled my blankets around me. “Get out of my room!”
“Why?” she asked, noting the death grip I had on my bedding. “Naked under there?”
“Yes. Now leave!”
She scrunched up her nose. “Ew, gross. I was totally kidding.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not naked. But I’m just in my boxers.”
Kimberlee shrugged. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.” She grabbed for the end of my comforter.
I gripped the blanket tighter and tried to scoot out of reach. When her hand passed right through the comforter and my face went white, she laughed like it was the most hilarious thing in the world.
“You’re such a freak,” she said, studying me with her arms crossed over her chest.
“You wanted to see my underwear.”
“I showed you mine. It’s your turn.”
“Turn around so I can put some jeans on.”
She spun with her arms over her head like a ballerina.
“Ready?” she asked as soon as I jerked my zipper up.
She turned back and looked me up and down. “Sexy. A little skinny, though.”
“Like it matters to you.”
“Hey, I like a little eye candy as much as the next undead.”
“Are you here to beg and plead with me to help you again?” I walked into my bathroom and grabbed my toothbrush. “’Cause if you are, you can forget about it.”
She laughed mirthlessly; a laugh that embodied the word sinister. It made my skin crawl. “Beg and plead? Who do you think I am? I don’t beg and plead; I threaten. After today, you agree to help me, or I’ll do some real haunting.”
I spat and tried to sound braver than that laugh made me feel. “What, yell ‘Boo!’ in my face? That’ll convince me.”
“That stuff’s for amateurs. I’ll just sit and watch you in the shower.”
“I could get used to that,” I said. Eventually.
She chuckled, making the hairs on my neck stand on end. “I wasn’t finished. I’ll sit my ass in the middle of your lunch at school—bon appétit, accompany you on dates and freak out whoever is with you, and then yell and scream all night until you go insane from sleep deprivation. It’s easy.”
Crap. “That’s not fair.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Do you think it’s fair that I sit here all day, every day with no one to talk to and no way to help myself?” she shouted. “To be stuck in a world I don’t belong to and where I can’t do anything?” Her face stayed angry for a few seconds, then crumpled into despair.
There’s a reason girls always win arguments with me. Tears are like Kryptonite. “Don’t cry, Kimberlee,” I said with a sigh.
“You would cry, t-t-too,” she wailed, “if you only had one person in the whole world who you could talk to.”
I could feel my will crumbling as I walked over and slumped down onto my bed.
Kimberlee stayed by my bathroom doorway.
I cleared my throat and patted the spot beside me. “Okay,” I said as she slowly sat. “If I help you, and I do mean if, there’ve got to be a few rules.”
She sniffed but nodded.
“Rule number the first is, no coming into my room until I’m dressed. Got it?”
She took a deep breath and swiped her sleeve across her face, wiping away her sad expression along with any traces of tears. “Fine. What else?”
There was only one other person I’d seen turn tears off that quickly. Like an on/off switch. My mom. The actress. “None of that . . . other stuff you talked about,” I said, starting to feel like a total sucker.
Kimberlee just shrugged. “No problem. Any other demands?”
“I’ll . . . make up more rules as we go along.” Now I was just pissed at her fake breakdown.
“’Kay,” she said, suddenly very businesslike. “Go shower or you’ll be late.”
“All right, but you stay out here. No peeking, no popping through the shower wall, no nothing.”
“Like I’d want to,” she muttered.
I hurried into the bathroom and showered as fast as I could. It was true that I didn’t want to be late, but the main reason was so Kimberlee wouldn’t change her mind and decide to come play a little peek-a-boo. I got out and jumped into my uniform half-wet; at least I was covered. I pulled out my electric razor and turned it on.
“Stop! Stop!” Kimberlee melted through the wall with her hands over her eyes. “Put the razor down. Do you really shave?” she asked, peeking through her fingers.
I pointed to the razor with my best duh look.
“No, I mean do you have to shave? You get stubble and everything?”
“Lemme see.” She leaned close and studied the fringe of hair on my chin and around my mouth. “That’s sexy; you can’t get rid of that.”
“But the dress code says no facial hair.”
“Oh, please. They won’t bust you for stubble.”
“Why would I want stubble?”
“Girls love stubble. If you can grow it, it shows you’re more virile.”
I rolled my eyes. “Do you even know what that word means?”
“Capable of performing sexually as a male,” she said proudly. “I looked it up.”
I looked at my chin in the mirror and my thoughts flashed to Serafina. That wrestler guy yesterday probably had a little stubble, too. “Virile. You know, I’m feeling virile.”
“Whatever—do your hair.”
I took a comb and parted my hair, then brushed it back with my fingers.
“You’re kidding me.”
“What? It’s the messy look.”
“I know the messy look, Jeff, and that is not it. Do you have any gel?”
Last straw. “Listen, I am not changing my hair. If you want me to help you, you take me the way I am or no deal.”
Kimberlee folded her arms across her chest. “Whatever,” she said. “But if no girl will touch you, don’t say I didn’t try.”
It took fifteen minutes of coaching before Kimberlee was satisfied. I wasn’t convinced. I had poky spears on one side with a flattened patch on the other, and bits of crunchy bangs were hanging down over one eye. “I look like an idiot.”
