He Haint Heavy

He Haint Heavy

Maureen Hardegree

July 2014 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-515-7


Book 5 of the Ghost Handler Series

Heather’s date doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance.


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Can’t a girl choose her own boyfriend without his kid brother haunting her?

Ghosts might not be heavy, but the guilt Heather’s best friend, Xavier, is carrying around for his dead little brother weighs at least a ton. Of course, just as Heather’s crush, Drew Blanton, shows some interest in her, Xavier’s haintly brother Stevie shows up.

Ten-year-old Stevie has a simple request—he’ll only move on if Heather goes out on a date with his brother. But as Heather knows, nothing involving ghosts is ever that simple, and Stevie is a determined troublemaker. With him interfering in Heather’s love life, her Halloween may be more trick than treat.

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.



Coming soon!


Chapter One

TRUTH BE TOLD, Xavier Monroe’s house was haunted. And not just because it looked scarier with its shabby paint, off-kilter shutters, and unkempt yard than any of the other houses near it. This summer, after he’d tackled removing the unwanted pine saplings from their dogwood and azalea island, Xavier had tried to convince his parents to hire painters to fix the peeling white gloss, but they’d obviously found an excuse not to.

As the bus hummed in its idle mode, I, Heather Tildy, ghost handler and girl most likely to be labeled a freak, clenched my gut and tried not to breathe in too deeply as I prepared to argue my case with our bus driver Ms. Beadle. There was still a trace of David Butler’s b.o. hanging in the air despite one of those scented cardboard tree cutouts hanging off the door lever.

Rather than look at me, the fair-haired Ms. Beadle glanced out the school bus windshield toward my friend’s neglected brick home. Home, however, was a debatable word choice at this point because Xavier’s traditional colonial-style house inspired no warm fuzzies whatsoever. More like chills and creepy thrills in its current dilapidated state.

The Monroes’ house, in fact, appeared more in keeping with the upcoming Halloween holiday than even their neighbor’s across the street with all their Styrofoam grave markers, giant fake cobwebs attached to porch rails, and lights that would glow purple and orange once the sun set. There was good reason for that. Shortly after Xavier’s brother Stevie had taken up ghostly residence, Mr. and Mrs. Monroe’s home fell into neglect.

"This isn’t your stop. No can do,” Ms. Beadle twanged as I attempted the impossible while sweating like a pig thanks to the typical Atlanta autumn afternoon approaching summer highs.

She turned up the volume on the radio blaring Jason Mraz’s I Won’t Give Up.

"Sit down,” some boy yelled, then muttered, "Stupid” and another word that rhymes with itch.

"Can you please make an exception?” I asked, not budging. "I need to check on Xavier. He wasn’t at school today.” I gave her my best puppy dog eyes. Not gonna lie, I’ve got the pleading expression down. The song refrain about not giving up didn’t hurt my case either, or so I thought.

Her glance darted to the rearview mirror. Cars were backed up behind the bus and would probably start honking any minute. "Check on him after I release you at your assigned stop.”

"But...” I had nothing. You’d think my gray matter would conceive of some excuse that would sway her. "He wasn’t at school today.”

My bus driver did not pull the lever to open the door, which she had shut before I, at a safe distance, could follow David Butler, the freshman with legendary armpit stench who shared Xavier’s bus stop.

"Really?” the bus driver said. "I had no idea.”

Apparently, I’m not the only one on the bus with sarcasm in her arsenal, not that I was even attempting it with Ms. Beadle.

"And, um, the one year anniversary of Xavier’s brother Stevie’s death is coming up. So I really need to make sure he’s okay. You know, emotionally. All right?”

"It’s not that I don’t believe you, Heather, or that I don’t care about Mr. Smarty Pants. It’s that I could lose my job for dropping kids off at the wrong stop. Sit down.”

Foiled, I sat in the closest open seat. The bus lurched forward, and the seats squeaked and shook as we rolled along to the next stop.

Seriously, some of these rules were ridick. I guess this is one of those situations, which my dad always talks about, where people are afraid of being sued. I was not looking forward to trudging up the hill, hoodie in hand, in the hot afternoon sun. Yeah, that’s fall in Georgia—cold mornings that encourage you to layer with cozy sweaters, followed by sweltering afternoons that make you wish you were allowed to wear tank tops to school.

After Ms. Beadle dropped me off at the corner near my house, I trekked back toward Xavier’s. The neighbor at the corner was changing out her usual porch lanterns with plastic jack-o’-lanterns. She stopped to wave. "Hi, Heather!”

"Hi, Mrs. Rollins,” I called back.

I prayed Audrey and her car pool friends didn’t drive by and ask me what I was up to. I’d become upwardly mobile since Zac dated me, Randy befriended me, and my last ghost convinced me to start that better foods campaign, which had sort of gone by the wayside once I got her to move on because I had to pull up my dismal grades. I was sort of willing to risk being seen at Xavier’s, but part of me, an admittedly big part, was hoping I wouldn’t have to find out if a sighting at a known geek’s house would demote me. I knew it wasn’t very nice of me. But hey, I’m being honest.

