Springtime in Hillcrest was a sight to behold, the mist rolling over the hill and bathing the blooms in dew. Wild columbine illuminating the streets, the riverbank, and the cliffs in soft red petals with yellow glow. Swamp milkweed came in early as May neared her end. The woods teemed with life.
Frankie laid in a small clearing in the woods, a favorite spot of the Fisher siblings, eyes closed as he faced the sky. Slants of sunlight made orange freckles against his brown skin, peaking through the canopy of leaves. Something small and fluttery landed on his nose, earning a giggle from him as he cracked an eye open to see. It was a winged sprite, his favorite one actually, the one with wings like a red spotted admiral. They gave him a little sharp smile, their teeth thin little needles that he knew from experience hurt. He returned the smile with a sharp one of his own, brandishing his own too sharp teeth. Their wings fluttered in triumph.
They lifted off his nose, tugging at a loose lock of his hair that had escaped from his bun, beckoning him forward. Sighing, he rose up and cupped them in his hands. They pointed in the direction they wanted him to go and he obeyed. He was secure in the belief that he would not be hurt here, lest the little people break their deals.
They tapped against his palms to get him to stop, pointed upward at the branches of a tulip tree. A quivering mound of smoky blue perched on one of the branches, their glow faint. The sprite in his hands mimed crying, rubbing at phantom tears with closed fists before laughing. He shook his head at them, setting them on his shoulder and climbing the tree. Once he was reasonably situated across from the crying ghost, he cleared his throat.
“Hello,” he said, nearly a whisper. He had never been particularly loud.
The ghost startled, throwing one arm up to protect themselves as they made to run, one leg phasing though the branch as they did so.
“I’m sorry. Are you alright?”
They looked at him incredulously. They’d been a young boy, maybe, hair buzzed so short there were only patches left. He hadn’t heard of any recent deaths. But then, not all deaths were known.
Alright, they cried, voice echoey, I’m dead! How could I be alright?
As they flailed around in their indignation, floating upwards, he got a better look at their form. They seemed fairly new, which meant the tattered hoodie and jeans had been what they died in. They weren’t wearing any shoes, had no discernable wounds, and a white ooze poured from their mouth as they spoke, washing down their chin. Poisoning, he decided.
“I can see that. I meant; did I startle you?”
Yes! they huffed.
He nodded. “When did you get here?”
The ghost scowled, getting ready to answer until they realized they didn’t know. They sat back down, staring blanky ahead of them.
I—they started. I’m buried here. I know that. It’s better than…somewhere. The echo didn’t leave their voice as a gagging joined it. They choked on their words, aware now of the spectral vomit escaping them—kecking on it. Tears welled in their eyes and their form flickered. What happened? What did I do? I was so good. They curled up again, sobbing.
On his shoulder, the sprite burst into little peals of laughter that sounded just like a cicada. He shushed them, reaching out for the ghost, the sprite warping the distance in apology. He made stroking motions against their head even though he couldn’t fully touch them. New spirits had less tangibility, especially in this state.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. You don’t have to worry about that anymore. You’re safe here if you want to stay.”
His hand went through them, he shuddered, shaking his fingers to try and get rid of the cold viscous feeling of a mourning ghost.
“In two weeks, you’ll have different problems.”
This was probably no more true than the obligatory assurance that everything was okay. After all, the kid was dead, that would be their only problem for a while until they decided to take their exit. He knew plenty of ghosts who never took their exits, stuck around haunting people and places because facing the unknown was too insurmountable a fear even in death. Or they just didn’t want to leave their families yet. He could respect that. He couldn’t imagine ever leaving Morgan alone if and when their parents decided he was no longer worth the trouble.
Still, the promise of something else later got the ghost to look at him again, face still stuck in that awful moaning expression like the killer from Scream. They sniffled.
I don’t wanna remember, not yet, they said.
He smiled reassuringly. “And you don’t have to. Would you like me to leave flowers by your grave?”
