Say It Haint So

Say It Haint So
Maureen Hardegree

October 2012 $10.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-209-5

Book 3 of the Ghost Handler series

Heather’s got a hunky new guy and a grumpy old ghost.


 
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First it was Jack, the hot teenage ghost. Now it’s Zac, an all-too-alive bad boy. Not to mention trouble with Drew, Audrey and the usual BFF dramas. The last thing Heather needs is a new haint on the scene, especially not the ghost of her cantankerous grandfather.

*

Four weeks were all that was left of summer vacation, if you counted Thursday registration the first week of August, and I did.

I had made some progress on the summer goal front.

1) My older sister Audrey tolerated my existence more than at the beginning of summer, as long as her friends weren’t around and my geeky friend Xavier kept his distance.

2) Drew and I chatted. So at least I was on his radar. But he had a clingy girlfriend I wanted to unwrap from his frame.

Then trouble arrived in a muscle car—our neighbors’ bad boy grandson Zac. Audrey called dibs on him, which was fine with me. Drew made no bones about disliking him, also fine with me. But for some reason I may never understand, Zac liked freaky me. So you know what that meant—my progress with my sister and the lifeguard of my dreams reached yet another stumbling block. My problems multiplied exponentially at the arrival of another visitor and his sweet pipe tobacco scent—my ghostly grandfather.

Just what I needed—a crabby octogenarian haint to complicate everything.

Although Georgia author Maureen Hardegree concedes to having all the usual baggage of a middle child, she is NOT a ghost handler. She does, however, believe in connecting with her inner teenager and in feeding her active imagination--it likes Italian food and chocolate. When she's not writing, she's working on costumes for the Northeast Atlanta Ballet . . . or doing the bidding of her husband, daughter, and cats Pixie and Turnip Ann. Visit her at www.maureenhardegree.com


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Excerpt

 

Chapter One

How could I explain that what I felt for Drew Blanton didn’t have a half-life?

I couldn’t. Not when it was so obvious that my good friend and geek to the millionth power, Xavier, wanted more than friendship from me.

"You aren’t still hung up on Drew, are you?” he repeated, leaning forward on the couch where he was sitting across from me. He brushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes so he could examine my face.

Just hearing Drew’s name heated my ears. My face and chest burned as blood rushed at the mere thought of the dreamiest lifeguard and soon-to-be junior who ever existed. It always would—no matter how hard Xavier wished otherwise. Even Jack, the ghost I fell for on vacation, hadn’t eroded my interest in Drew for long.

"I was hoping we could hang out without talking about all this,” I said. I meant it, too. Xavier was a true friend. I shared the whole ghost-handling thing with him, and he’d kept my secret. He was the only person other than Aunt Gen who knew about my ability. Well, the two of them and of course the ghosts I’d encountered.

"Do you want some... popcorn?” I asked, and torqued my back to see if the itching would stop. The burnt smell of the earlier attempt Claire made in the microwave hung in the air despite me lighting a couple of those vanilla-scented candles.

"No thanks.”

Okay, now I had to scratch. This was beyond the everyday itchiness that I’d learned to live with as anyone with hypersensitive skin would. I dug at the skin where my bra hooked in the back, then felt around to figure out what was different about this particular closure. I rarely wore it because it irritated more than the rest, but every time I examined the hook and eyes and stretchy fabric I found nothing out of the ordinary.

Xavier cocked his head and met my gaze with a shrewd one of his own. "Sorry, Heather. You’re out of luck. Every time I try to talk to you about certain subjects, you divert me. It’s not going to work this time.”

"I’m not—” I objected, then at long last my fingertip grazed the offender, which felt like a small sprig of plastic used to attach price tags.

"I should be getting major credit for the fact that I’m a guy, and I’m being open with you about my feelings,” Xavier said. "That’s what girls claim they want, but I’m beginning to believe that’s not the case.”

"Hold that thought.” I pinched the miniscule bit and ran through the foyer and dining room into the kitchen to look for scissors. I wanted to avoid the den where my older sister Audrey and her friends were congregating.

"No,” he said, following me. "I demand that you listen.”

"You don’t understand,” I said, pulling open drawers, checking the cup of pens on the desk. Even the special kitchen scissors, which we were under strict orders from Mom not to move, weren’t in the knife drawer.

"Obviously.”

"I have to cut this piece of plastic ASAP. Then I’ll give you my full attention.” I rummaged through every desk drawer, then risked poking the beast—my older sister.

"Who moved all the scissors?” I yelled in the general direction of the den.

Risking ridicule of giganto proportions, I even braved the room filled with her friends. "Do you happen to know where some scissors are, Audrey?”

"Oh, you’re talking to me?” she said with a hint of disdain, enough to appease Karen, the head honcho of Heather-hate.

