Study Me Dead

by

Ace Chant

.

I placed the skull down carefully on the foam mat and aligned it with the first cervical vertebrae.

"Are you sure you don't want me to walk you back to your apartment?"

"I'm sure. I want to stay and work on this a little longer."

The light from my lamp fell directly on the sutures of the cranium and illuminated each crevice in stark contrast. I ran my fingers along them, making sure they were fully fused.

"Lima—"

Michael had that face like he was going to start arguing again, so I gave him my most reassuring smile and sing-sang my words, "If you don't leave, you'll be my next subject."

He was a dark figure framed by the door and the brightness of the hall, but I could still see his teeth. "So aggressive. I'll see you in the morning."

"See ya."

I arranged a rib in place so that it wasn't touching any of the other bones, but still in anatomical order. Most of the bones I had were laid out now—only one, two… five bones still in the box. Not nearly enough to complete the skeleton. Damn.

"Dogs must have gotten to you."

Of course they hadn't, but no one else was in the lab to joke with me.

I grabbed the mandible from the box as the bell tower chimed the hour. What time was it? 11? 12? I wasn't sure anymore.

I tilted the cranium back and carefully hooked the mandible to it.

The bell rang the tune of Amazing Grace three times. Midnight, then.

My subject had most of its teeth still attached, though the left superior and right inferior canines were missing. They were all permanent teeth, though, which meant it was a teen or older.

Eyeballing it, the bone structure suggested it was a guy—the mandible and nuchal lines were too pronounced to be a female.

"I'll have to check the landmarks," I mumbled into the echo of the lab.

I jotted down 'Male, teen', and picked up the next bone in the box—a fragment of the left—no, right thumb.

I picked up the next bone and—what the hell was this one? I turned it over and squinted at it until my eyes hurt,

"Maybe hand?" The subject's left hand had been shattered, probably pre-mortum, and those bones were proving a royal pain in the ass. I set the piece down by the other supposed hand fragments.

I was still missing some ribs, and the dens of the second cervical vertebrae, axis, had broken off, but my John Doe was looking handsome now that he was semi-put together.

Well, nice to meet you, hot stuff."

I snapped a picture of all the different sections with my phone and pulled out my textbook and inventory packet on the table behind me. Time to get cracking, finally.

"I hooked my fingers through the foramen magnum and started to take notes of the conditions of the sutures.

Someone coughed.

I swear to God, if Michael was back—

"Please don't freak out."

I turned. Some dude was standing dangerously close to my John Doe, and wearing dangerously tight pants.

"Can you please step back? That's fragile."

He raised his hands and took a step back. "Yes, of course."

I exhaled air through my mouth. "Do you need something?"

"Um," he fidgeted for a second, although I wasn't sure how he could move at all in those jeans. "I was—I need—"

Was he British?

"Yes?"

He cleared his throat. "I need your help."

"Sure. What?"

He was turning fidgeting into an art form—or maybe he was dancing, but I really didn't have time for this. My fingers were absently stroking the zygomatic process of the skull, patience dwindling with each stroke.

"Well, you see," he started. "These are my bones."

"What." I meant it to be a question, but it came out as a statement.

"Please don't freak out."

I was mostly just annoyed now. "Did Dr. Ribinski say we should team up?"

He looked like he thought I might hit him just then.

"Who?"

"Dr. Ribinski. Did he assign you the same subject?"

He fidgeted some more in those tight pants, and ran a hand through his dirty blond hair.

"Oh. No, wait. I meant, these are my bones."

I frowned. "I know what you meant."

"No. I meant like—"

Then, in a bout of gravity failure, Tight Pants jumped on the table and flat out laid on top of my subject's bones.

I spasmed out of sheer horror—he was crushing the bones!—and staggered back so quickly I almost dropped the skull.

"What are you doing! The bones, oh, my God. Up, get up!"

He sat up immediately and—the bones were intact.

Perfect.

I plopped back on the chair and it slid a little under my weight. "Oh no."

"Please don't freak out."

Don't freak out. Don't freak out. His words echoed in my head like a mantra, until it was possible all my other thoughts had been obliterated.

"I swear I can explain," he said, palms up.

My face went completely slack.

"I'm a… ghost." No shit. "And these are my bones."

I looked at the skull in my hand, then at him. Then back at the skull. It wasn't possible to be entirely sure without measurements, but the shape of his head matched the bone in my hand, as his height was exactly the length the skeleton would be if all the bones were connected

A piercing shriek ripped out of my throat, the hand not holding the skull flying up to cover the sound.

"Please stop," Tight Pants jumped down from the table and towards me. "Stop."

I glanced around him to John Doe, every bone in the exact same position I'd put them in. This wasn't possible. I was obviously having a nervous breakdown.

"I asked you not to freak out."

The gall of this boy!

I shoved the skull in his face, just short of hitting him. "I am holding your skull in my hands. What did you expect?"

My breath was heavy and shallow, but just as I said it, I was calming. I was just a ghost, right? Casper and not the Exorcist, hopefully.

His brown eyes were trained on me, almost waiting. "I didn't know a better way to tell you, I'm sorry."

He looked so human. He wasn't translucent or vague. He wasn't a white blanket. He wasn't even shackled to spiritual chains or some shit like that. He was just some dude in tight pants and a t-shirt with funny hair.

Except he had sat of my—his bones, and not broken them. So clearly something was wrong. (Maybe my head.)

"What's your name?"

"Thomas."

"Ok, Tom—"

"Thomas," he repeated.

A particular ghost. Great.

"Alright, Thomas, how old are you?"

He leaned against the table, obviously bracing himself for interrogation. "Nineteen. I am—was a sophomore when, um—"

Oh, he had feelings as well. "When you died."

"When I was murdered," he emphasized.

"Of course. Murdered." I finally put the skull down on the foam mat (before I broke it) and faced him. He was about one and a half heads taller than me. But I was alive, so we could say I had the advantage.

"So how were you murdered? Do you remember?"

"So, um, I was walking to Shepard?" He glanced at me for confirmation that I knew where that was before he kept going. "And you know that construction site between it an the Roeby cafeteria?"

There had been no construction in that area since they built the Starbucks five years ago. Would that be enough time for someone to be murdered, investigated, bones released, treated, and given to students for study? I wasn't sure.

I nodded anyway; I wanted to know where he was going with this.

"I was walking next to it when this guy comes out of fucking nowhere and gags me." His hands went to his hair and pulled. "So I try to fight him, obviously, and he grabs my hand and crushes it, by which point I'm wailing and shouting like the man I am—was. And—"

His words clogged up the air around me like blood.

"And?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. That's all I remember. Unhelpful, I know."

True, but I didn't want to tell him that after he'd just told me how he'd died. It seemed a bit callous.

"So is that why you're… still here? Revenge or something?"

He sighed, but no air came out. "I wish. I don't even want revenge, though. Whatever. I just want to—not be stuck, y'know?"

I was entirely positive I hadn't ever been in a situation like his, but I tilted my face to one side like I understood.

"No revenge," I mussed. "What is it, then?"

His face scrunched up in disgust. "Magic."

"Funny."

"No!" He stretched out his arms as if to physically keep me there, but didn't actually touch me. "I'm not kidding."

"Sure."

"I'm serious! I have—had magic, so when I died, I got stuck. The man who murdered me took my, I don't know, magic bone or something."

I took a step back from him and leveled him with a stare. "If you had magic, why didn't you use it to fight off your attacker?"

"I didn't know I had magic."

"What?"

He didn't answer for a few seconds, looking at me like he wasn't sure if I would believe the next bit or not. Though how anything could be more ridiculous than the fact I was having a conversation with a freaking ghost, I wasn't sure. Except—

My eyes widened as I realized what he'd been implying. He seemed to read the understanding on my face.

"Crappy, right? I die and then, Surprise! Yer a wizard, Thomas."

A horrified chuckle escaped my lips. Hilarious, this ghost.

"So you, um, woke after death and decided it was because magic."

He gave me a half smile, like I was the crazy one.

"Actually, this one man came to see me like a week after I died. He said something about how they've been searching for me or whatever and found me too late. He's the one that told me I would be stuck here until I got back my bone."