“No, you look hot!”
“I don’t know, Kim, maybe—”
“Kimberlee. Maybe this really isn’t the look for me.”
“Trust me. You’ve never looked better.”
Trust Kimberlee? Every instinct rebelled against that thought, but what choice did I really have? Kimberlee was born and raised in Santa Monica, and based on what I’d skimmed from her internet presence—yes, I did more Googling—she apparently was the queen of Whitestone for almost three years before the riptide cut her reign short. I had nothing.
Besides, I’d spent so long on my hair I only had ten minutes to get to school. No time to start over.
I poked my head in the kitchen. Just my luck: Mom, Dad, and Tina. As big an audience as our kitchen ever got this time of morning. I tried to appear confident as I rushed through the kitchen, attempting to not be seen.
“Jeff! Look at you!” my mom gushed. “You look like Ryan Seacrest.”
Was that a compliment?
My dad didn’t even look up from his paper. I was okay with that.
I grabbed my breakfast burrito to go, said my good-byes, and slipped out to my car before anyone could make any more comments.
“Loosen your tie,” Kimberlee said, popping suddenly into the front seat.
That I could handle.
“Much better. Now you look like someone I can stand to have working for me.”
My mouth dropped. “I. Don’t. Work. For. You,” I said, each word hard and clipped. “I am doing you the biggest favor in the world and—”
“And I just made you look like the kind of guy someone in this school might actually make out with. And considering you have to wear a uniform just like everyone else, that’s some pretty mad skills. I would think you would be grateful.”
“I was fine the way I was. All you did was make my hair weird and convince me not to shave. I would hardly call that ‘mad skills.’ I don’t need your help.”
“If you say so,” she said casually.
I fumed the entire drive to school and considered tighten-ing my tie out of spite. Between the fact that my car has a hair-trigger gas pedal and being pissed at Kimberlee, I made it to school five minutes before first bell. Perfect.
Kimberlee slid through the car door and was gone so quickly I couldn’t even tell where she went. Not that I cared.
I managed to park near the entrance closest to Serafina’s locker and started searching for her as soon as I opened the door. She was there, unloading her backpack. As I watched, she stood on her toes and reached up to put a book on the top shelf, lifting her skirt an inch or two. Her legs were very, very nice, but that wasn’t the only reason I stared.
They were totally ripped.
Her calves had that big bump that you see on girls who do weights. Not veiny, I-shoot-horse-testosterone legs, but perfect, fitness-model legs that could probably squeeze me like a python if they ever got me in a scissors hold.
Scissors hold. Hoo, boy.
I turned to my locker and grabbed my books, wishing I had more time before the three-minute bell.
More time talk to her. Or, at the very least, more time to work up my nerve.
She closed her locker and started my way. Just as she was about to pass me I gritted my teeth and forced myself to turn around. “Hey,” I said. Brilliant.
She turned, surprised, as if she couldn’t quite tell who had spoken to her in the crowded hallway.
“H-how’s it going?” I said, stepping a little closer and hoping she didn’t notice the little stutter.
“Good,” she said, smiling uncertainly.
I stood there for a few seconds, just staring. That was it. I had nothing more to say. “Oh, I’m Jeff. I just moved here from Phoenix,” I said, extending a hand. “Arizona,” I added. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
She reached out to shake my hand. It was only after our joined hands started moving up and down that I realized how lame the whole shaking hands thing was. “Sera,” she said quickly, pulling her hand back after about three shakes.
Sera. One of my favorite names. Starting now.
I looked up sharply as the bell rang.
“Well, it’s time,” Sera said, edging away.
“See you around,” I said, giving her my best grin.
I don’t think she noticed.
Still, that wasn’t so bad. First contact made and all. She knew my name now, at least. That was step one. There were about twenty-four more steps that involved her discovering I’m the love of her life and ditching her jock boyfriend, but what’s that quote about every journey beginning with a single step? That was my single step.
“Nice,” Kimberlee said, pulling me out of my daydream. “Now instead of being an unknown nobody, you’re the loser who told her what state Phoenix is in. Well done.”
Everyone’s a critic.
FIRST THING I RAN INTO in Bleekman’s class was Langdon’s back. Literally.
“Heeeeeeey, Jeff, right?” Langdon said, pushing a meaty arm around my shoulder. That was one heavy arm.
“Yeah?” I said tentatively, a little afraid I was about to get beat up on front of everyone.
“Whatcha doing Saturday night, buddy?” Buddy?
“Uh . . .” There were a couple of people gathered around now. Not all humongous meatheads like Langdon, but definitely some of the Whitestone elite—you know, the ones everyone else makes way for in the hallways. There’s just an . . . an air of intimidation, I guess. Some kind of international language of superiority.
I noticed most of them had spiky hair, too, and every single one had their collar unbuttoned under their loosened ties, just like me. Never thought of hair and clothing as camouflage before, but maybe they figured I was one of them now.
Or maybe Kimberlee haunted them into this. Could she do that?