My only joy came from stepping on the dried up fallen leaves which made a satisfying crunch under my Docksides. Oh, and thinking about the sort of costume I wanted to wear for Randy’s Halloween party also lifted my spirits as I trudged along. Of course, my parents hadn’t yet agreed that Audrey and I could go to this party because of what happened to Audrey over the summer at another party... which really wasn’t her or Randy’s fault.

I’d already texted Mom that I was checking on Xavier, which I hoped would score a few points with her. My parents really liked it when I acted like a responsible teenager. They also liked Xavier because he was super smart, had a pretty good sense of humor, and because he sometimes acted like my conscience—which for some reason they thought I needed.

I imagined myself in the costume I was hoping to borrow from Tina, who never wears the same one twice. It’s one of those sexy outfits with a short skirt and thigh-high stockings. A German beer girl or something like it. Only in my imagination, the risqué ensemble looked better than it would in reality because I had bigger boobs than the cherry tomatoes I currently sported. Go big or go home. Drew, the junior who made my heart beat faster and run to second period so I could see his gorgeousness in the hallway before Spanish class, would see me in the costume and like what he saw. Not that he’d done anything more than give me hope that he would one day ask me out. But things could change at this Halloween party.

All I needed was Mom to agree to buy me one of those padded push-up bras that add two cup sizes. If I wore one of those and that German beer babe costume, I was certain Drew wouldn’t be able to take his eyes off me. He’d look me over from carefully coifed head to pointy-toed stilettos. He’d be wearing something manly and hot like a pirate costume with an open collar revealing his gorgeous chest muscles and hinting at the rest. Those ice blue eyes of his would lock with mine. He’d smile and walk over toward me. I’d pretend that my heart wasn’t about to burst from my chest. He’d tell me I looked pretty, and he’d want to know if anyone had asked me to Homecoming yet and—

I stumbled on an uneven chunk of crumbling asphalt that I didn’t see and nearly landed on my hands and knees in the middle of the road. Flushing with the heat of embarrassment, I looked up and down the street to make sure no one had seen my close encounter with a pratfall. The street and yards bordering my near tumble were empty of human activity. Thank goodness none of the middle schooligans were out and about to see what I’d almost done. They’d no doubt harass me. Makes you thankful that high school gets out so early in the afternoon. The other advantage? If you get your homework done, you can watch all the prime time TV shows.

As I approached the Monroes’ house, I noticed the tall weeds sprouting throughout the browning Bermuda grass, which hadn’t been mowed recently. Red, orange, and tiny yellow oval leaves and a smattering of acorns littered the lawn, driveway, and curving sidewalk. Even the squirrels stayed away.

Xavier’s brother Stevie’s cool otherworldly presence materialized as I paused to adjust my backpack. The best way to describe this sensory experience is like when you smell food cooking, but you can’t taste it. He hadn’t ever appeared to me, so I kind of knew he didn’t want my help, which was too bad for him.

No lie, I’m pretty darn good at helping ghosts move on. Not that I was jonesing for a new job. Lunch Lady Ghost had really worn me out. And even though Postman Ghost who followed her was relatively easy in comparison, I was still in recovery mode. FYI: If ghosts don’t appear to me, I can’t help them. There’s a whole list of rules that I’ve gradually discovered. But I was here on a different mission than establishing contact with a ghost who supposedly wanted nothing to do with me. I had to make sure Xavier was okay. He’s not the type to miss school even when he’s sick.

If I were a different sort of person, I might be offended that Stevie didn’t want my help. But he was ten, and ten-year-old boys are still in that girl-hating mode. Or maybe he didn’t want to move on because he felt guilty about eating the candy that killed him instead of waiting until he got home for his parents to inspect it. Stevie had a peanut allergy.

Taking the shortest path to the front door, I crossed the yard and successfully avoided a hefty deposit left by someone’s dog, now attracting a few flies and one curious yellow jacket. The chill to my right that was Stevie stuck with me all the way to the doorbell. But he wouldn’t materialize or talk to me.

I pressed the button to ring the bell, which apparently didn’t work because I heard nothing. Great. I stepped back from the door and noticed all the blinds were drawn. The mud wasp nest in the top corner of the sidelight window was bigger than it had been in June when Xavier had squirted it with insecticide. I pressed the button again, to make sure it was broken, then knocked loudly against the hard wooden door, which kind of hurt my knuckles.

Maybe they weren’t home. I rapped again. I mean, I could understand that maybe they didn’t answer the door unless they knew someone was coming over, but I was Xavier’s friend, and he had to be home. It was Thursday. He was probably studying for all his Friday tests and didn’t want to be disturbed unless it was me.

"Xavier,” I called, "it’s me. Heather.”

He would have told me if they were going out-of-town or possibly to the doctor. He wasn’t above using a little sympathy to get me to agree to go out with him, which I hadn’t done yet.

