Author's Note: Any reference to pop-culture or novels are owned by their respective owners.

One Free Pass

December 19:

It was the last day of school when I first saw her. Sure, many speculated that there was a ghost haunting our school, but I didn't follow any of that. My little brother, Tom, would have jumped right out of his seat, however. He lived on speculation and mysteries. Well, if he was well. But he wasn't okay. Anyways, the whole school was convinced that there was a ghost, and the evidence was pretty much zilch. But you know how people can latch onto nothing like sharks.

So I was sitting in algebra, bored out of my mind. I could do these problems in my sleep, but thanks to those talkative idiots nature dubs girls, the teacher gives us all a mountainload of homework and rambles on and on about social structure and respect. If I wanted a sociology class, I would've gone to my parents.

Outside, a cold December storm was brewing. I took a break from my excruciatingly hard factoring to stare out the window. Under my desk, I quickly wrapped up a chocolate bar with a piece of paper that said 'Happy Holidays from Howie' in big red letters. If Lorraine doesn't get a Christmas present, she'll be on a silent rampage. Now, how can I sneak it to the other side of the room inconspicuously?

"What do you have there?"

I started as Bailey Mort, who sat to my right, curiously peered over to see what I was wrapping. I shrugged. "Lorraine wants her presents on time." Bailey was a transfer student from… hum, I don't know exactly where he's from. He talks in this weird accent, like he only learned English (modern English, anyway) a month ago. "She gets very, um, temperamental about 'friendship' and presents and stuff. One time she hijacked my locker because I forgot about her birthday."

Bailey nodded absently. He had light blond hair that was almost white, and wore thick-rimmed glasses. I can't tell you what color his eyes are, since there's always a glare on his glasses. For some weird reason, the majority of the class avoids him. There's just me, Lorraine, and Carter. I guess that's good enough for a group.

"It sure sounds nice having a friend like that," he mumbled to himself.

The snow was falling, and it was so much more interesting than respect and being a jerk and factoring polynomials. I guess I got distracted. The rest of the class was also agitated, since this was the last class before the two-week break. It was already dark outside.

Suddenly, a loud alarm rang throughout the halls. Many of my classmates cheered, some groaned, and I just stared blankly into space. We all rushed out the door into the cold, while the teachers tried to make sense of what was going on. It was obvious that it wasn't a planned fire drill, and some whispered about the so-called ghost. I was caught up in everything, and didn't see Lorraine until the last minute.

Out of all the scariest things ever imagined, an angry Lorraine is the scariest of them all.

Not to say that she was mean. I guess the correct word is eccentric. Lorraine lived on my block since she was born, and we were friends since kindergarten. Lorraine was voted (not officially) as the class weirdo, digging worms with the boys and wearing old sweaters to school. But I guess that's what makes Lorraine herself. More than anything, however, Lorraine loved books. She practically memorized every classic that she liked, and reads them everywhere. I guess it's a Lorraine thing.

She was there, wearing ski goggles and hobo gloves, holding out her hand. "Present?" she asked assertively. If there was one thing she knew how to do, it was to be assertive.

Carter, who magically appeared next to us, smirked. We met Carter in third grade, unfortunately. Carter was, if possible, an immature computer geek. He loved playing (really bad and easily see-through) practical jokes, but he was a genius when it came to programming. I can barely make heads or tails of everything he said to be baby's work.

I confidently reached into my pockets for the chocolate. After searching and shifting through the lint for a couple of seconds, I broke out in cold sweat (if that's even possible in the freezing December storm). "Um, you know, Lo, presents are way too overrated and—"

"Present," she repeated, juggling Les Miserables with the other hand.

I smiled nervously and laughed. "Well, it's a funny story, involving a masked stranger and a monkey with a stick and –"

"He dropped it in the classroom. It might have been stolen, or trampled," Bailey interrupted us. In the white snow, he almost disappeared (did I mention that he only wore white?). I glared at him and gave him a that-was-totally-unnecessary glare. Either he didn't get it through his big glasses or he was just plain dense, but he didn't get the message. "I saw him wrapping it in algebra."

I smacked my head in frustration as Carter almost burst out laughing. "Wow, talk about lost data. What, do you have the inability to grasp objects like a jellyfish or something?"

"Thanks," I said to them sarcastically. Turning to Lorraine, I shrugged. "Sorry, I guess I must have misplaced it." I braced myself for impact as she raised her book. But then she just harmlessly tapped me on the head.

