VII: Ghosts & Ghouls
“Wait,” I say, hesitantly. “If this guy—Shepherd—if he separated the planes of reality, or whatever it is that he did—I still don’t understand any of this—how come I can see you right now?”
This time, I’m not incredulous; I’m curious. It’s a kind of curiosity that I haven’t felt in a long time. If I’m being honest, it feels good; however hesitant I may be to admit that.
It isn’t Bump who speaks up this time, but Shepherd himself—or Mr. Tanner, or whoever it is who happens to be using my English teacher’s body at this moment.
“That’s a bit…complicated,” he says.
“Complicated, how?” I press on. If I’m going to accept all this, I need an explanation. Even if that explanation is completely bizarre, it’s better than nothing.
“You see,” he goes on, rubbing at the back of his neck as though all this is just some embarrassing mix-up, and not the semi-literal boiling over of hell, “adults were never meant to be attuned to the astral plane; so, when I warded it off from humanity, I never took them into account. Normally, as people age, they develop an immunity to the spirits around them, and their connection to them wanes. As it turns out, it’s kind of hard to develop an immunity to something if you haven’t been properly exposed to it.
“Most of the people who were teenagers at the time of the Separation were already old enough that there wasn’t really much of an effect when they hit eighteen, and became adults. It was several years into the Separation before we realized that young adults were becoming reconnected on their eighteenth birthdays. For the most part, it was a non-issue—a couple odd dreams, a few strange shapes here or there in the periphery, but otherwise people were gaining immunity pretty quickly. It was a self-correcting problem. Then, a few months ago, it suddenly wasn’t anymore.
“As it happens—and this is the funny part—separating humanity from the astral plane didn’t actually separate the friends from their partners. There was no precedent for any of this, so I had no way of knowing that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. I figured, two birds, one stone, problem solved. The truth of the matter was that the connection was always there, it was just being suppressed.
“Eventually, we figured out that people who had had Friends when they were young weren’t developing an immunity to the astral plane the way that they should. Somehow, remaining connected to a spirit for all those years has given you all an immunity to becoming immune…you know?”
As he finishes this thought, he stares at me as though he’s waiting for me to say something, so I do. “No, I don’t know,” I say. “If that’s the case, then why don’t you just separate us on our eighteenth birthdays—the same way you did everyone else thirteen years ago?”
“I tried,” Tanner/Shepherd shrugs, “Didn’t take. I have no clue why. Like I said—precedent.”
“Well, I haven’t seen other ghosts, or anything like that except for these two.” I motion toward Bump and Daff. “Maybe this problem of yours isn’t as big as you think it is.”
“You’re a special case,” Daff says. “Your denial was so strong that you literally pushed the astral plane away by sheer force of will.”
“Wait a minute while I get this straight,” I say. “I was disconnected. I was one problem that you didn’t have to worry about, and yet you went out of your way to change that and get me all mixed up in all of this. Why?”
All of them exchange this implacable look. Whatever it is that they haven’t told me yet hangs so heavy between them that it almost feels like the air in the room is being weighed down. For an uncomfortable moment, nobody speaks. It’s Bump who breaks the silence.
“Jimmy, it’s about that note that we left on your window,” he says.
With all the craziness happening around me, I’d completely forgotten about my entire reason for coming here in the first place. A wave of guilt washes over me.
“Ty?” I ask. “What does my cousin have to do with any of this?”
“Do you remember earlier, when I mentioned the Boogeyman who rallied all the others?” Bump askes.
“Of course, I do,” I nod. “All of this is kind of difficult to forget.”
“Over the years,” he continues, “he’s put together a group of generals—the worst kinds of spirits you can imagine. Whatever evil they didn’t do in life, they’re making up for it in the afterlife tenfold. One of those generals goes by the name, Mr. G.”
The name slaps me hard in the face. It’s the same name that Ty was muttering in his sleep before I’d left. The conversation I’d overheard between Tasha and Daff comes back to me. Whoever this guy is, they’d said I was connected to him. If context clues are any indication, he’s connected to Ty as well. The pieces of the puzzle fit together, but if tonight has taught me anything it’s that I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. More than that, maybe I just don’t want the conclusion that I’ve jumped to be true. So, I ask.