“We’re having a kegger up on Harrison Hill,” Langdon continued. “It’s gonna be wild. You’re the new guy and I’m thinking you need a bona fide Whitestone welcome.”
This is the difference between jocks at Whitestone and jocks in public school. At Whitestone they know words like bona fide. “Oh yeah?” I said hesitantly.
“Dude, everyone’ll be there,” one of the more preppy-looking guys said. “We have parties up there a couple times a year and it is the place to be.”
“You should come,” Langdon said, the look in his eyes making me feel like a feeder fish—the ones in the store that have no purpose in life whatsoever except to be eaten by bigger, fancier fish. “Seriously, bro,” he said, extending one enormous fist out to me, “you’ll be my special guest.”
Kimberlee breezed in while I was walking to my seat. She looked down at me with one eyebrow raised. “What’s with the sappy grin? You look like a moron.”
Got invited to a party, I wrote in my notebook.
Kimberlee graced me with a deadpan look. “Fantastic; a D&D rave.”
I rolled my eyes and fixed her with a glare that I managed to wipe off my face about a second after I realized Bleekman would think I was looking at him like that.
I don’t even play D&D.
And it’s true. I haven’t played D&D in years. At least a year.
It’s a kegger on Harris Hill.
“Harrison Hill? Seriously?” Kimberlee asked. Squealed is probably a better word. “I love the Harrison Hill parties!”
I admit I was relieved to hear that. Now I knew the party was legit. Probably.
“Wait,” Kimberlee said, her voice deadly serious. “Did you get an invite?” She put a fist on her hips and held up one finger like she was scolding a five-year-old child instead of a sixteen-year-old . . . uh . . . me. “Don’t you dare show your face at Harrison Hill without an invite.”
I looked up at her and nodded slightly.
“From who? You can’t get some loser invite and think you’re actually in because a nerd managed to get info.”
For some reason, after our run-in on the first day, I didn’t want to admit to Kimberlee that it had been Langdon. Besides, that preppy guy had chimed in, too. That was good enough, right? Since it was a little hard to describe a guy who was dressed just like everyone else—you never realize how much you use clothes to describe people until you go to a uniformed school where everyone is a freaking clone—I drew a quick diagram to point out the preppy guy who’d piped up.
Kimberlee glanced back at him. “Neil?” She raised her eyebrows, considering. Even looking a little bit impressed. “Okay, you’re in.” She grinned now. “Awesome. See? It’s totally the hair.”
Sad thing is, she was probably right.
When the lunch bell rang a couple hours later, I froze as I was zipping up my backpack. I’d been so focused on Kimberlee yesterday that I hadn’t bothered with the whole lunch ritual. Halle and me and an old bag of chips I found under the seat made for a cozy luncheon.
Now, unless I wanted to be that guy who sat by himself every day, I had to find an actual table.
And hope I hadn’t already blown my shot by being Mr. Nonsocial yesterday. This is serious stuff! Which is why Kimberlee found me standing in the middle of the cafeteria holding a full lunch tray, suffering an acute case of analysis paralysis.
“What are you doing, loser?” she asked.
“Ummmmmm . . .” I answered honestly.
She paused for a moment, then sighed. “I really should just leave you alone and let you make a fool out of your- self, but seriously, Jeff, what kind of impression do you think you’re going to make standing here while your lunch gets cold? Go sit the hell down!”
She did have a point.
I was about to head to a half-full table and attempt to make small talk with total strangers when Sera breezed through the doorway.
With the big dude wearing the letterman’s jacket.
I looked down at my tray and decided my mashed potatoes were in dire need of some extra pepper. I turned around and headed back to the condiment station, futzing with the small pepper shaker way longer than I could rationally justify, but most likely, no one was watching me.
Sera made it to the end of the line and turned. She met my eyes almost immediately; probably something to do with the heat that was building up on the back of her head where I’d been staring for the last two minutes. She looked down almost nervously and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. I figured that would be it, but after a second, she looked up and smiled shyly. I wondered how soon my life would end at wrestler-guy’s hands if I smiled back.
I took the risk.
After a second she looked away and started walking toward the opposite end of the condiment station. Still, I’d take what little victories I could.
To my surprise, Mikhail didn’t follow her; he went and sat at a table with a group of guys as muscular as he was. Well, almost as muscular. Sera headed toward a rapidly filling table on the other side of the room.
She was about ten feet away—and I was about ready to admit defeat and sit alone—when she paused and looked back at me.
“Hey, it’s Jeff, right?”
Seriously? “Uh, yeah,” I said with great bucketloads of suave.
“You look . . . lost.”
“You want to come sit with me and some friends—for today, anyway?”
A half-assed invitation; I’ll take it. I grinned—probably sappily—and muttered something affirmative before falling into step behind her.
“Don’t forget the boyfriend and all the bones in your body that he can breee-aaaaaak,” Kimberlee called in a sing- song voice as I walked away from her. I resisted the urge to flip her off.
As we sat down I noticed that Sera caught Mikhail’s eye across the room and smiled.
One problem at a time, I reminded myself. I was already just glad she was more than an incredibly pretty face. I mean, she’d asked me—a new nobody—to come sit with her. At the very least that meant she was nice.