I pressed my face to the glass to peer inside the darkened house. "Are they home or not?” I asked out loud, acknowledging the ghost literally chilling to my right.

Of course, Stevie didn’t respond. Or appear.

"Where is Xavier?” I asked him, turning toward the cool air.

Stevie remained silent and invisible.

"You know they won’t ever be able to move on until you do,” I said. Not that I was sure about that or anything, but he made me mad. And the way Xavier’s parents continued to mourn Stevie and neglect the one child they had left made me madder.

"Too stubborn for your own good is what you are,” I added. Not that Stevie cared.

"Who are you talking to?” Xavier asked, appearing on the other side of the glass sidelight, muffling his deep voice yet scaring the bejesus out of me.

My pulse sped, and I pointed to the door.

Xavier obliged, opening it and thankfully waving me into their way-too-dusty foyer, not that I’m a neat nut. Sunlight streaming through the door’s sidelight windows revealed a fine gray layer on the upholstered wingback chair’s armrests. Rather than ask what I really wanted to—how long has it been since anyone vacuumed—I attempted to explain what must have looked like me talking to myself. "I was having a very one-sided conversation with your brother.”

The fine dark hairs that were slowly filling in to form a mottled five o’clock shadow glinted as Xavier shook his head vehemently, then put his index finger over his lips to shush me. One of the few things Xavier and I didn’t really talk about was his brother. Today was no different.

"Who’s there?” his mom’s fragile voice called down the equally dusty carpeted stairs.

"It’s just Heather,” Xavier said as I sneezed.

"Just Heather?” I repeated, noting he still hadn’t bitten on my comment about trying to talk to his ghostly brother. "Thanks.”

Xavier groaned. "I didn’t mean it that way. I meant she didn’t need to come down. She’s resting.”

I took in his mussed hair, his long-sleeved gray tee shirt and blue plaid flannel pajama pants that were two inches too short, revealing his hairy ankles. "Looks like your mom isn’t the only one who’s been resting.”

"What’s up?” he asked, getting to the point quickly, which wasn’t like him. Normally, he’d be trying to find a way to extend our chat.

"I came over to check on you since you weren’t in school.”

He smiled, revealing that dimple that counterbalanced some of his other deficits in the looks department. "You’re playing right into my hands. Resistance is futile.”

Yeah, unfortunately, thanks to my geeky father who somehow thought he was no longer a geek, I understood the Star Trek reference, but I certainly wasn’t going to acknowledge it. "So... why are you home and still in your pj’s?”

Xavier shrugged. "I got sick.”

"Funny, you don’t look sick.” He wasn’t all pasty or coughing or anything.

"Stomach bug—last night.” He scratched his head, then his worried expression etched lines between his thick dark eyebrows. "You know, I probably shouldn’t have let you in here. Don’t touch anything, and make sure you scrub your hands with soap and hot water through an entire chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ when you get home. Trust me when I say you don’t want this.”

"You don’t have to lie to me,” I said, certain that he was.

He crossed his arms over his chest. "And why would I lie?”

"Because we’re getting close to the anniversary of, you know, Stevie—”

"Two weeks away, not today,” he said, deep voice rising, his dark eyes glinting with hurt.

Yeah, I’d hit a nerve.

"Maybe you should talk about it,” I suggested. "You know, to one of the counselors at school if not to me.”

"Right. Because talking has really helped my parents move on.”

I reached out to give him a reassuring pat on the shoulder, and he shrugged me off, stepping back. "What don’t you get about me harboring germs?”

Stunned that he was rejecting my sympathy, I didn’t know what to do. So I stood there, probably looking as stupid as I now felt for coming over here when I could be home surfing Facebook.

He raised his arm to check the time on his wrist watch. Xavier was one of the few guys I knew who wore one. Most everyone else looked at the time on their phones. "Shouldn’t you be stalking Drew right about now?”

Low blow. Wait a minute. How did he know?

I focused back on my friend and his angry expression. "What?”

"In a nutshell, don’t you have better things to do than bug me?”

Maybe he wassick. "So now my concern is bugging you?”

"I don’t want your concern if it doesn’t come with benefits. I’m not your after school project.”

"You know, you’re being really ornery, more so than usual.”

"Because I’m recovering from a nasty bug.” He took a deep breath, and the sound of a toilet flushing floated its way down the foyer. "Believe me now?”

"I’ll go. Just let me say this. I’m sorry if the next few weeks are hard for you. I’m your friend, and I want you to know that I care. Okay?”

"Okay,” he said and walked over to the door to open it for me.

I remembered the treat I’d won in Spanish for knowing the word for fish. Pescado. A box of Nerds had been my reward. Maybe Xavier would want them. I recalled something about him and Nerds, and no, it wasn’t that some people considered him one. I unzipped my backpack, pulled out the bright pink and purple box of candies, and shook it. "Here.”

"What’s this for, besides stereotyping?” he asked.

I almost laughed. "I won it at school today, and since I prefer chocolate, I don’t want them. Then for some reason I kind of thought you did. Like them.”