I crossed my arms. This was ridiculous. This was unreal.

"How come he didn't help you, then?"

He did a very good impression of trying to shrink. "Well, he was kind of murdered so."

"Oh, great."

My odds were looking fantastic already.

"I'm assuming you want my help?"

Was I crazy for considering it? Maybe I was.

But I choked up just thinking of what it would be like to be chained like that to your own remains for, what, eternity? Plus, if this was indeed my subject, he could help me find a plausible cause of death for my report.

Then again, I might also get killed.

I sighed. I was getting a headache.

He looked at me with the largest puppy eyes. "You will?"

"Yeah?"

My hands were putting the bones back in their box automatically. I was tired, and probably hallucinating, to be honest.

"What are you doing?"

"Packing? I need to go sleep." A yawn escaped my lips, proving my point. "I'll come back tomorrow and we can talk."

"Wait, no." His hand fell right next to mine when I was grabbing the left ulna. I stopped myself from flinching. "Please take the bones with you. I'm tied to them, I can't leave."

My heart slammed against my chest at his words—at his tone. "I can't. It's not allowed."

"Please," his voice was full of something I didn't want to think about. "Just a small bone should work, no one will notice." He pointed at a free-floating rib.

I took it in my fingers, but ended up putting it back in the box.

"I'm sorry, Thomas. I can't." I inhaled and exhaled deeply. "It's too much."

All the fight seemed to evaporate out of him and he slumped back against the table. "I understand."

That, more than anything else, almost made me start bawling. I put all the other bones in the box, as carefully as I could in my hurry, and left the box in the next room with all the other ones. Thomas followed me as if pulled.

"I'll be back tomorrow, ok?"

He nodded, leaning slightly on the table.

My hands clutched the straps of my backpack. I was leaving, I was. "Thomas, what's your last name?"

"Stacker," he said, and his voice caught in the last syllable.

I turned the lights off and closed the door behind me.

#

Google was a little bastard. So was the school directory. Unhelpful in every way that mattered. There were three 'Thomas Stacker' matches in the university system, and two of those were alumni with the same major.

And Google, my ex-best friend, kept turning up with:

Did you mean Stacker Pentecost?

No, Google. I didn't.

I took a big gulp of coke and bent over to reach for my phone, but my hand met a crumpled piece of paper instead. God, this room was a mess. I found my cell phone precariously balanced on a bedpost out of my reach. This was definitely not my day—night, whatever.

The phone rang three times before I finally got an answer.

"It's 3 am, why the hell are you calling me?"

I smiled. The sweet kindness of best friends.

"Heeeeey Keiko." I sat back in front of my computer, picturing her sure frown.

"Why do you sound so cheery? God, I hate you." There was a whisper of bed sheets sliding on the other end of the line. "What do you want?"

"I need your hacking expertise."

"Obviously. Forensics report?"

I bit my lip. "No." Yet. "I need you to find info on a guy? An old student."

How does one say, I need you to find information on a dead student whose ghost I may be seeing?

"Ok." Keiko didn't even skip a beat. "Name?"

"Thomas Stacker."

"Like the guy from Pacific Rim?"

I laughed. "Not you too!"

"You're clearly losing it. Please go to sleep." I heard the sheets again, a signal that she was about to hang up. "I'm going to bed again. I'll call you tomorrow with the info on Tom."

I bit back a cackle. Tom.

"Thanks." She'd hung up already.

I stared at my phone screen for a while, wondering what in the world I was doing. Wondering about Thomas and my dubious mental state. Maybe I should go to sleep.

#

Sleep had not been forthcoming last night. I had gotten out of bed at exactly 6:45 am and headed straight to shower. The shampoo had gotten in my eyes. It was raining. I was pissed.

"Hey Lima!"

I grunted. That could have been the pope for all I cared.

I bee-lined my way around the halls of the Mary-Harris Science building, resisting the urge to bull-charge some poor freshman. I was just rounding the corner to go to the lab when I heard someone say my name in what I could modestly call a heavy German accent.

"Lima." It sounded more time Leeh'mah.

I stopped in my tracks and turned. "Dr. Ribinski. How are you, sir?"

Dr. Ribinski scratched his bald, red head and smiled under his white mustache. "Good. Busy. How's your final going? I see you're headed to the lab."

"Yes, sir. It's going well. I've assembled it once and know what I'm missing."

I mean, sort of. A magical bone, for starters.

"Always so diligent." He squeezed my shoulder. "Come by my office if you have any questions."

"I will. Thank you, sir."

I let him walk away first, in case he decided to follow me and see my progress in person.

The lab was cold when I got there, and two other students were already working on their skeletons. One of them was Michael.

Fantastic.

He smiled widely when he saw me and I felt immediate guilt. "Hey L! I thought you'd be passed out till 5 after yesterday."

I dropped my bag two seats from him, so that we could both look at our bones without mixing them up.

"I don't sleep. I'm a college student."

"That's a very poor outlook on life."

I exaggerated rolling my eyes and left him to go get my box from the lab storage. All the boxes were arranged in a big table in the room next to the lab, which was even colder, if that was possible.

My box was exactly where I'd left it last night, with the foam mat on top of it. I stood next to it for a second too long, staring and thinking too fast to process anything.

"Are you there?" I whispered.

No answer.

I had been afraid of this. Last night, I'd been working on the skeleton for several hours and had fully assembled it before I saw Thomas. I didn't know if he'd done that on his own, or if it had been my exposure to his bones for a long time. Or maybe I had to re-assemble it? I didn't have time for this nonsense!

Maybe I was just crazy.

I slipped my hand in the box anyway, my fingers curling around a small piece of bone. Digit end of a finger, possibly the middle one. I put it in my pocket before grabbing the box and walking back to where Michael sat.

He was half-way through assembling his skeleton, like I'd done yesterday, and had this look of thorough confusion on his face.

I sat and pulled out my notebook, pen, and Thomas's skull to work on.

The skull was heavy and solid in my hands, but it would still crack if I dropped it. I would know. I rotated it, writing down all the bones I found. Frontal. Left and Right Parietal. Ethmoid. Sphenoid. No malleus, incus, or stapes, of course—those never survived.

When I was done with the skull—all freaking 22 bones of it—I placed it on the foam mat in front of me and pulled out the next bone I touched. (Left—no, Right Ulna.)

An inventory would be useful for my final, so I knew what I had to work with, and was necessary for my report.

And… if I wasn't crazy and Thomas was 'real', then we could narrow down the list of bones that could be the stolen one.

God, I sounded like a nutcase.

"Hey," Michael called, though he didn't look up from his skeleton. "Have you talked to your mom recently?"

Oh, here we went again.

"Michael," I exhaled his name.

He put one of his subject's vertebrae down. (Thoracic, because it looked like a giraffe head.) "Look, Lima. I know you hate people meddling or whatever—"

"Exactly."

"But you haven't spoken to your mom—or your dad—in months now. You can't do this thing without them."

By 'this thing', he meant taking an internship in Egypt, which was basically a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I glowered. "With them, there won't even be a thing."

He ran a hand through his straight hair, making it stand up on end. Asian legacy, he'd told me once.

"They will stop paying for college if you go, though. Have you thought of that?"

I narrowed my eyes at him. "You talked to my parents," I said. No point asking when he so obviously had.

He looked like he was afraid I would hit him, which I just might.

"They called me yesterday."

I could feel the anger right in the back of my head. The nerve, calling my friend when they wouldn't even answer my emails! They wanted me to grovel. I wouldn't.

"Well then," I said, calm, as I put all of Thomas's bones back into the box. "Next time you talk to them, please tell them they can go to hell. I will be going to Egypt."

Michael gave me his most pained face, but I didn't have it in me just them to feel remorse.

I grabbed the box and left.

#

I was going to fall asleep.

I was going to fall asleep in the middle of my Geology class and the professor would notice and fail me. It was going to be so embarrassing.

I'd spent the last hour blinking slowly, pretending to be concentrating really hard on the paper we were discussing.

Multidecadal rainfall variability in South Pacific Convergence Zone as revealed by stalagmite geochemistry.