“Hey, who’s your friend, Sera?” a girl with brown hair and glittery eye shadow asked, eyeing me a little like I was a piece of meat.
It was very strange.
“Oh, this is Jeff, guys. He’s new.” Then she set her tray down and started pointing around the table and rattled off about a dozen names. There was a Hampton and a Jasmine, some guy named Wilson, and I think there were two Jewels. Glitter-girl was named Brynley—or Breelee? Something like that. What was wrong with the parents in this city? Hadn’t anyone ever heard of naming their kids Kevin or Amber or anything even remotely mainstream?
“So,” one of the Jewels said when Sera was done. “Where’re you from?”
“Me?” Duh. “Phoenix.”
“Ooh, do you have rattlesnakes there?”
“Out in the desert, yeah. But I lived in the city.” In the ghetto, I almost added. Well, not exactly the ghetto, but compared to here? Ghetto.
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed.
“What do you play?” a guy asked. Wilson?
“Uh, Xbox?” I said with a nervous laugh.
“No, I mean, you’re pretty tall—you a baller or what?”
“Kinda,” I said. Blatant lie. People always assume I play basketball because I’m tall. I’d like to ask people if they play miniature golf because they’re short, but I had a feeling breaking that one out right now wasn’t going to endear me to anyone. “I hear our team is pretty good,” I tacked on. More lies.
“Yeah, you should come to a game,” the guy said. “Sera and Jasmine cheer.”
“You’re a cheerleader?” Now I understood the ripped legs.
“Junior co-captain of the squad,” she said. I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded important.
“So are you the girl they always, like, throw in the air?” I asked.
Her chin rose just a little. “Sometimes, but usually I’m the one tumbling in the front.”
The thought of Sera jumping around in a cheer skirt stoked a sudden passion for hoops within me. Why, of course I love basketball. Go team! And, note to self, find out what our team is. Probably the Fighting Preppies or something like that.
“Cool,” I said, wondering if I should be glad I found the nice cheerleader, or even more convinced that she was out of my league. Her profile was perfect. She had long eyelashes that were probably red or blond under her mascara. All I knew for sure was I could stare into her eyes all day.
Another ten minutes of small talk flowed around me. It wasn’t that they talked about things that weren’t interesting—local indie concerts, who was hooking up or breaking up, which teachers were the lamest—it’s just that I didn’t know enough about anything to join in.
When there was a lull, I worked up the nerve to turn to Sera and ask, “So, you heard about the party this weekend?”
She looked over at me, but said nothing.
“Harrison Hill?” I added nervously, hoping Kimberlee—not to mention Langdon and his friends—hadn’t fed me a total line about it being the place to be.
“Yeeeeaaaah,” she said, drawing out the word. “I did hear something about that.”
“I was kinda thinking maybe I’d see you there.”
“I don’t do keggers,” she said, her smile tightening. “Not my thing.”
“You’re not going?” I did not have a backup plan for that.
“Sera doesn’t do the partying scene,” Wilson piped in “helpfully.”
“How come?” I asked.
Sera shrugged. “I’m in the middle of competition season for cheer. The last thing I need is to get wasted on the weekends.”
“You don’t have to drink.” You could, say, make out with me instead. But I had a feeling it wasn’t in my best interest to say that out loud.
“Trust me, the parties are only fun if you’re drunk,” she said.
I laughed but she didn’t look amused.
“I’m going,” Brynley said, looking up at me.
“Me too,” Hampton added.
I pulled out one more piece of ammunition. “I’m going with Langdon,” I said, hoping he actually was as cool as Kimberlee made him sound.
“Langdon?” Sera said, though not in quite the same tone of voice I had said it.
“And Neil,” I added, not so confident in my invite anymore.
She looked like she wanted to say something, and then changed her mind and took a bite instead. “Maybe I should drop by,” she said after swallowing.
“Nice job, bro,” Wilson said softly, nudging my shoulder. “She hasn’t gone to one of these things since freshman year.” He whispered freshman year like it was a secret. As though being a freshman was some kind of embarrassing option.
The guys around me chuckled nervously, but I was lost.
After a few seconds Sera smiled awkwardly and grabbed the edges of her tray. “I better—”
“Are you going to bring your boyfriend?” I asked, totally cutting her off. Yes, I am a desperate loser.
Everyone at the table fell silent.
“Do you have news for us?” the other Jewel said, leaning forward on her elbows with her eyes glinting.
“No,” Sera said flatly.
“What about that Mikhail guy?” I hedged.
Sera raised an eyebrow and looked at me in confusion. “Khail?”
“Yeah, the, uh . . . wrestler?” Everyone was looking at me now, and I wanted to disappear—melt right through the floor like Kimberlee could. Then, almost as one, they started laughing. Not social, polite laughing; serious you-got-Punk’d laughing.
And I had no clue why.
I must have started to look pitiful because Sera finally let me off the hook. “Khail’s my brother. We’re very close. But not that close,” she added sarcastically.
My candle of hope instantly relit. No, “candle” is far too tame; this was a torch, a bonfire, a shock-and-awe explosion of hope.
Kimberlee was dead meat.