He shook his head and lobbed the box back to me. "Not me. My brother.”

Strike two. "Sorry.”

"You’ll make it up to me.” His expression was thankfully hopeful, not angry.

"I will?”

He smiled. "I hear Randy’s having a party.”

"Yeah. So what does that have to do with me and you?” I asked, the hairs on my arms rising in alarm.

"Well, since you and Randy have become friends, I suspect he’s invited you.”

I could see where he was headed with this. I lightly scratched my now itchy arms and neck. "My parents haven’t said that Audrey and I can go yet.”

He nodded. "Why would they after what happened the last time he had a party?”

"Hey, he wasn’t the person who slipped something into her Red Bull. His parents are going to be home for this party, and they’ve hired security.”

"Wow, you must really want to go to have all those facts lined up... which means Drew will be there. Are you hoping he’s going to fulfill some adolescent fantasy of yours and ask you to Homecoming at this party?”

Heat spread up my chest and neck and made my cheeks throb in embarrassment. My skin begged to be scratched. How did he know?

"What do you think about me going to Randy’s Halloween party with you?” The sincere hope in his voice made an outright no impossible.

"Will your parents let you?” Yeah, I was being noncommittal because if he went with me and stuck too close, people would think we were dating, and then Drew would never ask me out.

"The question should be whether your parents will let you go without someone like me tagging along. And don’t think I didn’t notice you’re avoiding the Drew question.”

I shrugged, which backfired when the sharp point of a large textbook jabbed under my right shoulder blade. "I assume Drew will be there.”

"Ah-ha. The truth. So don’t you get in enough stalking on Facebook?”

"I don’t stalk Drew,” I lied, my raspy voice rising with the denial.


"I don’t,” I said more emphatically. Don’t you hate it when your friend knows you too well and calls you on stuff you’d rather pretend you didn’t do?

He raised a dark eyebrow. "So what costume is he wearing?”

"Very funny.” But inside I cringed. I’d been trying to find out. Randy wouldn’t tell me.

"Seriously, though,” Xavier said with a snort of laughter. "In case I decide to crash without you, what will you be dressed up as?”

"I thought you were recovering,” I reminded him.

"Nice try, but I’ll be more than recovered in two weeks.”

"Unless you come down with something else due to your weakened immune system. I’ve seen it happen.”

Xavier cocked his shaggy-haired head to the side. "Stop ignoring the question. What are you wearing?”

"I haven’t decided. I have a nineteen fifties-style poodle skirt.”

"Does that mean you’re going to wear it?”

Dadblameit. He’d read my not quite white lie. "I haven’t decided.”

"Right. What is it? Oh, I bet I know. You want to wear something you shouldn’t even be considering.”

"Fine.” Sometimes I wished he wasn’t so smart. "I was thinking about borrowing Tina’s German beer garden costume.”

"Seriously?” He shook his head. "You mean you want to wear one of those babelicious costumes with the garters and the corset? As intriguing as that fantasy might be, I doubt your mom and dad will let you out of the house dressed like a—”

"Do you have a better idea?” I interrupted.

"How about going as a ghost? All you need is a white sheet and a pair of scissors.”

"Funny.” But then only Xavier, Aunt Geneva, and I would get the irony. I have to admit it was kind of nice to have someone besides my eccentric aunt know about my ghost-seeing capabilities.

"Oh, even better,” he said, smiling and revealing his dimple once more. "Go as Princess and the Pea. You could get a green toy ball and wear some princess costume. Much more inventive than something you could buy in a store.”

And less likely to be thought of as sexy. Unless... I could convince my mom to take me shopping at Victoria’s Secret for the proper enhancement.

I had to admit, I kind of liked Xavier’s idea. Making fun of myself and the preschool nickname that had haunted me my whole life was clever. Drew would think so too. "Thanks. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

"You forget I might go, too. Once you realize I’m your only ticket to your parents saying yes.”

"And what would you go as? Boy Who Pukes?”

"Cute.” He took a deep breath. "It would be wrong of me not to go, now that I can see those wheels turning.”

"Wheels?” I widened my eyes to create an expression that read innocent of all charges. "I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

"Oh, yes you do. You have that ‘who me?’ look on your face—the one that usually means trouble for everyone around you.”

"Maybe you have a fever, and it’s making you see things that aren’t there,” I said. I was determined to get Drew’s attention at that Halloween party, and I’d never keep it if Xavier was trailing me that night. "See you tomorrow.”

"I predict you’ll be texting me soon and begging me to come with you,” he said.

My eyes were drawn to the mud wasp nest once more. I looked around the rest of the forlorn yard.

Xavier’s gaze took in the red clay furrows and then skittered to the dead impatiens in the crescent bed that he’d faithfully watered over the summer, but the bright pink flowers had withered like they always do once the nights cooled. "I should probably do something about all this,” he said.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, I saw that cry for help for what it was. And even though my rising social status was important to me, I realized that Xavier was more important. Not gonna lie, that revelation was a little scary.