Riveting.

The lecture had gotten to the boring, tangential bit and I was about to pass out.

Wake up, I scrawled on my notebook. Wake up up up up up uuuuup.

This wasn't working.

I was almost comatose when my phone vibrated on my lap. I flipped it over and tapped my passcode as discretely as I could. It was from Keiko.

I have info. Meet after class.

Ur friend is dead?

She'd found the right Thomas Stacker, then.

I turned to look at the very back of the classroom, where Keiko sat, and waited for her to notice me before nodding.

"Anything interesting in the back, Ms. Gonzales?"

Shit.

I could feel my cheeks coloring. "No, sir. Sorry."

Dr. Martin gave me a look like I better not be up to any shenanigans, his face all frowns and wrinkles.

Three minutes later, my eyelids were getting heavy again. The class still had fifteen minutes to go and Dr. Martin had a reputation for going over. I wasn't going to make it.

"It's interesting."

I nearly jumped out of my seat and knocked myself over. The guy who sat next to me scooted away like I wouldn't notice.

"I wish I'd taken this instead of polisci thirteen-oh-whatever." Thomas smiled.

He was sitting cross-legged on the table between me and Increasingly Worried Dude, slouching forward as he listened to Dr. Martin with a rapture I couldn't manage on my best days.

Tachycardia was becoming a real possibility for me right about then.

I bit my lip to keep from yelling at him in the middle of class where it would potentially make me look like I was crazy. Ok, it definitely would. Instead, I turned over to a new page and scribbled on it.

What. The. Fuck. You almost gave me a heart attack!

Thomas wasn't looking at me, so I cleared my throat to get his attention. Increasingly Worried dude moved farther away, but Thomas didn't even turn. I tapped the notebook. Nothing.

At least one of us found Dr. Martin entertaining.

I let out a long sigh and rested my chin on my hand.

"What?"

So he looked at me now. I pointed to my notebook with my pen and he bent over to read.

His laugh was so loud, I almost expected the whole class to turn. Nobody did.

"I'm sorry," he said when he'd calmed down. A smirk still danced on his lips, his whole face alight. "I've actually been here the whole time. You just couldn't see me yet."

My eyes widened until I was sure they would pop out of my face. I'd been to two classes and had lunch since I'd taken his bone from the lab. It was still in my pocket. That was—what, four hours?

I picked up my pen again.

Why couldn't I see you?

Thomas shrugged. "I think you hadn't had my bones with you long enough, y'know?"

Sort of. Creepy.

He was still smiling, and I found myself smiling back, which to the rest of the class must have looked like I was grinning at the space slightly above everybody's heads.

"Comes with the whole being dead thing."

Death is no excuse for stalking.

I was positive if he'd been alive, he would have blushed. "I wasn't—I mean… oh my God."

I tried to muffle my laughter behind one hand. Dude Next to Me looked rightly concerned.

A friend found info on you. Start investigating today.

His whole non-corporeal body sagged, his eyes downcast and a tiny smile of his lips. "Thanks."

It was such a loaded, sad word that I almost reached out to touch him. I didn't, though.

Dr. Martin dismissed the class (and reminded us about our Final From Hell coming up), but my mind was already miles away from him. I wondered what would happen if I touched Thomas. Would my hand go through him? Would he be dense? (He could sit on things, so he must have had some substance.) Charged? Would he explode?

"I literally wanna spend about zero more seconds in this classroom, so move it."

I looked up—only slightly—to see Keiko standing next to me, all 5'1" of her full of impatience.

"I think I'm braindead," I said, grabbing all my things and shoving them into my bag.

"Same."

I followed her out of the room, glancing back to make sure Thomas was still with me. He walked a little behind with his hands shoved in his pockets—how did that even fit in those jeans?—, taller than either of us.

"This is your friend?" He eyes Keiko with interest.

I nodded.

We walked in silence all the way out of the building, to the student center and into the IT office. Keiko told some girl working the desk to go take her break and waited till she left before jumping on the desk and pulling out her laptop. Thomas sat across from her, also on the desk, and I pulled up a chair.

"So," she said, typing codes that were gibberish to me into her computer. "This dude of yours… dead?"

"Yeah."

She frowned, the light of the screen reflecting on her eyes. "And why do you wanna know about him?"

I knew she would ask and the lie came smooth. "I heard some people from my class talking about him like it was some legend or something. I googled it and couldn't find anything, so I got curious."

"I'm a folk legend? I like it."

I almost let out a snort.

Keiko raised both her eyebrows at me. "No wonder, either. This kid is like a ghost."

It really spoke to my self-restrain that I didn't burst out laughing right then.

"Yeah?" I said instead. My voice only quivered a tiny bit.

"It was a pain in the ass to find anything about this him. I had to break into freaking everywhere." She exhaled, but I could see the pride on her face. "His Facebook was even blocked from Google searches."

"That's weird."

"Hmmm. Anyway, look." She turned her laptop my way and Thomas leaned in to look over my shoulder. "He's no Idris Elba, but."

My mouth quirked up.

Thomas's face stared at me out of the computer screen, all smiles and messy dirty blond hair as he tried to wrestle some other dude.

"That's Shawn," he whispered, though no air touched my neck. "He was my roommate."

I scrolled down, skimming through the hundreds of "Shouldn't have happened to you, dude" and "Miss you" posts. People apparently kept tagging him in stuff after he had died. Weird.

I took a lot of scrolling before I could get to his still-alive activity. The last thing posted before the condolences started was a status on October 4th at 5:41pm.

Stepped on a puddle. Not a good day.

No kidding.

I scrolled back up and clicked on his "About". He had London listed as his hometown.

"British?" I said, half to Thomas and half to Keiko, and clicked on his "Website" link.

"My mom is British. I lived with her for a while," Thomas mumbled, almost at the same time Keiko said, "Only half. Mom was English, Dad was American. He moved to the States when he was 11."

Thomas sounded immediately offended. "How does she know that?"

It made me smile.

The link on his page turned out to be a tumblr entirely dedicated to The Legend of Zelda. Heroofhyrule444, apparently. Screenshots, cheats, fanart, and—

"Oh, God. No," he said.

"Cosplay." I enlarged an image of Thomas. Tight-pants Thomas. In green garb and boots and with a sword.

Keiko leaned over her computer to look at the picture upside down, even though I was sure she must have already seen it.

"Pretty good, right? He looks just like Link."

He did.

"Please close that."

I scrolled down before he could start begging, out of mercy.

"So, get this," Keiko said, taking her computer away from me. "His Facebook was protected." She moved her eyebrows up and down.

"Like, private?"

"Like, I had to use a special script to jump over its security. Not something Facebook does."

That's why he hadn't come up in my google search.

"So someone was trying to keep people away from finding my Facebook? Some evil wizard wanted me lonely?"

I repeated the question to Keiko. Minus the evil wizard part.

"Oh. Big time. And that's not all." She typed some more things on her computer and flipped it back to me.

It had a picture of Thomas (looking very grave) and his personal information, like his height, weight, address, and all that. Down at the bottom, someone had signed it and written,

Cause of Murder: Inconclusive.

That was the Deputy's signature.

"Oh, my God." I brought my eyes to Keiko, who was grinning like she had just eaten seven canaries. "You broke into the county database?"

Her grin widened.

"She's amazing." Thomas's voice was so full of wonder that I had to turn. His stare was fixed on Keiko, but he looked down at me a second later.

His eyes were brown.

"What are you doing?"

I looked back at the computer. "Nothing. How did you get this?"

She shrugged. "Not legally, I can assure you."

"Holy shit."

"I know. I'm amazing."

I kept going over the cause of murder. Inconclusive. It didn't seem right. Surely a person's bones wouldn't be given over for student examination if their case hadn't been conclusive. Right? Was that allowed? Wasn't it illegal?

Probably not any more illegal than me looking at these records.

"Can you send these to me?"

"Hmm." Keiko nodded, sucking on a lollipop she'd pulled out of her bag.

"Lima," Thomas said, one finger tapping the computer screen without moving it an inch. "This is not my address."

"What?"