"Forgiven." She smiled, snapping out of her deadpan gaze. I don't know whether she's bipolar or what but she switches between borderline emo and super hyper. Quite amusing, actually. "I'm sorry about your brother, Howie. I hope he's alright. Although I would appreciate it if you find it."

I cringed and looked away. I hated it when people tried to sympathize with me, when they tried to understand how it felt to have your little brother almost dying in the hospital. They were just pretending; they don't know the true pain and guilt. Why was it him, why not me or Bill? My parents are worried sick, even skipping their jobs as top-notch lawyers. Bill flew home from college at the University, and we were all barely sleeping, barely eating, barely getting along as a family. Mom's been irritable and would lash out at anything, and Dad's just sitting in front of the television. That is, when they weren't at the hospital. I swear that that building our home now, not our house. And did anyone else understand? My brother with a raging fever having all possible cures tested on him to no avail. My whole family torn apart and everyone on the edge. Who else will understand?

The teachers signaled it clear, and we all trudged back inside. The cold December wind sucked all of the energy right out of us. And besides, who wanted to go back to school when it's almost the end of school and the beginning of break? Every step I took seemed to sap me of my energy, until I finally reached the third floor in my class. First thing, I checked my seat and the surrounding area for that chocolate bar. No such luck. I looked over to Lorraine and threw my arms in the air in defeat.

Soon, the bell for dismissal rang. It sure was stupid, having us go inside just to get us back outside, again. I stuffed my backpack and headed out the door, caught in the rush of eager students waiting to get home and be free. Suddenly I heard a clang and realized that I dropped my calculator.

Silently cursing, I ran back to my classroom's entrance where I dropped that maniacal contraption. By now the hallways were mostly cleared, the holiday spirit and premature excitement fuel for everyone. I stooped to picked it up, only to glance forward. Some people call that intuition. Some call it instinct. I call it pure chance.

There was a girl standing there. She had mousy brown hair and sad green eyes. She wore something like a uniform, something that ran a distant bell in my head. A green sweater was worn over it, and she looked almost ready to cry. Almost. I saw a hint of a smile on her face, even though you can probably lie straight to me and get away with it. For one moment, we were just staring at each other.

And then I bolted off in the other direction, both urged to get away from this girl and to go home. That girl, I don't know, but I have a bad feeling about. Something about her clothes just didn't seem right.

Not to mention that she was holding the chocolate bar present.

***

"I'm home," I yelled, prepared for either nobody or everybody. I got some.

Grandma came out with tear stained eyes and a smile. She was my dad's mother, and insisted to be called Mag. Because of Tom's condition, she decided to stay with us and help cook and clean (Mom knew next to nothing when it came to food). I appreciated her at some times, but I just don't deal well with old people. Or adults, for that matter.

"Welcome home, Howard," she said. I cringed at my real name. It sounded way too formal for my liking. All three of our names were way too formal in their original forms. William, Howard, and Thomas. Who would use those names?! So we just abbreviated them, somewhat.

"It's Howie, Grandma," I smiled wearily. I don't know why, but school always stresses me to no end.

She smiled back sneakily. "And I told you its Mag. I hate being called 'Grandma'; I'm not that old am I?" I inched towards the door, not exactly intent on having a heart-to-heart with my grandmother today.

"I just want to know how Tom is," I blurted out. Suddenly her face turned into a saddened frown, and I almost wished that I didn't bring it up. But I had to know. He's my brother, after all.

Mag sighed and looked out the window for a while before answering. "They don't think he's going to make it. He has this infection in his blood, and it's not going away. I'm sorry, Howie, but there's only a fingernail of a chance that he's going to make it." I felt like punching something just then. I felt like screaming.

"Tons of kids get leukemia every year," I muttered, barely able to keep my voice calm. "Tons of kids get it, and they survive! Why can't Tom be one of the lucky ones? Why did it have to be him? Why?!" I stomped up the stairs into my bedroom and slammed the door shut. Why?

I could just imagine Tom in the adjacent bedroom, playing with his comic books and looking on Yahoo! every so often to see it another UFO has been spotted. I could almost imagine. One day, he'll be back in his room. I trust the world on that.

Or maybe I just trust myself and nobody else on that.

December 24:

The break flew like the Wright brother's airplane at Kitty Hawk (Don't ask, I had to do a report on it.). Sometimes it felt like the seconds were going by like years and yet other times it felt like speeding past on a roller coaster. Very strange was one way to describe it.