"Would you like some help? I mean, not that it’s... I mean, we... I...”

He put his hand up in a halting motion. "No need to explain any further. I’d love some help. Let’s say Saturday morning? If you come by early, you won’t have to worry that helping me will ruin your street cred.”

"If I come by early, I won’t get to sleep in at all this weekend.” And by sleeping in, I meant past nine a.m.

"Right. I forgot. Gotta get in that beauty sleep for Drew,” he teased.

"I have lots of other things I could be doing on Saturday,” I said with an indignant huff.

"I know. I know. I’m sorry. I get grumpy when I’m sick and my gut muscles are sore.”

"Muscles?” I echoed, lending the word a generous dose of skepticism.

"Yeah, you want to see?” He grabbed hold of the bottom of his shirt.

"No!” I shrieked, and we both laughed.

I waved goodbye to Xavier and couldn’t help but smile to myself as I took the sidewalk to the driveway instead of cutting across the weedy lawn. I’d made him laugh, and it felt good. Almost as good as I was going to look as Princess and the Pea.

One of my old dress up princess outfits that Mom had saved for her future grandchildren would be as short as Tina’s German beer maiden costume. I might actually look really cute for Drew. And sexy.

A cool breeze lifted my hair. I looked up at the leaves on the pretty gold-leafed maple next door which... weren’t moving. The wind I felt wasn’t stirring anything but me.

That’s when I realized that little chill had a name and had followed me to the curb, what I’d assumed was the edge of his haunting parameters. Something Stevie had never done with me before.

No, I was wrong. At the beginning of the summer, he’d followed me, my first ghost Amy, and Xavier, while I pleaded for Xavier to help me get to Amy’s journal in the special collections room at the library where he volunteered. So his parameters extended to the front entrance of our subdivision.

Why had Stevie followed me today of all days, especially if he wouldn’t communicate or appear? Had to be the Nerds. I took the box of candy out of my backpack again and left it on the curb near the Monroes’ mailbox.

Weird. I was actually doing something deliberately nice for a ghost who hadn’t glommed onto me. I must be coming down with Xavier’s stomach bug... or something worse.



Chapter Two

TWELVE DAYS AND counting until the party that in all likelihood could change my life, and my parents still hadn’t agreed that Audrey and I could go. As I read through my list of items to rejuvenate the Monroes’ front yard, I still could not quite believe I’d willingly rolled out of bed before noon on a Saturday to help my friend Xavier. Here’s hoping further evidence of my kindness would turn my parents’ maybe to a yes. Audrey and I had tag-teamed the parents with all sorts of promises and gift certificates for car washes. She had even thrown in going to the grocery store, and I’d offered to help Mom with her Sunday craft class tomorrow—full of small whining children, which is equivalent to eating cold, chewy lima beans. And the united front of undecided hadn’t budged.

Clarification: I swear my offer of craft guidance wasn’t based on the fact that Drew’s sister Morgan had signed up for the class. But I have to admit I was hoping he’d be the one to drop her off or pick her up. I should receive some small benefit, right?

First, though, was the Monroes’ front yard.

Flowers? Check. I crossed through item number one on my list and then gathered the chrysanthemums Dad had divided from ours. When I’d mentioned the Monroes needed a little help with their front yard and that I’d promised to help Xavier, Dad thought they might appreciate something that didn’t have to be replanted every year. My dad works for the state environmental protection division, and he’s always talking about stuff like sustainability and waste. The bright yellow and orange flowers would be a welcome substitute for the dead impatiens in Xavier’s mom’s planting bed.

I placed the chrysanthemum pots in the old metal wagon we kept in the garage.

Gloves. I lined through the next thing on the notepad, then threw in my mom’s long-cuffed rubber gardening gloves next to the plastic pots o’ flowers. I hate when I get dirt under my nails. Even worse is when you get clay on your hands, and it sucks all the moisture out of your skin, and you have to add some sort of intensive lotion once you wash the clay off so your hands don’t hurt. One of the many crosses I bear in life, thanks to my ultra-sensitive skin.

Next, I dropped a heavy trowel beside the gloves, and the steel clanged against the rusty wagon bed.

Water! I ran inside, opened the refrigerator, and grabbed the ginormous bottle I’d chilled overnight. Couldn’t forget that.

"Where are you going?” Claire, my younger and, for the most part, nicer, sister asked as she followed me out onto the screened porch and through the screened door to the spot where I’d left the wagon on the driveway.

"To the Monroes’. I’m helping Xavier with yard work.”

"Why not wait ‘til after Halloween? It kind of looks spooky the way it is now.”

"I don’t think that’s on purpose, and I also don’t think they’re giving out candy this year. So don’t ring their bell.”

"It’s sad about his brother,” she said.

I nodded in agreement. What was even sadder was the way Xavier’s parents were going through the motions, but not really ever exhibiting typical parental behaviors, like threatening to ground him for something. I had to admire my friend for the way he trudged on and tried to pull his parents into the here and now even though they seemed stuck in the horror of yesterday.