KIMBERLEE DIDN’T SHOW UP AGAIN until after school, when she fell into step with me in the hallway—as if nothing had happened. “Are we going now?”
“You are in so much trouble,” I said quietly.
“What are you talking about?” she asked at full volume. I think she enjoyed being able to talk loud when I couldn’t.
I burst through the front doors into the crisp January air. A little chilly, but mostly a perfect, sunny day. Like pretty much every day in Santa Monica. I stayed silent until I let myself into my car and Kimberlee slid into the passenger seat.
“Open the top,” Kimberlee said. “It’s, like, sacrilege to keep the top up on a day like this.”
“Not till I’m finished,” I said.
“What’s your problem?”
“Sera and Mikhail?”
“What about them?”
She had so much nerve. “Sera and Mikhail Hewitt. I’ll give you a hint. They’re not married.”
She at least had the courtesy to look slightly abashed. Very slightly. “So?”
I glared at her.
“Okay, fine, I should have told you. Big deal.”
The glaring continued.
“What do you want me to do?” Kimberlee said, not apologetic in the least. “Are you gonna pop the top or what?”
“Not today,” I grumbled.
Kimberlee rolled her eyes. “Gimme a break. I just forgot.”
“You really expect me to believe you just forgot he was Sera’s brother?”
“Fine, I didn’t forget. But come on, it was funny! You should have seen the look on your face. Priceless.”
“You don’t understand. I like this girl, Kimberlee.” Like, a lot. Weirdly a lot.
“All the more reason for me to warn you off her. Really, Jeff, she’s totally untouchable.”
“What the hell does that mean? First you say she’s a slut, then you let me think she’s dating her brother, now she’s untouchable?”
“You may be ready to hand her your heart on a silver platter, but she won’t give it back. She’s cold.”
“Even if that did make any sense, why should I believe you? You lie as often as you tell the truth. More often, really,” I added, realizing the truth of it even as I said it.
“Well, believe me this time. She’s not the innocent angel she appears to be.”
“And you are?”
“You’re not getting involved with me, are you?” She raised her eyebrows. “Though you seem like the kind of guy who would try, if he could.”
I swear she had one more button done up last time I looked over.
“I’m at least as hot as she is. And my boobs are way bigger.” Another button was mysteriously gone.
I focused on the road and didn’t look again. “And fake, probably.”
“Hey, they don’t feel fake when you got ’em in your hands.”
I almost swerved off the road. “Are you serious?” My eyes involuntarily returned to her chest; they didn’t look fake.
Kimberlee smiled victoriously and rebuttoned her blouse.
I turned to face the road again, feeling like a total schmuck. She knew just how to play me and I fell right into it. Kimberlee, one—Jeff, zero.
Even though this was my second trip to the cave, I still felt like a trespasser. But at least I climbed the wall faster.
Sadly, the scenery hadn’t changed.
If not for the rough, rocky walls and floor, it could have been an office storage room. Lidded file-sized boxes were lined up in rows with one wide aisle down the middle and an odd code of numbers and letters I didn’t understand written in black Sharpie on each box. Off to the side was a stack of still-flat boxes in plastic wrapping, and I could imagine alive-Kimberlee buying—or, more likely, stealing—them in anticipation of more pilfered items.
It was kind of sick, really.
“I don’t get you,” I admitted as we sorted through boxes. Well, I sorted and she directed. Unfortunate drawback to working with ghosts: Only one of you can actually work. Luckily, Kimberlee was happily interpreting her weird code on the boxes, and the bags inside were neatly labeled with names and dates.
“Jeez, it’s not that hard,” Kimberlee said. “This number means—”
“Not your code,” I said, pulling another box down. “You. I’ve seen your house—you’re obviously super-rich. And I get that whole thrill-seeking thing behind shoplifting, but this?” I asked, beckoning at the mass of boxes. “This is something else. Why?”
Kimberlee shook her head, looking down at the floor of the cave. “I don’t know,” she said sheepishly. “I just . . . couldn’t help myself.”
“But you have everything you stole just hidden in here. You didn’t use any of this stuff.”
“That wasn’t the point,” Kimberlee said, her tone brittle. “Besides, that kind of stuff gets you caught. I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t say you were.” I totally didn’t say it. “So . . . you never got caught? Even after all of this?”
“There were a couple of close calls.”
“And people just—what?—didn’t notice?”
Now a sly smile crossed her face. “Oh, they noticed, all right.”
That did not sound good. “What does that mean?”
“There was a . . . bit . . . of a theft scandal at Whitestone for, um, several months before I died,” Kimberlee said, avoiding my eyes. “Things . . . things were pretty bad, and I was taking a lot of stuff.”
Great. Just great.
“Principal Hennigan got complaints from students, teachers, parents, you name it. He was obsessed with catching the culprit. He kept trying to get the cops to come out and, like, send someone undercover—he is so lame—but obviously things eventually stopped disappearing and everyone moved on with their lives.”
“And no one realized the stuff stopped going missing when you died?” I asked skeptically.
“People never see what they don’t want to see,” Kimberlee said, looking out at the ocean. Anywhere but at me.