Her reason? Probably because she thinks I possess the ability to move objects with my brain. Is that telekinesis?

Anyway, the person moving the objects was my first ghost, Amy. But Karen thought I was the responsible party for what I like to call the lip-gloss incident and the soda-fountain meltdown. Yeah, Amy took control of the wand and smeared pink frost all over Karen’s face when we were in the bathroom at the movies in retaliation for her bugging me. Then a couple weeks later she made the soda-fountain station at Sub-a-Dub go berserk for reasons too complicated to go into now.

The gaggle glared at me.

Everyone, that is, except Audrey. But her beady little brown eyes sent a clear message for me to leave. "I have no idea where they are. Vamoose.” She shooed me like I was a fly.

I walked back into the kitchen where Xavier had wisely waited for me. If they hated me, they despised him more.

"I can cut it with my pocket knife,” he offered.

I gave him my tried and true "you must be crazy” look. Like I was going to lift up my shirt for him.

"Geez, Heather. I’m not going to get off on seeing the back of your bra.”

I hiked my eyebrow.

Xavier smiled, revealing his most-of-the-time hidden dimple. "Okay. Maybe I’ll enjoy it a little. But I can solve your problem right now.” He mimicked scales with his hands. "Cut the plastic now... find scissors eventually. Your choice.”

This boy knew me too well, and he was using that knowledge to his advantage. I turned around and lifted the back of my T-shirt with my free hand.

"Purple. Nice.”

"Xavier,” I warned, as my cheeks burned in embarrassment. I was so glad I didn’t wear the monkey bra from the tween section that I unfortunately could still fit into.

"Okay, okay.” His fingers brushed mine away from the offending bit of plastic. "I’ve got to hold it to cut.”

"What are you doing in there?” Audrey called out from the den.

"Nothing that concerns you,” I said in as light-hearted a tone as I could manage.

"Don’t move.”

I didn’t. I prayed they didn’t come in and see me like this and that the knife didn’t slip and stab me. That would be interesting to explain to my parents.

"Hurry up,” I urged.

"You afraid your sister’s going to think we’re doing something perverted?” he asked.

"Let’s just agree that even though you and I know your hands up the back of my shirt are for medicinal purposes only, not many other people would understand.”

"Agreed,” he said. "Got it.”

Relieved, I faced him. "Thank you, so much.” We both looked at the tiny tag holder. "Hard to believe something so benign could cause so much pain.”

"Would you like me to check the skin underneath?” he asked with a smirk.

"Funny.”

"Hey, a guy has to try.”

"No. Not really.” Although if Drew had helped me...

"Would you let Drew check you for a rash?” Xavier asked before I could even get my Drew dream started.

That’s what I loved and at times hated about Xavier. He knew exactly what I was thinking most of the time.

"You know I have a ceasefire in place,” I said, making a point of lowering my voice and hoping he’d keep his deep tones close to a whisper. "I don’t want to mess that up. For the first time in a long time, Audrey’s being civil to me.”

"Except for the day you and Claire went to the mall, and you got spritzed by that ghost.”

"A minor skirmish.” Sure, Audrey had been miffed that Claire and I weren’t at the mall exit on time after the perfume spritzer ghost squirted me into an allergic equivalent of a core meltdown. But since then, all had been quiet on the sister front.

"Right,” he agreed as we headed through the dining room to the living room. "Let’s get back to the topic you’re trying so hard to avoid.”

I couldn’t help but focus on his wispy mustache that I really hoped he’d shave off before school started in a month.

As we crossed the foyer into the living room, I wondered if maybe I should try to work shaving off the pseudo-stache into some sort of getting ready to start high school kind of thing. I could suggest we both do makeovers. Would that work on a boy?

"Heather!” He snapped his fingers in my face. "You didn’t hear a word I said.”

"Sorry,” I apologized and sat down next to him on the couch.

"Look at me and pay attention.”

I did, completely avoiding the mustache that sent me on a tangent.

"What I was saying was that I don’t get it. I’m the one who researched for you when you had no access to a computer on vacation. I’m the guy who helped you with both of your ghost friends. I’m the guy you told your secret to. Obviously, you trust me. Just as obviously, you don’t trust Drew.”

"I don’t know Drew well enough to tell him yet.”

Xavier raised his hands in frustration. "Exactly.”

"And this is the whole reason you came by today?” I asked, figuring there had to be more of a point to this conversation. Usually, Xavier isn’t the kind of guy who just happens to drop by for a chat.

My phone started buzzing. I reached my hand into my pocket.

"Don’t you dare.” Xavier meant it, too. There was nothing that aggravated him more than people in the same room texting people who weren’t there and not paying attention to the people they were supposed to be with. My parents felt that way, too.

I left my phone in my pocket. "Happy?”

