*This is a true story.

You might not think it is. You might dismiss it, or you might wimp out after seeing a few "taboos" in it, but don't be a coward. This is the crap we, as young adults, deal with every day, everywhere, all across the post-industrial world. If you're expecting entertainment, I hope you enjoy the kind of laugh that comes when a bum is tripped while boarding the bus. Otherwise, this is life; not all life, just one.

Part I

"Do you believe in love?"

"No."

"Do you believe in ghosts?" my fiancé asked.

"No," I responded.

"Well, you're wrong on at least one of those," she said.

"Then tell me, where are these ghosts?" I asked.

"I saw one today, on the way home from school."

"Why do you feel like you can come home to my house whenever you want, anyways?"

"I'm your fiancé, duh."

"Only because..."

"That's not an excuse."

"Nyuh-huh,"

"Pfft," she stuck her tongue out at me.

"You're so annoying."

"Don't say that! I'll kill myself and then haunt you, and that'll prove you wrong on both questions. Nyah!"

"Being proven wrong would be a small nuisance compared to the everlasting torture of being haunted by you."

"Heartless beast."

"You want to be a ghost, you're halfway there." Clair was an albino.

"Idiot, ghosts have stringy hair and sickly skin, I don't look close to one!" A mild case of albinism, granted, and beautiful despite it.

"You would know."

"I told you, I saw a ghost! I would know!"

"Sigh." Not an audible exhalation of breath but a vocalized word, packed with as much sarcasm as I could muster.

"I'm trying to read, quit bugging me."

"No."

"I said quit. Go home, or sit still and quiet."

"No." she repeated.

"This is my house, get out."

"Nuh-uh."

"Out!" I intoned in a commanding, darkly voice. Not imposing enough however. She did shut up, but she sat down a few inches in front of me, arms-crossed, resolute.

"Go home!"

"It's my house as much as yours, now!"

"Just because..."

"I'm not going..."

"...just because our parents...

"...anywhere."

"Kkk!" I raised my hand violently, but stopped myself from doing anything, such as strangling her skinny neck lifeless. Never mind the criminal implications, the family would screw me tens times over for offing my future wife.

Future. Though at times, such as this, it felt like she already was an old, crotchety housewife. If this is just the precursor to holy matrimony, than the future could take its sweet time. According to my unheeded opinion, at least.

"I'll go, but you have to come with me. We'll go see the ghosts."

"I have homework, leave me alone." I made a fuss of my duel-enrollment papers, but couldn't concentrate on them.

"It can wait, you don't have your college courses tomorrow!"

"I don't have time for this!"

"Sure you do! For me?" she tried looking sweet.

I was wracking my brain for the nastiest thing I can say to her. If I could get her pissed off enough, she might exit the premises, sans me.

"Hmm."

"That's a hmm? So you'll come?"

"Ok, sure, I'll come, but first..."

This might work.

"What, a condition? Let's hear it!"

"You have to let me rape you." I mustered the punctuated, stressed, dead serious tone I reserve for intimidating adults.

"Oh..." she paused for a second. "Well, if that's what it takes."

"?" The question mark was almost visible sprouting from my head.

"Sure. I'm all yours, but then we have to go to see the ghost." This was a puzzling turn of events, and I seriously did not prepare for that answer. I'm a boy though, so the first thoughts going through my head were strong urges to take advantage of the situation. I raised one hand to her. She shifted on her butt, in order to spread her legs out to me. She was wearing a knee-length skirt and presumably panties, not much an obstacle. The situation was evolving deliciously by the micro-second.

"Never mind." Well, damn it, ego is such a tyrant. I can't do this. The real reason was that it was just plain wrong, but a number of justifications paraded before my conscience: we were too young, we would be chewed out by the family, health risks, yeah, I thought our relationship was "strained" now, just imagine, and even at my most primal, banal attitude, I didn't have on me or even access to a condom.

Eh.

But she had offered herself without a second thought. Who was this girl? Did I ever take the time to try to get to know her inner self these six years?

Well, she had been the object of my fantasy in more than one session of self-love, but that was purely physical attractiveness. Every other waking thought of this young lady had been dominated by the irksome, combative, peace-crunching nuisance that she was. I never ever imagined her as...

... a sexual female.

"No, I was only joking," I told her. She furrowed her eyebrow.

"That's not something to joke about. I'm serious."

"I'll go ghost-hunting, but I don't want sex."

"But I want it."

Yare yare! Beloved expression of that island nation's distraught males. 'Good grief' is the best translation, and its exactly what I was thinking.

"Clair, Clair, Clair. Sex isn't something you do for fun."

She squirmed for a moment.

"You're right. But it was a bad joke. Don't say things like that again unless you mean it."

"And you don't be so eager. I mean, well, we're betrothed... we'll end up doing it someday anyways."

"But I..."

"But we need to talk it over and be prepared." We're always interrupting each other. We have more to say than we have time to listen.

"...I ...I want to love you Eric but you're making it so difficult! Don't be so difficult!" she finished.

"Let's go ghost hunting," I said, picking myself up and going for my stuff.

"What did you say?"

"Ghost hunting, let's go."

"Oh, 'kay. Hey wait!" She needed to get her shoes on; I had never gotten out of my sneakers after school. As we walked on, I knew I would regret this. At 4:20 tomorrow I would say to myself: great, I need to finish my AP weekly research item and my college questionnaire and whatever my other teachers piled on top of that. Go me. These ghosts had better exist or else I will question my sanity and/or existence in this world.

"Let's take your bike!"

"I don't have a bike, I drive."

"Boo! But we only need to go to Anthem Park, it's like, two miles!"

"Then we'll walk, not that we could use the exercise." We were both underweight and constantly bore the criticism of our parents (though they make such a big fuss over gaining weight on themselves, the hypocrites).

We went to the park and Clair had trouble summoning her ghosts. After half an hour we decided to try walking to the business district to see if the ethereal spirits were present there, but a sudden chill overtook us at the park's edge. It inexplicably began to snow, (it is late April, mind you). When the ground was covered in about an inch of the fluff, a ghost, or something that was ghost-like, appeared and attacked us.

In your case it might have been seen as exotic, so fantastical as to be unbelievable. Maybe it's the society I was born and raised in, in that you're conditioned not to automatically disbelieve the supernatural. It was a small shock to me, still, in that meeting a resident of the nether-world is not something I as an individual expected to see personally. Yet, here it was, chasing us. Fortunately it's not very fast, as I could pull Clair by the hand and still maintain distance.

Description? Let's say it was some conglomeration of the ghost as a bed sheet and ghost as a transparent dead person theories. If I had bothered to take a second look, it would have strongly resembled a genderless human stuffed in a long robe with sleeves so long they concealed the hands. Said sleeves were extended towards us though and I didn't wager on coming out intact should they get ahold of me.

Meanwhile, Clair was bawling.

"Let me go, you're hurting my wrist! Lety me go! I can run on my own!" I did let her go, she immedietly gave the ghost a four yard advantage on her. I paused long enough to grab ahold of her, and she began complaining again. We were running short on space, short on breath, and I was getting irked of losing ground each time we repeated said scene.

"Hey! Hey you! Ghostie!"

"What?" asked Clair. I didn't even hear her.

"You! Stop! Don't mess with me!" I screamed at it. A few passerbyers stopped and staired, evidently just noticing the ghost. They had less composure and screamed and ran off. The being itself did slow down. Its dress-like mass was now billowing out, growing to an impressive size.

"Eric, do something! Like catch it?"

What oh what would you possibly do with an incarcerated spirit, Clair? I waved my arms at the creature, it waved its back at me. Unfortunately, for me of course, it caught me in its grasp. At first it felt like I was on fire, but no, I was not burning. I was merely being cradled by something that was at home on Pluto. In other words, sheer coldness. When the bone-chilling mass of negative temperature reached my head, I blacked out.

When I awoke, I was lying in the snow. Clair was hovering a few inches above my face, in a sentimental manner.

"Eric? Eric!"

"Don't lean over me, please."

"Oh thank God you're alright!"

"You have too much religious fervor right now."

"Are you hurt? Can you move?" She wasn't listening to me. By way of answering her, then, I lifted myself into a sitting position. I felt fine, cold and tired, but fine. What was that all about?

"I'll call an ambulance," Clair said, and scurried off. Doesn't she know you aren't supposed to leave an injured person alone, even to fetch help? It'll be tough explaining this one to the emergency workers.

"I was attacked by a ghost." That is exactly what I am telling this broad-shouldered paramedic with half-closed eyes.

"Can you tell me where they hurt you and how," the dullard asked.

"I'm fine. I was attacked, but it was a ghost, and it didn't actually injure me."

"Are you sure you have no injuries? There is a chance you may have experienced a concusion, so, we should take you back to the hospital and get you scanned, just in case." He spoke in a stupid, bored monotone that wasn't creepy so much as belittling any respect a listener would have for him. Not a single word stressed with emotion, as if he was rattling off museum-texts to tourists for the three-hundred-and-eighteenth time that day.

In any case:

"I am fine. Let me go."

"I'll need to get you to sign a waiver saying you refuse emergency care and won't sue the medical team in the future. Have you contacted the police to report your attacker?"

"I was attacked by a ghost. A ghost in a dress that made me pass out. It was translucent, it flew through solid objects, it went "OOooooOOOooOoOOh". Do you think the police are going to be useful here?"

"So you have not contacted the police. The hospital recommends you call 9-1-1 and get this assault incident into the system, or it will be difficult to open a case at a later date."

"Do you even get what I'm saying? Ghost. G-H-O-S-T. Phantom. Spirit. Dismebodied soul. Supernatural freak-of-nature that defies physical laws and common conventions."

"Good, you have a description, but it's the police you should talk to about it."

"Wait a minute," said I. "Are you willfully playing dumb because you don't believe me and are trying some sadistic, anal form of sarcasm?"

"Using confrontational language with paramedic personel is against the law, sir, I'll have to ask you to refrain from using those kinds of words. Here's the form." He daintly poked a yellow form my way, but didn't even offer a pen. At times like this, eloquence is not dignified.

"Fuck you." I ripped the paper from his hand, ripped it into four pieces, clenched it in my fist, and struck the worker across the cheek. My knuckles rang out in pain. I'm positive this dimwit would have some comment on striking emergency workers, but he was too busy showing real emotion for once. Well, as far as excruciating howls of pain are signs of real emotion. He was still nursing his jaw when I grabbed Clair and began the walk home. In a moment of clarity, she had this to say:

"You're not funny, you're not too smart, you're mean, you're selfish, you're perverted, and you're violent. Eric, you are a terrible human being."

"Yes I am. Why do you still hang around me?"

"Because like attracts like."

"We're going to spend the rest of our lives in misery, aren't we?"

"Only if you like being miserable."

Whatever that meant.

"Eric Basilton, please report to the principle's office." I was surprised, if only because the hospital tracked me to school rather than my home. How did they find me, anyways, I never gave that paramedic any personal info.

"And Ms. Everet, come to the main office as well, please."

Why did they ask for her too? I'm the one responsible.

"Sorry, Clair Everet, not Marie Everet."

Another girl who happened to share Clair's last name (no relation) sat down in relief. I think Clair hates her for the naming confusion.

I met Clair at the office door. She pointed at me and mouthed some well-chosen words that I couldn't understand. I signalled her to shush and began walking inside. Her hand caught my shoulder and dragged me back out. I dutifully pulled the door out and held it as she walked inside like a queen. I followed her inside and made a superhuman effort to cut in front of her without bumping into her highness.

"Eric Basilton, I was called in?" I asked the receptionist. Beside me, the place was exceptionally quiet. Even the two kids sitting along the wall were quiet and still as rocks.

... ... ...

Hear that? No, you can't hear it. That is silence. That is the natural ambient sound of a school's main office. When their first baby is born or when they reach the age they should have had a baby, adults must get amnesia. They forget the overbearing pressure their own parents and guardians inflicted upon them. When an adult gets called to his bosses' office for an infraction, they become indignified and will rationalize everything as someone else's fault. A kid does not have that kind of independance or pride yet. A call to the office is a massive blow to their existential soul. Crushing feelings of guilt and anxiety keep their minds frozen. This is why the principle's office is quiet. The fact that I can recognize this phenomina and not be afflicted with it must mean I am near adulthood.

I hope the amnesia doesn't take everything away, I'll need to remember my vocab for the test next week. Testing, testing. Trancendentalism is a literary theory created by an American named Walden, concerning oneness with the natural world. Right? Yes, that's right.

The receptionist pointed us to the councilor's lounge, which would be the first clue this wasn't about hitting the paramedic. A man in a casual business top and jeans greeted us. His face was generic, but I could tell he was old by a slight mannerism in his greeting that was 25 years outdated.

"Pleased to meet you Doctor Reise." Clair responded first.

"Me too," I said, shaking his hand.

"So," the doctor responded, "I've heard you two were attacked by a ghost?"

Wow, someone believed me. No, rather, they took it seriously enough to think something had happened and to find out where the 'victims' went to school. In under twenty-four hours, I might add. Impressive.

"It was me. I was knocked unconscious. I feel fine right now."

"Well, your physical health isn't the question, Mr. Basilton."

"You don't mean you're here regarding my sanity."

"Oh, no, I didn't mean to give you the wrong idea."

That's good, or else I might have another charge of battery added to my record.

"Explain away."

"Well, it's hard to explain." And then he launched into a carefully constructed speech about how interaction with unknown elements can lead to side-effects for the one involved and other collateral places, people, and objects, and so forth. He was trying to soften the blow for some terrible news and finally got round to it after seven minutes and thirteen seconds (according to the clock on the back wall).

"Basically, there's a chance your spiritual health was injured."

"That sounds too metaphysical to justify." How understated. My spiritual health ought to be a subjective gauge that I alone am responsible for.

"Ok, put it another way. You're cursed."

"Oh." Like 'O', like the shape my mouth and eyeballs were making. This could be interesting.

"They didn't explain a thing," I told Clair. After having been run through tests and gauntlets of instruments and endless interrogations they had finally set me in a waiting room with my betrothed. This after being an hour drive to an unamed hospital in downtown, it was probably midnight or later and my family would start squirming with anger and worry.

Bastards, is this kidnap?

I asked as much from the next attendant, who was only there to offer coffee and a bag of chips. "They said to tell you they've already contacted your parents. Oh, and we'll find you a real dinner soon." I tried to wave off the coffee. "C'mon, drink it. You aren't going to sleep any time soon." What was that supposed to mean? And I hate coffee.

"I'll have some," Clair said. She took a cup of the poisonous substance from the cupholder and cupped it in her hand while taking gentle sips. She promptly sputtered it all over the table. "Ack!"

"Taste bad?" inquired I.

"Too hot," retorted she.

The attendant took his leave.

"No, it's easy. I only need an EST of 140 to make it in. I got a 105 without even trying on last year's practice."

"A 105 is terrible. That's a 35 deficit. In one year? No way."

"As if you have anything better!"

"I didn't take the practice test."

"I know that, but I'd beat you anyways."

"No!"

"Yes!"

"You study three times as much as me and we make the same grades!"

"You bring home C's and I get A's! How is that the even the same?"

"On tests, on tests!"