“But when this stuff starts coming back people are going to realize it’s the stuff that got stolen before, right?” Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse.
“Maybe,” Kimberlee said quietly.
“Maybe? I don’t think there’s any maybe about it, unless the entire school is much less intelligent than the brochures say. Returning this stuff wasn’t supposed to draw attention—it was supposed to be subtle.” I had no idea when I agreed to this that it was so . . . big.
“It can be subtle,” Kimberlee said, clearly attempting to sound optimistic.
“I have serious doubts,” I said dryly. “Especially considering we’ve got three boxes of stuff just from the teachers.”
“I’m trying to make amends,” Kimberlee said, irritation creeping into her voice. “My entire future—whatever that consists of—is resting on this. What do you want me to do?”
And as I stood there looking over box after box of stolen stuff, I realized I had no idea how to answer that question.
“So,” Kimberlee said, sounding strangely detached. “Do you want to give stuff back to people first or take stuff back to stores?”
I closed my eyes and sighed. I must have been insane when I agreed to this. “Let’s try people first.”
“Okay. Box numero uno. Miss Serafina,” she said, batting her eyelashes.
Ah yes, Sera, I thought and smiled, remembering all over again that she was single. Until I realized that if Kimberlee had a bag for Sera, there was something in there she’d stolen. “What did you take from her?” I demanded.
She rolled her eyes. “Go look.”
I grumbled under my breath as I looked through the bags until I found the ones marked with Sera’s name. A cheer skirt and shoes. They looked brand-new, but Kimberlee had been dead for over a year. “When did you take these?”
“The date’s on the bag, okay?”
Of course it was. How could I expect anything different from Miss OCD Klepto? “When she was a freshman?” I said, counting backward.
Kimberlee poked her head out from the boxes. The middle of the boxes. I was never going to get used to that. “She was the first freshman at Whitestone to make the varsity squad.”
“So you thought you’d take some of her excitement away? That’s real nice.”
“Shut up. I didn’t ask for commentary.” I couldn’t tell if she sounded angry or hurt.
“Well, she’s a really awesome girl.” And hot. So very, very hot.
“Says who? You’ve known her for what, a day?”
“Yeah, but she was nice to me without even knowing who I was. Nicer than anyone else I’ve met here so far,” I added in a grumble.
“Hey, I totally talked to you,” Kimberlee argued.
“I said nice.” I stuffed the cheer gear into my backpack. “I have room for some more; who else?”
I managed to gather bags for half a dozen of the kids Sera had introduced me to at lunch before my backpack started to look like that blueberry girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The pile of boxes didn’t look any smaller. If anything, it looked bigger.
“Day one,” I muttered.
My mom was constantly telling me that getting started on any project is the hardest part. I hoped she was right and that the worst was now behind me. On both the Kimberlee front and the Sera front.
When did my life become a soap opera?
I got the idea when I spotted a printing shop as I was driving home, trying to ignore Kimberlee belting rather off-tune to the radio beside me.
“What are you doing here?” Kimberlee asked, looking up at the nondescript shop.
“What are we doing here. You have to help.”
I pushed open the poster-laden front door and something chimed the first few notes of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” A man in a button-up sweater poked his head out a doorway at the back of the store. “I’ll be right with you,” he chirped.
“No hurry,” I called as I turned to a display of stickers and labels.
Kimberlee huffed beside me—and not too quietly. “Shh,” I hissed at her.
“Why? It’s not like Mr. Rogers back there can hear me.”
I rolled my eyes and turned back to the stickers.
After I had browsed for a few minutes, the clerk took his place at the register. “What can I do for you?” he asked, sliding his order pad in front of him.
“You do all these custom, right?”
“When could you have them ready for me?”
“If you use one of our designs and just add words, I can print them for you in about an hour. Send-out takes five business days.”
“Your designs’ll work. Can you just give me this white oval?” I pointed to a strip of plain white stickers.
The man scratched on his order pad. “What would you like them to say?”
“I’m sorry, comma, Kimberlee. That’s K-I—”
“Are you kidding me?” Kimberlee shrieked. “You can’t just blab to the world that I’m suddenly giving a bunch of stuff back a year after I’m dead!”
I shot her a nasty look, but she didn’t even notice.
“I forbid you to put my name on there! If you want to put someone’s name on there, put your own.” Her voice was grating on my eardrums and it seemed like it just got louder with each word.
I cringed as the salesman asked, “M next? Right?”
Kimberlee screamed again, a sound that probably would have shattered the windows if she’d been alive—and I forced myself not to cover my ears. “You know what? I have a better idea; give me these instead.” I pointed to the same round stickers, but just a little bit bigger with a pretty red flower and some decorative leaves printed along the bottom. “Leave off the name. Just print ‘I’m sorry’ on them with the flower.” I shot a very pointed glare at Kimberlee.
The sales guy glanced at me worriedly but said nothing as he scratched out the order and started writing again.
“This is ridiculous,” Kimberlee said. “But at least it’s better than the name thing.”
I rolled my eyes and turned back to the man. “How many?” he asked.
It was depressing to even think about. I looked up at the display. There was a bulk discount at a thousand. And that should definitely cover it.
