Blake lifted his chin with a start, and stared. Amelia had her arms crossed while she glanced right at him. Her gentle gaze plus a raised eyebrow conveyed both her amusement as well as her bewilderment.
"Oh. Me? Yeah. Fine."
"You sure?" Cameron pulled out a can of soda out of his backpack, but subsequently dropped it on some rocks and dirt. "Dangit. Well, you looked half asleep throughout classes today."
"Just, um, didn't get a lot of sleep last night. Or this weekend, really." That at least was true.
"I hear that," said Cameron as he picked up the can. "Some nights? I just don't get enough sleep. I've been the same way lately."
"You have?" You've seen spectres in greater numbers than usual and crazy shadow monsters that have no explanation for being there?
"Yeah!" Cameron now had a big smile on his face while he spoke. "With the end of the year coming up, summer vacation is just around the corner! We'll get three months to do all kinds of fun stuff!"
Blake paused, thought it over...and gently threw his hands into the air. "You got me."
"Figured as much!" Cameron laughed.
Someone approached from Blake's right a few seconds later. June strolled across the grassy park, with a few white packages in hand. In the distance sat a boxy truck with some colorful signs and images on its side. Blake gave her a small wave as she walked within a few feet of them.
"So, good news!" June grabbed two of the white packages, and tossed one each to Blake and Amelia, both of whom caught it with ease.
"Joshua had the Cherry Bombs, so easy peasy. And Cam? He also had the White Fudgesicle."
"Sweet!" Still clutching the soda can, Cameron thrust a victorious fist into the air. June tossed him a white package also, which he caught somewhat clumsily. He then popped the can open...but it spurted on his face and flowed over the sides a little. Some of it dripped on his shorts creating dark splotches on the khakis.
The other three laughed as they opened their packages. Blake immediately smelled the cherry, and wasted no time in gently licking off the red exterior. Amelia did the same. But June bit into the top of hers with a brief cringe.
"They're called ice cream bars for a reason," said Blake.
Nearby Cameron struggled to properly position his own bar and messy soda. Meanwhile, Amelia immediately created conversation.
"Saw you talking to Joshie again," she said. "Any interesting gossip to report?"
"Not a lot." June shook her head also. "Just mentioning being excited for the summer and get good business again with the truck. He did say his neighbors got sick too, apparently."
"Oh? That's not good."
Blake lifted his chin. "Got sick....too?"
Cameron just rolled his eyes, but Amelia smacked him in the shoulder with the back of her hand. "Miss Jeana sent him to the front office with those papers, remember? He wasn't there for that conversation."
He only tilted his head a little, but Amelia began an explanation without hesitation. "I heard Dalton's dad and sister got sick with something, and apparently he was a bit feverish too. And Haley told me that old couple that live a few doors down from her? They're not doing great either."
"Those are....weird coincidences," he responded.
"Yeah," June agreed. Her voice seemed a bit soft as she spoke. "But, Dalton's family was already having trouble with people getting sick since they had that big family gathering a couple weeks back. So, it could be just a crazy coincidence."
"Could?" Cameron said, shrugging. "You make it sound like they might be connected."
June merely shrugged in response. "Maybe, maybe not. Just saying, but it is weird."
Blake straightened his back ever so slightly. Perhaps Amelia and Cameron simply said nothing, or maybe they really didn't notice it. But he knew he heard just a touch of worry in her voice in those last few sentences. And for a few moments he did not break eye contact with her.
"Look, long as we stay away from them, we'll be fine." Amelia broke the silence with her voice. "Nobody's getting sick this summer."
"Why is it summer vacation is the only thing on your mind the last few weeks of every school year?" Blake then asked.
"Come on, how is it not on yours? Summer has all the freedom and friends and none of the homework and learning."
"Says the one who wants to become a pilot."
Amelia scoffed at the comment. "Learning something you're passionate about is different. That kind of stuff sticks with you because you want it to."
"Yeah," June laughed, putting some optimism in her response. "But you still gotta know things like physics, and math."
"Ugh.....don't remind me."
That was the last thing Blake paid attention to of that conversation. His focus already begun shifting elsewhere. A tiny little shiver ran up his spine, enough to get a little tingle out of him. He breathed out in a normal sigh but looked around when no one else noticed. Here? Now? Where?
Another chill traveled through him, this time in his arm. His gaze froze in place for a moment. Two at the same time?
Blake licked his ice cream bar a few more times, trying not to look odd. The others had quieted down, also licking their cold treats. He did not need a scan of his surroundings; he knew the little bathroom building was behind him and to his right. And with the doors out of sight of his friends, then maybe, just maybe he could deal with one of them.
He wasn't even halfway through his cherry-coated bar when he stood up and handed it towards June.
"Think you could hold it real quick while I use the bathroom?"