"I wouldn't know that; you always keep your scores secret. I bet you're lying."

"Bring this up again on our next test."

You see, Clair wants to go to Castor College, a media and business school mostly known for its foreign exchange and modern languages program. Her tentative plan for life is to work for a publishing house translating foreign novels or editorials. Worst, she wants me to follow her there, as if our engagement would be broken off if we separated for college. I was trying to convince her that she's stupid and is terrible at foreign language. Secretly, though, I just didn't want her to somehow convince our parents we were destined to Castor and drag me into a second-rate school.

I think this particular strain of conversation had been going on since 12-something, and it was now 2:43. I had learned more in this interval than in the two previous years, and far more than I had ever wanted to of France, the UK, America, Taiwan, and Japan. She thinks she can handle three foreign languages. I know for a fact she makes a B in French already, adding two more is beyond question. I brought this point up yet again around 2:47.

"It'll be easy, I'll just use a ananat."

"Assuming they even exist,"

"You were attacked by a ghost."

"...you're assuming you could even find one and convince it to work for you."

"Maybe this curse thing will work out for you. You know, like TV, where one mysterious encounter leads to a whole adventure."

"Yeah, right."

Two positive cases cannot result in a negative. Sure.

"Well, those Rosie Rocks CD's might work, too."

"They'll be as effective as ananat's are findable."

"Meaning, not at all."

"Bless you, lady, you've guessed right."

"Don't mock me."

"Oh, no, mocking you would be implying that you look older than your years." She looked ready to slap me, pointing her index finger in that angry shush gesture, but could do no more than emphasize the digit several times. Her mouth rapidly clamped shut several times over without hardly opening in between, lips being pressed tight into an insatiably cute grin. I loved her face when she was perturbed, but I didn't have the natural talent for annoying her to that exact degree on command.

"Well, I'm tired, so let's just end this argument and agree that we're shooting for Castor."

That's not how you end a conversation. But I didn't answer out loud, because I was really tired.

"I hope you two are not too tired, we're ready for the next test." A man in a white lab coat had entered unnoticed. He now stood impatiently, tapping his foot and expecting us to snap to attention. "Time to go."

"I'd rather not."

"Come on, don't keep the techies waiting. They're pissed off enough as is."

I was pissed off, come to think of it. It ought to be illegal to hold us like this; they're not even law enforcement. I briefly debated whether to be contrary or questionative.

"Doc, let us go home." I choose the former option.

"Impossible."

"Home. Me. Her. Now!" It was no louder than a loud whisper, but it carried all the weight of threat I could muster.

"Don't be a child."

"Clair." I turned to find her zonked out on the couch. Really?

"Let's GO!" The (presumed) doctor leaned forward to take ahold of me. I was prepared to slug him, as he wasn't any kind of physical threat. Their game had suddenly run me out of patience. I'm usually a patient guy, or so I think.

As his hand reached out for me, in that split second his chest cavity compacted, and a massive inertial burst blew him backwards and out the door. This action was accompanied by the sound of an artillary piece firing. Not even comprehending what was going on, I jumped out the door to check on the doctor. To my surprise, he was being cradled and helped upright by yet another man, this one familiar.

"Dr. Reise!"

"Mr. Basilton. I see you've discovered your physic powers. We'll need to teach you how to control them." He gave me a warm smile.

"You're kididng me."

"Kidding? No. But I understand if you have questions. We'll answer all of them soon."

"Questions? No, just demands. I want you to release me and Clair. Now."

"Not an option; I'm incredibly sorry. But I promise we'll be as accomodating as possible."

Apparently 'accomodating' meant cots and sleeping bags in the staff room. The food was better, though, resteraunt entrees ordered from an upscale diner. I got the steak and potatoes, Clair ate the bun from a turkey sandwhich and promptly fell back to sleep. I wasn't allowed the luxery. Reise told me they had one critical test to carry out before I could retire.

"And what is that?"

"We need to know if you are posi-omega. or not. In other words, if your abnormality is demonic."

That sounds bad.

"Yes, it is very bad, if you are demonic."

"What happens if I am?"

"You get one chance to save yourself, and then either the power will destroy you, or we will." Full stop. Destroy me?!

"Again, I'm really sorry. It's not statistically likely, but if that's the way it turns out, we haven't got the choice."

I had to weigh whether I even wanted to risk it. I certainly don't want to die.

"There's a good chance that you've got something else, really good chances. Like, 92% that it's just a neutral-theta shift, a common curse from a random ghost."

"8%..."

"No, no, 3% are proto-alpha, angelic, 1% posi-tau, 1% posi-delta, I mean, it's 1 in 4000 that you're demonic shifted."

"I don't understand this mumbo-jumbo. And 1 in 4000 is not too good a lottery."

"Please, come, please?!"

"What's going on?" I firmly asked.

"Demonic possesions happen when the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, your command center, is ignored by the body, and a foreign force enters the cerebral cortex and commands your body. Demonic-shift happens when your soul is transformed from neutral human to pure evil, obviating any functions of the physical brain whatsoever."

"So...."

"If you have this shift, you'll be forced to committ mortal sins, for which you will be damned for eternity. Killing you is unfair but it will save your soul."

"Sounds like crap to me."

"I'm telling the truth."

If this was a fictional story, you could bet he was telling the truth. However, this is a true story, I swear it, and matters in real life are never so clean. Taking that into account, I guessed they were idiots, irrational, or otherwise logically deficient and they were not going to throw psuedo-science at me and expect me to believe them.

"You can not believe us, but it's the truth, and you'll learn the hard way." Dr. Reise grasped my shoulder. "You'll be fine, I promise."

Three hours later I was cradling Clair in my arms, calmy walking away from a fire-drenched crater, the flames blazing merrily into the pre-dawn sky. I'd cry if it wasn't so damn funny.

"Where are we going?"

"Home."

"What happened?"

"Bad stuff." I answered. It was idiotic in the extreme, what the scientists were doing. As if the supernatural was something that could be quantified and studied. There's a reason it's called supernatural. It's not natural, and science is for the study of nature. Idiots.

Being eighteen, it's not like my opinion holds a candle to all those PHD's in the lab. Still, they're (mostly) responsible for that fifty-foot gaping hole in the earth, not me.

"Where are we going?" Clair asked again. The havoc must've knocked her out of her senses. "Where? Eric?"

"Home. Home. Home. Home." I repeated the answer gently, hoping she'd register the answer and ask something else.

"What happened? I don't remember anything." Ugh. Even an underweight female is still heavy when she's draped across your arms. There was a bench at the intersection; I sat her down on it. Her body was limp and shivering, and not because of the temperature.

"What....?" She was so tired.

So was I.

I couldn't sleep, though, for all the sirens of the emergency vehicles racing past us. I wonder if anyone was left to come after me and Clair.

"What happened? Are you OK? Oh God!" That was my mother, on seeing the few scrapes and bruises littering my right arm. I waved her away, but she insisted. In return I shoved Clair into her arms. She gave me a look as if to say "What do I do with this?" I don't think mother likes Clair. She might resent having a girl foisted onto another family by her parents, much as her own parents married her to my father. And you would think that should create sympathy from her towards Clair, but the elder woman treated the younger one coldly.

"What?" My mother set her down and repeated her inquiry.

"She's practically family, mother, don't ignore her like that."

"Just tell me what's happening!"

"Get some water and blankets," I ordered, completely ignoring her cries. I went to the kitchen in search of the med kit.

Clair had not been conscious since the bench. The way the city services are arranged, the fire deperatment was a mere block away, but the police and hospital were 10 minutes out, at least. Clair hunkered over my shoulder, I had shuffled steadily across town and well away from the disaster.

She wasn't supposed to be hurt. She had been well clear of the blast. I've no idea how or why she's clonked out and I'm unphased. As I puzzled over this, images of a rising flame appeared in my memory. I saw it in slow motion, the tendrils of flame forming demonic and beastly forms. They were all staring intently at me, emotionless, and imminently expectant.

Shaking my head to clear the image, I scooped up the med kit from the bottom of the pantry and ran back to the family room. Clair must've stirred, because now she was rolled into a fetal position. Her body was still shivering.

"Clair, are you up? Clair?" No answer. I bent down to examine her eyes. They were buried into her forearms. Mother reappeared in the corner of my eye, holding my comforter. I took it, and she ran off to the kitchen.

"Where is Dad?" I called out.

"Out," was all she said. Which meant he was out with the other head of families, getting mildly drunk and rosying over the good ole days. She came back with a glass of water.

"Clair," I kept calling. I had tucked the comforter around her as tightly as possible, and tried massaging her back. She wasn't making it easy.

"What happened?"

"The news happened." She got the hint and turned on the television. Video stream of the city appeared, with a massive column of smoke hanging over the fringes of downtown. A reporter was bleating on aimlessly, unable to give any details whatsoever. The police had cordoned off the area, more aggressively than usual.

"Oh dear God, WHAT happened?!" exclaimed my mother.

I'm not too certain either. Dr. Reise escorted me, under threat, to another room. It wasn't pretty. There were other men there, in white lab coats. Reise told me something, them something else, and then nodded. After that, my sense grew fuzzy. I lost my hearing, replaced with a wind-like noise that got higher, louder, and shriller continuously. My vision was eschewed because I couldn't focus my two eyes together. My extremeities switched from hot to cold and back rapidly, so that tactile data was lost.

Then I remember turning, and seeing Clair opposite of a long hall, and I was unable to reach her. Then I saw men rushing at me, then away from me. Then I saw geometric shapes hanging in the air. The ghastly flame wall was my last vision, before the sheer concussive forces knocked me into full consciousness. After that I was working on instinct and adrenaline, mostly to find and extricate Clair (successfully, as noted). I might be able to make more sense of all this with some mental effort, but I didn't much care to. Especially not right now.

My mother had the phone in her hand. She was waiting for someone to pick up.

"Don't call the hospital," I said.

"What? Why not? Oh, hello?" I reached over and crushed the dead switch for the phone.

"Eric what are you thinking! Don't do that!" Don't do that, don't do that, I hate that phrase. So pedantic and nasal and selfish, especially from her lips.

It was just pass 8:00 in the morning. Clair lay still on the couch. She had uncurled sometime in the twilight hours, and now was snoozing gently. That's relieving. I was worried about her.

Which is strange, to me. To worry about someone else.

"Hey."

"Hey."

"So I believe in ghosts now."

"Real funny." Clair was awake but not really alert. She had achingly rolled from one side to her other, and was now staring me down. I couldn't think of anything more to say, and she was too drowsy or too angry to say anthing to me.

"Clair, you're up?" Mother came bustling into the room. She turned to me to ask, "Do you want anything to eat? Drink?" I shook my head. She turned like she was going to leave, then, "And you, Clair?"

"Juice?" mumbled Clair.

"We've got Orange Juice in the fridge." Clair nodded. Mother left the room without offering any further assistance.

Bitch.

"Eric."

"Hmmmmm?"

"That wasn't the ghost I saw on my way home."

"What now?"

"The ghost I saw and the ghost that attacked you were different."

Does that mean anything? It certainly would, if this were a fictional novel. But reality is full of coincidences and mistakes, and this was just another red herring. But somehow, Clair felt it was important. "I want to see that ghost again. My ghost. It was a person, not a phantom. A see-through person, but I wonder if there are spirits of the departed or not." That didn't make much sense.

"Please don't look at me like that."

"Jynx."

I knew she'd say exactly that, somehow, and had hoped to pre-empt her, but instead dueted the phrase. At least I beat her to the jynx.

"Bastard."

"You're not allowed to talk, that's how jynxes work."

"..." I sense she wanted to say 'fine!' but didn't. Instead she rolled back over and buried herself into the couch. I went to go pour her a glass of OJ.

"Hey!" That was my aquaintence, Gary Lamlet. He thought he was my friend, but I don't really trust him for anything. Trust, especially entrustment of emotional secrets, is the measure of a friendship, according to me. I won't call anyone my friend if I'm not willing to share what makes me sad at night or happy in the morning; which is probably why I have no friends.

Nonetheless, Gary was eager to see me back at school. It's been a week since the crisis, and I and Clair had skipped school claiming illness. We'd gotten worried text messages and e-mails, wondering if we had been caught up in the downtown blast. I refused to answer them, which only made it likely that the rumors were believed.

"Hey! It's Eric!" A dozen new "friends" of mine had gathered round, doubtless only concerned about insider news about the blast. It didn't take long for the question to be raised. They all stared intently, waiting for an answer.

"Hmm."

Should I?

"Yes," I merely stated.

"Yes what?"

"Yes, I caused the explosion. I used psycic powers to blow up a men-in-black facility for the paranormal."

There are now weird glances and smirks circling the congregation. They didn't take me at face value. Of course.

"C'mon, dude, what really happened?"

"There was a gas explosion near the building where I got called in. I was only there for bloodwork."

"Bloodwork? Like, vampire stuff?"

"Don't be a huss. Bloodwork, work on my blood, testing for infectious diseases and genetic deformities and such."

"Cause, you being a vampire would be badass, and all."

"No, I'm a psycic, not a vampire."

"Dude, you said so yourself, that kind o stuff don't exist."

"Exactly! Don't be dimwits and stop crossing syntax."

They couldn't spin the concept of "crossing syntax" around their head, so they finally changed topics. Before they meandered back into gross subjects, I asked about missed homework.

"Oh, dude, you're so screwed. Mr. Cheisel assigned so much crap, and he ain't letting absentees slide."

Yay.

"Basa basa basa, basa basa basa!" Huh?

A girl, named Cally Govern (see how long it takes you to forget her name, or for that matter, what is my friend's name from last page?) was making strange noises and stranger faces at a pair of Sophmores. She sounded kind of drunk. Sneaking in from behind, Clair asked "What are you doing?", which caused the face-maker to jump.

"Eeek! Clair!" I invited myself over, on the pretext of needing Clair's advice on after-school plans. They saw me approaching and conversation had been struck by the time I strolled up.

"You're so unlucky, Clair!"

"He's not a bad guy."

"I know, but a girl ought to be free to pick whoever she wants. It's really unfair."

"So. Here he is."

"Hi Clair. Cally."

"Hi Eric."

"Hi Eric."

"I wanted to ask what we're doing tonight."

"I don't know. Me and Cally were just talking about you."

"What about me?"

"Eric, how well do you and Clair get along?"

"Not very," I admitted, honestly.

"See? Don't you think you'd be better off without this betrothal thing?"

"It's not our decision."

It was old fashioned, especially for our age group. I'd say 10% of kids were paired off by their parents by the time they hit puberty, increasing to ~25% by the time they became adults. One in three marriages are arranged. It's not the majority, but it's an accepted part of our society. Still, I'm not at all surprised that people like this girl are making waves. They're used to social freedom.

"You've got to admit, though, even at your age it's not normal." She's speaking of another nuance in the debate. Even when not forced, a lot of young adults ask their parents for help when looking for "the one". But that usually happens when they're finishing college. Clair and I were engaged when we were ten. I told Cally as much.

"Ten?"

"Yep."

"Why?"

"That's the way my father wanted it." Actually, I suspect my father did it to pile-drive tradition into my family. He was rich, but only newly so, and he seemed desperate to aquire all the trappings and appearances of old money as soon as possible. That included marrying his son and daughters off to other rich people's progeny.

