Chapter Three: Nightmares
That night, Michael dreamed he, Dewey, and Short Round were young boys again, sitting in the room where Short Round’s grandfather kept his altar.
Grandfather Van had been a Buddhist monk until he fell in love with a young nun. He left the monastery with her to start a family, and became the wise man of his village. Michael remembered him well, a small, wizened man with bright black eyes, his face a parchment mask of wrinkles. When the war in Vietnam ended, he and his family escaped from the government’s persecution of those who had assisted the CIA, and was granted American citizenship at the request of the grateful soldiers he had served with.
Grandfather Van seemed to carry Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam within him. He had a wealth of stories he would tell the boys, old folktales he had heard when he was young, stories of his adventures with the American soldiers, and stories he had heard in the monastery.
He was fond of his grandson and his friends, and fed them sticky rice sweets and small oranges. Then he would take up his prayer beads and kneel before the altar that contained the large brass Buddha and the offerings he put in front of it. His room smelled of a combination of incense and liniment and was not an unpleasant place to be, even when he made the boys kneel behind him and listen as he chanted a prayer that only Short Round could understand. The prayers somehow always made the boys feel good, even as they fled the old man’s room and escaped outside to their bikes.
This dream of the old man was all crazy, like the dream of the girl. Short Round’s grandfather knelt in front of his altar in the saffron robes of a monk, chanting the same prayer over and over. Short Round knelt behind him, next to Michael, wearing the same saffron robes, his hair shaved instead of in its usual mohawk. When Michael asked him what was going on, Short Round looked at him intently, saying, “He’s saying a prayer to protect you. He’s asking the gods to watch over you.” Then he disappeared and Grandfather Van turned to him and said in his gruff voice, “You know what you have to do boy--now don’t think about it, just do it.”
Michael woke up in a sweat, breathing heavily, his hand on his heart to slow the pace of its beating. The dream had seemed so real that he had expected to wake up in Grandfather’s room. “Oh god,” he thought as he sat up and swung his legs onto the floor. He ran downstairs and took a glass out of the cupboard and filled it with milk, then went outside, despite the chill of the early morning, and sat on the back porch, looking at the yard.
It was that peculiar time when the sky starts turning from a dark inky blue, to the colors of dawn, lightening slowly until changing to rosy pink just before the sun rose. There was just enough night left for him to feel safe and hidden, as if something were out there that he should be afraid of.
His immediate thought was, “I have to talk to Short Round’s grandfather,” then to his dismay remembered that the old man had been dead for two years. Though the flags and the altar remained in the house, and the spirit boards stood sentinel outside, no one in the house had Grandfather’s special connection to the spirit world. There were two uncles in a Buddhist monastery in California, along with an aunt who had become a nun, but no one he could talk to about this. He wasn’t so sure that Short Round could do anything but see the ghost—something told him his friend did not have the answers that he needed. When it came to finding advice he would have to look elsewhere. Was that what Grandfather had been trying to tell him?
He went back inside and returned to his room. Suddenly he no longer felt like a fifteen year old boy. There was a burden on his shoulders; one he did not understand, but felt intensely, the weight of. The unfamiliar sense of anxiety he was feeling caused an uneasiness he did not like. There was more to this than meeting a pretty girl who happened to be a ghost. He did not know how the girl died; but there was a small voice inside him that spoke a truth he did not want to hear. He didn’t want to say the word out loud, but in his heart he knew that her death was not a natural one.
Unfamiliar, unwelcome words repeated themselves over and over in his head: “Murder”, the voice whispered, “She was murdered.”
He didn’t understand why he couldn’t get the voices out of his head. Here was a girl, a very pretty girl, maybe the prettiest he had ever seen. Those midnight blue eyes, the thick sheaf of brown hair, the fine bones of her face; all her delicate prettiness had not protected her from someone snuffing her life out. Death was something that he understood, but was still distant from him. Murder was an unthinkable thing, even though he read about it in newspapers, or watched stories on television. To him, the murder of a pretty fifteen year old girl was unthinkable.