A few days have gone by, and I did absolutely nothing productive and loving every moment of it. But one damper on everything was Tom. He miraculously pulled through to now, but he's still on a line. It was like watching a tightrope walker without a net. And make that a drunken, crippled tightrope walker. It wasn't pretty, and I spent almost every moment awake in my bed thinking about what could go wrong, what would happen when he dies. His life was now a delicate thread, as he lost consciousness last night around midnight. God, I wish he'd just make up his mind already and live.

Lorraine, Carter, and Bailey tried to keep in touch and get me to do something more social, but I just didn't have a heart in it. That's why I have no clue what sinister force possessed me to agree to go sledding. First off, I hate being cold. It's just a pet peeve. And secondly, I think fourteen year olds are a little too old to be enjoying this.

"This sucks," I muttered as I dragged my old beaten up yellow plastic sled to the top of the hill. "And the sun's setting soon, so we can only go for an hour at best."

The others were further ahead than me. Sadly, I was the most athletically challenged (and vertically challenged, too) of the group. Even Lorraine had more muscle than me. "Quit whining, this is fun!" Carter shouted down. "And who cares that only little kids are here; you're never too old to go sledding!"

"Yes, this can be enjoyable," Bailey laughed. Before we started this treacherous climb, he told us that he's never gone sledding before. Sometimes I felt as if he was a ghost child, or some kind of alien sent down to study the human race. That was just me channeling Tom, who would come up with even worse excuses and stories. Sometimes, the world seems so dull without his constant jabbering.

Soon we were at the top, and I glumly placed the sled onto the snow and got onto it. "Did I mention that we have to trudge up here AGAIN when we reach the bottom?" I complained, but was silenced by a handful of snow thrown at my head.

"Be quiet and enjoy it, Scrooge. It's Christmas Eve, after all." Lorraine stuck her tongue out and hugged a copy of The Phantom of the Opera wrapped in a Ziplock bag. As I wondered why in the world she would want to carry a book with her, she and the others pushed off on the sleds. Sighing, I did the same.

I guess it was fun, and we were able to go down the hill a few times (close to a dozen's my estimate). My mind just wasn't in it, and though everyone tried to cheer me up, I was still the glum one. It was rare, but I was being a real downer. When the sun was starting to set, I decided to ditch them and go home.

Street lights were turning on as I walked along the street. Maybe I can go visit Tom today, before the day was over. The cold Illinois winter was harsh and I pulled up my jacket's zipper to the chin. Each breath turned into a little cloud of smoke, and I was so bored and morose that I was demoted to counting my footsteps to the hospital.

I was to 156 when I saw her.

She was just standing there, apparently waiting for someone. Mousy brown hair and the saddest eyes you have ever seen. Heck, she was even wearing the same clothes as last time. When she saw me, she turned and ran in my direction. It was the same girl as last time for sure. It was the ghost girl who found the chocolate.

I wanted to run, but my feet were suddenly glued to the ground. I just stared helplessly as she walked towards me. We were standing face to face, and I almost ran away screaming. Sometimes her image fluttered in the breeze, like a hologram. I couldn't believe that she was human, much less standing here. I suddenly realized that the clothes she was wearing was my school's old uniform.

She smiled nervously and said, "Hello." My throat was so clammed up that I couldn't reply. "Thanks for the chocolate," she whispered. Then I saw that she had something in her hand, and she skittishly reached out and handed it to me. "There's a free pass inside."

I took it, and finally found my vocal chords working again asked, "A free pass to what? And who are –"

She was gone. Like a specter blown away by the wind, I was standing there alone.

***

The hospital was almost closing, but thankfully I was able to get in. I ran to Tom's room, and was glad that he was still here. At least he's still alive.

A doctor was standing next to him, monitoring the IV and looking through some notes. When he saw me, he nodded sadly and sighed. "He's slipping away, and he'd survive only because of a miracle. I'm sorry, but your brother's body just can't fight it anymore."

Words were dried up in my mouth, but I managed to speak, "Thanks, Dr. Kestrel. Can I just have a minute?" He gave a signal for the affirmative, and walked out the door.

I stared at Tom, who was unconscious, and said, "Wake up. Wake up, Tom, damn it. You're only nine, so wake up before I leave you to die. Why can't you wake up and just say something!" Some people stopped in the hall to stare at this raving lunatic screaming at his unconscious brother, but I ignored them. Why should I care, why did it have to be Tom?