"Wah?" Keiko let out around her lollipop.

I blinked, putting on my most oblivious face. "I thought you'd said something."

"You need to sleep more." She jumped from the table and pulled her computer toward herself. "And I need to go to class. C'mon, Susan will be back soon. I'll just leave the office locked. There, I sent you the stuff."

"Thanks, Keiko." I put the chair back where it went and grabbed my backpack from the floor.

"Yeah," she slipped her computer back into her bag and turned her black eyes on me. A tiny hawk. "Are you seriously not gonna tell me why you're looking for a dead guy?"

I wondered if 'It's complicated' would be enough.

"I told you. I overheard someone talking about it."

Thomas snickered. "You overheard his ghost talking about it, yeah."

"No way in hell. With the kind of security I had to go over to find this guy's Facebook, I doubt his own mother knows he's dead. Much less some randoms."

I pressed my lips together. This lying stuff was not my specialty.

"What's going on, L?"

I let out a long sigh and the words rushed out. "He's my subject."

Keiko crossed her arms. "Your Osteo final?"

"Yeah."

"Why didn't you just tell me?"

I shrugged. Telling this truth felt like lying.

"I was worried, you gnome."

"Sorry." I smiled like I was apologizing.

Keiko rolled her eyes and walked me out of the office, locking the door behind us. I didn't turn to see whether Thomas had walked out or through the door. I didn't want to know.

I waved Keiko good-bye and she made me promise to meet her for late dinner.

"I don't think she bought it." Thomas was watching Keiko with his hands behind his back and a strange expression on his face.

"Why?" I asked, swinging my backpack over my shoulder.

"If I were just your subject," he paused, his gaze landing on mine. "How would you have known my name?"

Shit.

#

I swept off the crumbs of bread that had been falling on my keyboard and took another bite of my sandwich.

"So you said this is not your address," I mumbled, zooming in on google maps. "Is it anywhere close to your house?"

"Who's Ed Sheeran?" Thomas was leaning over my stack of CDs, looking at their labels.

"British singer. Pretty popular. So, address?"

He abandoned the CDs to come sit next to my desk chair.

"No. I was out-of-state."

I bit into my sandwich. What were the chances it was just a mistake? A mistake in an official government record about a case that had gone unsolved and for a kid that was murdered…

"This is just weird."

"Maybe that's the address of the people who were after me?"

I raised both my eyebrows at him and hoped I looked as incredulous as I felt.

"You really think your murderers just decided to leave their address as the contact info? What, in case the police wanted to come for a chat or some tea?"

He shrugged. "What have you got?"

Nothing.

"A bus pass," is what I actually said, bunching up the napkin I had been using and throwing it in the trashcan. I missed. "I'm done with classes for today. Let's go."

"Go where?" He frowned, but followed me out of the room anyway.

"To your fake address."

"I like how you think."

I wondered if it was exciting for him, to be moving about instead of staying in that cold lab room with his skeleton.

It took very little time to get out of the dorms, but we had to wait a while for the bus to come. The address on Thomas's file was only about two blocks away from one of the bus stops, in a part of town I'd never been to. The ride there was full of bumps and stops, which wouldn't have been so bad if the whole bus hadn't smelled like sweat.

Thomas was sitting next to me, and I seriously hoped nobody would try to sit on top of him. I might scream.

His legs were shaking up and down like a Chihuahua having a seizure, almost touching me but not quite. I scooted away.

"I'm nervous. Sorry."

I pressed my lips together and stared straight ahead.

"What if we find nothing? What are we gonna do then?" He brought his hand to his hair, already messy, and tugged at it.

I groaned and pulled out my phone. I tapped on iMesssage.

Calm down. We don't know what's there.

"Yeah, but what if it is the people who murdered me? What then? Or, what if it's not anybody at all? What if my family just moved and that's why it's a different address? Oh, God." He turned to me, his face all intensity. I felt trapped. "Lima, I don't want to see them. I can't."

The bus came to a stop like the driver had just remembered what breaks were. Two big guys got off and three more people got on. One of them was a tall, blond girl who made a point of making eye contact.

"Lima!"

I smiled with my lips closed. People were so inconvenient some times. "Hey, Lisa. How are you?"

She sat across from me (Thank God) and dropped her backpack by her feet.

"Good! Busy, but you know. You?"

Oh, dealing with ghost boys full of, like, emotions. Same old.

"Stressed. Finals are going to kill me this year."

She grunted. "Same. But, listen," she smiled like she was about to sell me something. "I was actually just thinking of you the other day. Do you think we could get together sometime and you might look at my final essay for Spanish?" She paused only long enough to breathe. "I'll buy you coffee."

"Yeah, sure," I said, at the same time Thomas whispered, "You speak Spanish?"

I wasn't sure why he was whispering. To heighten the drama, no doubt.

Grandpa is Peruvian. Taught me.

Lisa was bouncing a little on her seat. She was a senior, if I remembered right. "Thank you so much. You're awesome. Can I have your number?"

"I don't think I even know where Peru is. I didn't know they spoke Spanish there."

I choked a laugh half way through giving Lisa my number. She gave me a dubious look.

Name's a city. Capital.

"I sent you mine," Lisa said.

"Whose?"

My phone vibrated. "Got it."

Mine.

"I feel like you've been lying to me all my life."

That time I couldn't stop myself from laughing. I kept my eyes firmly on the phone like I'd just gotten the funniest text ever.

Thomas had laugher in his voice, too. "This is our stop."

He was right. I pushed the button under my seat and the bus came to a somewhat gentle stop.

"I'll text you about meeting?"

I'd forgotten all about Lisa already. My memory was obviously suffering. "Yeah, sure."

I jumped out of the bus and the driver closed the door immediately behind me. I could swear a strand or two of my hair got caught between the doors, but I stared straight ahead. I didn't wanna see Thomas cut it two.

"You okay?"

He was standing next to me. Whole.

I nodded. "Let's go."

I'd never been in a sketchierplace in my three years living in the huge back-alley that was this college town. That was saying something. There was a shop squished between a shaky-looking house and an apartment building that advertised 'Nail for $10'. Did they do nails? One nail? Did they sell nails? I didn't want to know.

"27034, right?"

I checked my phone for the address and nodded. "Saint and James. It's that way."

We walked down the street—or, I walked. Thomas didn't even make a sound, which was just unnerving. We found a sign on the ground at an intersection that had James written in faded white letters. We turned down that way.

"27028, 27030… That's it." I hurried toward the one house in the street that didn't have a couch on its front porch. I was almost at the front steps when I turned to look at Thomas. He hadn't moved. "Hey."

His face was like an egg cracked open, all wide eyes and uncertainty.

"Thomas," I whispered.

"Sorry." He buried his hands in his pockets and walked toward me.

I was glad. I wasn't sure I could have made him move without touching him.

The door to the house stood ominously in front of us, blue and faded and ugly. I took a deep breath and knocked. We waited uncomfortably for how long it took me to recite all the bones of the skill in my mind, including sutures. A long time.

"Maybe it's abandoned."

I glanced at the red Chevy on the driveway, which I was sure Thomas had noticed. "It's not abandoned."

I knocked one more time, louder, and was about to do it again when the door opened. A wiry man with a nose almost the size of his whole face looked down at me.

"Yes?"

I could practically feel him tapping his foot on the floor, reading to be done with me before he had even opened the door.

I put a smile on my face. "Good afternoon, sir. I'm here be—"

"You." Mr. Nose pushed me aside, his eyes slightly unfocused. "How did you get here?"

I swallowed my lie and breathed out. He was staring right at Thomas, which either made him an ally or a killer. I didn't like our odds.

Thomas stood perfectly still for a couple of seconds, nearly at eye level with Mr. Nose, but a lot fuller. Then he slumped with his whole body, the dictionary picture for sullen.

"You're not my step-dad or something, are you?" I basically choked on my own saliva, but Mr. Nose just looked mildly offended. Thomas didn't get the hint. "'Cause, no offense, but my dad was a lot more impressive and I don't see my mom marrying down."

"Thomas."

Mr. Nose straightened, pulling at his washed-down T-shirt like he could make it more dignified. "I am a magician."

