word count: 2215
When I opened my eyes again, it was to sunlight filtering in through a thick canopy of light green leaves. I watched them sway in a gentle, surprisingly warm breeze for the middle of October. Though I did feel a rock or two jabbing into my back, the dirt underneath me was soft. Add in the thin layer of grass I was currently digging my fingers into, and I had the perfect cushion.
But then I remembered the jolt.
And the pain.
And the feeling that I had died.
I hadn't ever died myself, of course. I just knew about it secondhand. My morbid younger self had loved to ask older ghosts what it was like to die. They obviously hadn't wanted to talk about it at the time, but it was hard to turn down such a cute face. After some dedicated begging, they always gave in.
The ways that they died varied, but the sensation of it never did. Even if you expected to die, death came suddenly and quickly. You could never predict the exact moment. And if you did die in a premature, surprise death, you would always be in shock for the first few moments.
I knew I was in shock. I had seen a glimpse of the truck behind us right as it crashed into my side of the bus. I had felt my insides jostle around at the impact, and was sure that I had been impaled by at least one piece of metal from the back of the bus.
...So I was dead.
That was a lot to unpack.
I stared up at the blue sky above for a little longer, not quite willing to accept my fate just yet. I admittedly hadn't had much to do with the living these days, anyways, but it still felt strange to realize I had just become one of the ghosts I had spent years talking to.
I heard a low groan from beside me.
Finally tearing my eyes away from the sky, I looked over at the source of the groan. To a mix of shock and horror, I discovered that the owner of the noise was no other than Rose's boyfriend. While I had been peacefully laying on my back before rolling over onto my side, Theo Mendel was currently splayed across the ground like he was some kind of discarded toy. His white shirt was ripped in multiple places; his pants were, too. Both were stained with a healthy combination of blood and yellow paint chips - it was just more noticeable on his once pristine white shirt.
I glanced down at my own clothes. They weren't doing much better. It looked like my beloved leather jacket had taken most of the damage, but the rest of my outfit still looked far from neat.
Still, something felt...off.
Giving another groan, Rose’s boyfriend hoisted himself off of the ground. He stared at me for a moment - and, more specifically, at my face - before grabbing a stick from beside him like it was some makeshift weapon.
"Where are we?" he demanded.
I sat up and crossed both my arms and legs.
"I'd say we're ghosts, so we're where we died-" I started, only to pause when I realized what had been bugging me all along. I shot to my feet and frantically looked around for anything familiar. This place didn't look like South Haven; the trees were all the wrong shape and size. I couldn't even hear a car's motor going on a nonexistent, nearby street.
"You think we're ghosts?" Theo asked, green eyes wide. He looked at his stick again, reconsidered it as a weapon, and promptly tossed it to the side. A moment later, he joined me by also standing up.
"We should be," I said. "Ghosts are supposed to end up where they died. But this isn't South Haven."
I looked down at my outfit again.
Ghosts were also supposed to have whatever injuries they died with. But all that Theo and I had to show for the bus accident was a combination of ripped and stained clothes - with a few bits of blood here and there on our skin as well.
Theo ran his fingers through his hair.
"This doesn't make sense," he whispered.
"It doesn't," I agreed. "Someone screwed up how ghosthood is supposed to work-"
"That's not what I meant," Theo interrupted. He was pulling at his hair again. To add to the look, he had even started pacing back and forth in front of me. "We can't be dead."
"It's the only thing that makes sense," I pointed out. He had to have felt that collision before ending up here, too.
"We're too young to die," Theo protested.
"Haven't you ever heard the saying that death doesn't discriminate?" I asked. I glanced around the forest again, trying to find some indication of where we were or what we were supposed to do next. "I know at least ten different ghosts who died before they turned twenty."
My gaze momentarily landed on Theo. I wasn't trying to judge his reaction at this point - I knew he wouldn't really get it. But I still ended up catching a glimpse of his expression. The emotion displayed was a familiar one: recognition. I had been getting that look a lot lately.
"...You're Rose's friend," he guessed.
I smirked, but the smile barely reached my eyes. "Guilty as charged. Did she tell you about all of my ‘imaginary friends’?”
He stared at me.
And then he gave a little nod.
“They...were...real?” he slowly - and uncertainly – said.
I let out a groan and rolled my eyes. It looked like I’d have to be teaching him the basics of ghosthood. He clearly hadn’t believed in my deceased friends, either. But, at the very least, that meant I wouldn’t have to deal with any nasty misconceptions about what ghosts actually were like. People who couldn’t see them love to jump to conclusions.
After eyeing the forest we were in for somewhere good to sit, I plopped myself down on a big, nearby rock. In the back of my mind, I just barely registered how dark the sky was getting up above. It was the kind of dark sky that blanketed the entire ground down below in shadows. But after recently dying, I wasn’t exactly concerned about the state of the weather.
“Since we’re both dead now,” I started, “and you’re clueless, let me give you a quick rundown on how ghosthood works. Then you can grasp how big of a mess up this whole thing is.”