Claire tucked a strand of her perfect bob behind her ear. "I saw him that night.”

"Who? Stevie?” I asked, hoping she would have a little information that might prove helpful to me... if I could ever get Stevie interested in leaving. I knew she hadn’t inherited the ghost-seeing gene. That’s a gift you get when you become a woman, if you get that gene from Mom’s side of the family, and Claire had gotten her period before I did, even though she’s younger. She, of course, wants to see ghosts. Go figure.

"Yeah,” she said, "Stevie looked like he was having a good time, laughing with his friends, going up to the house where they have the man with the fake chainsaw.”

"Did you hear his friends dare him to eat his candy?” That’s what I assumed had happened, because boys will do stupid things if you dare them. I had pictured a Russian roulette type situation only using a pillowcase full of candy rather than bullets.

"No,” she said.

So maybe Stevie’d gotten jealous that his friends were able to eat whatever they wanted, that they didn’t have to wait until they got home. Maybe he’d been sick of all the years of being so careful. Or what? And why hadn’t he had his EpiPen?

Crappola! Where was mine? I felt my pocket for the tube-like container and realized it was still in my purse. Upstairs. In my room. Maybe.

"It’s scary to be that allergic to something that it kills you so fast,” Claire said.

"Yup.” And I’d almost done something as foolish as Stevie had.

I ran back inside, smelling the lingering sweet-baked scent of blueberry muffins and noting the breakfast dishes still hadn’t been done. Was it my turn? I hoped not because I was already late.

Claire followed on my heels as I took the back stairs two at a time. I’d slept a little longer than I’d planned to.

"Do you want some help at Xavier’s?” Claire asked as I started lifting discarded and most likely dirty clothing from the piles on my floor that I’d spend the afternoon washing.

Audrey poked her fully made-up face into my room. Yeah, on a Saturday morning she looked like she was red carpet ready. "Sorry, Claire. You’re not getting out of cleaning the bathroom. If you head out, we all know that Mom will make me do it, and Idid it last Saturday.”

Maybe I’d left my EpiPen on my desk. I moved papers and books and folders.

"Don’t you think helping Heather help Xavier is more important?” Claire asked.

"Nope,” Audrey said. "Clean the bathroom. Now.”

"You’re mean,” Claire said as she left.

I didn’t stick up for Audrey, who was actually in the right for once, even if she was mean. I moved onto my bed and found an earring but no EpiPen or purse.

"What exactly are you looking for?” Audrey asked.

"My purse.” I expected something snotty to come out of her mouth next, because even though we were getting along better, she wasn’t the type to offer help unless she was getting something out of it.

She rolled her eyes. "It’s probably with your book bag downstairs.”

Duh. I can’t believe I walked right by it. I ran back downstairs.

Audrey followed, which meant she wanted something. And when Audrey wants something, I usually end up on the short end of whatever stick she has up her behind.

"While you’re hanging with Supergeek, see if he can come up with an argument that’ll convince Mom and Dad to let us go to Randy’s party.”

I stopped at the shelving system that we girls were supposed to use, and there was my purse. I’d actually put my purse and my backpack where they were supposed to go. "He came up with something. But I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

Intrigue lit her dark kohl-rimmed eyes. "Go on.”

"You’re not going to like it.” I repeated, expecting that she wouldn’t, because I certainly didn’t like his idea. I unzipped my purse, grabbed my EpiPen, and shoved it in the front pocket of my jeans.

"Tell me. God, you’re so annoying.”

"He said if we brought him with us, Mom and Dad would basically consider us well-chaperoned and would agree.”

Her pin-up eyebrows drew together in concern.

See, I was right. There was no way—

"It’s worth a shot. Tell him thanks.”

"But Audrey, everyone will think one of us is going out with him.”

"Not one of us. You.” She laughed. The wiener.

"So I’m supposed to sacrifice all the strides I’ve made socially. And what happened to that whole thing about me hanging out with Xavier bothering you and your friends?”

"Believe me when I say this. You do more to damage your”—she made quote marks—"rising popularity than Supergeek will ever accomplish. Stop being so dramatic. All you have to do is split off from him once we get to Randy’s.”

Yeah, like that was going to be easy. He didn’t really know anybody who’d be there except maybe Drew. Xavier’d be stuck to me like glue, like Super Glue, like that crazy epoxy Dad uses with the warnings on it that makes Mom worry he’s going to glue his fingers together, and they’ll have to go to the emergency room. "Easy for you to say.”

"Do you want to go to the party or not?” she asked.

If I wanted any shot at my fantasy involving Drew asking me to Homecoming at this party, I may have to allow Xavier to come with us. But I wasn’t ready to cry uncle yet. "Let me see if something else works first.”

Her face a dictionary sketch of dubious, Audrey tapped her foot and blocked my way out the door. "What is the something else?”

Who knew? But I’d come up with a better strategy, or my name wasn’t Tildy, Heather Tildy. "I haven’t worked out all the particulars yet.”