"Oh," Thomas slumped some more. He would end up bending in half at this rate. "Is that what mom saw in you? How's Alice?"

I was getting the impression that Thomas was missing a part of his brain. Like, the part that did logic.

"What?" Mr. Nose was more than a little irritated now. "No—I'm not your stepfather! Good heavens."

Who the hell said Good heavens?

Thomas perked up. "You're not?"

I tell the man was about to close the door in our faces, so I stepped in front of Thomas. "May we come in?"

Mr. Nose snapped his eyes to me, which was already better than the fuming glare he'd been giving Thomas. "No."

I frowned. "Sir, you clearly know something about what's going on. We just need information."

His arms flailed alarmingly—was his ulna even attached properly?

"I want him gone!" He pointed a Thomas with such a ferocity I thought he would poke a hole through whatever ghost-material made him. "Leave. Before I make you."

It downed on me that he meant he would make us leave with magic. That wouldn't be cool. I wasn't even sure I believed in it yet. God. I hated this.

"Ok! Ok." I put my hands up in surrender, before Mr. Nose started shooting rays out of his eyes or pulled out a wand. "You don't like Thomas. I get it. What about me?"

He squinted until his eyes were barely eyes in his face anymore. "What about you?"

"Will you talk to me if I come alone? Without Thomas."

I thought for a second he would definitely fry us both, but he merely fisted his hands, breathing so hard I thought he might hyperventilate.

"Fine," he finally said.

"Oh." I opened and closed my mouth like a dying fish. Fine? After having the overreaction to end all over reactions? That was too easy. "Alright. When should I come back?"

"Tomorrow. At this same time. Alone."

Well, if that didn't sound creepy, I didn't know what would.

I stuck out my hand. "I'm Lima."

"Nelson," he said, shaking my hand.

I nodded for absolutely no reason except that I was going crazy. "I'll be back tomorrow."

He closed the door before I could get another word out.

"What a gentleman," Thomas muttered behind me.

I stood staring at the blue door, feeling what I was almost sure was bamboozled. And I wasn't even sure what that meant.

"Let's just—leave."

We walked back to the broken James sign and turned. I was half aware that we were headed back to the bus stop, but my mind was spinning too fast for me to catch up, and all I could think of what deafening blank space.

A short, plump woman in a fuscia cardigan was coming toward us carrying a brown paper bag full of groceries. I tried to arrange my face so that it wouldn't look like I'd just seen death. She smiled that little I-don't-know-you-but-I-don't-want-to-be-rude smile and then swevered around Thomas and me.

I stopped in my tracks.

Thomas raised blond eyebrows at me without a word. Maybe he thought I was going crazy, too.

"Excuse me!" I called to the woman. She was incredibly fast for someone with such short legs.

She turned and the sun caught the glint on her glasses. "Yes?"

Maybe I shouldn't say anything. I should just ignore it.

"Can you see him?" I nodded my head at Thomas, too embarrassed to let go of my scrap of deniability.

I couldn't see her eyes because of the sun, but her mouth fell a little apart. "And apparently so can you. I thought he was just haunting you."

"How?" My voice was all skepticism, though I wasn't sure why I still held on to it after all that had happened.

Thomas took two steps in front on me. "You can see me, too?"

She smiled the kind of smile you would give to idiots. "Of course, honey. You're a very corporeal ghost."

So not all ghosts looked as real as Thomas? That was good to know. Well, assuming she didn't have Thomas's bone and if what I knew—very little, it seemed—held true, then…

"Are you a magician, too?"

"You've met others?" Now she was the one sounding skeptical.

"Yeah. Just now," Thomas said. "Nelson. A real charmer."

The woman's whole face softened. "Oh, isn't he?"

I didn't think she was being sarcastic just them.

Thomas looked utterly disgusted and ready to launch into a rant, so I sidestepped him and spoke before he could say anything. "Very nice. He invited us—me—back tomorrow."

"Really? Then I guess I'll be seeing you around," she smiled, but it wasn't any particular kind of smile. Just nice and flat. "Nelson and I are from the same Guild. My name's Erika."

I shook her hand around the bag of groceries. "Lima. And this is Thomas. Nice to meet you."

"Well, I really must get going." She readjusted her bag as if for emphasis. "I've got ice-cream here that's going to melt if I don't hurry."

"Of course. Yes. Nice to meet you, again."

"I'll see you tomorrow." She smiled at Thomas with what I would call Particular Fondness before going on her way.

Thomas was looking as shell-shocked as I did seconds ago in front of the blue door.

"So…" I let out, more of a sigh than anything.

"So," he said, much more decisively. "Five years with only one visitor and now three people can see me in two days." He smiled so big it threatened to overwhelm his face.

#

"Tell me again why we're back here when we could have gone with Keiko to that party?"

Could people kill ghosts?

"Because," I grunted, grabbing box #64. Somebody had apparently rearranged all the boxes with our subjects on the shelves and done away with the table were we'd been keeping them.

"Lima," Thomas whined. Basically all he'd been doing for the past twenty minutes was whine. "I've spent—I don't even know many years in this lab. Can't we go somewhere else?"

"No."

I moved around him and into the other lab, which was completely deserted. Probably everybody was still out having dinner—or partying. Like Thomas wanted.

"Lima."

I placed the box on a table and whirled on him so fast I would have touched him if he hadn't been two steps behind.

"Can you please stop? I'm not going to the party. And that's that."

I was specially not going to the party if it meant constantly looking away so I wouldn't see Thomas going through drunk college students.

He pressed his lips tight together, which caught my attention. It was a thing a did all the time, and I wondered if he was picking up on my habits. Probably not, I'd only known him for a day.

I squished my eyes together as hard as I could and then tried to let all the tension out of me. It'd only been one day and I felt like a tractor had run me over.

I unrolled the foam mat I kept inside the box and started to take Thomas's bones out. I left the skull inside, because I'd already catalogued all of ir.

"Maybe we could just, like, go for a little while. Then we can come back here and be boring for the rest of the night, if you want."

I turned the ulna into its anatomical position and put it by the scapula. "I wish you were real so I could slap you."

I could almost feel him smiling. "I am real."

I side-eyed him so hard I swear I pulled an eye muscle. "I want to revisit my statement," I said, brandishing his femur like a knife. "I with you were corporeal so I could kick your balls in. Better?"

He pressed his lips together again and pretended to be very interested on the plastic skeleton model hanging by the board.

I went back to his bones, picking up his other femur and comparing them. They were even, but his right femur had an almost imperceptible suture half way down. I marked it on my chard as 'Fractured'.

I worked for around three more seconds before he interrupted again. "I just—"

"What?" I prompted, regretting it almost instantly.

"I haven't been to a college party in so long, y'know?" He was all soft British accent and puppy eyes.

I cackled. He looked thoroughly offended.

"Despite what you might think, Keiko doesn't hang out with Link-wannabe's."

He went to sit cross-legged on the table by his box. Part of his knee was going through it, so I moved it as subtly as I could.

"That is so unfair."

I shrugged. "Look. Keiko's friends annoy me. I don't like to hang out with them. She knows it, too, so she's always trying to get us together."

"Why don't you like them?"

My phone started vibrating, making an awful sound against the table. It was never that loud when I needed it to wake me up.

I set down the sacrum, which I had been examining, and grabbed at my phone. The screen flashed at me.

Mom.

I was sure I was quickly becoming a pathological starer.

"Aren't you gonna answer?"

I was frowning so hard I was about to give myself a headache. The phone stopped vibrating in my hands and then immediately started again. Ugh.

"I'll be right back," I said.

I walked to the storage room, all the way to the farthest corner, before I slid Answer, begging she would have hung up by then.

"Lima?"

I sighed. "Yeah."

The line was silent for a while—tense, uncomfortable silence.

"How are you?"

"Good."

"What are you doing?"

"Studying."

"With Michael?"

"No." With Thomas. "Alone."

"Oh." Pause. "Michael said you were upset with him."

My hand not holding the phone balled into a fist. "Did he?"

Silence, again.

"Lima." She said it like she was tired of my pettiness, like my name was a burden. "You need to stop this."