"Ecstatic.” He wiped his hands on his long cargo shorts. "You know how I was on the wait list for that space camp in Alabama? Well, I got in.”

"Oh, my God, Xavier. That’s fantastic.” And then it hit me, he’d be gone. He’d be busy. I might actually miss him. "So... you’re gonna be gone for how long?”

"Three weeks. I’ll get back in time to get ready for school, if my mom even notices.”

I hurt for Xavier. His mom was still in mourning for his brother Stevie, who’d died last year. Stevie didn’t seem to want my help. I’d sensed him hanging around their house when I had ghost Amy to deal with, but he’d never appeared to me. Xavier knew that, and I suspected knowing his brother was stuck in their front yard made his leaving harder. He probably felt a little guilty for wanting to move forward with his life when his brother was in limbo.

That’s the way it went with ghosts. Some want to be dealt with, some don’t. I hadn’t run across any since the ghost at the mall who spritzed me with perfume. Luckily, moving her to the great beyond was a pretty fast dispatch, if I do say so myself.

Even though Xavier knew I could help haints, he never once asked me to help Stevie. I think, though, that he was asking now for some reassurance. "Your mom will notice you’re gone. Don’t say things like that.”

Probably thinking he was much wiser to the ways of the world than I was, Xavier shook his head slowly.

I wasn’t being naïve. I was being polite and hopeful. Something could happen to make his mother notice her living son needed her.

"That has as much chance of going down as you telling me what happened between you and your ghostly boyfriend.”

Yet another sore subject between us. "When are you leaving?”

"When are you going to tell me about Jack?”

"I don’t want to discuss it.”

"Yeah, I got that,” he said, his deep voice rising once more in irritation.

"Don’t get all huffy with me. You came over, without even texting. I haven’t had a shower.”

"What does that have to do with anything?” he asked.

"I’m probably stinky, which puts me in a bad mood. And I didn’t get up early like I wanted to, and...” I sighed. I was on my period and feeling kind of crampy, but that information wasn’t something I was sharing with Xavier. "Let’s just say the whole day is pretty much wasted.”

Audrey poked her head in the living room where Xavier and I were fussing. Karen and her minions of evil had been here when I woke up and had been eating all the junk food Mom bought. Goodbye cheesy munchies. As usual, they were gossiping about their friends who weren’t with them, but they must have gotten bored because my sister’s entourage followed her in her quest for new targets.

"What are you two arguing about?” Audrey asked.

"We’re not arguing,” Xavier and I said at the same time, with the same inflection, then sighed heavily as punctuation.

I needed a heating pad and a mega dose of ibuprofen.

That’s when my younger sister Claire ran into the room, gangly arms akimbo. "Did you hear it? He’s here.”

"Who?” Karen snarled.

"Our neighbor’s cute grandson,” Claire said, then squealed. "I heard the muffler on his car.”

Karen’s face squinched up like she’d shoved a pile of sour gummies in her mouth.

Audrey’s heavily lined eyes widened, her cheeks pinkened. "Zac. Oh my God. Karen, this is the guy I’ve been telling you about. Zac is sohot. He drives an old car and wears worn jeans that hug his—” she darted her eyes toward Xavier, who rolled his in response.

"Anyway,” she continued without waxing on about Zac’s butt. "You’ve got to see him, and we have to come up with an excuse to be outside.” Audrey grabbed Claire’s arm. "Has he taken his luggage out of his car? Maybe we could walk by casually and offer to help him.”

Xavier locked gazes with me. "So it is genetic.”

"Har-de-har,” I said, then turned to Audrey and friends confabbing over how best to make Zac notice them. I had no clue why Xavier of all people was taking offense—king of stalkers as he was.

"Here’s an idea, why don’t you just go over and say hi?” I suggested.

Audrey looked at me like I’d sprouted the Mount Vesuvius of pimples. "You know nothing about boys.”

Maybe not, but at least I was sane, unlike her. Except when it came to Drew.

Gabby, Audrey’s friend whose eyes got super wide and blinked rapidly when she was excited about something, stationed herself at the sidelight by the front door where she could monitor any movements. She screamed, "He’s outside! He’s outside! He’s wearing a tight black tee and Ray-Bans.”

I preferred Drew and aviators. These girls were looney. And they had no taste whatsoever.

The pack flew to the dining-room windows, where they could all gaze upon his gloriousness.

Audrey shouted, "He looks like he has scruff. Oh, my God. He is so sexy.”

Xavier’s posture caved like a person whose belly was protesting too many burritos. I didn’t blame him. They were acting totally crazy, crazier than I would in front of a boy, anyway. He rubbed his face where his beard hadn’t completely come in yet.

"Look at the way his jeans mold to his ass—ets!” Karen shouted.

"I feel violated,” Xavier grumbled. "Your sister and her friends are worse than construction workers. And I’m a guy. You’d think they wouldn’t... They don’t think of me as a guy, do they?”