Even though it was cold outside, he decided to get out of his room. He sat on the back porch and watched the sun rise, feeling mortally tired. Somehow sitting on the porch and staring at the yard, watching the world slowly come to life brought him a measure of comfort, small though it was. The things that troubled him and did not make sense seemed to retreat with the rays of the rising sun.
“Michael”. He turned around and saw his mother standing there, wearing a thick sweater and jeans, her blond hair tied back in a ponytail. In the half light of the sunrise, she looked more like his older sister than his mother. He liked that about her.
“You’re up early, sweetie, how long have you been out here?” She pulled his hair back from his forehead and kissed him. “You feeling all right?” She put her cool fingers on his forehead. “Nope, no fever. What’s up?” She sat down next to him and put her arms around him.
He leaned against her shoulder, “I couldn’t sleep, Mom, I keep having these really weird dreams.” He hoped she wouldn’t press him for information. He didn’t want to say anything that might distress her, or make it sound like he was complaining.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked. “No?” she queried as he shook his head. “Well, come in and put on a sweatshirt, and I’ll make mochas for us before the others get up. I’m fixing waffles and I’m going to start worrying about you if you don’t eat at least four.”
He smiled, “No problem.”
They stood and walked into the house. “You aren’t going to go and cut this on me?” she asked, gently tugging his thick blond hair. When he had decided to quit cutting his hair, his mom had been his advocate. He smiled and shook his head, then started up the stairs. “Michael,” she called, her cobalt blue eyes, the eyes he had inherited from her, were full of concern. He didn’t like to see her look like that. He paused, waiting. “Dreams are the mirrors of our subconscious. Sometimes weird dreams are ways we work out our problems in our heads, so don’t worry too much about yours.”
He made an attempt to smile and nodded, but inside he was thinking, “I wish it was that simple.” He turned from her so he would not have to meet her eyes, and went upstairs.
There was no competition for the bathroom so he took a long shower—a luxury since there were usually three other people waiting to use it. He toweled his hair as dry as he could and tied it back with an elastic band. He went back into his room and put on boxers, jeans, t-shirt, socks, and a hoodie. An idea was slowly forming in his head that he didn’t know whether to act on or not. Setting it aside for the moment, he went downstairs to the kitchen where his mother was setting out stacks of golden waffles and thick-sliced bacon.
The rest of the family was now awake and gathered at the table, speaking the language of ordinary conversation that helped soothe him. He piled waffles and bacon on his plate and began to eat, or rather devour, his breakfast.
It was about an hour or so later that he left. Kit was watching cartoons, while his parents were discussing something. He hoped it wasn’t about what he had told his mother, but he had faith that she would share with his father only the things she was worried about.
“I’ll be back for dinner,” he yelled, but didn’t get a response. He walked up the street and boarded the bus, heading for a part of town he usually didn’t frequent. There were galleries and coffee shops, but also a partially hidden little shop that he would never have dreamed of visiting before. He’d found this place on the Web and hoped it would be a good place to start. He felt nervous about going in, and couldn’t wait until he could escape to the skate park.
The shop had blue neon stars and a silvery white moon in its windows, the plate glass window in the door shielded by a lace curtain. The sign in the window read, “The Star Child”, and advertised books, herbs, incense, candles—and “Tarot and Psychic Readings”.
“What the hell am I doing here?” he wondered. He’d die if Short Round and Dewey knew. This was an act of desperation and he knew it. He would not be here if he knew what to do. All his life he’d scoffed at the paranormal; as far as he was concerned, ghosts didn’t exist. If Grandfather Van were still alive, he wouldn’t need to be here, but this was a problem he couldn’t solve on his own or share with his parents. Dealing with ghosts was beyond his experience. He just hoped he wasn’t making a fool of himself. Plenty of time to leave if he wanted to, he told himself.
He stood in front of the door, his heart pounding like it did before a skateboard competition. He took several deep breaths, then forced himself to turn the door knob and push the door open.
