In the class of the high school English teacher she has been haunting, Helen feels them: for the first time in 130 years, human eyes are looking at her. They belong to a boy, a boy who has not seemed remarkable until now. And Helen—terrified, but intrigued—is drawn to him. The fact that he is in a body and she is not presents this unlikely couple with their first challenge. But as the lovers struggle to find a way to be together, they begin to discover the secrets of their former lives and of the young people they come to possess.
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Laura Whitcomb grew up in Pasadena, California where she lived in a mildly haunted house for 12 years. She has taught English in California and Hawaii. The winner of three Kay Snow Writing Awards, she was once runner up in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest for the best first sentence of the worst science fiction novel never written. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her dog Maximus.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead. I was with my teacher, Mr. Brown. As usual, we were in our classroom, that safe and wooden-walled box the windows opening onto the grassy field to the west, the fading flag standing in the chalk dust corner, the television mounted above the bulletin board like a sleeping eye, and Mr. Brown’s princely table keeping watch over a regiment of student desks. At that moment I was scribbling invisible comments in the margins of a paper left in Mr. Brown’s tray, though my words were never read by the students. Sometimes Mr. Brown quoted me, all the same, while writing his own comments. Perhaps I couldn’t tickle the inside of his ear, but I could reach the mysterious curves of his mind.
Although I could not feel paper between my fingers, smell ink, or taste the tip of a pencil, I could see and hear the world with all the clarity of the Living. They, on the other hand, did not see me as a shadow or a floating vapor. To the Quick, I was empty air. Or so I thought. As an apathetic girl read aloud from Nicholas Nickleby, as Mr. Brown began to daydream about how he had kept his wife awake the night before, as my spectral pen hovered over a misspelled word, I felt someone watching me. Not even my beloved Mr. Brown could see me with his eyes. I had been dead so long, hovering at the side of my hosts, seeing and hearing the world but never being heard by anyone and never, in all these long years, never being seen by human eyes. I held stone still while the room folded in around me like a closing hand. When I looked up, it was not in fear but in wonder. My vision telescoped so that there was only a small hole in the darkness to see through. And that’s where I found it, the face that was turned up to me. Like a child playing at hide-and-seek, I did not move, in case I had been mistaken about being spotted. And childishly I felt both the desire to stay hidden and a thrill of anticipation about being caught. For this face, turned squarely to me, had eyes set directly on mine. I was standing in front of the blackboard. That must be it, I thought. He’s reading something Mr. Brown wrote there the chapter he’s to study at home that night or the date of the next quiz. The eyes belonged to an unremarkable young man, like most of the others at this school. Since this group of students was in the eleventh grade, he could be no more than seventeen. I’d seen him before and thought nothing of him. He had always been vacant, pale, and dull. If anyone were to somehow manage to see me with his eyes, it would not be this sort of lad this mere ashes-on-the-inside kind. To really see me, someone would have to be extraordinary. I moved slowly, crossing behind Mr. Brown’s chair, to stand in the corner of the classroom beside the flag stand. The eyes did not follow me. The lids blinked slowly.
But, the next moment, the eyes flicked to mine again, and a shock went through me. I gasped and the flag behind me stirred. Yet this boy’s expression never changed, and next moment, he was staring at the blackboard again. His features were so blank, I decided I had imagined it. He had looked to the corner because I had disturbed the flag a little. This happened frequently. If I were to move too quickly too near an object, it might tremble or rock, but not much, and never when I wanted it to. When you are Light, it is not the breeze of your rushing past a flower that makes it tremble. Nor is it the brush of your skirts that starts a drape fluttering. When you are Light, it is only your emotions that can send a ripple into the tangible world. A flash of frustration when your host closes a novel he is reading too soon might stir his hair and cause him to check the window for a draft. A sigh of mourning at the beauty of a rose you cannot smell might startle a bee away. Or a silent laugh at a misused word might cause a student’s arm to prickle with an inexplicable chill.
The bell rang, and every student, including this pale young man, slapped books closed and stood, with a scrape of chair feet, shuffling toward the door. Mr. Brown snapped immediately from his bed dream. I’ll bring a video tomorrow,” he said. And don’t fall asleep during it, or I’ll make you act it out yourselves.” Two or three of his students groaned at this threat, but most were already gone, mentally if not physically.
So this was how it began. When you are Light, day and night have less meaning. The night is not needed for rest it’s merely an annoying darkness for several hours. But a chain of days and nights is the way in which the Quick measure their journeys. This is the story of my journey back through the Quick. I would climb into flesh aagain for a chain of six days.