She took the stick from him, a little twinkle in her eyes. "Sure. But, fair warning. I might grab a taste. Or two."
As he walked away, hands in his pockets, he shook his head. "Don't even think about it. I don't want your germs making me sick."
Blake twisted his neck right as June stuck out her tongue. He faced forward but kept his apprehension from showing. Please please please, I hope one is by the bathroom. Just, make it easy for me.
In about twenty or so yards he turned the corner of the building and came upon the doors, now hidden from view of his friends. He knocked on the men's bathroom door. No answer. Then he did the same for the women's restroom.
Still no answer.
He did not enter either. Instead he looked around, and prayed.
"Come on, come on," he muttered under his breath. "I'm here. So just one of you find me."
A chill overtook the entire backside of his body, and Blake spun around with a start.
"Where'd you come from?!"
While Blake held a hand over his chest, the spectre before him just stood. It tilted its head with confusion.
"You cannot sneak up on people like that," he said, but quietly. "It's not very nice."
But the wave of indifference he felt told him otherwise.
"Or you can not care. That's fine too..."
Another chill soon hit him like an icy breeze that left his hairs standing on end, again from behind.
"Jesus!" He spun around again....and there stood a second ghost. But this one was a little different. Both looked like middle-aged men, and both had impressive builds of bodies. But rather than indifference, this spectre emitted a seething fury so potent it made Blake's own blood boil.
"Woah. What's going on with you?"
The angry spirit raised an arm, and pointed at Blake. He was surprised, concerned, and confused all the same. But when he instinctively stepped sideways, the spirit's finger did not move.
"You angry at him?" asked Blake, jerking his head in the direction of the first presence he'd seen. The spectre nodded, and the anger he emitted intensified.
"Look; what did he do? I don't have a lot of time, so try to summarize."
The angry fellow tried speaking, but most of what came out was garbled nonsense. Still, he managed to catch some of it.
....hiking in the Rockies....played a trick....mountain lion pounced out of nowhere.....
The spirit continued its rant, but it gave him ample time to get a closer look at the gentlemen. He hadn't noticed it before, but with a different angle Blake could now see some of the massive holes on the neck. On both their necks, actually. And despite the indifference of the one spirit, both still carried some lingering pain that made Blake's upper body itch.
"I....still can't tell exactly what happened." Blake looked to the first figure. "You were friends, but you played a trick or prank on your buddy, and somehow got attacked by a cougar, and you both died. You are clearly not feeling any remorse, so if you really are responsible you ought to apologize."
The spirit said nothing, but that was not why Blake turned. A strange sensation coursed throughout his body, neither a chill nor a burn, but rather something like an uncomfortable vibration. He was turning slowly, but he looked at the second spirit before long. He still pointed at the other. But something had changed. It was as if the ghost was darker in appearance all of a sudden; instead of the faded gray wispiness he normally saw, Blake observed something coated in a dark gray storm cloud. And....the arm with the pointed finger almost seemed a bit longer. What was going on? Even the anger felt different. More malicious, almost.
His response to the situation was an impulsive one he didn't even think about.
"You have to calm down. Right now."
Blake's fist was balled up now. But there was something there, something solid he held onto that wasn't his own palm. He looked down for a mere second, but his eyes widened almost immediately. It did not seem possible, but he knew he was looking right at it with his own eyes.
The scythe? How?
When he looked up again, the spirit had grown even darker than a few moments beforehand. Blake stared up, looked down, back and forth again and again. Something was very wrong here.
Spirits must be put to rest. Shadows must be put down.
The sudden sound of those words in his head nearly knocked him right off his feet. The ghost twitched more prominently now, but still it did not make a move. Blake looked back and forth again between the spirit and the scythe. Was he supposed to destroy this apparition, like those dark creatures he'd seen before?
The now shadowy figure knelt as if preparing for an attack, and right then he knew. Still it had not made a move, but Blake jumped to make the first strike. He swung the weapon up and then downwards in a manner of seconds; the shadow had no time to react. Blake could see after the blade struck the ground with a hard clang that he'd only severed part of an arm off. The shadow screeched furiously and leapt without warning. Blake himself stepped back a few steps and instinctively turned into a defensive position.
Miraculously, the curved blade was pointed in just the right direction. The creature could not stop its momentum and impaled itself in a fraction of a second. Blake remained still and watched as the transparent figure disintegrated away. He was frozen for a few more seconds, but still gripped the scythe so tight they turned a little red. But once he came to and slowed his breathing he turned around a little. The first spirit still stood, completely shocked by what just transpired. Its eyes were nothing but wide and its fingers trembled.