The proprietress of the shop was a tall African American woman who looked about Molly’s age. A red and gold silk scarf was wrapped around her head and the polish on her nails matched the color of her scarf. Her gold hoop earrings had snake’s heads, making her seem like a voodoo queen in a movie. He was feeling creeped out and almost ready to walk away when she spoke to him.
“I don’t sell no skateboards here, hon. Sure you at the right place?” She looked pointedly at his skate board, then he saw one side of her bright red lips curl into a half smile. Her expression was bemused, her dark brown eyes suddenly showed a friendliness that told him she was teasing.
He started to open his mouth. He wanted to say, “I was wondering if you could help me,” when the expression on her face changed.
He watched as she crossed to the door and locked it, flipping over the open sign. She gestured to him to follow her into a room hidden by a curtain. “You don’t need to be afraid of me,” she said as she saw him hesitate, “You came here because you need help, and I’m going to give it to you.” She sat him in a chair and went about the room, swiftly lighting candles and sticks of incense. She took a candle that was sitting on an altar and placed it on the table between them.
She sat at the opposite end of the table. “I know why you’re here,” she said, “Someone else knows because she followed you here. She’s standing in front of the curtain. She wants you to turn around and look at her.”
He shook his head. “No way, I want her to leave me alone,” he said fiercely, “I want my life to go back to normal. She wants something from me and I don’t know if I should help her. It could be dangerous, for all I know. I’m only fifteen; I’m too young to deal with a murderer.”
“How do you know that she was murdered?” The medium looked at him, her eyes looking deep into his, as if she could see his life written in them.
He gave the only answer that he could. “I don’t know how I know, I just…know.”
The medium looked at him intently. “Do you think anyone else in your family has seen her?”
“No, just one of my friends. He’s Hmong, he says they’re shamans and priests in his family and that’s why he can see her, too. They sort of live half in the spirit world, that’s what he told me anyway. He said she’s here for me, but I want her to go away.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. Now sit and be patient for a moment while I try to talk to her.” The medium closed her eyes. After what seemed like an eternity she opened her eyes and looked straight into Michael’s.
“I’m getting a name: Maria? No, Mariah. It’s definitely Mariah. The house you’re living in, she’s telling me that was her house. She says your room was her old room. She also told me that she was your age when she died.”
“Her death was a horrible one. A stranger hurt, humiliated, and tormented her before he finally killed her. She cried, she begged for mercy, but he only laughed. The police never found her body; she never had a decent burial. The man who killed her dug a hole in his basement and buried her there.”
“That was ten years ago. Her parents don’t know where she is. She’s the only one who knows her murderer is still alive. And you’re right when you say she’d like you to do something dangerous. She wants him found—she wants him dead. She wants her parents to have her bones so she can have a decent burial. She wants that more than anything else.”
“I tried to convince her to pass into the light, to let go of her anger, but she’s not interested. She thinks she wants justice--what she really wants is revenge. You’re young and attractive, she’s drawn to the good qualities in you. And like I said, you’re the same age that she was, and you live in her old room.”
“This is what happens to people who die sudden, violent deaths, especially young people. Since she barely had a chance to live, she thinks like a..,” she hesitated, “A teenager. She thinks she knows what she wants, but she doesn’t think about the consequences. She might not want anything to happen to you, but it doesn’t mean she wouldn’t use you to further her ends. And besides, she’s quite infatuated with you.”
Infatuated with him? Great, that was totally nuts, thought Michael. “What do I do?” he asked. He was starting to feel helpless because part of him felt genuinely sorry for the girl. He was torn between wanting to do help this pretty, tragic girl, while at the same time, he wanted no part of her.
“Before you decide to do anything,” the medium said sharply, “Think about what you’re doing. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. She won’t hurt you, but she probably isn’t going to do you any good. You’re going to have to decide if helping her is worth the price, and believe me, there will be one.”