Still, it's not usual for old families to allow kids trapped in these engagements to live close to each other before the wedding. Perhaps they saw all the divorces in wealthy couples and liberalized a bit.

"And then he needed us to meet downstairs, just because he's allergic to the dust. But it's freezing down there!" The conversation has passed me by while I pondered. Oh well. Nothing of import ever passed between two female's heads.

My dreams are becoming disturbing of late. Nightmares, typically, but that's not what bothers me. With each fresh horror, I cease to remember the previous episode. It's nothing unusual to forget a dream while waking, but not days and weeks after living with the memory of it. My latest dream was about tigers. There were three, and they were stalking me around their enclosure. I wasn't trapped, the gate was open, but I felt more afraid of leaving than being mauled by the beasts. I had the vague impression they wanted what was in my hands, but I never had time to look down and see what I was holding.

The dream itself means nothing. I'll forget it soon enough. It bothers me, though, that I can't have normal dreams. My friends say they had good dreams every once in a while. Their favorites are the sexual escapades with their crushes, of course. I've never dreamed about sexual intercourse, though. Is that strange?

"Eric, please report to the office after class." Again?

Once again I was in the crypt-like edifice. The secretary asked for my name, I gave it, and she responded with recognition.

"Take this to your parents, and have it back by tomorrow, please." She handed me a manila envelope. It was simply labeled "Basilton".

"What's the matter?" asked Clair. She has a good eye for my mood swings. I held up the envelope.

"Yeah? What's that?"

"Something for my parents." Which meant something for my father. Mother can't be trusted with anything. But... I didn't want to talk with my father. Ever.

"What's in it?"

"I haven't opened it."

"Do it."

"No."

"Just do it!" My albina glared eagerly (?) at me. Did she always assume I would give in to her pestering? Go away, nuisance! And I really need alone-time tonight for homework, else I'm going to fail.

"You're not curious at all?"

"No."

"No. No. No. No. Don't reply with monosyllables! Why aren't you curious? What if it's bad? What if you'll get in trouble?"

"I don't care about that. I'm going to get in trouble for my grades, anyways."

"You never care. You never do anything. I hate you."

"Buzz off."

She didn't. She followed me all the way to my door. It's a pity we all live within a half mile of the school. If we had to drive anywhere she'd be stranded and I'd have some peace.

"At least say you love me," she pleaded.

"No, I don't." I slammed the door in her face. I then slumped down to the floor, back pressed against the door. A deep sigh welled in me. Was I exhausted? Only mentally. The sigh let out, a long wooshing decomprension. I am a billow of frustration.

She bugs me. She really bugs me. Aren't relationships supposed to make you feel happy? Intellectually, objectively, I know most relationships devolve into tedium and maintaining the pretense of romance is difficult. Yet, this relationship never felt romantic in the first place.

I am awefully grumpy lately.

The manila envelope slipped out of my hand. Father. I need to speak with him. Whatever this is about, I'll need to face it sometime tonight. Or else... what? I could ignore it. Then there will be consequences, but to find those out means prying the envelope open and peeking. I'm too spiteful for that. I couldn't face Clair if I gave in to her suggestion, even when I had opposed it only to spite her in the first place. Irony. Sometimes it's simple and stupid.

"Eric, are you home?" My younger sister, Debbie, was home. So, that meant her betrothed was off doing something important. Unlike Clair and I, Debbie and Rich were very enamoured of each other, and spent every waking second together. I always wondered how that came to pass.

"Hey. Is Mom home? Or Lizzy?" I called out to the kitchen.

"Lizzy's at school, Mom went to visit her." Lizzy, also betrothed, but managed to delay it indefinately, while she studied at the university. Elizabeth is the favorite of the three, and has a knack for manipulating Father's favor.

"What time does Father get home?"

"6:30." Two hours to agonize over this. Enough time to study for the test next week. I hate studying, I think I'll finish reading for Literature instead. I took the book she had handed out yesterday. "Seigfried".

"Come in." 7:45. Before me is the white-panelled door of the family study. Within was my father, and over me was an order to enter. It rang out in a gravelly voice that dared me to disobey. An authoratative voice. Sometimes, I think, he needed nothing else to ensure his station.

I entered.

"I have a document from school. They said not to open it myself, but it needs to be returned by tomorrow. I've no idea what it's about." I always offer as much information upfront as possible. It's a coping mechanism; Father hates having to interrogate people.

"Hand it here."

A good sign? Maybe. If he was busy with something important he would tell me to drop it on the desk and take care of it later. Then again, if this is bad...

He took the envelope, unlatched the fastener, and slid the papers out, effortlessly.

His eyes roved down the page, taking in every word, without ever leaving them to glance at me. When he was done, he set the paper down, took up his pen, and began writing. This action took a minute, so it probably wasn't just his signature. When he was done he replaced everything, and then handed it back to me. I made a mistake, paused on the spot, expecting an answer or explanation.

"You can go."

I wanted to ask him what this was about, but didn't. As I left the door, he called out to me.

"Eric."

"Yes?" I turned in full to face him.

"If the administration gives you any problems with this, tell them to call me."

"Alright."

With this slight clue, I left to go back to schoolwork.

The envelope lay on top of my books and folders. Now it burned me not knowing what it was. But, the thought of trespassing onto official property chilled me. I wasn't afraid of the school, at all. It was my father, the mere expectation by him that this was not my business and I should stay out of it.

Seigfried was interesting. I willed my mind to forget the whole affair and focus on the epic.

"No way."

"They did .... that's...."

A mass of students, hundreds of them, milled on the roadside. Those who could peeped past the barricade and police-tape.

"There's one!"

"Woah!" Like an orgasm, cries and squeels emulated throughout the crowd. It felt like a mosh pit at a soul concert.

"Say that again?" I asked.

"They closed school. Look at the police! Crap, it's the commandos!" He pointed excitedly at the ASRU van that had pulled in. Advanced Situations Reaction Unit. In America I think they call them SWAT. A trooper jumped out of the passanger side and began shouting orders.

"Ghosts?"

"Yeah, ghosts. Dozens of em. They showed up in the morning and now they're all over the school."

"What kind of ghosts?" Another girl overtheard us and barged in. Haley, someone from the Junior class.

"Like, dead people kind. I saw a couple. It's sick. Completely sick. One had its guts hanging out from under its shirt."

"You sure it's ghost, and not zombies or-"

"No, definately ghosts. They fly and see-through and all that."

"That's odd."

I took the time to appraise Haley's body. At first she seemed like she was pretty, and had a nice face. But then she got in through the crowd and proved to be a chubby ugly.

Every boy does this. I only mention it now because it reminded me of Clair, and I wanted to see her.

"Where is Clair?"

"Haven't seen her."

"Doesn't she have zero period?" I thought about it. Yes, Wednesdays were zero-period for her, where she had astronomy lab.

"Crap." She was inside when this started, I guessed.

"Eric, where're you going?"

"To see if Clair made it out."

"No one came out."

"Okay." It was the end of a lengthy inquiry, and the vice-principle assured me that everyone inside the building at the time of the haunting had vanished.

"Kid, don't be a hero."

"I won't do anything stupid," I reassured him. I meant it. Instead I called my sister to see what she knew. No one picked up. I called the house, told my Mom I was OK, and told her to keep an eye on the news. Speaking of which, a reporter was passing nearby. I asked her if she had anything else to add.

"Not really. Ghosts coming out en masse? We've covered more volcanoes than this kind of thing," she said curtly.

They're all so oblivious to the paranormal, even when it's right in front of them.

Mom called again. "The news said they're sending in G-Men." Government Agents, I take it, the experts. The same guys who kidnapped us and had their lab nuked? Ha-ha.

"You should see the news, it's all over the TV, they're covering nothing else."

I'm in the middle of it, Mother, but at least I know help is on the way.

What had happened to Clair? I don't know. I knew nothing about ghosts. Until I was attack at the park, I didn't even believe in them. What the hell would they do to victims? Kill them? How? Frighten them into petrification? Stop their hearts? Fill their minds with eternal horror? Suck them into another dimension? Each new imaginative fate felt like a sledge-hammer to my conscious. Was I responsible for Clair? Yes, in a sense.

There's a relevant question nagging at the door, begging to be asked, but I refuse to even think about it. I am an effective user of think-stop, and proud of it.

"Government agents continue to pour in as the spirits of the departed still hold North Mount Prefecture High School. The spirits are believed to be from those who have been interred in the nearby Narwol Cemetary, after two ghosts were positively identified by relatives. The nature of these spirits, whether they truly are the souls of the departed or merely residual energy, is under debate. Why they have swarmed the building is the primary concern of officials who hope to settle this crisis if they can find that answer. Alright, back to you Ashton." The reporter nodded, keeping a stern look till the camera was turned away. A goofy smile and a chuckle overtook her immedietly after. "This is so rediculous," she said to her partner.

Agreed. And it could have come at a better time. Even if all calms down, the teachers will double-up their homework to make up for the lost day.

"Stand back."

What appeared to be G-men in bomb suits carrying some kind of equpment, reminiscent of a satalite dish, made their way to the front lawn. Their un-armored counterparts shoed the crowd back a dozen yards. With an embarrassing exertion, I made it to the front of the crowd, without apologizing to the nine people I bowled over to get there.

"They're going in." Three human tanks marched forward towards the front steps. An apparition appeared inside the glass doors, staring at the new intruders vacantly, then passed onwards.

"I don't see anything scary. A lion would be more dangerous. It's all the movies' fault." A smart-ass was remarking to his gaggle of friends, for the girls' benefit, I bet. To his credit, he looked composed and unafraid. He wasn't in the plug-suit entering the premesis though.

One G-man took the latch to the door and pushed it open, slowly. Nothing happened. He peeped inside. Still nothing. He walked completely inside the darkened corridor. Still nothing. The second agent followed him. The third stood inside the opened door. He leaned in, turned back outside, and waved. He then proceeded inside with the others. More G-men rushed to the front, carrying more unidentifiable equipment.

"Yes, they're in, they're in," the reporter was chatting into the phone, while gazing intently at the "action". I was barely breathing and motionless, anxious as I was. I admit, I was scared.

Suddenly the G-men flocked back out, loping away as fast as their squat suits allowed them. The rest began running too, and soon enough there was a stampede. No one knew why, but it seemed the school was a bad place to be. Legs and arms tangled, as did the shouts, and the only consensus was to put as much distance between them and whatever had spooked the G-men.

Except for me. I had the strangest sense of dejavu. My body stood there, limp, unwavering, unmoved. My mind was numb and just a little curious, and Clair popped into my mind. No one noticed me or cared enough to drag me with them. In a minute I was all alone in front of the schoolyard.

"Hello." These faces are familiar. That one, especially, the guy with the horns growing out his eyes and ears. It's the god-aweful fire devils, and they're still staring at me, rudely, surrounding me completely this time. "What're you waiting for? Do something!" I whispered to them. No answer.

Later, they said the explosion had vaporized everything within a block, and it was lucky there were no casualties due to the G-mens' quick efforts. All that was left of the school grounds was a pretty field of dirt. They couldn't even leave a crater this time. Suckers.

"Where's Clair?"

"Buddy? Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay? Hey, you? Hey!" I grabbed the medic by the arm, faced him eye to eye, and spoke in a calm, even, serious manner. "I am fine. There are thirty-five students and three faculty missing, you will not find traces of them in the wreckage, not even their atoms. Take a role-call of all personel attending this school, find who is missing, and put out missing person alerts. This is a paranormal event that must be treated rationally and with due haste. Go." The man stood dumb, but slowly walked away, accelerating as he went. I think he understood me. Good boy. Much better than your friend from downtown.

Honestly, I don't know where those instructions came from. I made them up, on the spot. 35 students? There was no logical way I knew that many were missing. I'll trust that there are things going on that I can't understand, and that these figures are accurate and imbued into my noggin for a purpose.

Now, if Clair was among the missing, and I had a feeling the missing were not so lost as we think, then I've got to find her. Or else...

How could I face my father?

Mother was relieved to see me home. Father was there too, looking deeply concerned. When she was done tending to me my father embraced me, and then said, "I love you."

"I know," I said.

"The school board sent out an e-mail, you'll be off for a week or more while they figure out a temporary site."

"Alright. Need any chores done?"

"I had some things in mind."

"Like what?" Me, Father, and my sister sat down to discuss things while mother baked brownies. She doesn't usually like baking, except for these kinds of unfortunate occassions. I am in the mood for brownies right now, so I'm happy with her.

Debbie idled the time by playing with her cat. He was old and lazy now and was less entertaining than a laser pointer. She was bored. Where was her boyfriend?

I assiduously avoided the mention of Clair. It was a forlorn hope to dodge the question, but I wish it weren't.

"Where is Clair?" Father asked.

After a moment of silence: "She was inside the school."

"Is she alright?" Ane eyebrow raised.

"No. She vanished with the rest who were in there."

"That's terrible," he mumbled. He sank into the kitchen chair, contemplating. He must have known before-hand. What were his thoughts?

It was a long evening, with everyone doing less than nothing and nothing else happening, and the only respite from the utter monotony was the news blaring from the family room. Debbie sat in her room, glancing around at the stuffed animals and posters and ornaments. Mother alternated between cleaning the kitchen and staring hopelessly at the television. Father withdrew himself into the study. I spread myself on the bed, searching the ceiling for water stains and the meaning of life.

"Komban wa," a rare voice said in greeting. "Nice to see you." Elizabeth's head stuck through my door, a slight smile on her face. I didn't know she was coming home. She was supposed to be at college, Castor U, actually, where she studied Japanese, German, and Vietnamese all at the same time. It was from Elizabeth that Clair became interested in foreign languages, though the former was so much better than the latter at it. I, personally, didn't care for anything but our native English.

"Hi Sis."

"Lighten up."

"If you say so," I remarked, more glum than even I felt. I wanted to be contrary right now, even if it bummed me.

"I heard about Clair. Just trying to cheer you up."

"I know. It's not working."

"Can I bribe you with food? I brought TV dinners home."

"Might work," and I rolled off my mattress.

Downstairs the rest of the family was huddled in the kitchen, hacking at their plastic trays. Debbie was first in line for the microwave.

Sitting down before the news, which had nothing else to report, we munched away with muted conversation.

"Is there anything we can do?" asked Elizabeth.

"Nope," said I.

"Nothing the authorities aren't already doing," said Father.

The news said as much as I'd already suspected. The site was completely devoid of materials. There was no trace of bodies, even orgenelles or bones. Not even the school-buildings remains were founded, including the foundation. The ash on the ground came from the burnt grass, the smoke cloud in the air was likewise. The debris that fell across a square mile radius didn't amount to a shed, let alone a 55,000 square-foot facility. Everyone, everything had vanished.

"At least the family is safe," Mother said. The rest nodded. No one offered a group hug.

Clair was missing. And I had to accept that for what it was. She was not yet dead and not yet gone. But it felt like a fixture of my life had left, and would not return. I tried to recall her smiling, or being a jerk to me (she would only do so in reciprocation). The only memories I could recall were sad ones, though. Like when her best friend ditched her, and she spent the entire night sobbing on the phone and spilling her guts to me. Or when she was pissed when I ignored her for a week and she dumped bleach on my entire wardrobe in protest. Or the day her pet puppy was run over; how she had spent weeks condmening every act of neglect, mine in particular. Now I feel sorry that my strongest memories of her are also the worst.