I offered my hand to Xavier. "Come on. I’ll walk you home.”

"So you can accidentally run into this Zac person? No thanks.”

I unlocked the key bolt on the front door. "Don’t be silly. Bad boys are more Audrey’s thing. Zac’s not my type.”

"So now you have a type?” he asked as he followed, deaf to Audrey’s protest that our presence outside would ruin any chance she had in attracting Zac, which didn’t deter me in the least. I’d be doing her a favor. Plus, I needed some fresh, if hot and humid, air.

Did I have a type?Both Drew and Jack were into water sports, so maybe I did.

"Seriously, Xavier, chillax. I could care less about Zac. His hair’s almost as long as mine. And his innate ability to get in trouble surpasses mine. The whole reason he’s here is that he was sent into exile with his grandparents, who happen to be our neighbors, because he did something really bad. So bad we don’t know what it was.”

"What do you mean you don’t know?”

"My parents won’t tell us. It’s kind of frustrating.”

Xavier put on his thinking face. I guess he was imagining all the different things a person could do that would make a parent want to send them away.

The sound of cicadas rose and fell in a wave as we walked down the shaded cement sidewalk that met the portion of the driveway in full sun. The pads of my feet burned as I sort of hop-walked to the dappled spots. The asphalt in the road would be even worse. I should have grabbed some flip-flops. Xavier might be mad, though, if I didn’t walk him all the way home like I’d offered.

"Doesn’t sound like much of a punishment to me to be sent here,” Xavier pointed out.

The faint scent of grass and gasoline intensified as we walked toward the cul-de-sac.

"So whatever he did wasn’t that bad,” Xavier surmised. "Really bad would be juvenile hall.”

A dog, probably Roquefort, our stinky beagle, barked from somewhere behind us in what seemed like agreement.

"I can see how you’d think that because, no offense, you don’t have a lot of grandparent experience under your belt. Their idea of fun is playing bridge, going to book club meetings, volunteering everywhere under the sun, circling words in one of those large print word search puzzles, and spending a lot of time in church to make up for stuff they did when they were young.”

"And this is bad?”

"Not if you’re an altar boy.”

He shook his head sadly. "It’s altar server, for your information.”

I was glad he didn’t take too much offense. And that he was still my friend even though he wanted more than friendship from me. The lawn man across the street started up his big platform mower.

I raised my voice over the drone. "If you don’t think hanging with the geriatric crowd is that bad, you could tag along and bust a move with Grandma MacCormack when she goes to the senior center dance in a couple of weeks.”

"Only I won’t be here,” he reminded me.

I grabbed his arm and squeezed, sparking a look of fear in his eyes. "I can’t believe I forgot to tell you. Grandma has a date to this mystery dinner thing tomorrow night. Can you believe it?”

Xavier scratched his shaggy head. "I have the feeling you want me to say no.”

"Well, I mean, it’s not that surprising. She takes care of herself, never forgets her lipstick, and stuff. And I guess it was no picnic for her being married to my grandfather. How would you like to live with Mr. Grumpy for forty-five years? When he’d get mad at us kids, he’d shake his finger.”

I swear I’m not exaggerating. Grandpa was always in a bad mood, like Audrey. Maybe the boy craziness and ghost-handling aren’t the only traits passed down. "At least when he lit his pipe, the tobacco smelled kind of nice and sweet.”

"Is this yet another of your attempts to divert me? Because it’s getting old.”

"Xavier,” I said and groaned. I hadn’t been avoiding what he wanted to talk about. Okay, so I had. But it was because I didn’t want to hurt him. You can’t make yourself like-like someone. You do, or you don’t. That’s just the way it is.

"So which one are you hung up on? It’s a simple question to answer. Drew or Jack?”

"Why does it matter?”

"Because I need to know who or what exactly I’m in competition with.”

That was Xavier. Going after what he wanted. "No” to him meant possibly "yes” in the future. He believed he could wear down a "no” into a "yes” by persistence. And deep down I knew enough to be flattered, but that didn’t change the way I felt now.

"I don’t know,” I answered honestly. "Maybe I’m hung up on both of them.”

He stared at me incredulously. "That’s your answer?”

"You don’t have to be so snotty.”

Xavier’s eyes glittered. "Yeah, sometimes I do.”

I stopped next to the mailbox and scooted onto the comparatively cool grass that was turning a crunchy brown. "Are you sure you want to go away for three whole weeks?”

"There’s not much to keep me here.” He squinted into the sun. "Volunteering at the library, being invisible to my parents, watching you moon over Drew at the pool.”

"I do not moon.”

Xavier snorted in protest.

"Okay, so maybe I moon a little.”

He reached out and rubbed the pad of his thumb against my jaw. "And maybe it bothers me a little too much. Do I get a hug goodbye?”