She snorted. "I’ll give you until tomorrow night, then I’m asking Mom and Dad if having Xavier with us will make a difference.”

"That’s not a lot of time.”

Audrey smiled. "Your devious mind works better under pressure.”

Four months ago, she wouldn’t have been so nice. I’m not gonna lie, her new attitude made me more than a little wary. It wouldn’t last. It couldn’t.

Irked that she had nothing at stake, and that she’d probably get her way and I’d have to beg Xavier to come with us, and then owe him something, I did what any other fifteen-year-old girl with a poopy older sister making her do something she didn’t want to, would do. I jabbed back.

"You like him, don’t you?” Him meaning Randy, not Xavier. Xavier she tolerated.

"Shut up.”

I couldn’t resist. "Audrey and Randy sitting in a tree...”

"Shut up!”

BY THE TIME my wagon and I rolled alongside Xavier’s driveway—it had taken longer than usual because I’m not used to being up this early on a Saturday, and I hadn’t been able to successfully sneak any coffee—he’d already raked a giant pile of leaves in the center of the dormant Bermuda grass. I have to admit I was a wee bit tempted to jump in them—or I would have been if I were still in middle school. But I was so much more mature this year, and I’d put my hair in a cute, bouncy ponytail. My hairdo wouldn’t be so bouncy or cute if it were askew. Plus, the leaves would stick to my lip gloss—the attempt to look somewhat attractive was all for Drew’s benefit. In case he happened to drive by, which was a long shot.

Xavier looked up and shook his head. "I thought you’d at least be here before lunch.”

"I am. I just had breakfast.” I sensed Stevie as my right side chilled. "Are we bagging the leaves?”

"Yeah. I guess.” He scratched the side of his shaggy head. "I’ve got to get some bags. Be right back.”

He went inside the house, and I saw a curtain move. Probably one of his parents watching. It seemed to be taking Xavier a while to locate the bags, so I looked to the curb where I’d left a pink box of Nerds for my silent personal refrigerator the other day. It was no longer there.

"You’re welcome,” I said to Stevie.

Still no materialization or a "thank you.”

After what seemed like forever but was only ten minutes tops since he went inside, Xavier came around the corner of the house and waved a couple of folded brown bags. "Found them in the basement.”

He had those big brown bags that people other than Tildys use to put yard waste in. My dad, Mr. Environmental, composts instead.

As Xavier opened the bag, I jammed my mother’s gardening gloves on and started scooping.

"Have you thought some more about my offer?” he asked.

"What offer?” I stalled.

"Randy’s party.” He pointed back at the house. "From what Audrey indicated on the phone just now, I think you two need me.”

That rat fink! The leaves sifted from my hands back to the pile below. "She called you? How did she get your number?”

He shrugged. "The neighborhood directory, I imagine.”

"The land line,” I whispered to myself. She was devious, going behind my back. "Well, I hope she also told you that I have a few other ideas I plan to try first. Your offer is plan D or E.”

"That’s not what Audrey said.” He smiled smugly. His dimple mocked me.

"Well, that’s because neither one of you know what I know.” I grabbed another scoop of leaves bigger than the first. Some escaped my grasp and somehow managed to stick to my lips. I spat as he laughed at me.

"And what would that be?” He came close and pulled the leaf particles from my mouth. It made me feel weird to have him look at my lips and touch them. He probably wanted to kiss me. My face burned with embarrassment.

"That’s for me to know,” I said.

He shook his head. "Like you know that lip gloss and leaf raking don’t mix? Not that I mind that you went to all that trouble for me.”

"It’s not for you. I like to look my best.”

"In case Drew happens to swing by.” He scooped up twice as many leaves as I had and dumped them in the paper bag. "You do know that the chances of that are pretty minimal.”

Fine. He could do all this himself. "I’ll leave the chrysanthemums on the front stoop. Plant them yourself.”

"Come on, Heather. Stay. I’m only kidding. It’s my way of dealing with the fact that the girl I like is infatuated with some other guy.”

"Okay, now I’m even more uncomfortable.”

"Why don’t you work on the flowers, and I’ll finish the leaves.”

My chill companion stuck with me as I weeded the bed of its dried up impatiens and its burgeoning autumn weeds. "You’ll probably need more mulch once I get these in.”

The front door opened. Mrs. Monroe, who stood there in her bathrobe, looked about ten years older than the last time I’d seen her, which was—I thought back—probably about a year ago. Her hair had about two inches of a warm chestnut dye left on its ends. The rest was an unkempt mixture of dull brown and gray. She pulled the shawl collar of her bathrobe close to her neck. "What are you doing?”

She was looking at me, and her voice had lost that wispy bereaved quality. If I had to characterize the tone, it wouldn’t be friendly. Or neighborly. Or even halfway close to nice.

"I’m, um, helping Xavier with a little yard work.”

Xavier dropped his rake and walked over toward me and his mom.

"Well, you can stop. You can both stop. Right now!”