I hope she comes back. I don't need this hole in my life right now.

I booted up the computer. I wanted to just check the news pages, but there were games to distract me too. If nothing else, there was porn.

The little (*) symbol on the left of my main page was lit up, and showed as (2). E-mail. I clicked it open.

The first was a quickie message from Elizabeth, saying she was on her way home. The second was sent by "Government Agency 0091, Averie Office". The header read "Urgent message for Eric Basilton, and Internship Opportunity". Odd title, sounded like spam. I was willing to read through a phishing scam, though. I doubled clicked.

_____________

"To Eric Olivares:

The 0091 branch of the Internal Security Agency is aware of your contacts with the paranormal and involvement in the incidents occuring on ****** at Lab ******. We have also identified Ms. Clair Everett as a personal friend of yours who was also involved in that incident as well as the incident involving North Mount Prefecture High School. We have relevant information pertaining to your case, but also require information from you. Rest be assured, you are not under any suspicion of wrong-doing, and only hope to resolve this crisis in the best possible way for everyone. Please reply with a phone number we can reach you with, as well as your availability on *******, *******, ****** or ********, whichever is best for you.

Incidentally, we also have a payed internship opportunity that may suit you. This would also serve to inform you better of the current situation and prepare for future possibilities, if you should be accepted. If you are interested, please call ********** between 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM, Monday through Thursday.

Sincerely, Robert W. *, staff of ISA Branch 0091."

______________

I read it, and then reread it. It sounded legitimate, but I was having a hard time trusting its words. Perhaps that is because the last government team I met had held me against my will, threatened to kill me, and caused a massive demonic explosion. Even if I cooperated, would they just give me the same psuedo-religious mumbo-jumbo they had?

I mulled my thoughts for awhile. I thought about Clair, and that angered me enough to respond:

"Who do you think you are? I've been through hell and now my close friend is gone, and no one is giving me or the public jack about what's going on. If you're so interested in me, you come the fuck to me and answer my questions on my terms. Otherwise, don't you G-men think you're going to peak-a-boo me."

It was crude, but I wasn't even in the mood for cynicism. I clicked send, then steamed in my seat for another minute. Reading through articles covering the disaster, and then two other unrelated world news topics helped me cool off. Four minutes passed by doing this.

The doorbell rang from downstairs. Some seconds later, "Eric! There's a man here to see you! He's from the government!"

...

Crap.

"Hello, Mr. Eric Basilton, may I come in?" He was tall, slim, and serious. His face wore the expression of "we're going to be polite right now and I dare you to even imagine acting otherwise". It was the kind of aura that people automatically respect. If I thought it was a bluff, I was still not going to risk pissing him off. You know who this reminds me of? My Father.

Do I have authority issues? Let's contemplate that later, and right now just focus on keeping your bladder intact.

"Hello..."

"You sent a request to meet in person. My name is Robert Wolfe. Is there someplace private we can talk?"

"Excuse me, who are you?" my father interceded.

Wolfe reached into his suit and pulled out a badge. "Wolfe, Director of ISA Branch 0091 Paranormal Reconciliation and Nullification Division." Father extended his hand towards the badge, and was rewarded. He studied it intently for a few seconds.

"Level 3.... What would you want with my son?"

"Just to talk. Do you mind?"

"No, that's fine. Eric, you can use the study." Father stepped aside, looking confident in himself but worried for me.

Mr. Wolfe took the armchair, I was stuck with the dining seat. "Good, good," he said aloud, for no one's benefit. Other than the automatic terror I held for men in his position, I hadn't a clue to his personality or disposition.

"I expect you have questions; I have questions too," he began. "And while I have answers for you, I reserve the right to dispense or withold them from you. You, on the other hand, do not have that luxery. You can answer here, or before a judge, at which point refusal to answer will be charged as an obstruction of justice. Do you understand?"

"Understand? Maybe, but I don't-"

"Yes or No, is all I need."

"What?"

Mr. Wolfe leaned in close, locking me with his eyes like a bear trap. "There is no place for emotion in this process. It will be entirely routine, and I expect you to treat it with all due severity. Understand?"

"Yes," I said, but inwardly bitter and cowed.

"Good. Good. Now, you were involved in an incident with a spirit starting at the east entrance of Carrowside Park and proceding down 15th Boulevard, correct?"

"Yes."

"That type of encounter is normal; it happens every day, and isn't worth our attention. What concerns us are the people who contacted you afterwards."

"Dr. Reise?"

"Yes, Oliver Reise, among others."

"I met him at school, he asked me to come to the lab near downtown, and I saw him there as well."

"We're aware of that. Can you describe what happened while you were at this lab? Before you do," he paused, taking out a voice recorder. The device was placed on the desk and clicked on. A little red light blinked steadily on its top.

"Describe your experience at Facility 4, Kitose Building, Averie Branch."

"That's the name for that lab?"

"Yes. Please?"

"Alright."

I began talking about arriving there, how the receptionist greeted me, waiting for Clair, and the rest. He would sometimes ask me to elaborate, and I perceived he was interested in the tiniest details, especially who I met, how long I was in contact with each, and what we talked about. Because of this, the narration slowed down more and more, till it felt like I would never get to the end. It ran for another half-hour before I came to the hallway where my memory failed. I told him as much.

"No, your memory did not fail. Try harder." I did. Nothing. He was asking the impossible.

"Impossible," I told him.

"No, it is not. What you experienced was not trauma and would not have impaired your memory functions. You do remember these events?"

"How? I don't," said I. He leaned back, disappointed, a frown on his face.

"Eric is suffering from myocorbitorial (I think that's the word) infection, recommended see specialist within June 1st," he said aloud, not directed towards me. Was that supposed to be for the recorder's benefit?

"What is myocortorial? Infection?"

"Myocorbiotorial." He ennunciated the term slowly. "A side-effect of your encounter, it's not actually pathogenic or dangerous, for the moment. We will set up an appointment to help you with it."

"But what is it?" I was perplexed. He was spouting weird things, just like Reise, and I wasn't liking it.

"It's a condition that impedes intralobial processes, in this case, a specific memory recall. I didn't expect this, I apologize for being insistent."

"I don't understand what you said perfectly."

"There's a foreign process inside of your mind, and it is preventing you from remembering the events prior to the climax incident at the lab." Ah, ok. I don't get exactly what is inside of me, still, but it's nice to know my fuzzy memory has a cause. At least my brain isn't turning to slush on me.

"What is the last thing you remember? At all?"

"A hallway, flashes of Clair and Dr. Reise, maybe others. I might have just been thinking about them, though. Then a wall of flames.... with faces in it." He nodded. "Ugly faces, I'd describe them as demons and beasts, all staring at me. The firewall didn't actually touch me, I know. But I blacked out shortly after. It was the same deal at the school. Well, no, the blackout wasn't very long either time."

"Hmm." He had a briefcase with him, too. Thought I'd mention that. He took a notepad and pen from it, and began scribbling. "Follow this up later."

"Follow what up?"

"Later. What happened next?" I finished my story, skipping more details. He didn't seem to mind. Instead he moved on to the school, covered that briefly, then back to Dr. Reise and what that man said during the lab. He tried to get me to recall the conversation word for word.

"Is there a purpose to this?" I asked.

"Yes."

"..."

He let out a sigh through his nostrils. It sounded irritating.

"Dr. Reise has been missing since that incident. He is involved in a federal corruption case as a suspect. That's not the whole of what's going on here, but it's the reason that I needed to come here personally."

"Aha" Clearance 3. I know the government grants security clearances levels 1 through 22. 1 is the president, 2 can have missile release codes, 3 is still pretty damn senior, privy to military and diplomatic secrets. We kids learned this from movies, but a documentary show confirmed it, loosely. I had thought it strange that a guy so high up was here, personally, to interrogate me, unless he was a fake. If my hunch was right, this was more than a little money-laundering corruption scandel.

"Still with me?"

"Yes," I replied automatically. Not really.

"The fear is that certain government offices have been illicitly interceding in paranormal events for their own self-interest. You may have guessed that this self-interest isn't just money. That's as far as I can go on that matter. On to your condition, any questions firstly?"

"Is Dr. Reise making deals with Satan?" I asked.

"Don't joke with me."

"It was an honest question."

"Drop the subject; do you have any concerns about your own circumstances?"

"Mine? Not really. I don't care why demonic flames won't touch me, I'm rather grateful to them and won't question their motives."

"I'll be leaving now," Wolfe said.

"Wait. I want to know what happened to my fiance, Ms. Everett."

"She's been found," said Wolfe.

.........................................................

Every period in that line represents a biochemical reaction that failed to register in the belief category of my intellect.

"Say that again."

"We know where Clair is. Unfortunately, we cannot allow contact with anyone, including you, and cannot say anything more at this time."

"Is she safe?" My voice was strained, nearly exasperated.

"I can't reveal that. Good night." He got up to leave.

Clair is found. Not safe, not alive, not dead, not insane, not comatose, not disapeared, not warped, shape-shifted, not kidnapped, not imprisoned. Just "found". That is less than comforting. That isn't even closure. He could say she was murdered and I'd be calmer right now. These people know something about Clair and weren't telling me! Damn them! Damn them to Purgatory!

My thoughts are disjointed right now. Try thinking of something logically. They won't tell me something about Clair for a reason, but won't even reveal the reason. They know. They KNOW! What do I do? What?

"Mr. Wolfe!" I yelled, sprinting out the door and out the house, where the fellow was already at the street. Across the road was an unmarked van. Had they put me under surveillance? Was that how he had showed up mere minutes after my e-mail? Bastards!

"Wolfe! Stop!"

"Eric!" Father spilled out of the door behind me. The agent paused his gait, and turned.

"Please don't waste my time."

"Your e-mail mentioned an internship."

A short silence.

"Yes, it's open."

"I want it," said I.

"The contact information is with the e-mail. Sign-up with it like everyone else, we're not giving you special treatment. Good night." He turned and ignored my protests. The dark grey van sped off into the semi-darkness of suburban streetlamp-lighted roads.

"What did you talk about?" demanded my Father.

"I'll explain inside." We trodded indoors, one with questions, the other with a bleak heart.

Father agreed that I deserved a better explanation, and promised to pull strings where he could to get one. I informed him I wanted to try for the internship, to see if I could find out more from the inside. He said that was fine as long as my grades do not suffer. As long as I keep above a 3.0 they shouldn't complain (3.6, by the way). Tomorrow afternoon, that would be my first priority. 2:00.

Then it dawned on me-

I get to sleep in tomorrow.

Hurray!

"What was that for?" Elizabeth asked me with a queer face. Did I just cheer out loud?

"Eric Basilton." Monotonous call. Boring. Uncaring. Couldn't they add just a little expectation to their voice? I'm the cursed one after all, the guy who survived two spirit-bombs. I say this with a wry voice, and only say it for the irony.

Here I was, in another unremarkable office, waiting my turn in line. Well, not waiting, actually, I just finished that part. My tush felt compressed and unpleasant after two hours of sitting. The other young adults looked about the same: they readjusted their posture every minute or so. There were five left, out of a few dozen. They had arranged us in alphabetical order, but had put "Zoloph" nearest the entrance. It was a long hallway with few doors, and generic chairs lined along one wall. I glanced back at the remaining four; three girls and a guy. There shouldn't be too much longer, 3 to 5 minutes per kid, by my estimates.

"Good luck," whispered the girl who had sat next to me. I had hardly even noticed her all this time. "You too," I said without a thought. That was random.

"This way please," said the recipient.

It has been three weeks since my little chit-chat with Robert Wolfe. I had duly called the hotline, set up an interview by phone a day later, and suffered a generic-as-potatoes questionair by automated voice message. Apparently my answers were satsifying, and I was in round two. Coming out into the country to this lab, nothing about the internship was given away. Where to go, what time, how long to schedule for, that was the sum of what I was told.

The plump secretary led me down several hallways and lounges. As we proceded, the atmosphere grew ever so slightly damp, decrepit, and ill-washed. If such a thing could exist in such a clean, corporate-happy office, we were marching through its dungeons.

"Here."

'Here' was not a door but an elevator. She waved me inside. I entered. The door slid shut, and I was alone. The machine hummed, giving the vague notion it was descending.

"Hmm, hmm, hum ho." My humming fell flat and rhythmnless. I was bored, not scared.

"Hmm, hum, hum, hm hm hm hmph." And I was bored because this ride was taking to long. How deep was I?

The elevator slowed down. Heavy knocking sounds of locks falling in place rang through the walls. We're here.

The door opened.

"Clair?" She was sitting in the middle of a lobby, hands folded in her lap, her milky white bangs falling over her eyes. When I spoke she looked up, smiling. She didn't say anything, though.

"Clair, what.. where... nevermind." I came up to her, not really knowing what to do or what to ask first. "How are you?" came out of my mouth, at last.

"Good," said she.

"Is that it?"

"Yes. How are you?"

"Surprised. Confused." Theories eclipsed theories, each more sinister than the last. Rational thought culled them until a going hypothesis remained: That Wolfe had hid Clair's whereabouts in order to surprise me like this. To what purpose? Unnerve me, or test me. Would they use this to hold me hostage? Or do they think I know anything more than what I told them? How had I became special?

At that thought, my mind relaxed. This is real life. Nothing special ever happens, definately not by accident. The explanation for all of this has got to be more mundane.

"Don't be confused. It will be alright."

A strange idea came over me. From where, I don't know.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"I'm Clair?"

"Who am I?"

"You're you. Don't be silly." she replied.

"Please don't lie," I ordered her, casually. You see, I don't believe this girl is Clair. It would be too strange to suddenly meet her here, under these circumstances. There were dozens of other candidates, and I was sure that the agency could not organize personal reunions for each of them, for whatever inane purpose it served. This was a test. It was up to me to figure out the question.

"The question is, why am I seeing you here, when I'm sure you are not Clair, but you look exactly like here."

"I don't know what you're talking about. It's me," she insisted. She wasn't Clair. I didn't need logic or magic to figure that out. It was gut instinct.

I turned my focus to the rest of the room. Intuition immedietly rang alarm bells. There were no other exits, and no other meaningful implements in this room. It looked like a hospital lobby, but without the help desk. There was no reason this room should exist, buried in the nth basement level of a government lab. If there was a reason, it was not an innocent one.

"What next?" I asked.

"I thought we were going home," said the doppelganger.

What if the trick originated from my own mind. What if this really was Clair, and somehow I was being forced into disbelieving her? I could aks her a security question.

"Where is home," I asked. Wait, no, too easy. "Nevermind. Why did you cry on your fifteenth birthday?" This would do it. Anybody would guess it was that nasty girl bullying her for the entire party. Clair would know better. She told me later, it was because I hadn't defended her from the bully; that she thought I didn't respect her or care for her.

This girl shrugged. "I don't remember. Why would you ask that?"

"Do you recognize me?" I asked more sternly.

"Yes."

"Then who am I?!"