I should have breathed in and out and stayed quiet until she got tired of talking, but I felt myself bursting with words. "I need to stop it? Like I'm being unreasonable here?"

"Lima." A sigh.

"You guys haven't called—haven't even e-mailed OR answered my emails. You tried to blackmailed me through my best friend! Jesus." I was losing it. I was losing it so fast. I closed my eyes tightly and rested my head against the wall, hoping that would pause this conversation.

Pause everything.

"Lima, we just want you to think this through better. You haven't considered how dangerous it is."

"This is a carrier-making opportunity, Mom."

"Es demasiado peligroso," she hissed. If she was back to Spanish, she must have been really mad. Good. When she spoke again, her voice was hard, all crisp consonants. "I'm sure Michael already told you we'll be cutting you off if you go through with this trip."

My muscles locked like I'd suddenly gotten tetanus. I wanted to be nonchalant about this. I had to, but I felt like crying.

"Lima." A whisper.

I turned to see Thomas a few feet from me, looking like he fit better in my world in his skinny jeans than basically anything else. He got blurry for a second before the tears started to roll down my cheeks.

"You've been warned, honey," Mom said on the line. "Don't do this."

I opened my mouth, still looking at Thomas, but no words came out. I hung up and let my arm fall.

My legs were shaking and my face felt like it was three sizes bigger.

"Hey," Thomas said.

I crumpled against the wall, hitting the floor with a very a unattractive thump. I buried my head in my hands.

I wasn't going to freak out. Maybe just a little.

God.

"Lima?" Thomas sounded positively alarmed, which almost made me want to laugh, but that required too much energy.

I was exhausted.

I sensed, rather than heard, him fall next to me. I tilted my head only a bit to look up at him, his face still blurry from my tears. Stupid tears. Stupid feelings.

"That was your mom?" I nodded. "What's wrong?"

That made me giggle, which had the unfortunate side-effect of making me sound deranged. I bit the inside of my cheeks.

"So, what, you want to bond over this?"

He laughed.

"I thought we were past bonding, L."

If Thomas had been real—if he'd had a body—, this would have been the point where he hugged me or punched me in the shoulder or squeeze my knee. Instead, he bent his knees and leaned forward, still smiling.

I curled my mouth into what I was almost sure was a decent smirk and pushed myself up.

"C'mon. The night is young. There's still so much boring stuff we could be doing."

He stared at me from under his lashes for a heartbeat before he stood up, a whole head and a half taller than me.

"You obviously dwell on feelings a lot, huh?" Dripping ghostly sarcasm, this boy.

"Lima?"

This was just my luck.

I composed my face into something resembling normalcy and glanced at Michael. "Hey."

"Hey." He looked like he'd never been uncomfortable in his life. He was wearing jeans and his Dad's oversized sweater, which he only wore during finals when he was particularly stressed. "What were you doing?"

Talking to Thomas, obviously.

I sighed. "I was—thinking. Just thinking. I can't figure out my final," I nodded toward the other room, where I could just see Thomas's bones behind Michael.

"That's an understatement, if I've ever heard one," Thomas whispered.

"Oh. I thought you were talking to someone."

This was already inconvenient.

"My mom," I said. "And myself. 'Cause I'm going crazy, hadn't you heard?"

I walked past him to the table where I'd set out the bones. My hands were shaking, even though it was as Not Cold as it had ever been inside. I started to pack up.

I could feel Michael behind me long before he spoke again. "You don't have to leave because I'm here."

It was like he'd hit me between the shoulder blades with a hammer made of molten lava. I was a horrible person.

"I'm not." I tried to smile, but my face had entirely forgotten what muscles to use. "I'm just tired."

Michael took Thomas's femur from me and placed it on the box, but he didn't let go of my hand.

"Look. I know you're mad at me," he stopped, as if trying to figure out what words would make me Less Angry. He gave up. "Your mom called me again—"

"No kidding," I muttered.

"—I told her I didn't want to get involved. Lima, look at me. I'm trying to apologize."

I stared at him, right into his dark eyes, and it made me feel dead inside.

"You want me to forgive you."

"Yes. Please, Lima. You're my best friend and this fucking sucks."

I put the lid on the box and rolled and foam mat. "Ok. I forgive you."

I carried the box with me to the storage room, where Thomas has stayed, leaning against a wall with his arms crossed. I locked eyes with him before I could stop myself and then turned away when I realized Michael had followed me.

"You haven't forgiven me. You're still mad," he said.

I slid the box on its place in the shelves and turned to Michael, feeling a whole new level of uncomfortable. Feelings, I hated them

"I said I forgive you, and I did. Stop talking about it or I may get mad again."

I could basically see the tension evaporating off Michael. He smiled big enough to be the Cheshire cat—a kid-friendly version—and had his arms around me before I could step back.

"Thank you," he said into my hair.

I was engulfed in his hug, tiny and insignificant. And all I could think about was Thomas on the other side of the room.

"Michael, you're suffocating me."

He let go slowly. "Sorry."

Thomas was very firmly looking out of the window, his posture all lazy lines.

"It's ok," I said, pulling on my hair-tie to redo my ponytail. "There's a condition to my forgiveness, though."

Michael couldn't stop smiling, which definitely meant I was a horrible person. "Anything."

Ugh.

"I need a ride tomorrow."

"Sure, where to?"

Ha.

"I'll text you the address, ok?"

"Ok."

I went to the other room to grab my backpack, but this time I saw Thomas follow a few steps behind.

"So…" Michael said. "Have you had dinner or?"

I made myself smile, because I really wasn't mad at him and he deserved better than my bitchy attitude. What was happening with my family wasn't his fault at all.

"I'm actually really tired. I wasn't lying about that."

It was like someone turned the volume down on his face. Me.

"Oh. Yeah, ok. I'll see you tomorrow?"

He must have been really hurt if he hadn't offered to walk me to my dorm (thank God, because I would have refused).

I hooked my arms through the straps of my backpack and stuck my arms out. He came in for the hug.

Michael was big and kind and solid. "I'm sorry." I squeezed him, then let go. "I'll see you tomorrow, ok?"

He pulled on my ponytail. "Ok."

It was even hotter outside than it had been earlier, even though night had already fallen. How that was possible was a complete mystery to me. Perpetual summer.

We were half-way to my dorm when Thomas spoke up for the first time. "That guys likes you."

I stared straight ahead. "He's my friend."

"Do you like him?"

I didn't answer for a few seconds. I could have pretended to misunderstand or told him to mind his own business.

Instead, I found the truth stumbling out. "No."

We didn't speak again until we were back in my room.

#

"This doesn't feel right."

Thomas was sitting on my bed, frowning at my back while I tried to apply mascara without pocking myself in the eye.

"Is that your official Wizard Senses tingling?"

I could see him shaking his head in the reflection on the mirror. "I just—I don't know. I don't get why that man wants to see you alone."

"Well, he clearly hates you." I moved to the other eye.

"Nobody hates me. I'm a delight." How he managed to say that with a straight face was an absolute wonder. "And, anyway, why would he hate me? I don't even know him."

I screwed the mascara closed and dropped it in my make-up bag, looking for my purse. Michael was supposed to pick me up in about three minutes, and I was almost ready.

"I don't know. That's why I'm going—so I can find out."

"I don't like it."

"I had no idea you felt that way. Please go on."

He grunted.

I was fishing for my phone in my purse when I felt it vibrate against the tips on my fingers. It was Michael.

I'm here :)

"I need to go. Listen," I looked straight at Thomas. "I'll be fine, ok? And hopefully this guy can give us an actual lead on how to find your missing bone."

He sighed. "Fine. You are taking my bone with you, though, right? Just in case?"

I patted the back pocket of my jeans. "Yes. I'll see you in, like, an hour."

I checked that I had my ID to get back in before heading out. Right before I closed the door behind me, I turned to Thomas and smiled. "Don't trash my room, ok?"

I could hear him laughing all the way down the hall.

Michael was, indeed, waiting for me outside in his Dad's Soccer-Mom Explorer. I got—climbed—in and the motion felt normal, familiar. Not the kind of thing you do when on your way to meet a very strange magician with a big nose.

