They say lightning never strikes the same place twice.
And I mean, I guess they were right. It struck about ten inches to the left of where it hit before, which means that this time, the lightning struck Rob Wilkins instead of me.
So of course I freaked out, because after all that time in the war, seeing my husband (isn’t that so weird? I can’t believe Rob is really my husband) light up like a firework wasn’t exactly the cool thrill it would have been a few years ago. When I got hit, I mean, and was all, Ruth, I’m cool; check my ass for an exit wound!
“Jess,” Rob said – because he couldn’t very well call me ‘Mastriani’ anymore, he’d started calling me Jess – “Cool it, alright? I’m… I’m fine. I feel great, actually.”
So I reached for him and pulled open the top three buttons of his shirt (not that I really needed the excuse) and there it was. An angry, purple scar shaped like a star right over his heart. Unlike mine, his had seven wavy arms, but still, it was unmistakable.
“Shit,” Rob said appreciatively. “So you think I’m gonna be psychic now?”
I just sighed.
After I dragged him home and checked him – very thoroughly, thank you, which I think he liked – for an exit wound that I knew wouldn’t be there, Rob did the proper husbandly thing and made me dinner. I mean, I was stressed out, okay? The kind of stress that can only be cured by massive brainmelt of the Real Housewives type, followed by chick’n fried steak and potatoes.
Ruth despairs of my new taste for Grit food. I told her that’s exactly what she’s getting when she and Mikey go down to Red Hook, but does she ever listen?
After dinner, Rob went out to the garage – he’d just gotten in a ’77 Royal Enfield in a sorry state – to work on the bikes. I followed him, just to make sure he didn’t suddenly drop dead of lightning-induced heart arrhythmia or whatever, like everyone always thinks I’m going to, and I got in his way until he finally growled at me and set me up on top the cabinets to hand him wrenches and things.
“Chill out, Wilkins,” he said from beneath the bike’s body. “I’m fine. Now hand me that axel wrench.” He paused. “Please.”
I handed down the axel wrench and Rob rolled out from under the platform. He smiled reassuringly at me and kissed my forehead when he took the wrench, and I wished his hands weren’t covered in grease.
“I really promise that I’m not going to drop dead,” Rob said. “You can go watch more Real Housewives of Indianapolis or whatever, if you want.”
“I’m just – I just wonder if we should call Dr. Krantz,” I said, hooking my thumbs into his belt loops. “I think he’d want to know.”
Rob’s jaw tightened. “No. Look, we don’t even know if anything happened to me, and anyway, do you really want to go back to doing that? What if – ” He shook his head. “There might be another war, Jess. And I’m not letting that take you away from me again.”
I kissed his lips. “Are you almost done? I think I just want to go to bed. Today sucked.”
Rob nodded and put the axel wrench right back where I’d gotten it. “It wasn’t all bad. I liked when you were checking for that exit wound. In fact, you could check again before we go to sleep, if you want.”
I snorted and hopped down from the cabinetry. “You wish.”
While Rob was in the shower, I took the milk carton out of the fridge out of habit.
NAME: Tabitha Ruth Howser
DOB: February 12, 2001
MISSING DATE: December 26, 2006
AGE NOW: 6
MISSING CITY: Key West
MISSING STATE: FL
MISSING COUNTRY: United States of America
WEIGHT: 43 lbs (20 kg)
HEIGHT: 3'2" (97 cm)
HAIR COLOR: Red
EYE COLOR: One brown, one green
IF YOU HAVE ANY INFORMATION ABOUT THE WHEREABOUTS OF THIS CHILD, PLEASE CALL 1-800-WHERE-ARE-YOU.
I ate a couple of Oreos as I stared at Tabitha Ruth Howser’s face. She was a cute kid. There was a smudge on her nose in the picture, like she’d been finger painting. It wasn’t a school picture, but I guess that made sense since she was so little.
Every once in a while, my mom asks me when Rob and I were going to have children. And I always tell her: “When they stop going missing.”
Rob came out of the bathroom in a towel – I liked very, very much – and took the milk carton and the Oreos out of my hands. He ate five cookies at once like it was his own personal Chubby Bunny tournament as he stared at Tabitha Ruth Howser on the back of the carton.
“Well, here goes nothing,” he said once he’d swallowed. “I guess we’ll find out in the morning.”
“I guess we will.”
So we went to bed. I slept surprisingly easily, considering I’d seen my husband struck by lightning. When the morning came, the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and Rob’s arm tightened around my waist.
Oh, and Tabitha Ruth Howser? She was near a highway overpass in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. There was an old graveyard and she was buried near a huge angel gravestone for Maria de Silva, 1831 – 1892. Once upon a time, I’d have assumed she was just standing there, staring at the gravestone. And hey, she might be.
But usually they weren’t.
So I rolled over and I kissed Rob and I asked, “So… do you know where Tabitha Ruth Howser is?”
Rob nodded, eyes wide.
“Yeah.” He pointed to our throw rug. “She’s in our room.”