"You're just you! The same guy you've always been! Can we go now? This room is scaring me!" Did she have amnesia? Had she been brainwashed?

"No, I don't think we can run away."

"What is wrong with you? I'm scared!"

"Clair wouldn't be scared of this. She was barely even scared of the ghost. You're not Clair."

"But I am!"

"You are-" a flash, an epiphany that came so quickly that I could not recover. "This is wrong," I said. I sensed something. It didn't make sense. "This is wrong."

"Eric!" she flung herself at me, clutching me in her arms, weeping. I repulsed her, she tried again, I repulsed her, she came again, I repulsed her, a violent struggle ensued. I didn't want to hurt her, fake or not, but something was wrong. She knew my name, where she hadn't been willing to say it before.

"The truth is-" I got a hold of her by both shoulders, and sat her kneeling on the floor. She wimpered and gave up. "-is that there is no lobby here, you are not here, this whole thing is- a dream."

"Close enough," said Clair, and she faded away into nothingness. The flouresecent lights gave out, and I was left in utter darkness.

A clinic? That's what it felt like. I felt weak and depressed. There was no strength in my limbs. I'll go back to sleep.

"Can you explain what happened?"

Now was five days later. A jet had flown me three hundred miles south, to the capital, last night. The hotel had been first class. I was sitting in an upscale office on the 65th floor of the Newman Estate Tower. The office was open and bright, filled with luxuries, polished furniture, antiques, and other trinkets of wealth. I didn't think it fit Mr. Wolfe's character. He was seated opposite of me, behind a large, ornamented desk.

"To an extent," he answered.

"Please."

"You were exposed to a kind of paranormal force. Most candidates see this." He turned to the flat-screen TV that unfurled from the wall. With the click of a remote, a video began playing. The upper-right screen was labeled with date, time, some numbers, and "Subject Nelsen". A guy, my age, who I think I remember from the queue, exited the elevator. It was a lobby, similar to the one I saw. It wasn't the exact same, though. There were doors, and a help window. A secretary sat behind the window. A screen was hanging from one wall. Nelsen talked with the secretary, who handed him a pen and notepad. He took them, took a seat at a couch, and began watching something on the screen. The video jerked to a pause.

"70% of all candidates never see anything different than this. They take a questionair, fill it out, and go home. A few days later they're sent an unfortunate letter telling them they were not qualified for our internship.

"70%.... that's 40 something from the group I came with. The rest?"

"They sense and interact with the paranormal force. The most common symptom are hallucinations. According to self-reports, subjects see that which most occupies their mind. About half imagine a scenario of supreme happiness. The other half imagine the worst possible event of their future."

"I follow." I couldn't decide what I saw was good or bad for me.

"Less than 10% realize they are hallucinating. Some reject it, others accept the illusion. The test was implemented to find those who can reject the influence of alien spirits. You were among those who did."

"I wouldn't be very confident about that."

"No, you're performance wasn't stellar, but that's not important. We can train you. What's important is that the ability exists within you in the first place." I sat a moment to take it in. A feeling of pride and ego was coming over me, and it felt good. I was special.

That's a dangerous line of thought, so I squashed it, and thought of some inquiry that could deflate my ego.

"How many others passed?"

"Seven, total. It was a good pool this time round, almost every senstive subject broke free." A little math....

"There were 60~ people there. 40 + 7 = 50. What happened to the other 10?" Mr. Wolfe shot me an almost nasty look.

"They're in the hospital."

"?"

"Sometimes people don't react mentally with the spiritual force. Sometimes it's physical. This was a strange batch; usually only 2% suffer injuries." These G-men weren't just secretive for security. They really did have dirty secrets to hide. Why tell me this, though?

"Because you can't do anything about it," said Wolfe. Hmm.

"Why am I the only one in your office?" I suddenly became worried about my personal security.

"You're one of three candidates I'll talk to today. The other four are being handled by the 0093 Branch Director."

"What kind of paranormal force are you talking about, exactly?"

"Classified. Any more questions, or can I get on with this?"

"Many."

"Sorry, but I'm on a schedule."

"You can make time," I insisted.

"Fine, here's your answer." He took in a deep breath, annoyed and trying to keep his compuse against a brat like me many many years his junior. "0091 Branch deals with 'friendly' phenomina. These are spirits, ghosts, souls, tricks of the mind, whatever, but they exist, they cause problems, but they're relatively harmless. I-" I shot my hand up. "What?"

"The explosion-causing ghosts, is that what you call 'harmless'?"

"Yes." Before I could protest or make a wise-crack- "Relatively. A different branch deals with the dangerous incidents, and trust me, the loss of a school structure or office is 'harmless' compared to the disasters they try to prevent. Anyways.

We need to replenish our ranks like any other company. Ours is a rather specialized field, however, and a degree in "ghost-busting" is not offered in any college. Thus, the internships. If you pass the 3rd round you'll be qualified to enter the agency and have a gateway to a fullfilling career."

This is what it boiled down to? A career in ghost-busting? Quite frankly, as exciting as this all is, I didn't envision a future of excorsising ghosts. I really would rather go to law or business school. Maybe take over Father's business. Nor do I really want to skip out on college life.

"Not interested." I wasn't going to throw my life away just for an opportunity to find Clair. There were other routes for that endeavor. The courts, perhaps.

"What would it take to convince you? Money?" He waved at his wealth-imbued office.

"I don't feel like it's what I want to do in life."

"What do you think this internship entails." Hmm, my best guess?

"Helping ghosts pass on, by solving their problems, or exorcising them."

"Wrong!" Ouch, could he have said that a little softer?

Brain: nonfunctional.

I didn't give a damn about anything in life before this started. It may look like there are things to now be excited about, to care about, but I give less of a damn now than ever. I wanted peace, quiet, simplicity. I wanted a good school and a good, simple, capitalistic job. Money is likable, because it's far more effective at controlling those around you than silly things like violence and friendship. There is an incredible, absolutely incredible amount of resources, emotional and physical, wasted in trying to nurture relationships and hatreds. That greed exists and provides a way to manipulate others so methodically is a fact of life that I enjoy. So yes, money would be nice to have, but if the career requires the very thing I want money for, than no thanks! I'll stay with plan A, as mapped out by Father.

"If you become an intern, I will reunite you and Clair," said Wolfe. "And your impression of the job is not accurate."

I bit my cheek. There is a choice here, and I know I shouldn't weigh it until all the information has been divulged. But an unconditional offer to meet Clair was pretty powerful leverage against my conscience right now.

"What is the job?"

"Research."

"Huh?"

"We try to make sense of the paranormal. That's Branch 0091's job. 0093 takes what we've learned and exterminates the paranormal."

"Wait, that-"

"We kill ghosts. We don't exorcise them, let them pass on, solve their unfinished business. We annihilate them. Our directive was issued two thousand years ago and has been renewed by every subsequent loci of political power."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because a world without paranormal is normal. And normality is desirable."

That's like killing off the minorities of the world to eliminate rascism! That's.... Logical.

"Huh." They aren't humans. They're already dead. I- no, it's still not. No. No. Wait. No.

I realized that I was dealing with a world I knew very little about, that I couldn't make ethical judgements on that miniscule revelation. Idealism, morality, those were on the fringes of my mind. I had problems, I had work, I was already so overloaded with my own issues that I'd say it's wrong of others to foist the impetus of the world's problems on to my back as well.

So, I should refrain from judgement here. The question of joining or not remains. I wouldn't be in a position to make policy decisions, so I shouldn't be held for what this organization does or does not do. That's not right either, a soldier who enters the military to gain, say, an education is still held accountable for fighting and murdering and dying in that military.

I don't want to deal with this crap! I want my life back in order!

"I'd like time to think about this."

"You've got plenty. The call-in date for phase 3 is September 1st."

We made arrangements if I needed to contact him. I bid him farewell, and spent the rest of the day sight-seeing in the capital.

I realized I had to come to terms with two important changes in my life. The first was that my fiance was missing. Our relationship was not a spectacular success. Clair and I had been chosen for each other by our parents (fathers, really) before we hit puberty. We had no say in the matter, but we were young. They weren't idiots, though, and knew the social climate was different than a century ago. To head off any feelings of resentment or disinterest, they encouraged me and her to play together and go to school together. They wanted us to love each other. Why? To forestall drama. It would be inconvenient if either of us chose someone else to fall in love with. The family plans would be ruined. Or, was there an inkling of care in their schemes? If their children must suffer this bond, did the parents want them to at least enjoy it?

I don't believe in love, from observation. Every couple in school, in the wider world, has had ulterior motives attached to it. This girl needed attention. This man wanted sex. These two were terrified of being seen as "loners". My parents wedded for the mutual benefit to their families' finances. Clair's mother wanted a baby. Clair's father wanted a trophy wife. It was all so- fake.

I don't feel anything towards other girls, except an occassional lust inherent in all men. That's why, annoying as she was, I didn't mind being promised to Clair. I may have resented the expectation that I should marry, an expecation carried not only by my family but society as a whole. Yet, I can't complain too much about how the world is. Some can imagine a better world than the one they live in, and are bitter for it. I find it too easy to imagine a worst world, and am... appreciative that mine is no worst. Fighting my current status would be troublesome, so I'll settle for it as is. That means I must marry, have a family, reproduce, and provide for them. If that's my lot in life and I choose to not argue against it, I don't really mind who that other person is. Someday I might thank my father for simplifying this whole "love" thing for me by depriving me of choices. I've seen too many friends broken by their impetuous relationships.

But now, Clair is gone, and if she doesn't come back.... My life, as I know it, is over. Beyond that possibility is something like a blank white curtain, not so much ominous as simply unknowable. That fact annoyed me.

The other change was the appearance of the supernatural. We were taught, by history teachers and church services and the media, that the supernatural always existed. It was defined as "supernatural" not in the sense that it is fictituous, but utterly beyond the understanding of our scientific concept of the universe. Speaking of scientists, from what I've read, they hate this stuff. It completely trashes every theorem and model of their universe, and some refuse to believe their existence even when face to face with ghosts. Others have tried to reconcile the two phenomina into one model, and failed. The only people with remotely any success were the ones putting them on two seperate, mutually exclusive models.

But, regardless of these interesting view points, the supernatural was supposed to be rare. Rare enough to give legitimate reason to doubt them, to believe there was a more logical reason for these occurences. That was the camp I had fallen in, before all this. This- It was supposed to not affect ordinary people. I was ordinary. I specifically wanted to be ordinary. Why did these things intrude on my-

"Hey. What's up?" The joke was not lost on me. I was sitting on the edge of a 3rd story balcony, legs dangling between the bars of the railing. From my view point, I could look across the lobby and out onto an impressive vista of downtown. Unlike our lowly downtown, the capital was packed with 30, 40, and 50 story skyscrapers. The Newman Estate Tower and the Hake-Schumer Towers rose majestically in the backround. They were the two tallest buildings in the nation, at 1,009 and 1,126 feet tall, respectively.

"The moon," I replied, pointing to the crescent that was imperceptibly ascending over the horizon.

"That's funny." The voice sounded simple and meek, but honest. I looked down at the staircase landing below me. It was a girl, who I didn't recognize at first.

"May I come up?" said she. I waved in affirmation. She came up the steps, and I got up, stretching my cramped limbs. We greeted each other near the top of the stairs.

"I don't know if you remember me," she said.

"You're familiar. Were you..." I couldn't place her.

"My name's Ether. We sat by each other at the lab."

That's right. She had wished me luck as I got up. The subsequent nightmare made me forget the rest of the preceding day.

"Ah, that's it. I'm-"

"Eric Basilton."

"That's right." She knew my name? "I guess you're here to see Wolfe?"

"Yes. I finished an hour ago."

I suppose we were both touristing. Makes sense, as our flight back wasn't till ten at night, and they had shoved a brochure in our hands as we left.

"Did you accept the offer?" I asked.

"Yes, definately."

"Why?" I may have said it in an unpleasing way. Ether shrunk, ever so slightly, so that I didn't even need to listen to the weak excuse she offered. Was she expecting everyone in the program to embrace this opportunity?

"It's not for me. I don't think I'll like it," I said.

"Mmm." An utterance of acknowledgment, not even understanding or agreement. "Well, I'm looking forward to it. I especially want to know about ghosts and such. Maybe, they'll prove there's an afterlife...."

"Isn't that obvious?" I asked.

"No, not really..." It wasn't a forceful answer. What was it about this girl? She is acting strange.

Is it just me, or are all females strange? The ones I meet, that is. It seems impossible to cohabitate with them, but by that theory, what are these other eight billion humans on the planet? Where did they come from? Given such a monumental proof, I must be an outlier. What is the secret to other male's ease with these creatures?

"Are you OK?"

"Huh?"

"You seem distracted," said Ether.

"I'm fine." My thoughts wander off in the middle of conversation. "My thoughts wander off in the middle of conversation. I'm sorry," I explained, realizing my mistake. "Did you ask something?"

"Well, I was hoping you'd join too. I mean, I don't want to be the only rookie in branch 0091."

"There is another candidate," I pointed out.

"That's, well- She's not the most friendly person in the world."

"You've met her?" I said, incredulously.

"Oh. You weren't there. They held a reception for those who passed the exam. Except you weren't there."

"No, I was passed out. Let's sit," I pointed to a nearby table. My legs were getting tired. She complied without a word. Smirking, I used a dirty napkin to clean off the former occupants mustard mess. We're in the food court of Bosen International Gateway. It's semi-famous for being a mall, heliport, train station, civic center, and target for popular rallies, all in one. Aromas from the bakery across the way were wafting about, making me hungry.

Alas, I have no spare money.

"So," on to a subject that's been bugging me. "What was your exam like?"

"Um, can we not talk about it?" Hmmm. Different approach.

"It was a hallucination for me. I thought I saw someone I knew who is missing. It wasn't really her, and when I realized this, the exam ended and I blacked out. That's why I didn't make it to the reception. I assumed that "blacking out" part was part of passing the exam."

"That's not what happened for us. Not for me and Allen and Terra, anyways."

"I see. They are?"

"People who talked with me at the party. Terra is the other one in the 0091 section."

"You said she was unfriendly."

"She's got.... how can I say this. She's doesn't care about other people's- ideas."

"Hmm." Something's fishy. What is it?

"Ah well. I just thought I'd ask why I was the only one who went to the hospital."

"You're the one in the news, right?" Ether asked it matter-of-factly.

"What?!" Since when did I get in the news?

"The lab and school explosions, up north."

"When was I on TV?"

"You weren't, but you were involved in those."

"Yes......" Eyes go into inquiry mode.

"I asked about- the others, and Mr. Wolfe said you were special. I asked him how, and he said he couldn't tell me."

"That's interesting." Wolfe seemed insistent, in his own way, to bring me on board. I hadn't thought it was because I was a stand-out among the candidates, much less I might be especially useful to them. How? I'd like to know that too.

"Did he say anything else?"

"Not really."

"Ah. Hey, where do you live?"

