It was always cold on the second of September.
Although it had rained the night before, the early morning light – the kind that was white and thin – had dissolved most of the dew still clinging to the world. Not even birds were out, and the only moving thing was the ocean.
Many people walked the curving hills and steep dips by day, by brighter sunshine. The Coffee House was always open for visitors, right when the sun expanded over the east. For now, it was too early for the living.
But it was never too late for the dead.
When Sue had turned five, her brother ran away from home.
He had never run away before, and she didn’t understand what could have upset him so much. While her grandfather organized a search party and cried over the phone to the police, Sue slipped quietly away and ran to the park. If he was anywhere, he would be there.
Sure enough, there was her older brother, curled up in the tunnel for running through. His knees pressed to his chest, he sniffled. She crouched and crawled in.
His shoulder’s stiffened, then relaxed. “What?”
“Why did you run away?”
He looked up at her, and it was like he’d realized something monumental. He said softly, “You can see them too, can’t you?”
He was talking about the ghost. Sue turned her head to look and then faced her brother once again, unperturbed. “You can see him?” she asked. “Grandpa got mad when I told him, so I pretend I can’t.”
Sam Dong glanced from his sister to the translucent figure of the man floating by the mouth of the tunnel. “You…” he whispered.
Sue smiled brightly. “Maybe grandpa will believe me, now,” she said.
Sam Dong said nothing.
“He says,” she told him, gesturing to the silent dead, “that his name is Ryan.”
To the best of her knowledge, she had always been able to see ghosts. Ryan had always been with her, and although her brother stared at him now like he was some terrifying specter, she hardly found him scary at all. “He’s just plain old Ryan,” she said.
“Sue,” whispered Sam Dong, “How long have you seen them?”
His eyes snapped to her face. “Keep this a secret,” he ordered. He looked Ryan, silently watching over them. “He isn’t something we should see.”
“Why?” she asked, turning to look at her best friend.
Sam Dong grabbed her hand and pulled her from the tunnel, walking right through the ghost and shuddering at the cold. “Come on,” he muttered, “We’re going home.”
Sue found most organized events – especially High School – unconditionally boring. In the case that there was any unnecessary excitement in her day, the dark-haired young woman went out of her way to avoid it.
The moment the bell ending her second class of the day rang, Sue seized her backpack and marched out the doors of the school. The tall man waiting just outside the gates seemed fuzzy, as if his skin was being erased at the edges.
Sue’s pocket suddenly buzzed as she descended the stone steps of the building, dodging a few others that were also skipping class. The blue bell charm on her cell phone chimed merrily as she withdrew it from her pocket. She halted right in front of the closed gate and scowled at the caller ID.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” asked the man.
Sue swept her black bangs out of her eyes to look at him, and glanced around the rainy yard. When the last straggler rounded the corner, she turned to him. “It’s Clare,” she said shortly, as if this made it clear.
The man hummed and nodded. “So you’re avoiding her?”
She shrugged and wiped the rain from her face. “Not more than usual.”
He tilted his head as he looked down at her. “Why skip Biology?”
“Don’t feel like it,” she explained.
“Your Grandpa is going to have a fit when he finds out.”
“Who’s going to tell him, you?” she snapped.
They shared a glance, then a smile, and Ryan walked through the closed wrought-iron gate, body melting through the bars. “You shouldn’t talk to yourself, Sue,” he reminded her.
“Don’t be an idiot. I checked.”
“I’m not really here, remember? Sam specifically told you to ignore me,” Ryan said.
“I’d ignore you a lot better if you left me alone,” she mumbled.
The buzzing stopped, and Sue shoved her phone back into her dress pocket. The dead man sighed. “I think she knows you’re cutting class.”
She swung her backpack over the top of the gate and hoisted herself over rather than respond.
“Isn’t it time you talked to her?” he continued. “I know you two haven’t gone this long without speaking.”
“We’re not fighting,” Sue said, dusting off her legs after she landed. “I just need a break.”
Ryan floated along behind her as she set off up the steep hill. Her phone buzzed again. “She’s not giving up,” he observed. She grabbed her backpack and started up the slope. The rain slid right through the ghost and splashed to the cement. “Your house is down the hill, Sue,” he pointed out.
“If you’re going to follow me, make yourself useful,” she said. “I forgot my umbrella.”
Ryan smiled and floated after her. “Don’t you think it’d look a little suspicious if every drop of rain bent around you?” he said. “I don’t want people to suspect anything.”
As she passed a packed restaurant, the ghost of an old man suddenly emerged from the brick and stopped on the sidewalk, right in front of her. Sue kept her eyes straight forward and walked on, through the ghost of the old man and further up the hill. She hadn’t batted an eye.
