Michael sat, skateboard at his feet, in the back of the bus, dreaming of mountains, geysers, and horses. Behind the screen of his eyelids stretched a great blue sky reflected in icy mountain lakes. Such a thing as sanctuary did exist after all.
He wondered idly how Dewey was doing. For the first time in their lives, he and Short Round were starting the school year without their best friend. It felt wrong, somehow, but nothing could have changed the fact that Dewey was a year older. He was happily ensconced with Anya in a little apartment not far from the Dartmouth campus. How he’d managed to skirt the dormitory residency requirement was a mystery known only to him. Michael knew nothing ever stopped Dewey from doing things the way he wanted. Not even an Ivy League’s school regulations.
The tire of the bus hit a bump, shaking him awake. Her stop was coming up, and she was the last person he wanted to see. Thea was a fly in the ointment of what he’d wanted to be a perfect day. There were too many memories, too much anger, and too many truths he wanted to be kept hidden. There would be no peaceful ride to school if Thea found him.
She made a beeline for him when she got on the bus. She plopped her skateboard down on the seat and turned to stare at him. She’d let her hair grow over the summer and she looked less gamin, less pixy. She’d put streaks of pink and purple in her black tresses, and her makeup was done in shades of silver, purple and black. Thea had always looked soft and pretty, no matter how punk her makeup. Now she just looked angry—and hard.
“Where the hell were you this summer?” There were no niceties, no “Hello Michael”, no polite “Hi’s”, just “where the hell were you?” Her look cast daggers at him, demanding, not asking, an explanation.
So he gave it to her. “Wyoming. Dad has a friend who owns a guest ranch not far Yellowstone Park. He offered to let Kit and I work for him over the summer.”
“Oh, nice. You get to go play cowboys and Indians in Wyoming while I spent a month in treatment, and then the rest of the summer going to freaking AA meetings.”
Did it do you any good? Michael wanted to ask but knew better.
“Okay, who made you get drunk and try to play GI Jane?” He held up his hand as she started to object. “I’m grateful that you saved my sister’s life, but there are a lot of choices that you could have made that you didn’t. Maybe killing that guy was your only alternative, but you’ve got to deal with it now. Getting angry at me won’t .change anything. You could have gotten yourself killed, along with Kit.”
“That’s easy for you to say. I’m stuck with a group of self-righteous jerks who pretend to care about me. If I hear one more word about God, or Higher Power, or about “working the program” I’m going to throw up on the person who says it. I don’t have a problem, I’m fine. If I did have one, it was thinking that I was I love with you.” She stood up abruptly, snatching her skateboard from the seat, and stomped up the aisle in her Doc Martins.
Michael breathed a sigh of relief. He was sorry for Thea, but knew she didn’t want to hear it. Even if it hadn’t been for Mariah, he still could not have given her what she wanted from him. He’d learned it was a cold, hard, world, and friends were the best assets you could have. If all else was taken from you, you still had your friends.
He looked out and watch the city. Not too much longer now and he’d be walking in the doors of the old brownstone school. Soon the most important year of his life would begin, and he felt both dread and joy.
Tiny fingers, cold as the grave, began the stroke the back of his neck. A cold breath blew gently into his ear. “Michael,” said a voice inside his head as an icy hand grasped his, squeezing it gently.
“Mariah?” Please God, he thought, “Let it be her, please?”
“Michael,” said the voice again, mocking him. He looked and saw the shimmering mist next to him and watched as it began to take shape: head, arms, legs, then just as suddenly disappeared.
He sat up, awake, yet not knowing where he was. As the familiar features of his room began to take shape, he fell back on his pillow in despair. There was no bus, no Mariah, and he was alone.
He got up, showered and went downstairs. His mother, smiling, was cooking breakfast, but her smile disappeared when she saw him. He could tell she wanted to say something to cheer him up, but knew better. Instead, she set down his plate filled with bacon and eggs and only kissed the top of his head.
Kit looked at him, knowing, her young face older than it should be, what happened had changed her too. They’d made an agreement not to tell what had really happened, Who would believe them, anyway? “We are such things as dreams are made on,” Mariah had said to him once. Only he, and now Kit, knew that such things were real, not dreams. Grandfather had been right, the spirit world was real.
Short Round was waiting for him at the flagpole, he saw the look on Michael’s face and put his arm around his shoulders. “Don’t worry, bro, it will be okay.”
“Yeah, how?” Michael said sarcastically.
“Remember how I told you, when this all started, that she might not be what she seemed to be?” He smiled at the expression on Michael’s face. “Well, she wasn’t, but she helped save Kit and Thea. Without her, that would not have been possible. And, if it’s possible for spirits to love, she loved you. She risked what she was supposed to be doing for you. She protected you, and if she were here to tell you, she’d say she wanted good things for you.”
“Buddhist wisdom there, short one?”
“No, Buddhists don’t believe in Furies, but they believe in demons. Believe me, this was a lesson for me, too. I thought I knew way more than I did.”
“So, what lesson am I supposed to take away from this?” Michael tried to smile.
“I don’t know, maybe the lesson was for you to just live your life.” As usual, Short Round had a point. Mariah would want him to be happy, but he was not sure he could be happy without her.