I felt a punch to the gut. "When are you leaving?”

"Early Sunday morning.”

Today was Thursday. "Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

"I did tell you. You weren’t listening. I was on the wait list. Someone else cancelled at the last minute. It’s almost like you think you’re gonna miss me.”

"But you’re not leaving until Sunday.”

"Yeah, but I’m working tomorrow and Saturday. I have to pack and buy stuff.”

"Maybe I could go with you.”

"Tomorrow is your family game night, and we all know that’s sacred. That’s really the only time I have to run errands.”

"So this is goodbye,” I said, surprised at the sense of loss I felt.

"It’s not like you can’t text or message me.”

That wasn’t the same. "I guess.”

He opened his arms for a hug, and I complied. I was going for a short, barely touching air hug, but he pulled me completely against him. My chin hit his shoulder. He’d grown taller.

"You’re going to miss me,” he whispered against my ear, tickling it. He breathed in deeply, and I kind of wished that I’d bothered to get out of bed at what my parents called a reasonable hour and had taken a shower before he came over.

"Have a good time,” I said, not whispering at all and patting his back to indicate I wanted the hug to end.

"I will.” He released me and peered off at something over at our neighbor’s house. Probably my sister making her move. He frowned. "What’s he doing?”

I turned around to find Ray-Ban, tight black T-shirt, and a scruff-sporting Zac sauntering toward me and Xavier. A multitude of faces pressed against the front windows at my house.

Yeah, this day just got better and better.


 

 

Chapter Two

Don’t get all crazy on me. It’s not what you think.

I couldn’t help but stare. Zac’s hair looked the way I wished mine would, all shades of brown and gold, like he’d spent a fortune on highlights, but he didn’t, because God had gifted him with thick, naturally highlighted hair. Totally unfair for a boy to get hair like that, IMHO.

Xavier cleared his throat, and I realized I’d zoned out while coveting the bad boy’s hair.

"So... do you know where they keep an extra key?” Zac asked.

They must mean his grandparents.

"Key?” I repeated.

"You know, to the house. I don’t have one. I’m a little early. They’re not here. They mentioned something about an extra key, but I didn’t see one.”

"Have you tried calling?” Xavier asked, trying to be helpful.

Zac shook his head. "Uh, yeah. She’s got the cell phone off.”

"What is it with grandparents and their cell phones?” I wondered if his grandmother constantly forgot her password to get messages, too. But then I realized that might be construed as sympathy, and I didn’t want to get involved in his troubles. I had plenty of my own to deal with—the least of which might be a ticked off older sister who probably wasn’t happy that I was talking to Zac.

"Yeah, I’ve been sitting in the shade waiting for them, but then I heard your voice and figured you might be able to get me out of the heat.” He shoved his hands in the pockets of his worn jeans and waited.

"Sorry.” I probably should have offered to walk my butt into our house to get the key we kept for the neighbors for emergencies, but I didn’t. I couldn’t stomach my sister and her friends fawning over him. Or perhaps my low blood sugar from not having eaten was making me a wee bit cranky.

He stood there dumbstruck that I wouldn’t run into the house to get him his precious key. Maybe no one ever told him no, and he didn’t know what to do in the face of rejection. But he continued to stand there in the silence, rubbing the spot below his lip where he’d grown a soul patch most likely in hope of cementing his rebel image.

I exchanged a glance with Xavier and shrugged. Why wouldn’t this boy leave?

Zac nodded toward Xavier. "Boyfriend?” he asked and smiled, revealing his surprise that I might have one. I was surprised that heactually had teeth. I don’t think in all the years he’d been visiting his grandparents I’d ever seen him smile. It was a little creepy.

"No, this is my friend. A friend who’s leaving for three weeks,” I said. "So if you don’t mind...”

Did Zac take the hint and leave? No.

He nodded his head, then tucked his shoulder-length hair behind his ears. "You’re Helen, right? The one with the husky voice and skin problems?”

"As opposed to... ?” I asked, not quite believing this guy, who couldn’t remember my name but clearly recalled that I have a deeper than usual voice and skin condition, which activated at mention. I scratched at my neck.

He breathed, just breathed, as he contemplated me scratching and Xavier standing next to me. I couldn’t see what his eyes were doing behind those dark lenses. Finally, he said, "What?”

"You apparently differentiate me from my sisters by things we do. So how do you refer to them if I’m weird skin girl?”

"I didn’t call you that, Helen. Maybe you should relax.”

Drugs, I was thinking. He must be wearing the glasses so no one could see his bloodshot eyes. He probably was hanging out with a bunch of potheads, or whatever they call them in high school. Memory goes. That’s what Officer Friendly in middle school had told us at assembly.

"And maybe you should tell me how you remember my sisters if my skin issue is what you remember about me. Or better yet, go find some shade in your grandparents’ yard and leave me alone.”