“What does this ‘Mr. G’ have to do with me and Ty?”
Bump exchanges a glance with Shepherd, who nods his approval. Then, he gives me this long hard look that’s heavy with guilt. He looks almost as guilty as he did when he’d told me about why he had to leave. That’s when I know that my theory is correct. I almost don’t even need the words, but he says them anyway.
“Mr. G was supposed to be Ty’s Friend before he went rogue,” he says.
Even though a large part of me knew that this information was coming, that still doesn’t make it any easier to process. My cousin is linked to some sort of evil, ghostly, renegade general. As I roll this over in my head again, and again, I scramble to make sense of it.
“So, this Mr. G is after my cousin?” I ask. “Is that why his night terrors are back? I thought you said that we were supposed to remain disconnected from the astral plane until we became adults. Ty’s not eighteen for a few days, yet. How is this guy able to mess with him like this?”
“Dreams are a bit…different,” Daff answers me. “Dreams happen on a different plane, altogether. The dream plane is kind of like a crossroads between life and death. Spirits are able to commune with the living from there. It’s typically harmless, and people usually forget all about it when they wake up.”
“This isn’t harmless,” I insist. All of a sudden, I’m shouting again even though I don’t mean to. “Ty is suffering! Why is this happening? What does this Mr. G have to gain from my torturing my cousin?”
“Well…” Shepherd begins to answer. He doesn’t get any farther than that, though. Before he can continue, something strange happens.
All the lights in the gym begin to flicker on and off. The pace is slow at first, but it quickly becomes manic. Then, all of the bulbs shatter, sending sparks flying everywhere. I jump where I’m standing, taken completely off guard. The opposite can be said of all the others. They are now the most on guard that I’ve seen them all night.
“They know that we’re here,” Tasha curses under her breath. “I knew that this was a bad idea.”
“Who knows that we’re here?” I demand.
Rather than words, I’m answered by something else. As I frantically scan the room, I notice two pairs of glowing white eyes, blocking off both the main and emergency exits—more spirits. Something about them feels off though; more off than just them being dead. Their presence feels menacing, hungry almost. No, it’s not just hungry. It’s ravenous.
“Stand back!” Tasha shouts at me.
Then, her and Daff are running. Strangely, they’re not running at the Boogeymen. Rather, they’re running straight toward each other with no signs of slowing to a stop; at least, not until they do.
It happens with a honey-gold flash that’s somehow simultaneously muted and blinding. I shield my eyes with my hand out of instinct. When I uncover them, strange only gets even stranger. I suppose that’s just par for the course, lately. Instead of two people standing there—a spirit and a human—there’s only one. She looks exactly like Tasha, except that her eyes are glowing the same brilliant shade of gold as Daff’s.
Her clothes have been replaced with a black-and-yellow ensemble which consists of a leotard, ballet slippers, and a tutu, all worn beneath a cutoff leather jacket. She looks like something out of a child’s daydream.
I don’t have much time to take in her new appearance though, because almost immediately she takes off pirouetting through the air like some sort of flying human top. A glitter of golden sparks trails behind her as she careens straight into one of the Boogeymen, knocking it back with a spiraling buzz saw of a kick, and causing it to become visible.
The thing that appears out of thin air is barely human. Rather, its features seem arachnid in nature. Two glowing white eyes turn into eight. Four long, spindly appendages protrude from its back, suspending it a few feet above the ground. They look like the legs of a spider.
“We need to help them, Jimmy!” Bump shouts, shaking me out of my stupor.
“What the hell are we supposed to do?” I ask.
Without answering, Bump just runs straight at me in much the same way that Tasha and Daff had run toward each other. Then, the whole world flashes fluorescent green. I look around, and find that Bump is nowhere to be seen—he’s vanished.
“Bump!” I call out, scanning the room once more.
I’m here, Jimmy, Bump’s sly voice answers from somewhere deep inside my own mind. Just follow my lead.