I stayed shamefully close to my Mr. Brown for the rest of the day. When you cleave to a host, it is nnnnnot necessary to shadow the person from room to room. I would never follow a male host into the bath, for instance, or into the marriage bed, man or woman. I learned from the beginning how to survive. From the moment I found my first host, I had been devoted to the rules that kept my punishment at bay.
I remembered all my hauntings clearly, but only a few images stayed with me from the time before I was Light. I remembered a man’s head on the pillow beside me. He had straw-colored hair, and when he opened his eyes, he was looking not at me but toward the window, where wind was rattling the pane. A handsome face that brought no comfort. I remembered catching a glimpse of my own eyes in the window reflection as I watched this man ride away on a black horse through the farm gate, the horizon heavy with clouds. And I remembered seeing a pair of frightened eyes looking up at me, full of tears. I could remember my name, my age, that I was a woman, but death swallowed the rest. The pain, once I was dead, was very memorable. I was deep inside the cold, smothering belly of a grave when my first haunting began. I heard her voice in the darkness reading Keats, Ode to a Nightingale.” Icy water was burning down my throat, splintering my ribs, and my ears were filled with a sound like a demon howling, but I could hear her voice and reached for her. One desperate hand burst from the flood and caught the hem of her gown. I dragged myself, hand over hand, out of the earth and quaked at her feet, clutching her skirts, weeping muddy tears. All I knew was that I had been tortured in the blackness, and then I had escaped. Perhaps I hadn’t reached the brightness of heaven, but at least I was here, in her lamplight, safe. It took me a long time to realize that she was not reading to me; nor were her shoes spotted with mud. I held her, yet my arms did not wrinkle the folds of her dress. I cried at her feet like a wretch about to be stoned, kissing the hem of Christ’s garment, but she didn’t see me, couldn’t hear my sobs. I looked at her a fragile face, pale but rosy at the cheeks and nose as if it were always winter around her. She had gray duck-down hair piled on her head like a bird’s nest and sharp green eyes, clever as a cat’s. She was solid and warm with a fluttering pulse. She wore a black dress with mismatched buttons, the elbows worn thin. Tiny spots of ink dotted her butter- colored shawl. The cover of the little book in her hands was embossed with the figure of a running stag. It was all real and blazing with detail. But I was shadow, light as mist, mute as the wallpaper. Please help me,” I said to her. But deaf to me, she turned the page. Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird . . .” As she read aloud the familiar words, I knew what I was. I stayed by her side for hours, afraid that if I looked away from her or tried to remember too hard how I had come to be in hell, I would be thrown back there. After a score of pages, my host closed her book. I was frightened by the idea that she might put out the light when she went to her bed, and this panic made me fall on her again. I threw my head into her lap like a heartbroken child. The book fell from her hands and dropped through me onto the floor. I was startled at the painless flick of sensation. My host bent to retrieve the book of poems, and as her body passed through me, I felt myself dropping down and then soaring up again as if I were on a child’s swing. A most peculiar expression came over her face. She placed the volume carefully under the lamp on the desk beside her and took up pen and paper. She dipped at the ink and began to write:
A suitor bent upon one knee Death asked me for my hand
I could tell by the black stains on her fingertips that, most likely, these were not the first lines she had ever written. I couldn’t tell whether I had inspired her, but I prayed that I had. If I could do some scrap of good, perhaps I would be granted entrance into heaven. All I knew was that this saint was my salvation from pain and that I would be hers until the day she died. And that’s what I called her, my Saint. She was as poised as a queen and as kind as an angel.