"Is she always so touchy?” Zac asked Xavier.

"No,” I said as Xavier said, "Yes.”

"Thanks.”

"Just keeping it real,” Xavier said, making me smile. He was right. I would miss him.

Zac toed the driveway. "Look, I didn’t mean any disrespect. It’s just easy to think of you as the middle one with skin troubles. You know? Audrey’s the oldest. Claire’s the youngest and tallest now, I hear.”

"Nice. Audrey and Claire get names that actually belong to them, and I get a label.”

"Helen isn’t... ?” He grimaced. "Geez. I know it begins with an H. Hayley? Hannah? Harriet?”

"Wrong, wrong and wrong.”

"Maybe you could tell me your name again. I swear I’ll remember it this time.” He smiled, thinking I’d be flattered, but I wasn’t. "And you won’t be the sister with the skin issue, even though you’re scratching right now like you have fleas. You’ll be the angry one.”

"Heather,” I said with a glare that hopefully made it past his smoky lenses. I wasn’t the angry one. Audrey was. Oh, my God. Was I acting like Audrey?

Xavier cleared his throat. "You gonna introduce us?”

"Oh, Zac, note that I know your name, this is my friend Xavier. Xavier, this is Zac.”

The guys exchanged mumbled "heys,” and still Zac remained standing next to us.

"Is there something else I did to make you angry?” he asked.

"Excuse me?”

"I mean it’s like a hundred degrees out here, and you haven’t done the neighborly thing and invited me into your house, or even offered me a cold drink. I don’t get it.”

"Obviously.”

Zac stepped closer. "So explain.”

"I will,” I said.

"Tick tock.”

I jabbed my finger at his chest. "You forgetting my name after being introduced to me three times a year for about ten years is pretty much everything that’s irritating me, other than heat rash, at the moment.”

"Did I or did I not apologize for that?” he said, getting right back in my face.

I turned to Xavier for some confirmation that I had every right to still be angry and noticed him walking up the street.

Zac was trouble as I predicted. He’d distracted me so much Xavier didn’t see the point in staying. "Xavier!” I called out.

He turned around and waved, but kept on walking away.

"Your friend left,” Zac pointed out.

"Thanks for the bulletin,” I said and was relieved to also see Mrs. Beckman, his grandmother, pull her huge white Lincoln into their driveway. "Looks like you don’t need the key or the cold drink.”

"Xavier, wait!” I yelled.

But he didn’t, and that black asphalt was hotter than the sun-baked cement of our driveway.

"Later, Heather.” Zac strolled to where his grandmother pulled into her garage. No doubt he’d forget my name by the time I next ran into him, which I hoped wouldn’t be anytime soon.

I pulled out my phone and texted Xavier. Y did U leave?

He sent back, Didn’t have a reason to stay.

I thought I was going to walk U home.

You snooze, you lose.

Great. I tried to think of a way to make it up to Xavier as I hopped across the driveway and ran up the steps to the front door. Maybe I could mail him a package with stuff he liked. But I didn’t have the money right now. Maybe I could convince Claire to loan me the moolah to send him a package.

As soon as I opened the door, Audrey and her friends descended upon me like buzzards on a minivan-flattened squirrel.

"What did he say? Why is he talking to you?” Karen asked, bobbing her head for emphasis.

"What did you say? You’d better not have said anything embarrassing. My God.” Audrey practically hyperventilated. "He saw you with Supergeek.”

Shut up didn’t cover how I was feeling as I tried to escape them through the foyer, through the dining room and into the kitchen, where I could no longer retreat. "His name is Xavier.”

"What does Zac smell like?” Claire asked, hands folded as if in prayer. "What did he say? What did you say? How tall do you think he is?”

"He doesn’t smell like anything, really.” I answered politely because I wasn’t an angry person. Or at least I was trying not to be. "And I have no idea how tall he is. We didn’t really have much to say to each other.”

"Could have fooled me.”

I sent my younger sister a look that I hope translated as drop it and drop it fast.

"I’m just saying it looked like you two were having a pretty intense conversation.” She shrugged. "What did I say wrong now?”

"Well, you’re wrong.” I darted my eyes at Audrey as if to convey to Claire that we didn’t need to get Audrey mad. Surely Claire would figure out that the more she went on, the greater the chances of Audrey finding out I was rude to Zac and then hating me to such an extent that she and her friends would burn me in effigy for talking to the boy without their written consent.

"You’d better be telling the truth,” Audrey warned.

I faked a nonchalance I didn’t feel. "What reason would I have to lie?”

It wasn’t like the boy was... Okay, so maybe some people, like Audrey and her friends, and Claire and her friends, and maybe even my friend Tina, thought he was cute. I seriously didn’t get it. I mean, he was okay. Average guy height. Average guy looks. But he was no Drew or Jack Thomas, for that matter, may he rest in peace.