I was still in my ♥Pinks when Jesse knocked at my dorm room door.
“Susannah,” he sighed, sounding tired – but not because it was eight o’clock in the morning, like a normal twenty-two-year-old med student. No, it was because he had to look at his girlfriend’s underwear, of course. “Please wear clothing when you answer the door. It could be someone other than me someday.”
“The only other person who comes to see me is Paul, and he always calls first,” I yawned, opening the door to let Jesse in. He stood stubbornly in the hall until I grumbled and pulled on the very fluffy, very un-sexy robe that he’d bought me at the beginning of the year.
Jesse scowled. “Yes, well, I would not put it past him to try to catch you in your altogethers.”
I pulled my hair into a ponytail. “Nobody says ‘altogethers’ anymore. People are going to think you’re eighty.”
Jesse grinned wryly, like he always did. “Yes, well, if only I could be so young. Now put on traveling clothes, we have to go to Indiana.”
I was horrified. “Indiana? Why would anyone ever need to go to Indiana?”
I’m from Brooklyn, okay. California is already countrified, in my opinion. God, in Indiana, they probably served things like rocky mountain oysters or chuckle at McDonalds. If they even had McDonalds that far out into the sticks. And there was definitely no BCBG Outlet in Indiana.
“There is a ghost who needs our help,” Jesse whispered. We were more than aware that the walls of my dorm building were paper-thin.
Oh, not because we’d ever woken anyone up or disturbed their studying, of course. Nothing fun like that, not with a displaced 150-year-old rancher for a boyfriend.
No, instead we knew because of how many times Jesse would turn beet red and start mumbling about how he needed to contact Father D. about how CSUMB was playing host to a brothel. A few times, he’d actually gone to knock on doors and ask people – politely! – if they wouldn’t mind restricting their activities to more private quarters. And a few times, I’d suggested that maybe we could get revenge on them and make a little noise of our own. To which Jesse suggested that I marry him. And I suggested that he figure out that people don’t get married at eighteen anymore.
And then he would look all hurt and adorable and I would kiss him and promise that I did want to marry him someday. Marriage was probably a rough subject for him. After all, last time he tried to get married, somebody shot him.
Kind of. In another dimension, or whatever. In a world where Diego hadn’t died in a fire.
“How do you know there’s a ghost in trouble in Indiana?” I asked. “Are there undead calling cards now?”
“She’s a friend,” Jesse said sadly. “Or she was, when I was… like her. She always stayed in the cemetery at Junipero Serra, but somehow she got transported to Indiana. We have to go get her, bring her back to the cemetery, and then help her move on.”
“You seem awfully concerned for someone who was just a friend,” I said, turning to my closet to pull out the backpack I kept for the few Mediating field trips we’d gone on in the past. Toothbrush, hairbrush, toothpaste, socks, extra underwear, Seven for All Mankinds, a crappy sweatshirt in case there was a lot of digging involved, and a few t-shirts. Never any pajamas. Hey, give me some credit, it was a creative and plausible way to entice Jesse!
Of course, he just handed me his own extra t-shirt and chose to sleep on the couch. Except once, when we were at a Kum-N-Go Motel Express and there was just the one bed. That night, he slept standing up in the shower. I guess when you go a hundred and thirty years without sleeping at all, it’s not hard to get comfy anywhere.
“Susannah,” Jesse said softly, touching my arm. “Tabitha is only five years old. And she needs our help.”
I sucked in a breath. “She’s only been a ghost for five years, or – ”
Jesse shook his head, looking pained, and I thought about how he used to have all those little sisters.
“I’m ready when you are,” I said, shouldering my backpack.
Jesse smiled thankfully and kissed me. “Thank you, querida. I know how much you hate the idea of being so many miles away from that silly coffee shop you like.”
“Yes, that’s it. But I am sure there will be coffee in southern Indiana. I understand that it is a breakfast staple there.” He smiled winningly and I had to smile back, even as I rolled my eyes.
“As long as you don’t try to feed me grits, I’m already there.”
I rolled over and stared at Rob. “What do you mean, she’s in our room?”
Rob paled. “You can’t see her?”
I looked over my shoulder at the rug again. Just rug. No red hair. No green eye, no brown eye. No smudge on her nose.
“Are you pranking me?”
Rob looked upset. “No! Why would I – no. No, she’s right there, she’s sitting on the rug staring at us.” He paused. “She is not a meanie!”
I pulled back. “I didn’t say she was.”
“No, she – Tabitha – Tabitha called you a meanie, for saying she’s not here,” Rob said, looking stricken. “Jess… I think something happened when that lightning hit me.”
I sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, I think you’re right.”
“Can you call Dr. Krantz?”
“Yup.” I moved to get out of bed, but Rob held on tight.
He pressed his lips against my ear. “Please don’t leave me alone in here with the creepy dead little girl.”
So after about forty-five minutes of Rob narrating the invisible staring of Tabitha Ruth Howser, she finally decided, apparently, that she wanted to watch a Spongebob and disappeared, so Rob and I ran for the phone to call Dr. Krantz. At first he sounded just delighted to hear from us, and then he just sounded – well, ecstatic.
