TW: hospitals, implied childhood trauma
I didn’t know much about cars, but along the way I’d that they were kind of like dogs; they reflected their owners to a startling degree. Avery’s cab with its leather seats, black sleek exterior and dated design felt like Avery did – a little bit cryptic, surprisingly put-together, and more than a touch alive. Isaiah’s car, on the other hand, was a beaten-up blue sedan, with scratches on the windows.
Isaiah unlocked the doors, then opened the passenger side door for me. “She’s not much, but she’s mine.”
I hesitated, then glanced quickly through the back windows. The back was full of boxes, some of them stacked two on top of each other. “I -” No, I wouldn’t bother. There was no easy way to explain it to anyone. So I slid into the front passenger seat, my stomach lurching. “What are all those boxes?” I asked, trying not to sound as nauseous as I felt.
“Oh, I’m a library tech. Those are book donations.”
“Somebody donated all of those?” My mouth fell open, and despite myself, I reached backwards and opened one of the box lids. Yep, books – books upon books, more than I’d ever seen at once. I went to libraries, sure, but usually for the wifi and the couches.
“Several people, but yes. Some of them have ghosts attached,” he joked.
I noticed that Jo hadn’t followed me, and swallowed the worry down with the rest of the anxiety. She could do what she wanted – and it meant that I could ask the questions that plagued me without her doing her concerned cluck at me. That sounded ungrateful, but it was true. “Do you, um…” My courage failed me, and instead, I closed my eyes as he started up the engine. I hated cars. I hated cars, so fucking much. It was fine when I was in the back. I didn’t have to look out the windshield that way.
Well, now he was asking. “Do you like ghosts? I mean, do you – I don’t know. Have ghostly friends? How does it work for you?” I sounded so pathetic. I was just as much of a Salt as he was… except that I hadn’t even known it was a thing.
I opened one eye. He had a somewhat puzzled expression on his face. “I mean, I have a few. I’m not sure I was expecting that question.”
“Well… Johara. She’s your sister. And she’s a ghost.”
“She doesn’t count,” I huffed. “I mean ghosts you don’t know.”
“They’re usually pretty nice. They get a little forgetful sometimes, but I think you knew that.”
“But they don’t… bother you?”
“Why would they? Maybe a little when I was a kid.”
I don’t know why that hit me so hard. “Y-you were a kid?” The unspoken too didn’t need saying. As much as I loved to deny it, I was seventeen; that was still a kid to most people.
“Mhm.” He stopped at an intersection, and I suppressed the urge to throw up. Motion sickness, I told myself. “You don’t like ghosts, huh?”
I swallowed it down, and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Isaiah didn’t say anything else. Then he lifted his hand, and before I knew what was happening, his hand was on my head, ruffling my hair. I blinked, a flush of embarrassment rising to my face, then pulled my hair in front of my face, feeling like an idiot.
“I’m glad you’re okay.”
“You don’t even know me,” I complained.
“No, but I’m glad I get the chance.”
He was so freakin’ sincere about it. It was cheesy and kind of cringy, and I liked it.
“Let’s just get to the hospital.”
“Want some music?”
I wondered if he was offering because he liked music, or because he’d noticed how much I hated being in the car. But I nodded, and next thing I knew, he’d slid a cassette (a cassette? In the year 2016? How old was he?) into the tape deck. A few moments later, the music began to chug through the air, and I laughed in disbelief.
“Is this pop-punk? I thought you were an adult.”
“It’s grunge, you fetus. And my generation invented it.”
“How old even are you?”
“Uh…” He thought for a moment. “Can I still say thirty-nine?” he said ruefully.
“What.” I stared up at him. “You’re forty?”
“I’m trans, which apparently means eternal youth.”
I blinked some more, and flushed again at the sight of his mouth twitching up at the corner. “…But…”
“We’re not all bratty teenagers, you know.”
“I meant Will and Cass, but I suppose you count.”
I crossed my arms and sulked, even though I was enjoying myself.
“We’re here,” he said finally, and I suddenly remembered – I was going to have to tell Nathan something.
“What’s the policy on telling, you know…” I swallowed. “Normies? Normal people? About this stuff?”
“It’s… recommended against.”
I rubbed my temples. “Nathan’s in the hospital because Kiera knocked him out. I have to come up with something good if I can’t tell him.”
“Afraid I can’t help you – I don’t know the man.”
“He’s my roommate. I barely know him either.” I hopped out of the car, then kicked at the curb in a bad temper. “Alright, up we go.” Cars and hospitals. All sorts of fun today.
“He’s on the fifth floor, according to Avery.”
“Right.” Stupid Civic Hospital. I’d considered burning it down before, even though they’d done their best. What a fucking infuriating sentence. ‘We did everything we could.’