"You were talking to him for a while,” Karen pointed out, taking on a Nancy Grace sort of belligerent and suspicious attitude. "What are you trying to hide?”

"Nothing. He asked if we had a key he could borrow. Before I could tell him we did, his grandmother pulled in.” I turned away from her piercing gaze and noticed the calendar pinned to the corkboard in the kitchen. Mom had designed it last fall. It had everyone’s birthdays, important milestones and anniversaries. I noticed that if tomorrow was Friday, which I had every reason to believe it was, that meant that it also was Grandma’s anniversary.

I looked toward the shelf of pictures near the table where Mom kept her favorites. The last one Grandma and Grandpa had taken before he died, which made him seem a heck of a lot more carefree than he really was because he was laughing, was gone. I wondered who moved it.

"What exactly, and I mean exactly, did you say to Zac?” Audrey asked, with her friends looming on either side of me. "Because what you said happened would have taken all of twenty seconds, and might I add you should have brought him into the house, duh, so we could talk to him and invite him to go to the pool with us tomorrow. You make me crazy sometimes.”

"Audrey, seriously, he’s not worth the interest. We have a bigger issue to deal with. Did you remember it was Grandma’s anniversary tomorrow?”

"No.”

Confusion muddled Claire’s face. "Are we supposed to celebrate it? Or not?”

"I don’t know.” Grandpa, you see, died right after Mom made the calendar. Grandma was going to the senior center mystery dinner tomorrow night, so maybe she’d forgotten, too. But just in case she hadn’t, I would be extra nice to her when she got back from her weekly shampoo and set at the hairdresser.

"I’m waiting, Heather. What did you say to him?” Audrey asked, arms crossed over her chest, toe tapping in irritation. Too bad she hadn’t forgotten the information she was trying to squeeze out of me. She wasn’t going to be happy when I told her... unless I diverted her.

I shrugged. "Nothing really. He couldn’t remember my name, so I had to tell him what it was. But he remembered yours.

Claire, bless her little heart, said, "Ooh, I bet that means he likes you, Audrey.”

Audrey, Karen, and Karen’s minions headed to the comforts of the den to speculate about how Audrey had attracted this bad boy’s notice, leaving me alone. Which is just the way I like it.

Point, set, match.

Basking in the glow of another sisterly brouhaha safely rerouted, I had an unsettling thought the next day. My summer had become a wee bit predictable, which had its good points—lazy days at the pool and minimal weeding of Dad’s vineyard and other chores weren’t that bad. But I craved a little more excitement, and I stupidly put that thought out into the universe.

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not the kind of person who can tempt fate and win. Tonight was one of those nights.

Star Trek Uno (a game no fan of the original series should be without—according to my geeky Dad) under normal circumstances isn’t discombobulating—unless I’m losing. But then my Mom announced that our neighbors the Beckmans and their grandson were joining us.

Problem one? I didn’t care for Zac’s company. Problem two? Audrey did. Problem three? Zac took the opportunity to irritate me on a whole ‘nother level.

Odd thing was, Zac wasn’t falling at Audrey’s pedicured feet as I’d expected. But that might be because she had insisted I sit between them to protect his fragile male ego from her cut-throat game-playing nature.

"That’s a Draw Two, Heather.” Zac loaded me up with more cards. Since the object of the game is to have no cards and therefore the lowest score possible, I wasn’t happy. And this had to be the fifty-millionth time he’d said my name.

I gave him a dirty look, and the butthead grinned.

Audrey kicked me under the dining-room table.

"What’s your deal?” I mouthed at her craziness.

She widened her eyes, then darted them toward Zac, which I guess translated to her thinking I was flirting with him. For the record, I wasn’t. Bad boys do nothing for me.

I popped another warm pizza roll in my mouth. The only good thing that came of Zac and his grandparents being here for family game night? Hot hors d’oeuvres.

Zac scooted his chair closer to me. Figures he’d try to cheat.

I pulled my cards to my chest.

Audrey glared at me. So not the way I envisioned our sister-ship would go after the beach trip. We’d been getting along fairly well, even with the stress of her buddy Karen hanging around. Audrey didn’t get that he was only trying to irritate me. It wasn’t that he was interested.

Seriously, what guy going into his senior year is interested in an incoming freshman who isn’t a cheerleader? It just didn’t happen to girls like me. I was overreaching with Drew and knew it.

And, might I add, it was entirely her fault that Zac was interacting with me at all instead of her since she wouldn’t sit next to him.

Even Claire was gaga over Zac, which kind of surprised me. I always figured Claire would go for the clean-cut, athletic type. But there she was zoned out, staring at Zac. Add another scalp to his belt.