Tulips. I like tulips.
The spirit, who now wanted to be called Tulip, showed him their grave at the base of the tree. A mound of freshly upturned soil that no doubt just held a frail body left to rot. It was hurried and might not be deep enough to prevent animals from sniffling around. But no one came this far in the woods, except for whoever buried Tulip here. Taking a deep, calming breath, he made a mental note of the grave. He’d have to tell Morgan.
He faced Tulip who stood beside him, shifting uncomfortably at the sight of their own grave. “Tomorrow I will bring tulips,” he said.
Tulip nodded. I’ll be here, they said in an attempt at cheer.
He gave them a half smile in return, heading off towards home before his watch could beep to remind him. He had school tomorrow, last day of classes too. He still needed to clean out his locker.
Red, the sprite, left him on the edge of the woods, at the defunct bus stop with the broken rusted bench. He walked to Elliot’s to get his bike, gaining a halo of ghost orbs and blob ghosts humming and chittering in his ears. Each of them emitted a different colored light and he had to keep swiping them away just to see where he was going. They wouldn’t cross the overpass with him, let alone the bridge.
“You know, if you wait a little, Stevie can give you a ride back home,” said Elliot, sitting on his porch with his beagle puppy, Roxie, asleep beside him.
An appreciative smile tugged at his lips and Frankie shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ll be alright. See you at school.” He reached over and gave Roxie a scratch on the head, she woofed contentedly in her sleep.
“Yeah, okay. See you at school,” said Elliot.
Elliot didn’t know why Frankie always made the trip over to the Eastwood when getting back was such a hassle for him, but he never asked and for that, Frankie was grateful. He'd never lied to his best friend before and he did not want to have to start. Ever.
“Love you, later,” he said, pulling out of the driveway on his bike.
He did not hear Elliot’s mumbled response, the same words.
Frankie entered through the back gate, wheeling his bike up to the shed. The shrubbery climbed up the shed wall now, taking glee in finding extra space to grow. He’d ask Morgan if she wanted him to prune.
Entering the house through the back door meant he’d had to walk in his socks. They didn’t wear outside shoes inside. He left the thought of Tulip behind as the Whisperers set upon him, all twelve of them, which meant Morgan wasn’t home yet.
Welcome back, they said, swarming him in the hall. Their spectral bodies made of wispy blue fog, common among old haunting spirits, even as theirs was mixed with white now that they were regularly receiving offerings as guardians. Their echoey voices bounced off the walls of the hallway, doubling back on him.
Realizing that he’d been standing still too long, he waved up at the camera facing the back door. The Whisperers got the hint, pulling away from him so he could walk. He didn’t like going through them. Not that he didn’t like the cold, it was just, when you could see ghost, it felt invasive walking through them.
You’re the only one here, said Keneisha, holding onto the sleeve of his dark blue bomber jacket. He was hesitating at the stairs.
The cameras would pick up the movement of him nodding, and though audio was always distorted in this house, he wasn’t going to risk speaking until he was safely in his room. So, he walked upstairs to the main floor of the house, putting his sneakers on the rack in the entryway and replacing his socks with black and white sports sliders. He hung up his jacket, emptying his pockets. His parents didn’t care enough to check pockets, Morgan did, only because he’d had a brief period of forgetfulness where he left things downstairs that were best kept to the children’s area of the house. He’d grown out of it. They’d all made sure of that.
Just in case the Whisperers were wrong, he moved slowly, checking every corner he needed to take before walking ahead until he was finally unlocking his bedroom door. The Whisperers rushed in ahead while his security system scanned his face. It was proof of his usefulness, that he was an engineer like his father, could code like his mother. And if it meant that they got sprayed with silly string when they came in his room unannounced, then at least one of them found it funny enough to tolerate. His father found it funny. His mother found it precocious.
The scanner beeped and a robotic voice said, “Welcome back, Frankie.”