“A thousand,” I said, digging into my back pocket for my wallet.
The guy looked over the rims of his glasses at me for an instant, probably wondering just how sorry I was for whatever I had done. “All right. About an hour.”
Kimberlee didn’t even bother waiting until we had left the store before starting up again. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s the principle,” I said as I slid into my car. “If you’re stuck here till you make amends, you should do more than just return the stuff. You should be sorry.”
“And if I’m not?” she huffed, with her arms folded over her chest.
“By the time we’re done, I bet you will be. But if you start trying to apologize then, it’ll be too late. Start now.” I slid into my seat and pulled on my seat belt. “If I have to do this, I’m going to make sure it gets done right. You don’t get a choice on this one.”
Kimberlee rolled her eyes. “You are the lamest thing that ever happened to me.” Then she turned and walked away.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT HAVING A fight with a ghost that makes you paranoid in the morning. I kept checking over my shoulder in the shower, and I peeked out of my bathroom door before darting to my closet for the shirt I’d forgotten to bring in with me.
But in the end Kimberlee popped up beside me at my locker, two minutes before the bell, acting as if we hadn’t argued at all.
I think that was the moment I understood how desperate she was. She could get mad and rage and ignore me all night, but in the end, she needed me. It made me feel really powerful for a few seconds before the guilt sank in. Of course I was powerful. She was a helpless ghost. Pain in the ass or not.
Okay, there was no reason to even end that sentence with “or not.”
Nonetheless, when we put our plan into action a few hours later, I was glad she was there.
“Is anyone coming?” I asked.
“No, but hurry.”
Kimberlee watched the doors as I ran across the cafeteria to the table where I saw Sera sitting yesterday and opened my backpack. I threw six gallon-sized plastic bags into a pile in the middle of the long rectangle and ran back as my heart sped up to about three hundred beats per minute.
“All clear,” Kimberlee said, her eyes still scanning the halls. “Just look cool and keep your bathroom pass where the teachers can see it.”
I haven’t used a bathroom pass since I was in, like, third grade—and never one the size of a dinner plate. But at Whitestone they insisted such a nonconcealable pass cut down on the number of students who wandered the halls. Personally, I thought it was a good reason to hold it until lunchtime.
“Why can’t we just look everyone up in the phone book and drop stuff off on their porch?” I muttered.
“Oh please,” Kimberlee said. “People who can afford to send their kids to Whitestone are not listed in the phone book. And even if they were, do you know all these kids’ parents’ names? I sure as hell don’t, and I’ve been going to school with them since kindergarten.”
I glanced back down at the pass. “Fine.”
It was ten minutes until lunch when I returned the enormous pass to its spot and started on the assignment that would now be homework, since I didn’t get to work on it the whole class period. Great.
Everything was quiet—so quiet that when the bell rang, I gasped and knocked my book on the floor. I should never apply for the FBI. For everyone’s sake.
I entered the cafeteria hesitantly, and not just because the stuff I’d returned was there. Sera hadn’t actually said that I was invited back, but the guys seemed to think I was cool enough, and she was coming to see me at the party. So . . . that meant I could sit with her again, right?
Sera was nowhere to be seen, but I wasn’t going to make the mistake of standing like a dork with a tray full of food again, so I headed toward the table and hoped my invitation didn’t have an expiration date.
“Ah, man,” Wilson said just as I came into earshot, “someone left a bunch of crap on our table.” He raised an arm to sweep it onto the floor.
Stop! Don’t! my mind screamed. If this stuff got trashed Kimberlee was going to haunt me forever.
“Wait a sec.” Hampton edged in and plucked one of the bags from the table. He pulled out a small day planner covered with Sharpie doodles. “This is mine.” He stared at the planner in confusion, then flipped through it, pausing at some of the pages. “I lost this when I was in seventh grade. It had a hundred bucks in it.” He dug into a small pocket on the back page and pulled out a Benjamin. “No way. Sweet!”
Brynley pulled a pink T-shirt from another bag. “This was my favorite shirt freshman year. Someone stole it out of my gym locker.”
I forced myself not to shoot Kimberlee a nasty look, but I heard her clear her throat behind me.
Brynley looked back at the bag. “What’s this?” she asked, poking at the sticker.
I proceeded to get very interested in the wall to my left.
“‘I’m sorry’? That’s weird.” But she tossed the empty bag into the garbage without another word and stowed her shirt in her backpack with a smile.
I caught sight of Sera making her way toward the table and subtly stepped back so I wasn’t blocking the seat beside my tray. Because I’m supersmooth like that . . .
A few other people pulled things from the pile as she walked up—one from two years ago and one from just a few weeks before Kimberlee drowned. It was exciting to watch all the happy faces around me, and I tried not to be too obvious as I turned to watch Sera find her bag.
She sat staring at her skirt and shoes for a long time with no expression on her face at all while everyone else started digging into their food. Finally, when the din at the table settled, Sera said, “This is too creepy.”
“Why?” I tried to ask casually. “Someone’s conscience got to ’em.”
Sera shook her head. “No. I know who stole these and she didn’t have a conscience at all.” She addressed the whole table again. “You all remember Kimberlee.” It wasn’t a question.
