Chapter II

Secrets

"Azalea."

I paused on my way past the archway that led from the hall into the kitchen, grimacing at the sound of my name. I'd been hoping that my mother would be napping when I got home, but no such luck.

The kitchen was fairly small and clean, the floor made of white tile that matched the countertops. The sink was free of dishes, the metal basin itself wiped clean and shining. A small, round table with a mosaic sun pattern across the surface stood under a large window curtained in blue, and my mother was seated in one of two chairs that matched the table.

Unsurprisingly my mother and I looked alike; we had the same brown hair and green eyes, the same pale skin and sharp features. We could have been twins if she wasn't just a bit taller than me and if her face wasn't so heavily lined.

She was dressed in simple jeans and a sweater, her hair tied up in a loose bun and her face clear of makeup, and still she was startlingly pretty. I don't know what it was about her that was just so lovely despite the plainness, and I don't know if my own face had the same qualities. I'd never really found much interest in looking at my face long enough to see if it was pretty.

Well, maybe that was the answer to that question.

"You're home late today," Mom said suddenly, pulling me from my thoughts. She had her elbows on the table, chin in her hands as she gazed out the window. There was a red brick house across the street, toys littering the fenced front lawn, and over the roof the sun was beginning to set. "Where'd you go?"

I sighed and moved into the kitchen, setting my bag on the table and sitting across from my mom. "I was hanging out with Jack and Melissa. I sent you a text to let you know."

"You know I never have that phone plugged in," she said dismissively. She wasn't angry with me despite my neglect in letting her know where I'd been; she didn't sound it, anyway. Her tone was vague and dreamy, as though half-asleep even as she spoke to me. "Did you have fun with your friends?"

"Yeah." I shrugged and leaned back against my chair, looking out the window. "Did you have fun… doing whatever you were doing here?"

"Oh, yes. Cleaning was a tremendous amount of fun," Mom answered, turning her eyes to me. "I would go so far as to say oodles of fun, even."

"Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it."

Mom watched me for a moment, frowning a little. Her eyes narrowed slightly in suspicion. "I think you're hiding something from me."

I returned her look, narrowing my eyes. "Like what?"

My mother seemed to have a gift; she could always tell when I was lying. Something gave me away every time, something in my face or my eyes or whatever it was that I couldn't cover up well enough. Unfortunately, I had to spend a good chunk of my life lying.

"I don't know. Something… Did you get in trouble at school today?"

"Melissa did, sort of. Our English teacher overheard her call the math teacher a dill hole, and I happened to be there."

"That's not it, then." She sat up straight, folding her arms on the table and studying me. Giving me a firm look, eyebrows furrowed, she asked, "You didn't do drugs after school?"

"No."

"Have you been having sex?"

"No, Mom."

"Steal something?"

"No. Nor did I kill anyone, kidnap anyone, or set fire to anything."

She observed me, then shrugged. "Well, those are all my theories. You're off the hook, I guess." And suddenly the air was clear. "Are you going to be home tonight?"

"I don't know. Probably, but Jack might come over."

"Well, let me know if he does. We'll order pizza or something."

"Awesome." I stood and picked up my bag. "I'm gonna go do homework or something. I'll let you know if Jack's coming after he calls," I told her before briskly leaving the room, trotting up the stairs to the second floor.

It wasn't that I didn't like my mom, much as it may seem that way. We got along pretty well, despite how different we were. I just didn't like that she could just look into my very soul and see my guilt and know whenever I was in trouble.

Also the whole 'Azalea' thing.

I reached my bedroom door, a defiant Z painted on it in red. The same shade of red colored the parts of my walls what weren't decorated with posters of rock bands or movies. The striped sheets on my bed were unmade, one of my pillows on the floor where I'd left it after getting up that morning. My hamper was overflowing with dirty clothes, my desk covered with loose papers and my laptop.

I dropped my bag on the floor and let myself collapse onto the bed, closing my eyes. When I opened them, I found another face in mine.

A girl of around nine stood beside my bed, arms folded on my mattress, large grey eyes observing me. She was dressed in a simple Victorian-style dress, the ends tattered and dirty, a faded white apron around her little waist.

"Hey, Ellen," I mumbled, slightly muffled against my pillow.

The girl smiled. "Hi, Zee."

"Are you all right?"

Her smile turned contemplative. "Yes. Mr. Anthony has been picking on me, though."

"I have not!" a voice called from the other side of my room. "She's a little liar, Zee."

I looked over my shoulder to see a tall, thin man standing in the corner of my room, frowning at Ellen. His brown hair was thin and lank, his clothes oddly burned, as though he'd been running through fire. He was fidgeting a bit, toying anxiously with his fingers.

I sighed and sat up, pushing my fingers through my hair. "You're gonna let a little girl goad you, Anthony?" I asked, raising an eyebrow at the man.

He swallowed a little and didn't answer, fidgeting in silence.

In case you're wondering, I don't have any siblings. I don't have friends who dress like it's Halloween every day (except Melissa), and I don't typically let little girls and grown men hang around my room all day.