"Soredoce." That's like, twenty miles from me. Convenient. We were even scheduled for the same plane, as it turns out. Between choosing dinner, the internship, and our backstories, we managed to wittle away a good four hours. As the time came to board the express to the airport, she said something about "court cases linked to secret elements of the security agency" which reminded me about Dr. Reise, and so I followed her onto the monorail car. That turned into a discussion on ethics and ghosts and the unborn which lasted till the terminal. In the interest of settling an argument that came up, I arranged to change seats in the jet to sit by her. We spent most of flight talking in droves, until the in-flight movie came on, it got late, we got tired, and the conversation sputtered off.

At the baggage claim we finally parted.

"I'm in garage C," said I.

"I'm being picked up by Matt," said she.

"Is that your boyfriend?" I asked.

"No, no, he's my brother." She looked embarrassed. "I don't have a boyfriend," she tacked on.

"Oh, I apologize."

"That's ok. It was fun talking with you. I hope you take the job. And- I hope you find Clair," said she. Somehow that felt out of place. I regret having shared that detail with her, if only because it showed how soft I am. Males are supposed to save their fears and hopes for their significant others.

We waved goodbye, and I trotted out into the cool night air.

I've never told Clair about my worries.

Naturally, she is the source of my worries. I wouldn't be spilling my guts to her, but to someone else, because... without her, there's nothing remarkable in my life.

"Aren't you bored just doing what everyone else does?" Ether had said that when we were talking about the internship. It was a question of normalcy.

Would it be considered peaceful or boring if life is normal? It's the half-glass dilema. But it was dawning on me, whether or not I could answer that question, it didn't matter. My life had not been exactly normal. Before even the ghosts, Clair was in it, and that made life-

...

...

...

...

...

Something other than half a glass.

*flashback*

"Eric, Eric, Eric, Eric!!!!!!!!!!!"

"Yes, Clair?"

"I'm seventeen today!"

"Cute. You can smoke, if you want. Or see R-rated movies without a supervisor, if you want."

"Ha-ha-ha. I want a present from you." Which meant-

"You have something in mind."

"Mmhm." She nodded enthusiastically. What would she want?

"Tell me."

"Will you get it?"

"Maybe."

"Promise you will."

"No promises."

"It's my birthday, don't treat me like that!"

"Are you planning a party?"

"I want a teddy bear."

"A what?"

"They're giving out Setswuno Teddy Bears as prizes at the fair. I want you to win one for me."

"What? No, I hate fairs."

"Why?"

"They're dorky."

"Dorky? That word is so last-decade, Eric."

"And so are fairs. They belong to eachother. So,"

"It doesn't matter! Is this how you're gonna act when we're married?"

"Shut up already!" I thought I put too much aggression into that statement. She looked like she might break down and cry. Instead, she siddled up to me and wrapped her arms around me.

"I want a Teddy Bear. Can't you just do it for me?" Why not? Is it that hard?"

"Why do you want the Setswuno Teddy Bear so much?"

"..." Three dots, or ellipses, technically. The dreaded silence of "something's going on beneath the surface here and if you push too hard you're going to blow a fuckin 50-megaton drama warhead. My mean instinct combatted my inner goodness, and logic was vacationing somewhere and not available to mediate.

"I'll go," said I. It's too much trouble to argue with her all the time. That's all we ever do. We argue. And it's always the same thing. She wants this or that from me, and I don't want to be bothered with it. Clair is needy, apparently.

If I had been honest with myself, I wouldn't have thought that.

*end flashback*

School was cancelled completely. Summer vacation was too close. Let alone a school building, they had lost all the instruction materials and records. It would be quite pointless to finishing the year. A message went out to enroll in various placement testing. For me, that meant taking "Graduation Equivalency Exams" to earn my high school diploma. So, despite the cancellation, between these exams, chores, and the appointment for my myocorbiotorial bug, I was very busy.

That latter procedure was thankfully very simple. I was sent to a small clinic where they gave me a shot. The doctor, on loan to the clinic, said I would be fine within a month and the brain-thingy would cause no further trouble. He did say there was a low chance I would regain my memories perfectly however.

Lizzy came home for break but seemed unhappy. Her betrothed called everyday, wanting to get together and hang out. Debbie was never home unless she was sleeping. Mother had to order her put if we wanted to see her awake. If I had any spare time, I spent it drooling in front of the computer. With no friends and the family tending to themselves, I was left alone.

...

Ellipses. Again.

Boredom.

I counted the dimples in the ceiling. That was boring.

I took out notepad and pencil and began listing every movie I'd ever watched from start to finish. The nub of the pencil went flat and needed sharpening eight times before I ran out of films. It took a little while longer of staring at the internet, browsing (cheating), to convince myself I hadn't left any out. Was that it?

"Are exams over?"

Yes, I think they are. Results are in two weeks.

Now one week.

They came yesterday.

"Congratulations, you graduated high school!"

"Congratulations, you passed the AP exams! You'll start college with a semester's worth of credit already bagged!"

Thank you.

"Suminasen," said Lizzy. It means "excuse me", I think. "Want dinner?"

"Sure."

"Are you coming to Castor?" she asked.

"I never wanted to go to Castor."

"Oh. I heard Clair say you two were interested-"

Clair's not here! I didn't say that. Only vicious outbursts of the silenced mind.

"That's where Clair wanted to go. I'd rather go for somewhere better."

"Where do you have mind?"

"Maybe Redwin Royal Academy," said I.

"Father wouldn't pay for it," said she.

"He can afford it."

"You know we aren't that rich." She meant to say, we don't have spare money. Father is a good man, and knows how to bring home the wealth, but the both of my parents are terrible at spending.

"If he would shape up his account, I could go,"

"He still won't pay for it," said she. I know. They won't pay for me to go overseas. "Damn. Maybe Far, or Kirinen."

"Hmm."

"What?"

"Do you have to go to a big-name school that badly?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Hmmph." I don't owe her a proper answer. "Because."

"Get down for dinner."

While chewing through pork chops, I contemplated my the peculier glare my sister had flashed me as she left. Why can't I place that emotion?

Father's not that stingy. He didn't mind fessing up the 485λ for applications. By late June I had acceptance notices from all 13 of my schools. Castor was included. So was Coran-Shefeld, the top humanities program in the nation, and Tabeter, the largest business program. I could go practically anywhere, even qualifying for most honors programs. The fact that my GPA was entirely based on exams that I aced helped (4.2 now, booyah!). I had to make a decision soon, though, as the registration deadlines neared.

"Cor/Shef," answered Rich, when I asked him about my options. I didn't tell him that an internship at a secret government agency was one of them. "Doesn't really matter your degree, anything from there is a silver bullet on your resume."

"That's good to know. Are you going there?"

"Maybe, I'll see how I do this year." Debbie and Richard were going into their senior year. Where they'd take classes was still up in the air. The officials were scared ghosts might blow up their next civic center. Should I laught at that? It does make me smirk. I wonder what 0091 and 0093 branch would think if it came to all-out war? Wolfe insuinated 0093 was in place precisely to stop that from happening. It's too big a strecth that they're bad-cop heroes saving the world from destruction though. More like the guys in our air force and navy; their mere existence deters would-be agressors.

I'm bored.

"How many times are you going to say that before you get off your ass and do something?"

"I'm bored." Now she realized I was just messing with her, and she blew me off. Ah, Lizzy. If she wasn't my sister, I could marry her and live in reasonable happiness for the rest of my life. Love's such a joke. Familial bonds are far superior; the utter lack of freedom of association forces us to love them. Romantic interests can come and go and never give a rat's ass about who they leave in the road-side ditch.

After Lizzy left the house, it felt too oppressively dull, so I did get up and don my sneakers. I could take the car, or I could bike, or just walk. Driving is dangerous and frustrating, an emotion I'd rather not use to replace boredom. Walking would not get me far enough away from this house. Biking it is.

Oh hell, I'll go find that paramedic I slugged. I can pick another fight, get my blood rushing, get smacked, get some feeling back in my body.

I gave up on that idea after realizing the hospital was far away, and that paramedics don't stay in the hospital, but patrol the city, the same as the police. Oh well. Whatever. Whah whah whah. Listening to myself whining is like urinating; it feels so good until you realize what exactly you're doing.

My life-

I don't want to think.

I spent the rest of the summer not thinking and not caring. Which is why-

"Welcome to 0091, Castor Branch." He hadn't given me his name, but I felt someone this well dressed could be trusted, as long as I was on their side. He showed me into a nice, traditional lobby. The ceiling lay five stories overhead, the sides rimmed with decks and offices. Not extremely subtle, I might say. The exterior was labelled "National Security and Justice Bureau, Aster Building".

"How was your drive?" The man asked.

"Not long, " I said, truthfully. The motorway snaked its way through the mountains, and didn't have much traffic owing to the two population centers not really having anything to offer each other. Two hours driving wasn't so bad if you really had nothing better to do.

"So, you'll be going to Castor College?"

"Yes, next month."

"Great. You'll have plenty of flexibility with your schedule here, excluding some weekends, though, so don't worry when you sign up for classes."

"Alright."

Should I be so surprised at the words coming from my mouth? I had choosen both, Castor and the 0091 Internship, because I was lazy. There wasn't a better reason. I was too willing to let easy opportunities shape my life, and made no effort to create better ones.

I did hope to see Wolfe again. He had promised to tell me about Clair, and although I had lost interest in her fate, I wanted to make sure the director was honest. However, I was soon informed that Wolfe was overseas and wouldn't be available till September. Meanwhile, I needed to complete their examination in order to bag the internship. The aide told me Wolfe was supremely confident in my passing it. The office here was already making arrangements to accomodate me.

"What kind of exam is it?" I asked.

"Security clearance," and he explained that briefly. Not the answer I expected, but made a lot more sense than my other theories.

"After that, we'll set you up under a duel mentorship. One field associate, one lab associate. You'll divide your time assisting them, and you'll also be taking online courses on your own time. Your duties will be pretty mundane for awhile, it might be a year or more before they let you into the spooky parts of the business."

"Spooky parts," I repeated, smiling.

"This is the cafeteria," he pointed to a bright, cheery cafe-like area. My tour commenced from there.

"Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa."

Big stretch. Biiiig stretch. Ah, that feels so good.

It's been a long summer. Much of it was wasted in self-pity, stress, or wallowing in my utter lack of motivation. Here I come, Castor College, hope you're more exciting than 90° cloudless skies and microwaved corndogs. I wish you the best, which isn't much. Sadly, even the archaic happenings of my city will be sidelined when this summer is wtritten into the history books. Far more relevant things will be included, like the judicial elections, and the immigration controversy, and our overhyped football team getting whipped 2-0 in their first round. If the nation can so easily forget the tragedies of the season, I hope I can too.

Tomorrow we pack up, and I move into a off-campus dorm. It's the same complex as my sister, actually, and quite upscale. Lizzy promises I'll like it up there. She points out the weather is clear and crisp and the autumn foilage is beautiful, unlike our mild, soggy autumns up here in the coastal plains.

"I'm finished packing," I told my Father. He nodded.

"The trailer will be here by 12:00 tomorrow." There wasn't much to pack. My dorm was furnished on our previous visit. I won't have to worry about room-mates, each unit was completely isolated. I could be a hermit all four years of college, if I so chose. Not exactly what I was thinking, but the privacy was a plus.

Not like I was going to be spending much free time in my dorm. There was the internship to consider. My "friends" were already getting interviews from the government. They call me, asking why they were being harassed by black-suits. I told them I was a suspect in an international espionage case. They couldn't swallow that, but I wasn't in the mood to elaborate.

"Moving day, moving day, lalalalala." Debbie is in high spirits. She gets the entire house to herself now. If I know her, she and Rich will make use of the deserted place. I silently reminded myself to talk to him about precautions. Better me than one of our Fathers.

"Eric, don't forget-" I've heard this line fourty times now. What else does Mother think I've forgotten?

Things keep getting more and more normal. It was too good to last, and I knew that before-hand. There was a tingling sensation in the back of my conscious, telling me things will fall apart soon. When I thought about it, a sense of dread came over me. Not for the fact that I knew something abnormal would happen, but that when it did, it might be disastrous.

I was touring the campus, which is to say, I was walking circles around the cluster of small skyscrapers that constituted the college. Some architect had a strange idea when they designed this place. They were allotted a blank space some nine city-blocks square. Instead of sprawling out, they stacked all the halls onto a third of that area, and then filled the rest with parkland. The result was somewhat off. A modest sized city edged around several mountain and lakes. In the densest buildup of offices and commercial estates, there was nested a virtual forest. Rising through that forest were six towers, the tallest nearly three times the height of the surrounding skyline. Of course it made the campus pretty, but felt quite out of place in this modest, but distinctly urban, city.

While I wandered aimlessly around the forest, a figure loomed in my periphery vision. They were edging just out of view, keeping step with me. My head turned over to see an expectant face.

I recognize her.

"Hey." It's Ether.

"Hello. How've you been?"

"Good. Settling in," I said. "Oh." Someone was with Ether. They held back by a step, obscuring themselves behind the taller female. "Who's your friend?" I asked.

"Oh, she's too shy," said Ether laughing. "She won't even speak or give me her name. I met her this morning." Ether stepped aside to introduce me.

"Ah. Actually, her name is Clair, if that helps."

"Oh really? You know her?" Ether grinned. This would be too perfect, for all of us to be connected.

"I do," said I, before collapsing into a shocked silence. It wasn't actually biologically induced, but it felt apropriate to faint to the ground now. I did so, drawing an equally shocked reaction from Ether, and a naive curiosity from the girl who appeared to be my missing Clair.

"Hey are you alright? Eric?" I brushed aside her offered hand.

"Just theatrics."

"What was that-" I got up and stepped past her. It didn't take but a few seconds to assure myself. This was the same as the second test. There was Clair in the flesh, but not the young woman I knew. She was blushing, and averted her eyes from my scowling countenence.

"Are you Clair?" I asked. She bobbed her head, once. "Can you talk, at all?"

"Hey, this is kind of rude."

"One sec, ...Ether," I hadn't gotten her name memorized yet. "Can you talk?" I repeated. There was a long, awkward pause. The creature before said nothing for that time, as if an answer could never come, not even a sign of the body.

"Yes." It was the meekest, leastest unit of speech I had ever heard from a human being. I stepped back, in wonder.

"Well. Come on, speak. Explain. Say whatever's on your mind." She brought her eyes up, but could only lift them to about my nose level. Coincidentally, my nostrils began itching. Still, no other sounds eminated from those slended lips. Her head shook, slowly, barely, once from side to side. A negative, if it meant anything at all. Was she refusing to talk, or too scared to? Was she really my Clair, an impersonator, or an innocent bystander? No, she absolutely did have the appearance of Clair, which meant something was going on here. The previous time it was a hallucination caused by a captured spirit or something. Might it be the same here? Was a spirit making me see her?

"Hey, don't be so mea-"

"You!" I pointed a forefinger directly into Ether's chest. "When and how did you meet this girl? I want to know everything!" Ether backed off a bit.

"What are you getting at? You. You. You..." I was flustered, but level-headed. I took a deep breath, which calmed me and also seemed to relax Ether.

"This girl has something to do with 0091. If she really is who I thought she is, that makes her Clair Everett, my fiance."

"Whah- fiance! You're engaged?" Ether asked this with a sense of subdued shock.

"Yes. Our parents arranged it. But, well, I can't explain first. I need your story first."