Wilson snorted. “Who could forget that beyotch?”
I stared straight ahead, not daring to look at Kimberlee. She told me she hadn’t gotten caught, so how did Sera know?
“She stole these,” Sera said. “I saw her do it. But she never would ’fess.”
I tried to look as clueless as possible. “Kimberlee who?”
“Schaffer,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Before your time.”
“So, she reformed and gave you your stuff back?” I hoped it sounded like a natural—and uninformed—theory.
“Dude, she’s dead,” Wilson said.
“And good riddance,” Sera muttered into her pasta.
I stared at Sera in shock. This was not the reaction I’d expected. Sure, she could be annoying as hell, but I figured it was just because I wasn’t one of her friends. Hadn’t Kimberlee told me how wonderful her life was? How popular she was? Open dislike was hardly the way someone as popular as Kimberlee claimed to be should be treated.
Especially a dead someone.
I chanced a look around. Kimberlee was nowhere to be seen.
She didn’t show up again until I got into my car after school. And even then she slid silently into her place.
“Let’s just go to the cave,” she replied shortly.
We made it to the beach, and I filled my backpack with bags for Monday and started packing two boxes to set me up for the rest of the week before she spoke again. “I probably shouldn’t have taken all this stuff,” she said, her admission echoing in the cave.
I paused for a moment, then resumed yanking on my backpack zipper. “It’s not really a ‘probably’ thing. You said you had everything. Why wasn’t that enough?”
She sat on a box and stared at the ground. “I tried not to, but I couldn’t stop. You don’t know what it’s like. What if I asked you to stop breathing, or eating—could you?”
“But it’s not breathing or eating, Kimberlee. It’s stealing.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” she snapped. “Don’t you think that every time I came up here with more stuff to file away I hated myself for it?”
“Could have fooled me,” I said, gesturing to the masses of boxes surrounding us.
She looked at me for a long time; not glaring, just studying me until I started to feel uncomfortable. “You think being a klepto means I like to steal stuff? I don’t. I hate stealing. I hate stealing more than anything in the entire world.”
“Then why didn’t you stop?”
“I couldn’t. I know you don’t believe that, but it’s true. I tried so hard. I went, like, four months one time. Then one day, I was walking behind this lady at the mall, and she had this stupid little fluffy keychain on the strap of her purse. And I wanted it so badly I couldn’t think about anything else. I walked away. I went and sat on the water fountain and tried to think of anything except the keychain. And I started to shake. My whole body was, like, having convulsions. I was seriously afraid I was going to die if I didn’t find that woman and take her keychain.” She stared down at the ground, something that looked eerily like shame filling her face.
“So what happened?” I asked quietly.
“I found her and took the keychain,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “And I’ve never felt so good and so bad at the same time. I got this amazing high like I could conquer the world. But that was the moment that I knew I would never, ever conquer stealing.” She shrugged dejectedly. “I kinda gave up after that. There didn’t seem to be any point. I guess dying was the only way to stop.”
“I’m sorry.” But it felt like a stupid thing to say.
She shrugged. “My own fault for swimming out into that riptide.”
“We all make mistakes.”
“We don’t all die from them.”
“No, but some of us end up being miserable for the rest of our lives.” I paused for a moment, considering that. “Maybe that’s worse.”
“As opposed to being miserable for the rest of your afterlife?”
Something in her voice made me feel sorry for her, and it wasn’t a feeling I wanted to have. I needed to stay rational and in control here. Kimberlee was a veritable emotional steamroller and I was constantly in danger of getting myself flattened. I sat down beside her, but not close enough to touch. The cold, creepy feeling still freaked me out. “But it might not last too much longer. You return everything and apologize and you’ll be out of here . . . to . . . wherever.”
“It’ll be a good place, won’t it?” Kimberlee said, starting to smile now.
But I was so the wrong person to ask.
When in doubt, lie. “Absolutely,” I said, without meeting her eyes.
“WAKE UP, LAZY ASS!” KIMBERLEE shouted at about two-hours-before-rational-time o’clock the next morning. “It’s Harrison Hill day!”
“Sure,” I said, grabbing a pillow and dropping it on top of my head. “And in case you didn’t hear right, I’m going at ten o’clock p.m.”
“Duh. We have to go shopping now and get you something decent to wear.”
That cheered me up like a kick to the head. “Shopping? Uh, no.”
“Dude, I’ve seen what’s in your closet. Old tees and faded jeans. And Converse? Please!”
“Vintage,” I corrected her, defending my eclectic collection of shirts I’d very carefully selected from some of Phoenix’s finest thrift stores.
“Whatever. Not good enough for Harrison Hill. When you go to a school with uniforms, you make the most of any chance to actually show off your taste. This party will be a full-on fashion show and your clothes will totes stick out. And not in the good way.”
“I never stood out in Phoenix,” I grumbled, smooshing my face back into the pillow.
“This is not Phoenix.”
I mumbled something incoherent into my pillow.
She sat down on the bed, almost touching me, and I cringed. “This is your first chance to make a real impression on the social scene. You want to do it right.”
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