Summary: I'll never forget the night Charlie Evans was killed. I watched him die without doing anything to stop it from happening. So I don't really know what to think now that he has chosen to visit me from beyond the grave. Yes, me, the girl who ignored him all through high school. And what's worse is that I've only just learned how kind and sweet he is. He comes to see me every night, and I have to do the painful thing, which is explain to him that he perished that terrible night of the New Year's Eve party, an event that neither of us should have attended. But death is only the beginning of our story. Something sinister is searching for Charlie, since he is a lost soul who has tethered himself to the real world...to me. I never knew that ghosts had expiration dates, and Charlie's time is running out fast. So I have to help him. I have to do what I could not that fateful night when both our worlds changed forever. Because sometimes when you love someone enough, they are worth facing your biggest fears for.
Theme song: Half Alive by Secondhand Serenade
~ Transparency ~
Chapter One: New Year's
The night Charlie Evans died would become one of those horrible moments that I'd never forget. After it happened, I knew that the events leading up to his death would forever replay in my mind like a broken movie reel, spinning and making me feel guilty for what I had not done to stop them. The night was late, a couple hours after midnight, and to make it all better, it was the start of the new year. As I thought these things over through the numbness in my head, I bitterly thought about how this was probably some grand sign of bad luck.
"It's okay, honey," my mother purred near my ear as I sobbed into her lap. I felt terrible because she was wearing her new and expensive pink party dress, and now it had my tearstains all over it. She patted my hair, smoothing it back over my neck as she held me firmly. "What happened tonight wasn't your fault."
I tried to believe her. The problem was, I couldn't. Despite everything, I felt responsible for Charlie's death. I had been there when it happened. I hadn't done anything to keep it from occurring. And now a kid was dead.
I hadn't really known Charlie. He'd sat near me in English class, but I'd never given him the time of day. I mean, we'd grown up in the same classes, but I typically considered him to be just another face in the crowd. Never in a million years did I think I would be crying this much over his death. Perhaps my guilt had overwhelmed me, or maybe I was just scared as hell.
"Is there anything I can do, Layla?" Mom asked, her voice sick with worry. I had never heard her so afraid before. Maybe I was being a little dramatic, but I felt scarred by memories of the night. Cupping my hands over my eyes, I sat up and dried my tears with the backside of my arm. My hair fell heavily over my face as I sat up and tried to relax. However, my body just wouldn't stop shaking.
"No," I said miserably. Disgustingly, I tasted the snot that had dribbled down my nose and in between my open lips. Mom jumped at the chance to hand me a tissue and I blew on it, hard.
"Honey, it was an accident. That's what the police said," Mom insisted, rubbing my bare arm roughly. I knew she was trying to comfort me, but her touch seemed to burn my skin. I pulled away, using my runny nose as an excuse. I stood and ran into the bathroom where I turned the sink on and doused water onto my face. I considered stopping at the toilet when my stomach threatened to upchuck what little I'd eaten that night, but I held the urge back forcefully.
Mom waited at my bedside with her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Her watery gray eyes stared at me, searching my face for a way to help. That was my mom, always worried about me. Ever since she divorced my dad, she'd toiled over the assumption that she had broken me past the point of being fixable. I'd explained to her over and over that I understood the reasons behind their separation, but she hadn't believed me. Now a guy from my school was dead and she had all the more reason to fuss over my well-being.
"Layla, come sit back down," she ordered. Immediately, I realized that I'd frozen in the middle of my room, facing her, with one hand clenched around my soaked tissue and the other balled into a fist and jammed against my stomach. Obediently, I stumbled back over to my double bed and allowed Mom to wrap her arms around my shoulders. For a moment, I worried that she'd smell the alcohol on me, but she did not say a word. She knew as well as I did that a severe lecture about underage drinking would be better left for the morning. Any commanding words she'd say now would only blow over me like a quick gust of wind.
I buried my face into Mom's shoulder, just like I had when I was a scared little kid afraid of monsters in my closet.
"It's okay," she whispered into my matted blonde hair. "Everything is going to be alright."
I hated it when people said that. Everyone always used that simple little phrase after a death, or in my case, my parents' divorce. It sure as hell wouldn't be alright. Not for me. Not for Dad.
And right now, certainly not for Charlie.