She got up, and he followed her out of the room. She looked in the glass cases filled with stones and jewelry, and drew a necklace out of a pouch. “This is a Saint Michael medal,” she told him, “It’s used by people who are being haunted by demons. Exorcists pray to Saint Michael and it’s good protection for anyone who’s being haunted by a ghost.” She went to a display where there were a number of tall, thick candles. She picked up a small clay bowl and a black candle. “Burn this candle every night for protection. It’ll take a few days or so to burn down. I wish I could say it will take care of your problem, but things like this don’t always have an easy solution. If you wanted to talk to her…”
“NO!” Michael hadn’t meant to raise his voice, but talking to the girl was the last thing he wanted to do. He shook his hair over his shoulder, “I don’t have money to pay for any of this,” he told her.
“It’s all right, consider it my gift, I’m afraid you’re going to need it,” she said as she fastened the medallion around his neck. She carefully chose her next words, “I’m worried about you, I think you need to be careful. Maybe this girl is what she seems but maybe she’s not. Ghosts are not necessarily harmless entities. If she has an agenda and you’re part of it, you’re going to have to watch yourself.”
He put the bundle she made in his pack. “Is there any chance that she’ll just go away?” he asked.
The medium shook her head. “Burning sage might keep her away for a few days; then again, it might not. If you want to know what I really think, then I say this to you: the two of you are tied together somehow. Maybe by where you live, maybe your age; maybe you’re developing into a medium and that drew her to you. It’s possible you were supposed to meet her, and that your moving to your house was no accident. If your destiny is tied to hers, you’ll have to see it to the end.”
She took his wrists in her hands, holding them tightly, a jolt of energy ran through him, something he had never felt before. “Be careful St. Michael, this may be a dragon that you can’t fight alone. Don’t do anything stupid, no teenage bravado,” she told him, “Go to Saint Michael’s Catholic Church and burn a candle to him. If you need help, you ask for it. If you need me, I’ll be here.” She let go of his hands and watched as he hurried out the door, not daring to look back.
He couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. He almost ran through the square to the bus, and when he sat down he found that he was shaking so hard he could not stop. The emotions were running through him were so strong that he felt like throwing up, or crying, or both. Fear for himself, the shock that the girl was all too real, and the general situation he faced overwhelmed him. It wasn’t like him to cry, even when his family lost their home. It was just too much for him to make sense of, having to deal with things he did not believe existed. Going to that shop had been a big mistake. He started to pull off the medallion but thought better of it, it felt oddly comforting hanging around his neck.
When he got to the skate park, Dewey and Short Round could sense that something was wrong. He wasn’t laughing and joking the way he usually did. He skated strongly and steadily, but didn’t seem interested in doing his complicated things like his flips. Michael usually skated as if someone might be scouting him, or just to show off. Today he seemed unusually subdued.
When they asked him what was wrong he shook his head. “Nothing’s wrong. I don’t have much energy today, so I’m taking it easy.” Dewey and Short Round looked at each other. Mike wouldn’t take anything easy, unless he was bribed. In spite of their curiosity, they decided to leave it alone. Pressing him wouldn’t give them answers. He’d only withdraw further into himself and maybe not talk to them at all.
When Michael got home his parents were preparing to take the family out for pizza. It was nothing fancy, but his parents felt they deserved a treat. To their surprise Michael declined, saying he wasn’t in the mood, which in truth he wasn’t. His mother put on a face of mock surprise and his father expressed plain disbelief, but they didn’t push the issue. “There’s lots of food in the fridge, I’ll be okay. I just don’t feel like going out.” His mom kissed him goodbye and he watched as they pulled out of the driveway.
He went downstairs and pulled some food out of the refrigerator, sat in front of the TV and tried to divert himself watching “Lords of Dogtown” while he ate. He regretted the pizza, but right now all he wanted was to be alone. He was half afraid the girl would appear to him, and kept listening anxiously for his parents’ car. He did not go to bed until long after they returned, and slept a blessedly deep and dreamless sleep and woke up wondering if it had all been a dream.