"You’re turn, Heather,” Zac drawled.

I played a Skip card on Audrey, who didn’t seem to mind, even though she had a hand full of cards and now had to wait to unload them.

Another surprise today was that Grandma’s mystery dinner at the senior center was an actual date with a man from her Hilltoppers group at church. And this is what got me: this first post-Grandpa date was on their wedding anniversary. I didn’t bring it to her attention because I figured she must have forgotten, and I didn’t want Mom and Aunt Geneva to get upset with her.

Oh, and I know what you’re wondering. No, even though I’d come clean with Aunt Gen, I’d been avoiding her suggestion of ghost-handling lessons. I figured why do it when I was gaining command of my ability just fine without her. Well, almost just fine. I can admit I was almost in over my head with Jack and that whole soul-stealing kiss thing.

Rather than pay attention to the game, I contemplated how my former ghost Jack kissed me and relived the moment on the beach in my mind, sighing as I recalled the sounds of the surf in the background, the cool sand between my toes, the salty wind tugging at my hair and the scent of... tobacco?

But there hadn’t been any tobacco. There’d been wood smoke from the bonfire. I sniffed. The tobacco scent was here in the dining room.

"Go, Heather!” Audrey stopped herself mid-snarl and dialed her voice down to a less win-at-all-costs frequency. So I guess Zac’s presence had another relatively minor advantage. "Geez, you’re so slow sometimes.”

The sweetened tobacco scent left, and I decided that not only had I imagined it and panicked, but Audrey needed to be put in her place. I played the Double Tribble card I was saving for just such an occasion, which meant she had to draw cards equal in number to what was already in her hand andshe had a really good chance of coming in last place. Hey, a girl has to rid herself of her high point cards somehow. It’s not personal, it’s winning.

She leaned toward me to whisper as she doubled the already hefty amount of cards she was holding. "When someone plays a Reverse, Heather, I’m going to slam you with Draw Two cards.”

"Bring it,” I said, and unfortunately fate did bring something. Something nobody wanted. A knock at the front door.

Audrey glared at me like whoever was at the door was somehow my fault. "Who did you tell?”

"No one.” I suspected she was worried I’d invited my friend Tina, who is a true boy magnet. For a couple seconds, I kind of hoped that Xavier had finished his all-important errands early and stopped by. I didn’t want him to head out of town being mad at me.

The bell rang again, and this time whoever it was pressed the button longer. This person didn’t believe patience is a virtue, that was for sure. So it definitely wasn’t Xavier.

Dread washed over me as I scooted my chair back and headed into the foyer to answer the door. But before I could open it to the one person in the world I hated more than David Butler’s armpit stench, Audrey beat me to the dead bolt.

"What’s she doing here?” she whispered, like I somehow knew the answer.

"It’s not like I want her here,” I pointed out, and I gotta say we had the tiniest of moments where we connected in commiseration.

Before Audrey could even say "hi,” Karen pushed past me and my sister and entered the dining room. My sinuses were thankful she’d chosen not to bathe in perfume tonight. More times than not, she does.

With her hair flat-ironed to the texture of corn silk, the girl was dressed like she was going clubbing—skintight dark wash jeans, silky halter, makeup that looked like something I’d seen a female impersonator on TV wear, including bejeweled false eyelashes.

She faked an open-mouthed, shocked expression. "Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Tildy. I didn’t realize you had guests.”

She preened at Zac, who was contemplating his cards in what looked to me like an effort to avoid meeting the gaze directed at him. There was Audrey’s answer. Karen was making a play for Zac.

Audrey tapped her friend’s shoulder to gain her wandering attention. "Why exactly are you here?”

"I was bored at home and thought I’d swing by and see if maybe you wanted to go out. Zac, you could come with us.” She batted her flashy false lashes.

Unable to turn away from this disaster, I cringed.

His eyes, a light brown that sort of reminded me of root-beer barrel candy, widened slightly in what appeared to be fear.

Run. Run all the way home.

"Sorry, can’t,” Audrey said, coming to Zac’s and her own rescue. "You know the family-night rule.”

Yeah, she saw right through Karen, as we all did. I shuddered with embarrassment for her, then wondered, in horror, if that’s how people saw me when I tried to get Drew’s attention. Only I wasn’t thatobvious. Was I?

"So I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Audrey said trying to usher Karen out. "We’ll do lunch.”

Okay. So part of me knew my sister was being rude. But the other part of me recognized that Karen was trying to snake on my sister’s crush. True friends don’t go after the guy their supposed best friend likes. And for someone who uses that expression "I got your back,” all the time to my sister, Karen’s angling for an invitation to stay certainly rang of hypocrisy.

She’d almost made it out the door when my dad, who at times is so totally clueless, did the one thing he shouldn’t. "Would you like to join us?” he asked.

Just kill me now.

 


 

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