Ether stood aghast for no apparent reason. After waiting and getting nothing, I asked her what the matter was. Instead of answering, she turned and ran off.

"What was that about?" Clair remained where she was, resolved to stare at the sidewalk beneath her feet.

I spent another half hour trying to coax anything out of her, but eventually she became scared and walked off tepidly. I didn't want to appear to be a stalker, so I didn't chase her. Besides, there was someone else I needed to speak to: Wolfe.

Who was not at his office to pick up a call. Mr. Sturgeon, head of the Castor office, shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing I can do about it," he said. "He didn't leave any info with me." Sturgeon seemed kind of lax for a manager at a top secret facility. I would later be told he was a poor people-person and earned the position by being an inexhaustable genius. The first hint of that was how lax and reticent he treated me, a mere intern. The senior agents walked all over him. Because of that, this office was fairly democratic and decisions were made by a subtle consensus among the mid-level employees.

"I can give you his e-mail, if you like."

"Yes, that would be fine," I said. I felt irritated and wanted to dump a foul attitude on someone, but it would be wrong to do so on this overpaid messenger-boy.

"By the way, do you have your class schedule? I have volunteers to be your mentors." Volunteers? He didn't mention that mentors received overtime bonuses for hours they usually worked anyways, unpaid no less. "And Denise has a packet to explain staff rules and such. It includes your compensation and tax info."

"Thank you, sir." I wonder if sir is a little too patronizing here? I only meant it to be slightly sarcastic.

The next hour was spent filling out boring forms, taking online seminars on business ethics, and lectures on office etiquette.

On my way out Denise handed a fat envilope to me. "Oh, and if you could be here next Monday at three, that'd be great."

"I have class till four," said I.

"Ok, just get here after that. We'll introduce you to Mr. Langshef (the way she said it, I barerly kept my laughter gagged); he'll be your lab mentor."

"Alright. Be back then."

My ride back to the dorm was depressing. Nothing inherent to the drive itself, but just the chance to relfect on my life and the many calamitous, uncertain turns it had taken. My old English teacher Mr. Toichi had an expression for this: "Life sucks. This is a well known fact. The lesser known corollary: the world is stupid." Indeed. Though, apparently, Mrs. Toichi had disagreed with something in there and had divorced the teacher in the middle of the school term. We'd covered the tragedies in the first half, and going to the comedies in the second didn't seem any different. Now I'm not saying the divorce had anything to do with that, nor am I saying this has any relevancy to my present troubles.

"Come party with us," said Lizzy. She had jumped me at the dormitory entrance. "Who's us? What kind of party?" I belted out. "Everyone, you'll like it." "Probably not." "Come on! You don't have anything else to do." "Leave me alone." "Blah blah blah, all I'm hearing is 'emo is me, emo is me, emo is me."

"Fine." I dropped my new dorm shortly, then followed her to the second-floor game room. A dozen or so people languished about, mostly keeping to themselves. Lizzy vanished for a minute, returning with a girl and a guy. These two turned out to be ignition bolts for their respective genders, and soon enough the chit-chat turned into yelling and roudy laughing. A battle of the sexes game of some sort began in the center. I was still not in the mood, and so I hung back.

A little to my surprise, but Ether was hanging back in the opposite corner. I wondered whether to approach her or not. Her reaction earlier was still puzzling me, but I was afraid to do more harm than good by trying to find the answer. Well, instead, I took a seat by the window, halfway to her. Hopefully she'll come of her own accord.

Ah, here she comes.... and there she goes. Walked right out without taking a glance at me.

"What's wrong?" Lizzy stood over me.

"You're my sister, not my mother," I snorted.

"As if Mom would ever put up with your sorry butt. What's up? I order you to answer that."

There she goes again. I know two kinds of people who engage depressed people. Some are simple-hearted strangers who just want to be nice, but quickly back off when they meet resistance. Others, like Lizzy, are agressive and think that contstant pounding can beat the victim into happiness. I trust neither of these kinds of people. Most don't have genuine sympathy, and none can solve the complex challenges that causes depression.

"I'm not leaving till you upchuck."

"That's a bad pun," I replied. An old, mean joke on me was that I vomitted whenever I felt sad or stressed. Worst, it was true, up until a few years ago.

"Stow it. What's up."

"That's up," and I pointed to the girl slinking past the doors. Twas Clair.

"Eh?" Lizzy didn't turn around in time to see her. "What? Are you kidding me?"

"Yes," I said.

"Liar."

"You got me."

"What's with the attitude?"

"I've been going through some pretty strange stuff this year. Mind giving me a break?"

"Yes, I do mind."

"One minute." I jumped up and ran to the door. I caught a glimpse of shiny hair down the hall, and sprinted to catch up. Lizzy was right behind me. "Is that? Clair!" Great, now she's seen her, but Elizabeth doesn't know anything about the situation. I turned and caught her by the shoulder.

"Stop. Stop!"

"What's going on?" she asked in a frenzy.

"This'll take some time."

"That's stupid. Just go up and ask her what's the matter!" Lizzy had impatiently listened to my entire story as we took turns using the communal laundry machines. Her expression had been incredulous the whole way through.

"I can't do that."

"Then what are you going to do?"

Silence treatment.

"You'll sit on your butt and do nothing. A whole lot of good that has done you."

"I'm waiting for Mr. Wolfe to get in touch with me."

"Oh, sure, waiting. Be more proactive!"

"That's not my nature," I said.

"You don't have a nature. You do whatever you feel like. No internal force is directing your actions. There isn't a mystical avatar within you that determines what you think and what you do. You do it, and you always have a choice."

"I disagree with that." My machine's timer beeped, prompting me to duck down and switch loads.

"So what if we disagree. Fine. Whatever." After a minute's silence, it looked like she had dropped the subject. But no. "Do you trust me?" she asked.

"Sometimes, with some things." I would talk to her about some things I wouldn't share with others.

"What does that mean?"

My trust system was not organized into tiers, but compartmentalized. Acquaintances were assessed and categorized based on what kinds of information I was willing to share with them. I didn't trust most people with any amount of my secret thoughts, and I didn't divulge most of my secrets to those who I did trust. It was a very exclusive system. Humans really don't care about others, making it quite easy to maintain this capracious affair. Except at the times when I needed someone to talk to. Like now.

"Nevermind. I trust you," I lied. I once was honest and told the truth, even when it hurt others, or hurt myself. Middle school instilled a sense of justification in warping others' opinions, and lying became second nature.

Maybe, some day, I'll know someone I can intimately trust. That person might have been Clair. I'm not sure now.

"You can trust me. I care about you, and I'm willing to help, whatever it takes. So tell me what's wrong."

...

...

"I...."

I could not answer that.

I'm willing to help, whatever it takes.

These words- they are magical.

"Not now, but later- definately later." I said.

"You're not going to kill yourself, are you?" Her face contorted into seriousness.

"No, no, no, I promise. That's silly."

Of course I would never consider the thought.

It's just. So many people have asked me to cheer up, to listen, to be a good friend, etc etc etc. But they were never, EVER willing to help. They wanted results, but they didn't want to be a part of the solution. On the balance, humans are selfish.

But my sister was willing. I don't believe she has any ulterior motive, either. Just sisterly concern.

"Elizabeth," I called out softly, as we were leaving.

"Hmm?"

"I love you."

"You too, Eric." It really didn't seem at all perverse saying this.

"Have I ever told you-"

"Told me what?"

"I wish I had a girlfriend like you."

"Pervert," she said, mockingly.

"You bloody know I don't mean it that way," said I, indignant.

"I know what you meant," she said. She smiled, and waved me goodnight.

All together now: D'AWWWWWWWWWWW!

George, Heath, Lanzer, Evan, Miles, Sergey, Thomas, Mira, Teresa, Leon, Bret, Sara, Neil, another Neil, Tess, a different Elizabeth, John, four Matts, Erika, Mati, Sami, Ether, Fiona, Ellson, Jake, Adon, Verse, Tereme, Kelsie, Jenny; these are names that blurred together, the social circle that was gently forming around me. Some were my seniors, forming the core of some long-established organization that readily accepted me as a new member. Others were freshmen, in the same class or fellow newbies into after-school activities. Ether I saw at work, as well as Verse, a 24-year graduate student also working for 0091.

On the periphery, a phantom called Clair flitted in and out of reality. I ignored her, whenever possible. She wasn't real to me. She could not be real to me. I don't know why. I thought of my fiance and my emotions became dead and my thinking numb. There was a part of me that wanted closure, a rest, a settling of affairs, a return to the future that had been stolen last spring. At present, I was a student at Castor College, just like Clair wanted us to, but that Clair was not here. She, that phantom, stayed quiet and overtly shy, as if she was putting equal effort into ignoring my existence. A savage depth... no, not savage. Do you call outer space savage? A blank, an absolute void filled society between me and her. I dared not broach the subject, to my superiors, to my family, to friends, to her most of all. Though, Elizabeth, and soon Debbie and my Sister were calling me, asking for explanation, urging me to make first contact. I refused.

September disappeared. October floated away, till Hallow's Eve was next Thursday and I was in shock at having lost track of time.

"Really?"

"Yes, really. No clue. Thursday? I don't know any dances to go to." Dancing, for some undefined reason, had become the fashion of Hallow's Eve in recent years, especially amongst young adults. Costumes are for kiddies, but even the elderly could be found in the right ballroom crowd.

"Take him away," muttered someone. I lifted my droopy eyes from where I was dozing. The lecture was over, and three students were volunteering to reenact a scene from the lit course.

"Nye, sire, we are fools and gay, to say, to take him away, when his wrong is done, and the day is won, by brethren for good that is you and I!" An old classical play? Nope, a modern day parody. The lecture had been long and boring, therefore my napping. We had run late; it was ten minutes past. We had five more to evacuate the room for the next class. I myself was in no hurry though. It was my three hour "siesta" and I wasn't even hungry. Most days I made a point of bolting out of there, as lunch crowds could be attrocious.

As I waddled out, a flash passed my eyes, like moonlight. Who else could it be, but Clair? I turned suddenly, halting the other stragglers behind me. My sudden movement caught her attention, and she turned as well, backing up the line. Our eyes met, for the briefest of moments. In that instant, I had all the insight into the situation that I could ask for. However, the backlogged hallway began shouting and shoving, breaking us apart. She disappeared into the classroom.

I needed to see someone, and fast. That person is new to you, one Dr. Homer Faelor. Faelor was my field mentor, meaning, he was my Boss. As far as I was concerned, he was my boss, my boss's boss, and his boss too. In other words, no one else mattered at 0091 Castor Branch. Langshef was a bookworm, and Sturgeon let things alone. Only Faelor was agressive, and on top of that, skilled. He could have relocated elsewhere, or got a better position. It seemed, however, that he was fond of his duel-employment with Castor College as a tenured graduate professor in Law. I once asked him what he did with his spare time, and he looked at me like I had asked something unforgivably stupid.

He treats me like I'm slow and stupid, from the moment we met. He doesn't seem to like anyone, but me and Ether moreso, and me most of all. His attitude towards is so strictly professional that he tolerates zero emotion while work is underway. Stray conversation was quickly barked to a close, lounging about would attract more chores, experimenting with tasking could get us sent home and our hours docked. It was highly inappropriate to broach a personal subject like Clair with him, but there was a good reason I needed him more than another.

I met Ether while power-walking to the parking lot. She hurried to keep up with me.

"Hey, going into work?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Wait up! Can you... can I get a ride from you?" she asked faintingly, either from embarassment or lack of breath. Why not, a small favor.

"I need to confirm something with Dr. Faelor, so I want to get there before we're scheduled to leave."

"What's that?"

"That girl, Clair, have you met her anymore?"

Ether's face: bright and shony - annnnnnnd *glump*.

"Yes. We have comp together."

"She's hiding something. I don't think- well, later."

"Why's that?"

"Call it a hunch, a strong hunch." It was no mere hunch. I could sense it.

Driving is quite fun for me, when I'm alone on the road. Unfortunately I'm never alone, and my cruising is always interrupted by negligent drivers and ill-timed red lights. Usually I lost control of my language while commuting. Despite the guy in the red Camri making his left turn to cut me off when he obvious didn't make it before the red, I still had to control myself when driving passengers. Ether kept looking at me, and I could tell she was worried about my simmering road rage. Once in the Aster Building's parking lot, I forced myself to calm down with deep, drawn out breaths.

"Where is Dr. Faelor?" I asked the receptionist, urgently.

"Gone. No clue. Hasn't been in, didn't leave a message or anything."

"Impossible."

"Sorry, nothing you can do about it."

Right when I need them most, everyone important in my life disappears. Can you hear my brain churning? That crunching noise indicates frustration without end.

"What's so wrong about Clair?"

"I've got an idea. Can't believe I haven't thought of this."

In short order I called the Everett's house and asked to speak with Clair's mother. After the usual plaintive, delicate formalities (entirely faked, on my end), I inquired about Clair and if they've heard anything from the investigators.

"They just keep saying that they're still working on it, and not give up hope, that it was a paranormal disaster and anything was possible. Eric, I'm sick. I'm so sick." And so I played mommy to someone else's mommy for five minutes, after which she said she was sorry for sobbing all over the phone for five minutes and wasting my time. I lied and said it was perfectly fine.

"And Eric, you do well in college. Don't you give up hope."

"I won't." I told her nothing about my internship, or about the strange Clair going around campus. A Clair that, apparently, was getting an education not payed for by the Everetts. I have a good idea about who is footing her bill.

"Can you get me Mr. Wolfe's phone number?"

Seven minutes later I got ahold of his secretary, who promised me Wolfe was away on business and I could leave a message for as soon as he got back. What kind of business would he be on where he couldn't take calls? Why is no one important available right now? There is some sort of conspiracy going on! Damn it!

I don't want this frustration! Someone make it simple! God, you must be here, make my life easy again! I fumed like so for another six minutes, at which point I had wasted half an hour of time. Sturgeon, know-nothing Sturgeon, stopped by and told us we could help under Langshef if Faelor was gone.

"There sure are a lot of different surnames we have," remarked Sturgeon, attempting some light conversation.

"It's because of the mass immigration after the war," I said, offhandedly. I didn't have time for this chit-chat, but Sturgeon was determined to be a trivial b*****.

"I know, but I don't think the number of ethnically diverse surnames matches up to the actual diversity of our population." Should I put up with him? Even though he's annoying and wasting my time and distracting, I still procure theories and belt them out automatically.

"Foreigners have a taste for our women. They come over and give their names to us, then assimilate and breed." It did seem true. We were stealing other nation's culture a lot more efficiently than we were keeping our own. Heck, English isn't our native tongue, nor was it the Holtrans' native tongue when they rushed to help rebuild (read: colonize) us after the war.

Hmm.

Eric! You don't have time to ponder the socio-political history of your nation! You have a moderately-important crisis right now!

But I can't concentrate. It's much easier to indulge in useless trivia.

That's how you fail take-home projects. You procrastinate.

"Eric, Mr. Sturgeon." Ether was back from wherever, giving a polite bow to each male, like a good classical girl. Sturgeon repeated the advice to find Langshef for the evening.