"So, where to?" His whole face was smiling.

I pulled out the address from my purse and handed it to him. "Is on the bus route. I can direct you if you need me to."

"I think I have a general idea."

"Ok." I bent my leg under me and changed the radio station to one I liked while he pulled out of the driveway. "So, did you get a lot done on your subject yesterday?"

"Hm? Oh, yeah. I think my guy was a drug addict. Also, a girl."

"Despicable," I said, just to make him smile.

It took less than five minutes to get to Mr. Nose's house, but it was nice to spend time with Michael. We've only fought for less than two days—and it had felt like an eternity. I got tired of the world way easily if I didn't have Michael's unfailing optimism.

"This looks like the kind of street where drug dealers do their business."

Ok, maybe not unfailing.

He had just pulled up to Mr. Nose's and was looking remarkably unimpressed. To be fair, the house had gotten uglier and sketchier overnight.

"It'll be fine. I know the guy who lives here." I used my words very loosely. "Can you pick me up later?"

He sighed. "Sure."

I jumped out of the car and stood on the sidewalk until he drove away. I didn't feel all that comfortable with this meeting either, but I didn't think seeing Michael would make Mr. Nose—Nelson, I reminded myself—any more agreeable.

I waited until I couldn't see Michael's car anymore before going up to the door and knocking.

It opened almost immediately.

"You came." Nelson seemed almost surprised.

"I did."

His face changed to displeased.

"Come in."

The house inside was warm and crowed, but a lot nicer than the outside had led me to believe. There were lamps basically everywhere, all turned on and making everything look orange. Nelson led me to a living room with two mismatched couches and a high-back chair fit to be on the set of Game of Thrones. A short man was sitting on the Throne Chair.

"Hi," I said, trying to look more comfortable than I was feeling.

"This is Tyson Clark. He's my partner."

I couldn't tell if that meant they were romantic partners, or if it was some sort of magical hoopla. I didn't think asking would be a very good idea.

"Lima," I said, when it was clear Nelson wouldn't introduce me.

Tyson Clark nodded gravely. "Please sit."

Nelson walked around me and sat on one of the couches, as if setting an example. I sat on the very edge of the couch closest to the exit and farthest from them. I may have been acting all paranoid, but better paranoid than dead.

"This is the girl that's being haunted by Thomas Stacker," Nelson said.

My mouth dropped open.

"I'm not being haunted. I'm helping him."

Tyson leaned forward. His eyes were a very clear green behind round glasses that I was tempted to call spectacles.

"Isn't he following you around?"

"Yes. But that's by choice."

He frowned at me and turned to Nelson. "This is worse than you had said. She's completely enchanted by him."

I could almost feel the words Majorly Offended glowing on my forehead. "I'm not enchanted by Thomas. What kind of crap is that?" I clenched my hands into fists and schooled my voice. "I'm just helping him rest in peace. And I want you," I glared at Nelson. "To tell me what you know."

The words sounded ridiculous in my mouth, but no more ridiculous than this whole situation was.

Nelson curled his upper lip. "Thomas Stacker is trash and a murderer and you'll do well to stay away from him."

I was dumbfounded right out of any comebacks by the intensity in his voice. "What do you mean, a murderer?"

"He killed my father."

'Prepare to die,' was on the tip of my tongue, but I bit it back. If there was ever a time not suitable for quoting The Princess Bride, this was probably it. I should have been shocked or worried or angry, but I found myself perfectly calm. He was lying.

"Did he?"

"Yes." Nelson stood up and started pacing. "My father was trying to help him, like you are. But that sneaky bastard killed him. I'm sure you know he was a powerful wizard before he was a ghost."

"Why would he kill your father?" Skepticism laced my tone.

"Ms. Lima," Tyson said, all formality. "I know this must be hard for you to accept. Obviously you have some attachment to the ghost of Thomas Staker, but he is dangerous. You have to trust us. He killed Nelson's late father because he was trying to put the ghost to rest."

I stood up, too, but my height was much less impressive than Nelson's.

"That makes no sense. That is what he wants."

"No," Nelson towered over me in seconds. "That is what he's told you he wants. He's won over your sympathy and deceived you!"

I took a step back and my knees met the couch. Thank God Tyson grabbed Nelson's arm and pulled him back, because I was about to knee him so hard his children would cry.

"Calm down," Tyson hissed, pushing Nelson back toward the couch. "I feel like we're being a bit overwhelming, Ms. Lima—"

"No kidding."

"But you need to understand," he continued like I hadn't even talked. "Thomas Stacker was a great danger to the magical community when he was alive. The fact that he's trying to come back now is a rather unpleasant situation for all of us."

I plopped back down on the couch, a chill running down my spine.

"Trying to come back?"

The corners of his mouth pulled down, making his whole face frown. "Of course. That's why he wants your help. I assume he asked you to find his missing bone?"

I felt my mouth opening and closing without my permission. My hands were shaking.

"I thought so."

"That's what he wanted from my dad, too. Except he refused, so Thomas killed him," Nelson said, his face blank.

This wasn't possible. No. Not Thomas with his skinny jeans and his blond hair and Link costumes. He'd said he hadn't known he was a wizard until he was dead! He didn't even know how to use magic, right? Right? I choked back tears. I felt so stupid.

"Lima," Tyson sat next to me, a comforting hand on my shoulder. "Lima, I know this is a lot, but you could help us. We can stop Thomas Stacker from doing any more damage. We just need to know where his skeleton is."

Blink. "What?"

"His skeleton," Nelson said. "You know were it is, don't you?"

Blink.

I felt like I was missing all the inside piece of a puzzle, like I was trying to figure out what it was from only the lining.

How could Nelson and Tyson not know where Thomas's skeleton was? Nelson's Dad had found it, when he had tried to help (or exorcise or whatever) Thomas. Why wouldn't he tell his own son where the skeleton was? It made no sense.

My whole body was tingling. I stood up.

"This was a mistake. I—I need to go." I hadn't even texted Michael, but if had to walk all the way back to my dorm, then so be it. I needed to get my thoughts in order.

I made to move, but Tyson Clark's hand tightened on my shoulder.

"We just need to know where the skeleton is, Lima."

I yanked away. "I don't know. Like you said, Thomas just started haunting me." I swallowed. "I'm sorry for bothering you. I'll show myself out."

I hadn't taken three steps when Nelson was in front of me, suddenly bigger and fuller than he'd been. I felt like he crowned my field of vision completely, his whole body thrumming with something I sincerely hoped wasn't magic.

"Where are the bones?"

My heart was racing so fast I thought I would pass out. I stepped back and collided against Tyson Clark.

"I don't know! Let me go."

"I'm afraid you do know, Lima," Tyson said. "Or you wouldn't have been able to bring Thomas with you yesterday."

I should have brought a weapon. I needed to invest in a pocketknife, like, yesterday.

"The bones…" I said, trying to buy myself some time. Maybe I could grab a lamp and smash it against their faces. If I was quick enough…

Nelson put his hands on my shoulders and squeezed. "Tell us."

A scream ripped from my throat, so sudden I wasn't sure it had been mine at all. His hands were scorching. I heard the rustle of my T-shit sizzling off as his hands made contact with my bare skin. I pushed him as hard as I could, hitting and kicking and flailing until he released me.

I stumbled back, away from them and their burning hands. My shoulders were raw, all my nerve endings screaming.

"We're not kidding around here, kid," one of them growled. I couldn't tell which anymore.

I couldn't think past the pain in my shoulders.

God, what had I gotten myself into. And my parents thought Egypt would be dangerous.

I backed away blindly until my back meet a wall. They were between the exit and me and I didn't think I could maneuver past them. A plan, I needed a plan. I needed to get out of here.

I glanced around the room, desperate for something I could use to defend myself. There was a letter opener on a small table to my right. I dived for it and held it in front of me, my hand shaking with every rushed breath.

"Don't be silly, Lima," Tyson Clark said. "We just want information. Give us that and we'll let you go. We don't want to hurt you."