"I'm going to go downstairs and send everyone home," said Mom, referring to the small New Year's Eve party that she had thrown for some friends from her book club. I could barely hear the noisy chatter and lame disco music resonating from our living room downstairs. My head was already so full of thoughts that my mind did not have room for anything else.
"You don't have to do that," I said, recalling the scene I'd caused after I'd been escorted home by a policeman. My mom's party guests had stared at me as if I was some juvenile delinquent. Little did they know about the horrible events that had just taken place on the lake.
Upon entering the house, I'd burst out into the tears that I'd saved up while giving my witness account to the men at the police station. Mom had hurried me upstairs and then gone back down to speak with the officer. He'd no doubt told her everything because I hadn't, and now she was here consoling me for events she thought she understood.
At the station, I'd been busted for underage drinking, but the cops, because of my delicate psychological state (or something like that),had let me off with just a warning. I must have looked like a mess and I didn't have any previous record of wrong-doing, which I believed contributed to my easy discharge. I could only assume that my other classmates had not gotten off as easily as me.
I thought back to Mom's party. Her guests were probably busy wondering what I had done to deserve a ride home in a police cruiser. Usually I was perceived as a pretty good kid: straight-A student, piano tutor, former Girl Scout, you name it. And I knew my mom's friends thought of me as some teenage goody-goody because I sometimes participated in their Book-Of-The-Month discussions. Who knew what they thought of me now?
But I didn't care. I simply thought back to the last time I had seen Charlie before…
I couldn't even think about it. Everything had gotten out of control so fast, and now each current moment felt like some bad dream.
"I'll be back," Mom said. She slowly stood up and placed her hands on either sides of my face. Ever so gently, she kissed my forehead and I felt two of her hot tears fall across my hairline. "I'm just so thankful that you're alright."
I sniffed at her comment, briefly wondering why I had been luckier than Charlie.
She kissed my head again and hurried out of my room. I watched her go, her springy blonde curls clasped up in a rhinestone barrette. For some reason, I felt like the cop had told Mom some falsified story. She thought that everything had been an accident, but I believed differently. I assumed that the numerous eyewitness accounts brought into the police station had all been botched so that everyone from the party could save their own butts. Shivering, I wondered if I was the only person this upset about what had happened. Maybe I felt this way because I had never witnessed death like this before. And first-hand.
Suddenly, my body convulsed in a new wave of guilt and reoccurring realization for what had happened. I dropped down onto my bed and cried into my bright blue comforter, soaking it with fresh tears. Outside my window, I heard the sound of my mom's guests piling into their cars, heading home. This led me to think more about the police cruiser I'd been taken home in. Had that same cop proceeded to Charlie's house, wherever that was, and broken the news to his family?
No, surely a different cop had informed them sometime while I was at the station. I could only imagine the pain that this news was causing them. Whatever they were going through had to be ten thousand times worse than how I felt.
In time, Mom returned to my room with a mug of steaming hot milk in her hands. The warm smell of it suddenly reminded me of how cold I was. I wasn't dressed in much, just a short skirt and a red top that barely covered my midsection. I suddenly felt ashamed of my apparel; Mom usually saw me in modest sweaters and jeans. Part of me wondered if she even knew I owned an outfit as provocative as this. I had no one to blame but myself, and my best friend Mindy, who had talked me into buying if for the New Year's Eve party.
Feebly trying to shield her from what I knew she had already seen, I curled my arms around my stomach and sat hunched forward over my knees, hiding my ridiculous clothes from my mom.
"Sit up and drink this. It will make you feel better," coaxed my mom in a soft voice. I took the mug from her with a shaking hand as she grabbed a blanket from the foot of my bed and wrapped it around my shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Mom," I moaned after my first sip. The froth nearly scalded my mouth, but I swallowed nevertheless. My stomach growled, urging me to drink faster.
My mom sat in silence for a long time, and I could tell that she was doing her famous quiet thinking. As a kid, this drawn out silence had always meant I was in for some punishment or serious grounding, but now it worried me even more. Ever since the divorce, Mom and I had become close to the point of being friends. I never would have expected this as a young adolescent, but our loneliness had fused us together like the pieces of a puzzle. I rarely got in trouble, and she trusted me. I could only assume that I had broken that trust tonight.