For as long as I could remember, I've had the ability to see ghosts, phantoms, spirits, whatever you want to call them. I don't know why or how I could see them, and none of them seemed to have the answer. The only person I could think of who might know something about it was my father, but he'd ditched when I was a kid with only one bit of cryptic advice; don't tell.

So I hadn't. No one knew except the ghosts. Not even my mom - I think that was the secret she was perpetually suspicious of. I didn't even know how my dad knew, because I'd never told him, either. It made me wonder if the whole Sight thing was hereditary, but with Dad gone I had no way of asking.

Ellen and Anthony weren't the only ghosts in my room. Those two seemed to make a habit of hanging around me, but there were others who came and went. Taking a look around my room I found three others; an older man who seemed to be studying my bookshelf as though hoping to find something interesting to read, a boy a little younger than me dressed in tattered clothes with odd bruising around his neck, and a tall, slender girl in a nightgown gazing blankly out my window.

I knew the younger boy as Matthew. He'd been a pirate, or had at least been aboard a pirate ship during life; I didn't know too much about him. I did know, however, that he'd been hanged, hence the bruising around his neck. I didn't know the older man or the girl.

Andrew had fallen asleep with a lit candle and had ended up burning his house to the ground, killing only himself since he had lived alone. I didn't know what had happened to Ellen; she always became tense and quiet when I tried to ask.

I moved to lay on my back, lacing my hands behind my head. "So what can I do for you friendly ghosts?" I asked, crossing one leg over the other.

"Who said we were friendly?" Matthew replied with a grin, sitting cross-legged on the end of my bed.

"You're going last," I told him, before looking to the older man who was still inspecting my books. Ellen moved to sit beside me, almost protectively, while I tried to get his attention. "Hey, gramps. Anything I can help you with?"

Not many ghosts actually came to me for help, and even when they did it was for help with something I had no power regarding. Oftentimes they would ask me to contact a family member for them, which wasn't difficult but it was hard to explain when said family members wanted to know how a random teenage girl knew about old letters in the attic or old namesakes in the basement or where their husbands and fathers had been on the day of their death. Not so fun when it came to that sort of thing.

I was twelve years old when the first ghost had come to me for help. I hadn't understood the weight of the responsibility I was putting on my own shoulders at the time; after I'd agreed to help that first time, ghosts from all over had come seeking me for help. It had been scary at first and I'd panicked, sending them all away and trying to ignore them, though that had been even worse than trying to help them. Eventually some of the ghosts figured out that I was a terrified preteen and so had decided to help me out; since then I always had one or two following me around to keep the other ghosts from bothering me too much. Ellen was usually one of them.

The man looked over at me absently. "Oh." He straightened, and I could see that he was dressed in a black suit, a white cravat at his throat. A cane hung over his arm and he held a silk top hat in his gloved hands. There were several gashes in the front of his suit, reminding me of stab-wounds. "Pardon me for imposing, miss. But I wondered if you might help me with a small task."

"What is it?" I kind of liked this guy. He was polite, not pushy like some other ghosts tended to be.

"Well, you see, a few years ago I was attending a costumed ball," he said, gesturing to his clothes. And I'd been thinking he was from the Victorian age or something. "On the way home I was attacked and killed."

"Did you need me to find your body or something?"

"No, no." He gave a faint smile. "My body was found and buried, though no one recognized it and as far as my family knows I've gone missing. And that's the problem, because you see, my wife was always the… suspicious type. I'm worried that she thinks I ran out on her and our daughter."

"So what do you want me to do? Go tell her you got killed?" I asked warily. I'd had to do that once, before I'd really known what the consequences would be. It hadn't been pretty.

"No, I wouldn't ask you to do that," he assured. "But in my old house, I had a gift for her that I never got to give her. She and our daughter moved out after I died and she never found it."

"So you want Zee to go find the present and bring it to your wife?" Ellen asked curiously.

The man gave a hopeful smile, toying with his hat. "If you wouldn't mind, I would greatly appreciate it. Neither our old house or her new one are very far from here…"

I hesitated, considering. I could always lie about it; nothing said I had to give this lady any accurate information. "Yeah, all right," I said finally. "I don't have school tomorrow so I'll go then."

He relaxed. "Thank you, miss," he said with a truly grateful smile. "I sincerely appreciate this. There's no way I would be able to rest with my dear wife and daughter still thinking I'd run out on them."

"It's no problem." I shrugged and looked toward the girl by my window. She hadn't moved once during the talk, merely gazing outside even though it was getting dark and I doubt she could see anything except the streetlight in front of my house. "What about you?"

She didn't respond, eyes unfocused.

"Don't bother with her," Matthew said dismissively. "She's never got anything good to say, anyway."

"That's not nice," Ellen chided, wrinkling her nose at him.

"So?" Matthew retorted, and apparently that was the end of the conversation.

"Azalea!" my mother suddenly called up the stairs, jerking me out of my bemused stupor. "Jackson is here!"

"Oh." I sat up and moved to get off the bed, looking around the ghosts in my room. "Stay up here," I said, before trotting down the stairs to spend the rest of the evening with my mom and boyfriend.