"You'll be working on ectoplasm soon."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Actually, not quite what you're thinking of, it's more of a backronym." On later perusal, backronyms are a linguistic term, not a paranormal research item.

I was so bothered that I simply asked for the most menial chore Langshef could think of. Thus a few hours went by angrily scraping gunky residue grime from old beakers. The glass was invisible by the time I finished. Langshef and Ether met me afterwards. Mr. Langshef was also a serious worker, like Faelor, but at least he knew how to relax off the job.

"Langshef has invited us to lunch tomorrow, him and a few other pals from the lab. Care to come?"

Care to come? Depending on how she could have said it, that could have sounded obscene or sickeningly cute and classical. However, it came out flat and nuetral, without the slightest hint of mannerism.

"Yes, I will." Hopefully Faelor would be available then.

Ether rode back, a little more relaxed. My anger had been drained out by the long day and three hours of gritty handwork. Plus, there were less drivers crowding the roads at 7:40 PM. We departed to our own floors with barely a "see ya".

My grand epiphany had been spoiled by no-shows. Having spent the evening being angry about it, the night gave me time to reflect. Self-doubts can inch their way into the conscious and muck up reasoning, but it's also important to consider a problem without heated emotion too. There's a fine balance to it.

What I had seen in Clair's eyes was a soul that had suffered indescribable damage, but had come back from the brink. Somehow, I knew this was not Clair. She knew of Clair, but she was not my Clair. She was not the soul of my Clair. She was someone else, in Clair's body. But, also, the eyes had a curious defect around the iris that I had never noticed before, but now realize Clair had had this defect all along. This was Clair in the flesh and blood. But she was not their in mind and spirit.

This was what I felt. Someone else was living inside my fiance and using her as a marionette. The rest of the who, whats, whys, hows, I haven't a clue. How I even know what I know, and feel so sure about it, I don't know. I know nothing important. This alone seems to much for reality.

"Goodnight, horrid world.' When I dreamed, it was less a dream and more a memory.

*flashback*

"When I think about the world, I feel so alive." Clair sat majestically upon the end of my bed. Her face was flush from a triumphant outing to the shopping center and performing arts plaza. Now she was engineering a conversation based on whatever philosophical tidbits came to mind. For myself, I was in a good mood, as we had a lot of fun with the street performers before we left the fair. Still, that goodwill did not help conjure interest in Clair's metaphysics.

"All of us, all humanity, we're churning and scurrying, we're doing so much and forgetting so much of it too. Once in a life everybody should take a step back, and I bet they will be amazed at all the things that happen in a single life, let alone five billion!"

"Six billion, and some," I threw in.

"Whatever. It's amazing. We don't need to have blind faith in God to justify ourselves to the atheists. Just the complexity of our little world, our little lives, is so far beyond comprehension, it's more than enough to overwhelm the cynical know-it-alls."

"Mmm."

"Eric, do you believe in God?"

I had to think about that.

"Yes. Maybe."

"Maybe? Why say maybe?" Did she expect me to express doubts about the existence of a higher power? Get real.

"I don't think about it. I'll figure it out when I die."

"Why not? Aren't you worried?"

"Not really. About what? An afterlife? Or getting stuck in hell?"

"Well, I mean, how can you be a good person if you don't care about God?"

"Some people would say there's no need for religion to dictate what's moral."

"I want to know what you believe in."

"I-" I needed to think again. "I don't believe in right and wrong. If there's a God, he made the world the way it is, and I'll follow along. I try not to be any worst than the other six billion."

"Hmm." Now Clair was thinking. To do so, she apparently needed to cuddle in my covers and mashed her unwashed hair all over my pillow. Not like I'm any more sanitary, though.

"So- God. What if humans are, on average, doomed to hell? Follow the flow would get you in a bad spot, then."

"I don't care." That summed up my religious attitude. That summed up my life. I don't care.

*flashback ended*

Clair got up and threw the covers over my head and began tickling me aggressively. I felt weird, and only in the morning did I realize the dream phased from a memory to a tangent fantasy. The fantasy somehow was extremely seductive, but I could not remember any perverted details why it should be so.

I had to get up for water, and when I returned to bed, another dream about being chased by a sixty-foot Tyrranosaurus around the campus hallways (???) emerged. Consequently, I remembered the previous sequence once, and then never recalled it again.

Tomorrow, I will not care about today. The world is not tipping over, I can survive without willfully igniting a crisis.

Willfully.

Ha.

Ha.

Ha.

"This is a safer. It will degenerate in three phases. The first phase is eratic, positive behavior, expressing emotions of happiness and love. The second phase is called Nocturnum, as the spirit calms down and becomes lethargic. The third phase is Ascendant, the physical body of the spirit will deteriate imperceptibly over a period of hours. A safer's span of existence lasts fifteen to thirty days." Langshef drawled on, not even bothering to make sure we were absorbing anything. "A safer represents the optimal departure of a soul. The extended period of withdrawel allows for lingering feelings of peace and assurance for the departed and the survivors. Unfortunately, safers represents a mere 7% of deaths. The vast majority are considered momenter, with an existence span of a few minutes to a few hours, depending on circumstances such as the traumacy of the death." He was versing us in the various outcomes of a human death, mainly the form of their soul that lingers around. I and Ether sat side by side before our desktops, tapping into our digital notepads.

So far, the internship had been extremely ordinary. The tasks were menial, and the material was no more intimidating than psychology or physics. Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Faelor were out of contact for three days now. Each day less and less motivated effort went into contacting them. Today, I had only sufficed with sending an e-mail. The matter of Clair was fading from my worry-list, even as I recalled the many memories we shared together.

"You're day-dreaming," whispered Ether.

"Sorry." I resumed typing notes into the computer.

"What about?" asked she.

"Life." A minute passed. "Life is difficult."

"True," Ether responded.

"We''ll talk about this next week. Right now, I just need the samples categorized and analyzed," Langshef concluded. "How do you want to split it up?"

"I'll analyze," said I. Ether nodded her approval.

"Good, finish that and you can get off. I'll see you Monday." Analysis meant taking photoes of purported ghosts and checking them for tampering or fraud. Clair took the photoes and attempted to classify them. Somewhat interesting stuff. Five little piles built up, two for each of us, and a fifth containing things we weren't sure about. It would take half an hour to eat through this, so I struck up a light conversation. Midway through, Ether asked:

"Clair is your fiance?"

"No. Yes. Wait a sec." The question caught me by surprise.

"Our fathers betrothed us when we were teens. There was a nice ceremony and all. Since then they've kinda encouraged us to hang out, get used to the idea, I suppose."

"That's terrible."

"Really?"

"I didn't mean it that way." She abruptly shut up.

...

"People are different, but all the same." My remark sounded idle and meaningless. I wasn't too sure what I was trying to get out myself.

"Why's that?"

"Does it really matter if we're betrothed? Love is bothersome, pointless."

Let her chew on that. I don't have any clue what kind of girl Ether is; another girly average girl I bet.

"Love is special," said she. "There're only two things in life worth writing about, love and death. Why is that? You can't dismiss love, even if you don't like it."

Love is a biochemical reaction to facilitate reproduction. Everyone who treats it like it's "special" are caught in its own instinctual sway, an emotion itself geared towards survival. I'm not entirely opposed to letting it get ahold of me; the same way I masturbate because my body tells me to, the same way my body tells me its hungry, its hurt, it needs to urinate, it needs to be warmer. If my hormones tell me to fall in love, I'm no so principled as to refuse. But that hasn't happened.

"I wouldn't know." I was dazed, blanking my mind of the intellectual status, concentrating on the screen and automatically ordering the machine to scan and test and prod my maybe-fake ghost photoes.

"I only asked, because you two aren't speaking at all."

"Who?"

"Clair and you."

"Yeah."

"If you're engaged, I figured you'd speak to each other."

"I told you Clair might be messed up by this paranormal stuff."

"She's quiet and reclusive, but I don't see anything wrong with her. Even if she was different, you'd still talk... right?"

"No."

"But wouldn't that be.... inhuman?

"What do you want?" I spat out. My eyes bore down on her. Hers had been staring at me, but instantly shifted downwards.

"Nothing."

Clair is not Clair. Why should I even try to sort this out? I don't want to be more pro-active. I don't care. I don't care what happens to her. I don't care what happens to me, or anyone else! I DON'T CARE!

"See you later."

"Goodbye," came through muffled lips.

The nights were getting colder.

An e-mail came from Father. He asked how things were going, inquired into my grades, my financial situation, my internship. My replies were nuetrally affirmative and assuring in all aspects, avoiding any unnecessary details. A second e-mail was from school, and a third was from the capital branch of 0091. Interesting.

"Eric: Wolfe will be in on Monday, you can talk to him after 10:00 then. Sorry for the inconvenience." Fascinating. I get to actually talk with the head of the branch. This is like a novice serving a parliamentary aid getting to meet the President. Hopefully it was not because they thought I was being too whiny or too special, and more because they wanted to resolve this Clair issue.

And about Clair. She was always thoughtful, but never followed through, or had the insight to make sense of her thoughts. She was more impulsive than planned. She had always been there, to the point where we were so close, and I thought it would hurt me badly if she ever left. An irreplacable part of my life, so to speak. Love was never a part of it. This feeling- I still don't think it's love. I don't act the way my acquaintances did when they started dating. I never sat through four hours on the phone chatting aimlessly the way Debbie does.

About our relationship, why does everyone keep bring it up? It's no big deal; it was decided by someone else, someone with more experience and more brains, and one who was footing the bill for my education too. Father. He's responsible for this. And I have nothing to blame him for, because I don't care. I'm not allowed to have feelings; I don't need; I don't have feelings against or for him for what he did. I simply don't care. I am a carcass, I am a tumbleweed blowing across the highway in the desert.

They're fishing for opinions that don't exist, for inner secrets and hidden depths and Freudian excuses. There's nothing there! At the bottom of the black hole there's a dirt floor, it's empty!

Why would anyone want to dig so deep?

Who exactly is prying into your emotions, anyways?

Oh. My. God.

I'm an idiot.

Tomorrow is Monday. Yesterday was Saturday. Today must be Sunday. It would be time for church, but I'm skipping. Mass was a matter of habit while waiting for family, now it's a chore. God can forgive me.

You see, I spent Saturday curled up in bed, partially sick and partially overcome in deep, tumultuous thought. Today promised to be more of the same. This kind of behavior is really bad for the body, though, so I resolved to at least visit the convenience store and forage some instant dinners.

While there, the library beckoned for no particular reason, so I slouched over and found a couch. This was as comfy a spot as any for being emo.

Emo. Cruel word, inaccurate, and all the haters are just closet emos anyways.

"Hello. Why are you in my couch? No one is up this early on Sundays, so I like resting here, alone."

"It's a public space, goway." Irksome intruder.

"It's my spot. I would like it, please. Please?"

"Ungh." I rolled over to face this upstart.

Before me was a teenage boy with a neat haircut and outdated fashion. He might have been three years younger than me, by his looks, but I doubted I was his senior. He was floating a foot in the air and transparent. When he moved there was a blur and an afterimage, as it seemed impossible to put him into focus. A ghost.

"Hi. You're dead. Gotoheaven or somethin." I rolled back over.

"This is my spot. My spot. Please go away. I'll do terrible things if you don;t."

"You're a meta, you're harmless. Go away, ghostie."

"Huh?"

"Goway. I'm tired." I'm arguing with a ghost. The dpeths I had fallen to precluded any amount of presence of mind. For me, the matter boiled down to my want of a place to crash and this other entities desire for the same, and all things being equal, my desires trump others'.

"You'd just blow me off? I'm a ghost! Why are you not shocked? Why?"

"My fiance is a living puppet and... nevermind. I don't care if you're a ghost or Satan. I want me-time. Go. Shoo!"

"No."

"Shoo! Stop bugging me."

"But I will have my spot!" The boy dove into me, vanishing into my chest cavity. It felt colder, but no worrisome changes. He really was powerless.

"Get out of my spot!"

"You're a inmaterial ghost, for cryin out loud. You can sleep inside of me. What are you whining about?"

"But.. But- I need my spot. It means everything to me." Did they cover this at the lab? Maybe this is where he died. I hadn't heard any rumors though.

"Kid, I don't care. Go find someone else. Do you know Clair? She's cute and funny, used to, anyways, but she's rather quiet now. Go bug her."

"Clair? You mean... I know a Clair! High school girl, right?"

"Hmm," I sat up finally. "You do?"

"Yes, the ghost who's been haunting the dorm roof. She's very assertive, won't let any of the older spirits bully her."

"Wait......."

Wait.

Wait.

Wait.

This is too much, for one day.

"Hey."

We walked down a lonely, off-corridor hall. I had found her in-between morning classes. This situation was one I always expected to have, but I didn't wager on the context, or what my final words would have to be. I looked at her. She seemed nervous. She had every right to be.

"Ether," I said.

"Hmm?" Her heart must be pounding.

"I'm sorry if I misled you, but-" now here's the kicker:

"I'm not interested in anything but friendship."

Her eyes sank to the floor, as did the rest of her body. Rejection. It feels like a physical hammerblow in the chest, I've been told. I'm witnessing it first hand, and it feels strange, powerful, dismal. She must be feeling terrible beyond comprehension now. Time to confuse her.

"That's what I was going to say, to you, if things had gone further, and been normal, and I wasn't such an idiot in realizing other people's feelings."

Her eyes remet mine. She was looking like thunderbolts had peirced her a thousand times, and now the tornado was carrying her off. Ouch. Well-

"Did you have feelings for me?" I asked, blatantly.

Tears were dribbling down her cheeks. She nodded.

The truth is, I don't, honest, completely honest, I don't know what love is.

"I see." Deep breath. Deep sigh. "This is going to sound strange." She stared at me dumbly.

"You are beautiful, and kind, and good natured, and smart, and everything a guy could ask for. I sense that you're shy, and you probably have doubts about getting along in the world. This hurts, I know. But it's better for you. This isn't even about you and me. It's..." How do I say this? "It's me. I am not the sort of person that could return anyone's feelings."

She was quiet. She made as if she would stop, depart my company, end this stinging criteria.

"Hey, don't. Come here." She obeyed.

"Let's go to the rec room. At the dorms." We walked in silence, though I made sure she would not run away, and carefully ensured that I would not be seeming to run away from her. Maybe I was giving her false hope, like this. But there was something more important to do than be concerned about each others' feelings.

When we had reached the 3rd floor rec room, found it dark, I was relieved. I sat her down on a sofa, than sat opposite of her.

"Right now, we're going to talk."

"What about," came her wilted voice.

"I don't know. You know. But I-" How do I explain this? I have an innate intuition on what to do in distressing situations. It's been growing stronger since the school explosion. Now it was telling me exactly what to say, if I could calm myself long enough to think. "You know what you want to say. I know that it needs saying, or else you're going to drown yourself in sadness and self-pity. It's alright. Let it out."

"I can't."

"Then I'll talk." And I began from the very start, from my birth, and on to every little detail of my entire life, to the present day. I spared nothing, not even my deepest secrets. This outpouring wasn't necessary for either of us, but just felt natural. Liberating. Imagination was set aside, for once, because the truth was genuinely interesting, even entrancing, when told with unashamed sincerity.