All this time, I was holding the ghost's gift. I looked at it and saw that it was the chocolate's wrapping, a little crumpled but still intact. Fiddling with it, I found something inside it: a card the size of a playing card with the back blank and the front saying, in deep red, 'Free Pass-Delayed ride on the River Styx'. Pretty self explanatory, but I still didn't get it. Styx: that word sounded so familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it. But this free pass, whatever it was, was worth something. I just knew it.

Taking it, I placed it in my brother's hand. For a split second, I thought that it was the stupidest thing that I've ever done – what the heck was the free pass for anyway? – but soon my doubts were proven wrong. Tom's skin was regaining color, his chest rose and fell more rapidly and more deeply. I could hear his breathing, and his eyes snapped open.

"Howie?" He mumbled. "Did they have any more UFO sightings in India?"

December 26:

I sat in a booth at the local chain fast food store (From henceforth known as McPuke's), daydreaming and barely digesting the slop they call food. Streams of people wandered in and out, but I didn't care or notice. Tom's been up and about for two (Well, one and a half) days now; the doctors called it a miracle. I guess that's what a 'free pass' meant: one miracle, one invincibility from death. I don't know what that girl did, but it sure was amazing.

Someone slipped into the opposite bench. I looked up and saw Bailey, but this time he was wearing all black. Even his glasses were replaced with black sunglasses. It took me a minute to recognize him.

"Hello, Howie," he smiled. "Do we have any homework for the break?" I stared at him dumbfounded. Our evil witch of a science teacher gave us this huge project on biomes that was worth half our grade. How can a guy like him forget?

"It's a little late for that, isn't it Bail?" I laughed. "But I think you forgot about the huge science project. You know the one that's worth half our grade?"

Bailey laughed with me, but it seemed forced. He didn't order anything, and just sat there. Lazily he stretched his arms and yawned. "Well, good thing I don't have to worry about it any more. I just came to say goodbye."

"Wait, what?" I sputtered, sending Coke spray onto the table. "Wait, going away? To where, Bailey? And why?"

He sighed and pulled something out of his leather jacket (Since when did he wear a leather jacket?) and pushed it over the table to me. "I also came to talk to you about Julia." He gave me a newspaper article.

My first impression was that this newspaper was old. I mean, really, really old, like what Mag might have read when she was my age. The headline was about this girl who committed suicide in her school - I froze over the name – Sirius Middle and High school. That was the name of my school. I checked the date again: 1942. That newspaper was about sixty years old.

There was a picture of a girl on the page as well. Short brown hair and sad large green eyes: the same girl that gave me the 'free pass'. I was speechless, and tried to process it all in my brain. I got nothing.

"Yeah, thanks to you I have a heck of an easier job. Yes, Julia Chord died sixty years ago. Hanged herself, if the newspaper was accurate. And anyway, her spirit stayed dormant until now – don't ask why." It surprised me that he was talking normally, not like someone with speech impediment. "And that pass she gave you, it saved your brother from a visit with my boss, but that meant that her time on Earth was up. You get what I'm saying?"

"Bleh…" was all I could stutter out. How did all of this fit in? But, once I thought about it, it all made sense. I nodded stupidly, and Bailey smiled.

"You're a smart kid, Howie, and I'm glad we were able to be friends. Look, I have to go since my job here's done."

"Job?" I inquired, finally able to speak.

Bailey sighed and took off his glasses. His eyes were sunken in, like a skeleton's, and his pupils were the purest white. "Tell me something, Howie. What does 'Bailey' mean?"

I wracked my brain for a second and came up for the only answer that made sense. "It means bailiff?" I guessed. I couldn't help staring at his white eyes that were like at black hole.

He nodded. "My job is to collect all those vagabond souls and set them onto the other side – don't ask. Julia sacrificed her remaining time to make that pass, making my job really easy. And since it's done, I have to go. The boss is expecting me back any minute now. Oh, hi Amy!" He acknowledged a girl who just barely walked in. She looked only twelve, and was wearing only black like him.

She just glared at him and whispered, "Time to go. And never call me 'Amy' again, or else." Bailey shrugged and followed her out to the door. Before he left, he smiled and waved comically goodbye.

"We'll meet again, Howard K. Whitter," Bailey called out. I cringed and waited for the other customers to stare at me light a psycho, but they just went on doing what they came here to do. I guess agents of death have a way of bending time.

"And hopefully on less intrusive terms," 'Amy' added, glaring at Bailey once again. They walked out the door and into – well, I really don't know where they went.

And so went my first brush with death and the supernatural.

Now, I wonder where I heard the name Tom ... -coughHorseLatitudecough-