Theo hesitantly sat down on a rock across from me.
“When you die, there’s two ways you can become a ghost,” I said. “One way is chance. That one rarely happens. The kind of ghost you usually find - and the kind that we have to be - is the kind that had something tying them back to the living world.”
I paused to give him a chance to interject. I didn’t want him to, of course, but I knew that he was going to have some questions. Everyone always did. When I had stumbled onto new ghosts before, they always asked me things that should have been obvious - but there was little I could do at that point besides explaining.
It was just...strange being a ghost while explaining.
“Like a regret?” Theo asked.
“It can just be a strong feeling,” I said. “Love, sadness, anger - they ground you to the world. With you, it was probably your little relationship with Rose. For me, it was probably…”
I had seen ghosts my entire life. It just made sense for me to be one now. But the more I thought about the life I had left behind, I realized that there wasn’t anything to tether me. I didn’t have a drive to see Rose anymore. I didn’t want to return to the cemetery. I wasn’t even close to my new foster family. Chance might have been the reason that I had become a ghost, but that didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. The more I thought about this situation, the less certain I became that Theo and I were ghosts. But if we were dead and hadn’t become ghosts, where were we now?
I got to my feet and frantically glanced around.
I caught a glimpse of a nearby puddle.
“...Van?” Theo started. I was too distracted by the puddle to be shocked that he already knew my name.
Before he could say anything else, I walked over to the puddle. I put the very tip of my combat boot into the water. I kept waiting to see little chunks of ice forming, but nothing changed. Even as the rain started to fall from the dark clouds above, the air stayed warm. The rain didn’t magically turn to snow when it got too close to me. I couldn’t even see my breath in the air.
I pulled my leather jacket and rolled up my shirt to expose my waist.
There was nothing there.
I wasn’t hurt. If I had really been a ghost, I should have seen an injury there. I had known that from the moment we had ended up here, so why hadn't I acknowledged the signs? We weren’t even in South Haven anymore! This was some strange new level to death that I hadn’t ever heard about before - and I didn’t have the foggiest idea what we were supposed to do now.
I let go of my clothes and turned back to Theo.
“We’re not ghosts,” I said.
“But you just said we were,” Theo argued. “You said that my love for Rose…”
He paused, catching a glimpse of the expression on my face. I knew it had to have been anger or irritation. And I knew that someone like him probably would have hated expressions like that; he was far too...perfect to want to deal with tricky emotions like those. But instead of him lashing out or stepping back from me, a look of pity appeared on his face. There was a soft glint to his eyes as he hesitantly spoke again.
I turned away.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I didn’t start to move when I heard Theo walk over to me. The rain was starting to fall harder now; I could even hear thunder beginning to rumble in the distance. Neither one of us really registered the sensations - the feeling of rain on our skin, the crash of thunder, and the brightness of lightning bolts far, far away.
“You thought you knew everything about how death worked,” Theo said. I pretended like I hadn’t heard him. “It’s okay if you don’t know. We’ll figure this out together-”
I jerked my shoulder away when he tried to give it a comforting squeeze.
“I’m fine,” I insisted. “This might not be what I thought death was like, but death is my thing. This is probably Heaven, or Hell, or wherever ghosts go when they finally pass on. If we search hard enough, we’ll find someone I know.”
I started to walk away.
“...What if we don’t?”
I paused and glanced back at him. “What if we don’t what?”
He still had that stupid, pitying look on his face. It looked even more irritating now that the rain was causing his hair to stick to his forehead. I knew my own, slightly longer hair was much worse, but I didn’t let myself make that logical leap in the moment. “What if we don’t find someone you know?”
I spun around and took a confident step into the brush.
“We will,” I said. We had to. “I know more ghosts than you can ever imagine. If not, we’ll find one of those stupid shadow people - I bet they were behind this whole thing.”
Theo rushed to my side.
“You never mentioned anything about shadow people before,” he said, his voice high with fear. “...Rose never mentioned them, either, when she was talking about what you saw.”
I pushed away a low-hanging tree branch. The rain was coming down in buckets now; I could barely make out five feet ahead of me. “That’s because I didn’t know about them until I was eleven.”
“But what’s a shadow person?” he asked.
“I don’t know!” I exclaimed, exasperated. “I just know that they show up and ghosts disappear. I’ve only seen them once or twice. They’re tall, shadowy things who have darkness coming off of them in creepy little strands. Every time one of them shows up, ghosts start disappearing. If either one of us was supposed to become a ghost after we died, I bet they’re the reason we ended up wherever we are now instead-”
There was a loud crack underneath my feet. I glanced down, expecting to see a large stick. But then I heard the noise again, this time coming from underneath Theo’s feet. When I squinted through the rain, I couldn’t see any stick peeking out from underneath his shoes. Even the lightning that flashed nearby failed to reveal anything substantial.
Theo and I glanced at each other.
As thunder clapped overhead, the ground gave out underneath us.