"Mom,” Xavier said. "We’re not doing anything wrong.”

Her nostrils flared. "Did you ask my permission? Did you?”

"Why should I? You don’t give a rat’s ass about how the yard or the house looks.” The veins in his throat strained as he yelled back. Not exactly the kind of language you’d expect of an altar boy.

My cold little friend moved away from me. I guess I wasn’t the only one who was uncomfortable.

"You will apologize, then go to your room, Xavier. I will not be spoken to in that manner. Especially in front of your friend, who apparently is having all sorts of negative influence on you.” Her pain-filled gaze directed back to me. "And you, you can—”

"Don’t you say anything to Heather. She hasn’t done anything wrong. And neither have I. We’ve got to move on. What? You think if we don’t paint the house or take care of the yard that he’ll come back?”

She ignored her son. "Heather, I want you to take those flowers of death back to wherever you got them from. I don’t want them.”

"Yes, ma’am.” I had no clue as to why bright colors made her think of death, but I wasn’t going to argue. I was going to hightail it out of there. My only regret was that I couldn’t take Xavier with me.

"You’re being ridiculous,” Xavier said. He pulled his phone out of his pocket.

"Who are you calling?” his mom screamed and tried to grab the phone from him.

Holy shiznet. His mother was losing it. I didn’t want to be here. Hurry. I pulled the cuttings from the holes I’d managed to stick two of them in and shoved them back in the little plastic pots my father had found in the basement.

As I loaded them in the wagon, I heard Xavier say, "Dad, do you have a problem with me fixing up the front yard a little?”

"I don’t care what your father says. I say no!”

"Can you hear her? She’s yelling at me and my friend for cleaning up the yard.”

I then picked up my trowel and the other two pots of one orange, one burgundy that would have looked pretty once they filled in with the yellow ones. Mrs. Monroe and Xavier were still at a standoff as Xavier listened to whatever his father was saying to him.

"I’ll just...” and I picked up the wagon handle and wheeled myself away from the domestic drama that made me shake inside. Xavier’s mom had gone off the deep end.

As I rolled away from their house and approached the spot where their driveway meets the road, I noticed that my chill companion was still with me. Dreading what was about to happen, I breathed in the cool autumn air. This wasn’t a disaster yet. I would have nearly two whole weeks to move this haint along before what could become the most momentous night of my life. If my parents relented. If I had a super cool costume. If Drew went to the party and saw me, and please God, asked me out.

I glanced to where I suspected Stevie was about to reveal himself. He didn’t disappoint.

"Hi,” the pint-sized version of Xavier said. His costume? Black turtleneck, jeans, little wired frame glasses, and a fake goatee. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, I guessed.

"So you changed your mind,” I said.

"About hopscotch?” he asked, referring to the argument he’d had with my first ghost, Amy, in June. She’d told me about it.

"No. About me helping you,” I said.

"I don’t need you to help me. I need you to help Xavier.” And that’s when he jumped the curb, following me into the street, something he shouldn’t be able to do until... I reviewed the rules I’d learned... he had to do three nice things for me. But what were they?

Because we’d already progressed to the unfortunate point where this ten-year-old boy could follow me around anywhere he wanted, I knew Randy’s party wasn’t going to be as stellar as I’d hoped. Not to mention my so-called life. As much as I wanted to help Stevie for Xavier’s sake, I never really had a hankering for a little brother. A cute older brother with cute friends who had secret crushes on me—yes, that scenario I could have gone for. I tried to imagine Audrey as that older teen brother. She’d probably be all about the stubble, since that seemed to be the current rage in Hollywood.

But if Stevie and I had made this much progress without me being aware, perhaps this haunting would go relatively smoothly, and I’d be rid of him before the party. No worries, right?

"So how exactly would you like me to help Xavier?” I asked. After all, there was no reason yet not to look on the bright side. I reached into the wagon for my water bottle and took a sip. My stomach groaned like I hadn’t eaten breakfast an hour ago.

"Isn’t it obvious?” he said in a stinky tone.

"Not to me it isn’t.” I wanted to add butthead, but I refrained. Okay. So maybe he wasn’t going to be an easy ghost.

"You’re so dumb. I don’t know why he likes you.”

I took another sip. "The longer you spend insulting me the more time you waste and therefore I waste.”

"Take him to the Randy party,” he insisted.

"My parents haven’t even said I could go,” I pointed out. Seriously, he had to have heard the word "no” from his parents on occasion. Audrey, Claire, and I weren’t the only ones out there with parents who didn’t cave to our every whim. Were we?

Stevie fisted his ghostly hands. "Take him.”

"Look, you don’t understand how this stuff works.” I’d give him the 411. "You’re only ten.”

"I understand plenty. Oh, and you’re taking him as your date. Or your life is going to get a lot more bumpy.” He kicked the wagon, and it flipped on its side, spilling everything on the asphalt. Yeah, I guess he needed to prove he was serious.

Raise your hand if you think this handling is going to be easy.

No takers?




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