"Right," I croaked out. My voice sounded like it was full of smoke, like the fire that had burned my shoulders had gotten to my lungs as well. Except there had been no fire. "Obviously you don't want to hurt me."

"We will if you force us," Nelson almost laughed out.

My grip on the letter opener tightened. These bastards. These unbelievable monsters.

I took a step back like I was giving ground, only for long enough to see their postures relax just a bit, and then ran at them, the letter opener in front of me like a dagger. I had the advantage of surprise, but they were bigger.

I was a breath past them when I was yanked back by my T-shirt and fell to the floor, my arm twisted.

Nelson was coming toward me, bleeding from a long cut in his arm where I'd gotten him with the letter opener. He looked eons out of his mind.

I closed my eyes in reflex and held up the letter opener in front of me with the arm that didn't hurt like hell. I wondered, for only a brief second, if my county records would also say Cause of Murder: Inconclusive. What a joke.

Nelson's hand circled around my wrist, pulling yet another inhuman scream from my throat.

"What the hell is happening here?" A voice thundered in all corners of the house and Nelson let me go.

I was hazy with pain, but I could see someone framed by the open door. A woman, short and plum and looking like absolute heaven.

"Nelson," she screeched. "What are you doing to that girl?"

"This doesn't concern you, Erika," Tyler Clark said, standing between us and Erika like he could make us invisible.

Maybe he could.

Nelson reached for me again and I scrambled back until my head hit the center table.

"Stop! Stop right this instant, Nelson." Her voice was absolute authority. "Step aside, Tyler. This is my Guild and absolutely my business. I should have known you were up to something when I saw them yesterday."

I looked up into Nelson's face, still standing over me. I saw it in his eyes seconds before he turned around, his hands flashing bright and horrifying at Erika. It—magic—hit her square in the chest, hard enough to send her back and crashing against the mirror hanging by the door.

My eyes roamed, frantic, over the whole room.

"Nelson. That was Erika."

"She was in our way."

Even Tyler was stepping cautiously back, as if finally catching up to the fact that Nelson was unstable. Well.

Erika's form moved, trying to get up. Nelson was focused like a laser on her, his hands gathering shine again, preparing for another attack. I wasn't sure Erika would survive a second assault like that. I wasn't sure Tyler Clark would do anything to stop it.

But I was sure I wouldn't go down without a fight.

I scrambled for the letter opener, which I'd dropped when Nelson had grabbed my wrist, and sprang up on shaking legs. I had the letter opener deep in Nelson's neck before he was finished turning toward me, his eyes wide and unfocused.

I felt like I was going to throw up.

"Nelson!"

I let go of the letter opener, leaving it in his throat, and he crumpled at my feet, gasping and sputtering blood and making a mess of my shoes.

My breath was shallow and quick. I raised my eyes to Erika, but Tyler Clark was right there, staring from Nelson to me like he didn't know which one to be angry with. I felt slow horror settle over me as his hands started to gather that same sort of frightening magic Nelson had used to burn me.

I saw him walk to me as if I was out of my body, detached and so scared I couldn't feel anything.

Hi raised his hand to my face, Nelson and his blood the only thing between us. Close, so close.

"Lima."

My name shook through me like a slap in the face. I fell back, away from Tyler Clark's magic, just as he turned. Erika had a hand on the doorknob, her body only barely supporting her. And next to her—next to her…

Thomas.

"You ruined everything," Tyler said, his voice breaking and mad.

Three things happened then. Tyler Clark raised his hands and pointed them at me, surely ready to blast me into inexistence. Erika yelled in a language that was either Latin or made-up, not that I cared. And Thomas ran at us.

I stared in utter despair as he went through Tyler like he wasn't even there, passing body and magic cleanly to fall on me as if trying to shield me.

Pain like I couldn't even imagine raged all over me when Thomas fell on me, so real and so vivid it overwhelmed everything else.

#

The first thing I noticed when I opened my eyes were the Christmas lights I'd hung all over my room. The second thing was that it was dark outside. The third was Thomas.

"Hey," he said. His eyes were perfectly clear, but he had that expression people got when they were about to start crying, which was entirely unacceptable.

If anybody was going to cry, it was going to be me.

I sat up, all my muscles screaming, but as the blanket slipped from my body, I realized my shoulders were smooth and unhurt. My T-shirt still had holes were Nelson had burned through.

"What happened?" I said, or tried to say. My voice sounded like I'd been yelling for hours, coarse and foreign.

Thomas was sitting on my desk chair, one leg pulled up to his chest. "That's a loaded question."

I turned my wrist in front of my face. Normal.

"Why am I not dead?"

"It's my fault, Lima. I'm sorry."

I looked at him, incredulous. "Are you apologizing for the fact that I'm alive?"

"No! I mean, I'm sorry you're even asking that question. It's my fault you were in that situation and—ugh, I don't know. I'm sorry, ok?"

I couldn't help but smile a little. I felt like I was still at that house, Tyler Clark about scorch my face. I was shaking. But I couldn't help smiling at Thomas. "Ok."

He shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, shut up. Tell me what happened."

His shoulders shook like he was about to laugh, but his eyes were empty, his face slack. "You passed out. I think because I touched you."

I remembered that. The pain and the screaming and the absolutely certainty that it was not right. I pressed my lips together and saw Thomas doing it as well.

"Then, what?"

"It was Erika. She did something to the short guy. She paralyzed him or something—with magic. It was all her."

"Did—" The words were on my tongue, but I felt suddenly choked. I closed my eyes. I didn't want to think too much. "Did Nelson die?"

Thomas was silent for a second. Then, softly, "Yes." I took in a sharp breath. "It was self-defense, L."

I nodded. "I know."

Thomas stood up from the chair and came to lean on the bed, close enough that I could see his chest didn't move with air like mine did.

"Erika healed you and brought us here. She put some spell on everybody or something, so they wouldn't see you unconscious. She was sorry, very sorry."

I raised both eyebrows. "Is this a Wizard trend?"

He gave me a little smile. "Apparently her Guild had been looking for me for a while, some prophecy or whatever. Nelson and the other guy hadn't thought I was such a good idea, so they off-ed me."

"Nelson, he killed his father, didn't he?"

Thomas nodded slowly. "Because his father tried to help me rest—but Nelson wanted my power. I don't know, Erika said I could go back and get a proper explanation if I wanted it. I was a little out of it."

I fell back on my bed with a sigh. "Yeah, I bet."

"I though you were going to die in front of me."

A dry laugh escaped my lips. "We could have been ghost buddies."

He chuckled. "You're not funny."

We stayed quiet for a second. I was focused on stopping my body for shaking, but it was really no use. I felt cold from inside, like I had a fever of ice. I turned on my side.

"Erika found the bone," Thomas said after a while.

"What?"

"My bone," he nodded toward my desk. "Nelson had it."

I frowned, but twisted over enough to feel around the desk without actually getting up. My fingers met two pieces of bone and I grabbed them. One was the bit of hand I'd been carrying around with me to let Thomas move. The other was a little longer and rounder on one end.

It was the missing dens of his axis vertebrae.

"Is this—?"

"My magic bone. Yeah."

I stared at the bone, then at him. It seemed so little and inconsequential. I had almost been killed for this piece of calcium.

"Well." I closed my hand around the bone. "That was anti-climatic."

Thomas's laugh was so loud it echoed in my small room. I half expected someone to come knocking and tell us to quiet down. I was pretty sure it was past midnight already.

I had to swallow around the feeling in my chest before I could speak again. "So, what do we do with it? How will this calm your restless soul?" I finished with a smirk. Like it was funny.

Thomas stared right at my mouth, not meeting my eyes. "Keep it."

"What?"

"Keep it," he repeated, raising his eyes to the ceiling. "I don't wanna be un-restless yet."

I slipped the dens and the piece of hand bone inside my pocket, where I could pretend they were safe. "You can't haunt me forever."

He smiled. "Only for a little while?"

I smiled back.


N/A: I haven't written a short story is such a long time! I'm fairly certain I forgot how to.

Anyway, what did you guys think? :) This story is still in the never ending limbo of being edited, so your comments are greatly appreciated 3

P.S.: I'll give you cookies.