Blake breathed in and out a few more times; he maintained as much calmness as he could when he finally spoke. "I'm sorry. About what I did. I didn't...." But his voice broke a little at the end. It was just like every other time so far. He was always reacting with the instinct to fight back. And he also hated to admit it, but the weapon felt a littler easier to hold now compared to the first-
No, not right now. This man still needed him. Blake approached the spectre, holding the weapon with only one hand now. "Look, whatever happened between you two? You have to figure it out. Find closure, apologize, anything. I need your word."
A little wave of disbelief still washed over Blake. But, it nodded regardless. It arms were relaxed enough that he figured the spectre was committing to the young man's order.
But to make sure, Blake stuck out his hand.
"You will, yes?"
Eventually, its hand reached out also and grabbed his. The moment they made contact, a crackled rushed through him. Not painful, but intense enough to startle him. A for a moment he could very clearly see the man before him. Well-built, but aged and tired. Yet he still carried a little mischievous glint in his eyes and a tiny smile on his somewhat wrinkled face. His eyes closed ever so slowly.
Then he was gone.
The crackled disappeared as unexpectedly as it appeared, and Blake looked around in utter disbelief. What was that, everything that just happened. He brought the hand to his head, finding difficulty in processing this new sensation.
Spirits must be put to rest. Shadows must be put down.
So, there was a difference between the apparitions he'd seen? The spectres that appeared were just lost souls that needed him to find peace, for some reason. And those dark creatures he'd seen more often recently? Were those the Shadows? And where had those words even come from? The creature? The scythe? Did he have to now handle the decent spirits, as well as the bad ones?
His head hurt too much now.
"Blake, you still in there?"
"Damnit" he hissed, looking around frantically. Without a second thought he ever so carefully opened the door to the bathroom, closed it as quietly as he could, and locked it with the softest click he could muster. He set the scythe blade down in the corner of the bathroom, rushed to the other side, and flushed the toilet. He turned on the sink, and rinsed his hands under the cool waterfall for a few seconds.
He propped his head up. "Yeah, hold on!"
A couple of moments later he turned the faucet off, and used the blowdryer in the restroom to dry off his hands. And when he turned his head, he realized he had to figure something out with the scythe.
Shoot! Okay! Calm down....it's a men's bathroom. I'll just get it later when no one's looking! It was a stupid plan. But what else could he do?
Blake opened the bathroom door, and stepped out. There was June, still holding on to her and his ice cream bars.
"Sorry," he said; for some reason his voice had a slight waver. "Didn't mean to take so long."
But June did not respond. She looked to Blake's left, then stared at Blake, and looked back. Her eyebrows furrowed shortly thereafter.
He froze in place, and his blood ran cold. Was it another Spirit? No, June couldn't see them! Right? A chill ran up his spine as he stared at his friend's bewildered expression.
"Are you secretly a girl?"
WHAT?! It took a matter of seconds before he spun around, and another few seconds to stare. He'd just.....did he really just come out of the girl's bathroom by mistake?
Slowly, he turned back and faced June. "Uhhh, no. I just, I accidentally, didn't mean to-"
But June burst into a fit of hysterical laughter. It was the happiest sound mixed with a tiny squeal. She was bent forward, and her face slightly contorted as her mouth gaped.
"Oh my, you didn't!" June laughed a few seconds longer. "That is hilarious! We've been here how often? You've never done that!"
More than anything he was embarrassed. Surely his face must have been so red right now. Hers was for certain, but for a very different reason.
"Um, whoops," was all he could say.
"Honestly, I'm just surprised." Her laughter subsided a little, but the smile never left her face. "I mean, I figured Cameron would be the first to do something like that. On purpose....eh, maybe. You just got things jumbled up, huh?"
Dumbfounded. Dumbfounded and embarrassed was all he felt at this very moment. And so all he gave was the smallest of nods. "Guess so."
"Tell ya what?" June handed him the ice cream, which he grabbed from her. "I'm feeling a bit rebellious today. I'll go in the men's bathroom. That way we can be equally embarrassed. I've got dirt on you, but now you've got some on me too. Fair trade?"
He didn't have long to think about it; she seemed dead set on her proposal. "Sure, I guess."
"Alright, I'll be right back. Just take these first!" June held out the two ice cream bars for Blake to grab, then did something of a skip before she entered the men's restroom and closed the door.
In the space of silence around him, a sudden realization reminded him that it was simple luck that June did not use the women's bathroom. If she did, she would have seen it. And he would have had a lot of explaining to do. Maybe he could sneak into the restroom right now, toss it somewhere.....?
Blake spun around. Cameron appeared from around the corner of the tiny building, and gave him a small wave. Blake waved back, but awkwardly because of the ice cream he still held.
"Want to start walking back? Ya know, once June is done."
"Yeah. Sure." Cameron called for his sister, but Blake was nothing but apprehensive in that very moment. How was he supposed to get it now?