I was confined to her world but was not her equal. I could fantasize that we were sisters or the best of friends, but I was still only her visiting ghost. I was a prisoner on leave from the dungeon I knew nothing of my crime or the length of my sentence, but I knew I would do whatever I could to avoid being tortured. Alone in the lilac air of her country garden, I glided ’round her while she wrote hundreds of poems, her hair and her eyes slowly growing white. One evening, when I had been moving with her along the road to the woods and back, we stopped to observe a fly struggling in a web while a spider waited on a leaf and watched. I could feel my Saint devising a poem about the possibility of spider amnesty, but what I didn’t realize was that she had stopped watching them and had marched home and was already dipping in ink before I turned to find her gone. At first I thought she must be just a few yards ahead, hidden by the hedges at the curve of the road. I rushed toward our home, but it was too late. The old pain returned, first to my feet, like ice slippers, then up my legs, slowing me to a crawl. I could still see the road in front of me, but as I fell forward, I heard a splash and cold rods shot up my arms and into my heart. I called to her until my mouth was full of water. The evening had gone black as my grave. I was back in the hell I’d known before I’d found her. I tried to do what I had done the first time I’d heard her voice. I thrust out my hands, feeling blindly for her skirts, but I felt only wet wooden boards. Clawing at them, I felt a corner and then a flat shelf, then another shelf. I dug into the boards and pulled myself up. When I reached out this time, I felt a shoe. The darkness swam into warm light. I looked up to see my Saint standing on the wooden steps of her pantry, a pen in one hand and a half-written poem in the other. She gazed out at the dusk garden as if she’d heard an intruder in her rose bushes. I was lying on her steps, one hand gripping her shoe, thanking God for letting me come back to her. After that I was ever so careful about staying close to my hosts. On my Saint’s final day, I hoped so passionately that she would take me with her into heaven that I lay in bed beside her, listening to her breathe. She had no nurse, no housekeeper. We were completely alone. I didn’t understand how much I would miss her until she lay still as the earth under my head. My Saint. My only voice on the air, singing or testing a metered line aloud. My only companion on autumn walks. My page-turner by the fireside. I prayed for God to let me go with her. I couldn’t recall my past sin, that deed I had done before my death that had banished me from heaven, but I prayed now for God to let me work off my debt beside my Saint. Remember how I had tried to comfort her when she was lonely, I prayed, and how I inspired her when her pen began to scratch out line after line of verse.
But God neither answered my prayer nor explained Himself. There was not even a moment when her green eyes turned to me in recognition. My friend, my Saint, had simply gone. The familiar cold began to tug at my feet, blistering up my legs, twisting ice into me. I was saved only by the insistent knocking at the door below. I swam down the air, through the bedroom floor, the hall ceiling, the wooden door, and, desperate not to be thrown to the darkness again, embraced the body that stood there. A young man who had been corresponding with her for a year, praising her verse, had chosen that day to call on her for the first time. He stood with a bouquet of violets in one hand, looking up at her curtained windows with disappointment. I shut my eyes, pressed my face upon his hand, and prayed to God to let me have him.
Eventually my prayers were rattled by the sound of horses’ hooves. I found myself sitting in the safety of his carriage at my new host’s feet beside the violets he had discarded. And so I was delivered again by a rescuer unaware. I called him my Knight because he had come to my aid when I was in distress. He was a writer, widowed and childless. He wrote stories of knights and princesses, monsters and spells, tales he would have told his dear ones at bedtime. His publishers would print only his books on Scripture, not these enchanting stories. This made him angry and caused him to walk about stiffly, like one who can never take off his armor. I tried to be his friend, and I believe I softened his words more than once so that his books would be accepted and keep his cupboards in bread. I had another close call with hell while at the theater with my Knight. He had gone with two friends to see a production of Much Ado About Nothing. As I stood in the box beside his chair, I fell in love with the costumes and fun of the players. I was as close to my Knight as two posts on the same fence, yet in the moment when I made a wish, I broke a mysterious rule of haunting. I watched the lovers in the pool of light below and wished one of them were my host. A chill beat through my heart. I slid down through the floor and half into my old grave before I could stop myself. I gripped my Knight’s hand and dangled there. I take it back,” I prayed. I want my Knight.” I struggled halfway in and out the window of hell for the rest of the act. An icy pain pulled at me from below as if I were standing on the floundering ship of my own floating coffin, the winter sea up to my hips. Please let me have him,” I begged. Finally, as the curtain fell, I was washed up onto the warm, dry carpet beside my Knight’s feet. After that I was careful what I wished for. At the end, as my Knight slipped away in a dim corner of a hospital room, I found that again I was losing my only friend. I prayed again to God to let me go with my host, but no answer came. What saved me this time was quite a different voice from those of my first hosts. A playwright who had broken his arm was laughing with a comrade in the next hospital room, repeating the adventure that had caused his injury. I left my Knight’s bedside, pulled out of the coldness that was already sucking at me, and tilted through the adjoining wall, folding my arms around this silly youth. I held him hard until I knew I was with him. This lad, my Playwright, was nothing like my first two hosts. He had parties in his rooms almost every night until dawn, slept until noon, wrote in bed until four, dressed and went to the theater to work, then dined out and started the whole celebration again. I don’t think he was at all aware of me. He and his friends seemed to do little else than make light of their talents. His plays made people laugh, but the only time I seemed to be influential was on certain dark mornings when he would wake after only an hour’s sleep, frightened by a nightmare. I would sit at the foot of his bed and recite poems written by my Saint until he fe...
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Book Description Paw Prints, 2008. PBD. Book Condition: Brand New. reprint edition. 288 pages. 8.25x5.25x1.00 inches. In Stock. Bookseller Inventory # z-143529372X
Book Description Paw Prints 2008-05-29, 2008. Library Binding. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P11143529372X