Mind on the present, Jamal. Nathan was fine. The worst he’d have would be a minor concussion. It didn’t stop me from feeling the linoleum floor slip out from under my feet as we walked up to the desk, the past infecting the present with infinite pressure.
Then we were there, and I exhaled a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding when we stepped into the room and Nathan glanced up from his book with a growing smile.
“Jamal! You came to visit me!”
“Well, yeah.” I managed a smile. “I still need your rent.”
Nathan snorted, then rubbed at his head. “I’ll be released tonight, I think? They wanted to keep me for 24-hour observation. Apparently I have a minor concussion.”
Well, I’d called it. “Do you, um – remember what happened?”
Nathan’s blue eyes flickered almost imperceptibly towards Isaiah. Then… “Nah. I guess I tripped or something.”
He was lying. I could tell that as easily as I could tell the sky was blue. But it was a lie that seemed to work in my favour for now, so I decided to roll with it, and start poking holes in it later.
Then another familiar voice cut through the quiet buzz of machines and IV drip. “I’m sorry.”
I suppressed my response when I noticed that Nathan hadn’t heard it. Isaiah had, though. Which meant –
I glanced over at the chair next to Nathan’s bed. Gurjas was sitting there, the chair clipping through his legs and arms in awkward places, and he was watching over Nathan with a protective air that reminded me that he was a father. I wondered where Nathan’s family was. If he’d even told them he was in trouble. I supposed he wasn’t, really; but it still made the room feel that much more desolate.
“My name’s Isaiah. I’m a friend of Jamal’s and the person who brought you here – I’m glad you’re okay. Want to get some food down at the caf? I’ll push you in a wheelchair if you want.”
Nathan raised his eyebrow, but between being… well, Nathan, in all his awkward glory, faced with one of the most charming men I’d ever met, he was definitely going to say yes. “Alright.”
I waited til they were gone, then sat down on the bed that Nathan had just vacated. “You’re here. I didn’t expect that,” I said to Gurjas.
Gurjas steepled his fingers on his knee. “I had no idea she would come after you. I didn’t – I didn’t intend that.”
I chewed on my lip. “What I don’t understand is… why me in the first place? How’d you even know?”
“Elementals have a glow to us. It’s even more obvious once you’re a ghost. Don’t ask me why; I just know that once I crossed over, you were like a beacon.”
“But Chandra couldn’t hear you.”
A smile flickered at his mouth, and he stroked his beard. “It really is a shame you’ve only had yourself to rely on. Ghosts can appear to anybody in dreams, if they have a close enough connection, and they know how.”
“So she dreamed about me.”
“And hired me, and -” I groaned. “I still don’t understand. Why not Isaiah? He’s an adult. He has a car. And money,” I added somewhat glumly.
“Isaiah has children of his own. I won’t have another family torn apart on my behalf.”
“So I’m expendable.”
“You’re young, and stubborn, and furious. A good combination.”
“All you wanted was for me to find your body.”
I hesitated, then drove forward anyway. Young and stubborn and furious. I could work with that. “What about the girl?”
Gurjas closed his eyes. He was solid today – I could see every curl of his beard, every fold of his turban. “She’s safe.”
“She’s alone, isn’t she?”
He avoided my eyes.
“I know you want her protected. There’s a reason you haven’t said anything about her, isn’t there?” I’d theorized about Gurjas being a molester, a killer, a cheater. But now, looking at the grief and fear on his face, I knew it couldn’t be anything so base. “Is she your kid?” I asked.
“Not by blood. She needed help.”
This was the most Gurjas had ever spoken, and I could hear the difference. Before, he’d been so stoic that there was very little to read off of him. This time, though, he was shaken. He hadn’t expected Kiera any more than I had.
“I want to protect her too,” I urged. “But I need to know a little about her first. At least enough to know why Kiera wants her so badly.”
“I won’t tell you where she is. It’s too dangerous.” Then his voice softened a little. “Her name is Jaylie. She’s eighteen.”
“And that’s all you’ll tell me?”
“Yes. Unless you can show me how you’ll protect her – and yourself.” He jabbed an insubstantial finger at me. “I’ve had enough of my kin die. I won’t have another child on my conscience.”
“Alright. I promise.”
God, he really was a father. “I promise not to throw myself headfirst into danger at every available opportunity,” I added.
I paused. Nathan and Isaiah would be back soon. “…Chandra invited me to your funeral.” I shifted on the bedclothes, trying to figure out if I was crossing some invisible line of etiquette. “Would you be alright if I -”
“Of course. Of course, I’d be honored.”
I felt a lump rise in my throat. I wished I’d gotten to know him while he was alive. Maybe that was why I was so uncomfortable around ghosts most of the time. The sense of missed opportunity.
Still, I had a plan in place. I’d go to his funeral. Then after that, I’d figure out where Jaylie was hiding, and how to keep her safe from Kiera. I’d talk to the rest of the community about it. I’d figure it out, like I always did.