He stepped inside, basking in the light of his green glow stars on the ceiling, the constellations lined up so that Virgo, his sign, was right above his bed. One of the Whisperers shut the door and Via, done away with Octavia, wrapped him in a hug.
How was your day? she asked.
He shrugged, “Same old, same old.” He let his voice rise a little, though the dead did not need to strain to hear him. “I’m excited for summer.”
I’m not, said Miriam, lounging on his couch. Morgan will be at work; you’ll be spending most of your time at your little boyfriend’s. He rolled his eyes; Miriam was convinced that he and Elliot were dating. She sighed. What’s the point of haunting a house if there’s no one around to appreciate it? Say what you will about office life, at least I had something to do.
Miriam had been an editor at Ultra Red Magazine back in the 80s. Mr. Winston, Elliot’s dad, worked there now.
Serenity gave her an unimpressed stare. I’m sure you’ll find something. It’s not like you haven’t been haunting for 31 years.
He knew from Morgan’s research that Miriam had been one of the last victims of Richard Plinkman, the serial killer that previously owned their house.
You know what I think could help Frankie, said Raegan, sitting on top of his desk. If the TV in the nursery still worked.
He hummed in affirmation, pulling on an old, faded Space Cadet Terry T-shirt. Despite his best efforts at preservation, the printed-on logo was cracked. He switched out his baggy jeans for a pair of pink jogger shorts and dropped into his desk chair, spinning in circles as it rolled.
“It does work. It’s just old.” Not too old, it wasn’t like a CRTV or anything, it was plasma. He and Morgan never used the Nursery anymore and so, their parents never bothered to get a new TV for that room. It was also one of the few rooms without cameras in the house.
Something else to do this summer would be nice, added Missy, phasing up through his desk so she was face to face with him.
“The garden’s always an option.”
They couldn’t stray too far from the house; the backyard was as far as they could go.
Your room could use a little color, said Missy, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
We’re not doing that again, said Natalie quickly. I’m sure we’ll figure out something to keep us occupied this summer. Don’t worry about it.
See Nat, this is why you were murdered. You’re too damn nice, said Miriam, throwing a paper airplane through her.
Natalie covered Frankie’s eyes, ineffective since she was see-through, before flipping Miriam off.
He found it comforting to know that a love life was still an option in death.
His phone buzzed with a text from Morgan.
Morgan: Will be late. Hungry?
Frankie: Ok. No.
Her next text was in the Fisher Siblings Cipher, they’d made it up when she was eight.
Morgan: 8119 85 5120514 25520?
He looked up at the Whisperers, “Has he eaten?”
Not since this morning, said Natalie.
They didn’t know yet if their parents would be home. Otherwise, it was risky to make an extra plate for someone that was legally dead. There were cameras in the kitchen and they weren’t allowed below the lab. It wasn’t easy getting below the lab either way. The Whisperers could just drop down, phasing through the floors, but Natalie was the only one who ever did. She’d died here first.
He tapped his phone against his palm, trying not to think about Tulip only for his mind to worry for his brother, below the lab, alone. One day, he was dreading it, their parents would drive them across the city bridge and take them to the woods. Morgan already had a place in mind, though she never told him where, just that she did. They’d bury him deep and plant flowers over the grave, perennials. Something bright. And their parents wouldn’t be suspicious about them visiting because they always went to the woods.
Frankie, said Keneisha, brushing spectral fingers against his cheek.
He was crying. When had that happened? Scrubbing at his face, he let himself be held as he read Morgan’s texts.
Morgan: 235’1212 920 rx20.
Taking a deep breath, he set his phone down and reached for the colored origami paper in the cubby next to his desk. He folded different stars, piling them atop his desk until Morgan knocked on his door two hours later. The Whisperers talked over themselves trying to explain what happened as he buried his face in her shoulder. He’d have to tell her about Tulip in the morning. It might not be safe in the woods for a while. Late blooms and all.
For now, she hugged him back, and promised what she always promised. “We’ll figure it out.”