“This is so exciting!” He gushed. “I did wonder if it was your house, when I heard.”
“When you heard what?” I asked suspiciously. “I thought you weren’t bugging my phones anymore.”
“Oh, I’m not,” Cyrus Krantz hurried to assure me. “No, no, no. No, we have our psychics... and we have our mediators. I got a call from Dr. Paul Slaski out in California this morning – ”
“California?” I interrupted, “Carmel-by-the-Sea?”
“Yes!” Cyrus said, sounding pleased as punch. “How did you know?”
I didn’t feel like getting into it just then. I didn’t want to say, ‘oh, because her body is in a shallow grave on top of a century-old grave, just so you know; there’s a kiddie murderer on the loose again.’ It wasn’t my favorite way to start the day.
So instead I said, “Who’s Paul Slaski?”
Cyrus Krantz chuckled. “That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms right there. Suffice to say, he’s sent Mr. Wilkins some help with your little redheaded situation. They should get in around lunchtime tomorrow.”
I tensed. “More agents? Because if you thought I made trouble for Alan and Jill, then you should know that it was actually Rob who blew up that helicopter.” I paused. “You can’t – you can’t still charge him for that, can you? It’s been like five years.”
“I think we can let it slide, considering all of the service you and Mr. Wilkins have put in for the FBI and US Military over the years,” Cyrus said wryly. “And no, no agents. Just some people who I think you’ll find very useful.”
“Okay,” I said dubiously. I glanced at Rob, who was sitting slumped over in one of our kitchen chairs, staring at the TV softly droning Spongebob into the living room.
“After Jesse and Susannah get in, call me, will you?” asked Cyrus. “I’m interested to see how this all pans out.”
Southern Indiana reminded Jesse of home. ‘Home’ meaning the California ranchos of 1849, not ‘home’ meaning ‘Cliffside Diner and In-N-Out and palm trees and suntans’ of Carmel, now. No, the sprawling golden wheat fields, soggy lakes of soybeans, lazy cud-chewing cows, and white picket fences reminded him of a simpler time, when girls were not harlots who didn’t bring any pajamas with them for the stopover at E-Z-Sleep Inn.
Whatever, he secretly loved it. He could keep pretending to be quietly morally outraged if he wanted, but I saw how his eyes followed my legs… for those two minutes before he rolled his eyes at me and pulled a brand-new pair of Target pajama pants out of his backpack for me.
I don’t mean to sound so bitter. I love Jesse, and everything. Love him enough to have actually gone to hell and back for him – twice.
I was just getting a little tired of having to confine my love for his fine, fine form to the above-the-neck area. Maybe meeting this couple out in Indiana would give Jesse a clue about how modern people interacted – because let’s face it, Paul and Kelly were not exactly shining beacons of moral standards, and Adam and Ceecee were so awkward that it almost hurt to look at them. Bless their hearts.
Driving through Nevada and Utah, Jesse had told me all about the call he’d gotten from Dr. Slaski – yeah, he loved Jesse, even more than he loved Wheel of Fortune, and definitely more than he loved me or Paul – and some guy named Dr. Krantz. Apparently, that girl from TV who became a psychic after getting struck by lightning had married this guy… who got struck by lightning yesterday, and it made him become a mediator. Dr. Slaski knew all this because he had this PKE-enhanced Ectoplasmic Geoshift Fluctuation Node compass thing, and it went all crazy and led him to call up the FBI branch in Indianapolis. So Dr. Krantz did some D.C. spooking and for some reason, Tabitha Ruth Howser’s ghost was now stuck in some motorcycle garage instead of the nice cemetery at Junipero Serra. And, of course, the only mediator around had only been one for about a day and was of no help whatsoever.
Add in Jesse’s fondness for chivalry and heroics, and there you go. Road trip to Indiana.
I was almost asleep when we pulled into the right town. The windows were open with the spring heat floating through the car, and I was resting my feet up on the dashboard, much to Jesse’s chagrin. He kept pointing out that if we crashed, my knees could go right through my face.
“Well, why are you in medical school if not for that exact situation?” I asked, smiling cheekily at him.
Jesse shook his head, but lifted my hand off the center console and kissed it. I squeezed his hand back and thought, well, sometimes life as a shifter is pretty amazing after all. Three years ago, Jesse was dead. He’d been murdered on the eve of his wedding a century and a half before. And now he was sitting next to me, looking mighty fine in his black t-shirt, the way it contrasted with his dark, warm skin and straight white smile. He was alive. And that was incredible.
This town, however, was not.
“What is a Chocolate Moose?” I asked, looking out the window in horror.
“I believe it is a French dessert like a pudding,” Jesse said, concentrating on the road signs.
“No, I know that,” I said, “But I mean, why not a Pinkberry? Or even a Ben & Jerry’s?” I stared as another restaurant passed. “Joe Junior’s? Where’s Pizza Hut?”