Ryan looked impressed. “You’re getting better at pretending you can’t see them,” he said. “I remember when you were a little girl; you’d point at every ghost you saw. What’s changed?”
Once she was sure they were out of earshot of the restaurant, Sue said, “I realized that once they knew I could see them, they never left me alone.”
“Just like me?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she advised. “You’re different.”
The tall man smiled and floated through a stop sign. “Remember that ghost with the really big chin?” he asked. “She bothered you for a whole month, begging you to find her cat. She was the worst one.”
“Her chin was really big,”
“After you found her cat, she wanted you to bring it to her ex-husband. Do you remember how pale he got when you showed up with Princess on his doorstep?”
“I was nine and terrified,” she said.
“And then there was that hippie,” he reminded her. “After you plugged his girlfriend’s exhaust pipe with an orange, he told all his other friends about you, and you had dead crawling around your house for days. I couldn’t even chase them all off, either. Even when I told them you couldn’t help them and you were just a kid, they kept coming.”
They turned a corner, and many shops and an even larger hill lay before them. She moved around a group of tourists shopping at an outdoor stall covered in detailed beads. She waited till they had gone a ways and took a breath.
“Don’t remind me,” she said quietly. “I had to lie to Grandpa that I was being bullied at school so we could move. Even then some of them followed us.”
“I know why you don’t like getting involved with us,” Ryan told her. “I wouldn’t like it either. But you can’t deny that you’re special.”
Sue halted abruptly and turned to face him. She grimaced. “I am not special,” she deadpanned.
Ryan looked down through his feet and at the ground. “All I’m saying is that you needn’t avoid us completely. The big-chin lady and the hippie aside, there are some ghosts out there that could really use your help.”
A cloud shifted for a moment, and a beam of sunlight hit them. Sue clenched her jaw and used her hands to shield her eyes from the heavens. “We are not going to talk about this now.”
“Why not?” he shot back, and the rain covered them again. “Because you don’t want to hear it?”
“Ryan,” she warned.
“Are you afraid ghosts will start following you again?” he demanded. “Or is it something else?”
“If you’re going to act this way, then leave,” she hissed.
“There are people that need help,” he argued. “You don’t know what-”
She stood her ground.
He had never been able to deny those bright eyes, which were a peculiar shade of brown he’d never seen elsewhere.
“Don’t follow me” she snapped, and began to walk away.
“Sue! It’s dangerous to go off alone!”
“What if you run into the person that’s been kidnapping girls?” Ryan shouted after her. “How do I explain that to Sam?”
“I’m not going to run into the kidnapper, and I don’t need your help,” she said. “So go home!”
He watched her as she determinedly continued up the steep hill, and sighed once she was out of sight. “What am I going to do with you, Sue?”
She wasn’t a noisy person, but she was honest: she felt bad.
Ryan had never asked for something like this. He had been with her as long as she could remember, and of all the dead that had followed her, he had been the quietest. Sue sighed in exasperation. What did he want her to do?
He knew how bad it got when lots of dead knew she could see them. Her life was put on hold; they interrupted her during class, intruded in her home, woke her from sleep, spent all day yelling and threatening her to help. Some would even tip things over around her, trip people she talked to. One of the angrier ones had broken the windows of her classroom, and everyone alive had whispered that she was cursed.
Sue refused to live that life again. But…
Ryan had never asked her for so much as a cup of tea before today.
There was a silvery-blue shimmer up ahead between the drops, and Sue stopped in her tracks.
At the very top of the steep San Francisco hill stood the most beautiful dead woman she’d ever seen. The shining grey raindrops fell from the dark clouds overhead and splashed off of her midnight blue Hanbok. Sue stared. This woman was no level one.
She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t looking at anything, or even moving. The ghost just floated an inch off the pavement, right in front of a battered wall.
Ryan’s transparent face flashed in her mind, and she inhaled. She was just one ghost, right? Sue need only ask one ghost if she needed help, and then she would have a clear conscious. Hopefully for a while.
She took the first step forward.
The dead woman moved as if possessed – her glowing skirts swirled around her feet, and she went straight into the wall. Her body melted through, and Sue blinked. Maybe this lady did need some help.
She approached the entrance and glanced up. Above the door sat a group of blocky, wooden words in the Korean alphabet. Sue read quietly, “Kyung-”
The door swung open.
He smiled a strange smile at her, half-hidden in the shadow of the doorway, and the dark twinkle in his brown eyes spoke of untold secrets. The rain finally slowed to a drip, and amid all this, the young man said brightly, “Welcome to Kyung Tak Coffee House. What can I do for you today?”