She sighed, and it came out as a small, injured sound that struck my heart. I knew she was devastated, but for reasons far different from my own. "We can talk about it tomorrow," she said. "Right now I just want to make sure that you're okay."
I shrugged, remembering Charlie. I didn't want to cry again, but I couldn't get his face out of my head.
And his eyes when he'd realized…
I let loose some strange, inhuman sound and caved in on myself. Immediately, Mom removed the mug from my hands and pressed me deep into her chest, rocking me like a little baby.
"Layla, shh," she whispered in a thick voice. "Honey, the police know what happened. The right people will pay, and then everything will slowly get better."
"But it won't," I said, breathing heavily. Easily, I could smell the familiar floral perfume that she wore every day. I savored each breath, inhaling the sense of safety that came along with it.
"It will. Maybe not for a long time, but these things have a knack for working themselves out. And the first step in that process is getting some sleep." She slightly pulled away and gazed down at me over the bridge of her nose. I didn't want to let go, but I knew that she was right. I had to put this night behind me.
"Okay," I agreed, my tone gravelly. Mom tried to smile, but it did not get far. All I could see was the ghost of a grin fading fast from her lips.
"Alright then," she whispered. She waited while I changed clothes in the bathroom. Tearing off my tight red top, I threw it to the ground along with the sequin-black skirt and obnoxious pumps. Tomorrow, I would burn those garments.
After changing into a pair of warm and completely geeky flannel pajamas, I combed through the knots of my tangled blonde hair, washed away the smeared mascara that made me look like a dying raccoon, and brushed my teeth. No longer did I taste the stale beer that had coated my tongue.
I shuffled back into my room, my shaking fingers braiding my hair into a long plait behind my back. Mom smiled at the sight of my routine. To her, it must have meant that I felt okay enough to pursue a normal enough agenda, but in truth, I was only doing it to keep from scaring her.
Mom lifted the edge of my comforter up and I crawled silently into bed. I felt far from a seventeen year old senior in high school as she tucked me in.
"Is there anything that I can get you?" she asked hopefully. I turned onto my side and fixed my attention on the wall. Shaking my head, my mom stood up. "Well, if you need anything, call out for me, okay?"
"Got it," I sighed, my blotchy red eyes too heavy to lift and meet her gaze.
"Okay," she said. "I love you very much, Layla."
"I love you, too, Mom," I whispered as I felt her hand stroke my forehead. I closed my eyes and listened for the sound of her leaving my bedroom. She did, and she left a tiny crack in the door, allowing a line of light to shine through the thin walls of my eyelids.
I didn't think that I would be able to sleep, but my body told me differently. In a moment, I had drifted off to a fitful rest, my dreams turning into unpleasant memories of late, starry nights, roaring screamo music, and a pair of navy blue eyes, alive in one blink and blank in the next.
I sat up abruptly in bed, my forehead covered in slimy, thick sweat. My ears pounded with a fearful sound, but I slowly realized that all I heard was the choked gasps of my rapid breathing. Gruffly, I threw the covers off of my body and stripped down to my sports bra and underwear. I felt like the flannel was strangling me and as if my comforter had transformed into a boa constrictor intent on squeezing away every last breath in my lungs.
It was then that I remembered Charlie.
Dismally, I threw my discarded pajamas over the side of my bed and brought my legs up to my chest. I planted my forehead between the crevices of my knees and clasped my hands around my ankles. Then I heard a sound.
With a jolt, I glanced up and at my window. My mom must have opened it sometime after I fell asleep. In the wind, the large evergreen tree outside my window scraped against the propped open glass, creating a shivering, scraping sound throughout my room.
But that was not all I saw.
In the span of two seconds, my eyes, swollen from crying, caught a glimpse of something oddly shimmery leaning over the window pane. Gray, thin, and barely there, I squinted and found myself staring into a pair of eerily hollow eyes.
I yelped, backing up roughly against the headboard of my bed. When I looked up again, all I saw was the transparent veil of my baby blue drapes blowing in the breeze just in front of a long tree branch.
If I had been in a better mood, I would have laughed at my childishness, but now, I felt stupid. I hadn't seen anything. My tired mind had only been playing a cruel trick. All I had seen were my drapes brushing against a lonely tree.
In no way in the world had I just laid eyes on a ghost.