My name is Elena Ingstrom and I am twenty-two years old, but this story isn’t actually about me, so that’s not important. That being said, there are still a few things I should tell you about myself so that the rest of this story makes sense.
First off, I’m dead. I died on June 17th, 2015. Don’t worry about that, though, because that’s all in the past and I’m over it. The point of my telling you this is that you need to understand that I’m a bona fide ghost. I walk unseen amongst the living and move through walls and all of that nonsense you learn from horror movies. All of that unfinished business crap is true, too, but I already made peace with my mom and forgave my best friend for being a dick and everything else. Again, this story is not about me.
This story is about a seventeen-year-old brat named Jenna Marsh who got hit by a bus.
As it turns out, there’s one thing that the movies left out. Apparently, before you go into the light or meet your maker or whatever you want to call it, you have to help somebody else out with their unfinished business. My ghost guide, if that’s what you wanted to call it, had been a football jock-type guy named Randy who had apparently been murdered a few months prior. To be honest, he had seemed a little too chipper for a recent murder victim, but hey, good for him. He told me that he had just about finished his business, and his last task was to help me finish mine. Now I had to pay it forward by helping Jenna. It was like one second I was watching Randy blip out and the next I was standing in the middle of a road in Nowheresville, Illinois on September 18th at the scene of a fatal bus accident next to Roadkill Barbie, who was screaming her pretty little head off.
“It’s, erm, okay,” I said, trying to be soothing. I never really did soothing well when I was alive. She stopped immediately, though, so I must have done something.
“You can see me?” she gasped, mascara-ringed eyes going wide.
“Uh, yeah,” I told her. “I’m dead, too, and I’m here to help you with all of your unfinished business.” At this, her expression rapidly cycled through surprise, anger, and shock before settling somewhere between indignation and something that looked like pity.
“I’m not dead,” she informed me matter-of-factly.
“Did you, um, miss that?” I asked, tactfully motioning toward the scene in front of us. The one where the crumpled up body was, you know, her.
“Of course not,” she said, like I was a little kid. “But this is obviously a dream.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, understanding. She hadn’t quite grasped what had happened yet. I had been the same way at first. I just had to be gentle about it. “Does this really feel like a dream?” I asked in my best soothing ghost guide voice. I thought that was a pretty good line, like I was a young ghost-Freud.
“Well, no,” she admitted. “But I still don’t think that I’m dead.”
“What makes you so sure?” I asked.
“Well, for starters, why would they send someone like you to help someone like me?” she said, looking pointedly from her designer-everything outfit to my torn jeans.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded, momentarily abandoning my compassionate ghost guide façade.
“You know,” she said, gesturing vaguely at me.
“Oh, come on,” she said. “Look at you. I mean, what is that haircut? And do you buy all of your clothes two sizes too big intentionally? I bet you never got asked to one dance in high school. How could you possibly help me?”
At this, a whole bunch of responses sprung to mind, but none of them were very kind and ghost guide-like, and so I chose the more graceful route. “I just am, and you’re going to have to deal,” I told her. “I’m your ghost guide because you are a ghost. I know it’s hard to adjust, but you’re dead. Look,” I said, passing a hand through her arm. She yelped and jerked back, then looked at her arm in amazement.
“How did you just do that?” she asked, wide-eyed. “Don’t touch me again!”
“I just told you how,” I said, exasperated. I was trying to be nice, but she honestly didn’t seem too bright. AND she was mean. Ugh.
“So I died,” she said slowly.
“For fu—yes. You’re dead. I’m dead. We’re ghosts.”
“I see,” she said, comprehension starting to dawn. I had about three seconds to hope we might get this show on the road before she burst into tears. Ugh.
Listen, I get that finding out you’re dead is traumatic. It hit me hard too when I was finally able to grasp that I would never get to talk to anyone I knew ever again, or accomplish anything I’d dreamed of doing. One day I was graduating college and moving on to the next chapter of my life and the next thing I knew, I was invisible to everyone around me, and Randy showed up. I get it. I do. I know all about the shock, the confusion, the sadness, and how overall not-fun the whole experience was. I just didn’t remember being so…annoying.
Luckily, Jenna calmed herself down after a few minutes and we were able to move away from the scene of the accident and take a walk down the road. I explained the whole ghost thing to her and I think she maybe got half of it, but she kept interjecting with things like, “So I’ll never talk to my family again?” and, “What about my friends?” I tried to explain to her gently that she was never going to interact with any of them again, but it’s hard to put that gently, and I’m not a particularly gentle person to begin with, so there was a lot more crying and lamenting before we could even start to figure out what it was she needed to do. I tried to channel Ghost Guide Randy, but he was a person who laughed a lot—almost constantly, now that I thought about it—and I was not that kind of person.
Finally, after a few hours—HOURS—I got her to quit crying and spit out some details about her life. I started easy and then tried to get into the deeper stuff.
“Tell me about yourself,” I suggested.
“Well, my name is Jenna Marsh and I’m a senior at Glendale and I’m on the cheerleading team and I volunteer a lot and I love animals,” she rattled off. I tried not to gag. Not only did she look like a Barbie, but she might actually BE one. And not the cool skater one.
“Okay,” I said. “What about your personal life. Did you have a boyfriend? Did you get along with your family?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend. I mean, I did, but…not anymore. My family…” she started, but trailed off. Tears sprang up in her eyes again and I had to stifle a groan. I mean, I was trying to be all compassionate, but I really probably wasn’t the right person for this. My own unfinished business—to my discontent—had had something to do with “embracing my emotions”. So much for that. I was beginning to think that maybe Randy hadn’t helped me quite as much as he had thought.
“Your family…” I prompted.
“They’re great. I had a good childhood, I guess, and I got along with my brother. Everything was fine. I wasn’t, like, bullied or anything, like you probably were,” she said, sniffling.
I ignored that last part and pushed on. “What about your friends?” I asked. And then I asked about school. The cheer squad. Her college applications. The girl had no problems. I was beginning to wonder if her lack of problems was her problem. “So you really can’t think of anything bad in your life? Nothing at all?”
“Well, I got hit by a bus while I was walking to school today,” she said pointedly.
“No shit,” I replied. She glared.
“Also, I think someone pushed me,” she added. The rude things floating around in my head dissipated and I stared at her, mouth hanging open.
“You think you were murdered?”
“I guess, yeah.”
“And you didn’t think to mention that part?”
“You asked me about my life, not my death,” she replied. She even had the audacity to flash me a sunny cheerleader Barbie smile. I was going to kill her. Again.
Instead, I said out loud, “I think I just might kill you. Again.”
“Rude,” she huffed.
“Oh, stop,” I said, but then a thought occurred to me. “You said you were pushed while you were walking to school, but I didn’t see anyone else there. Were you walking with anyone?”
That made her think. “No,” she admitted, but cut me off before I could say anything else. “I know I felt something, okay? I was walking on the side of the road, you know, since there aren’t any sidewalks, but I’ve always been careful. Then, all of a sudden, it was like I felt hands on my back and fell into the road. Maybe someone snuck up on me or something.”
“Fine,” I said, trying not to sigh. Well, sigh too much, anyway. “Let’s go find out who murdered you.”
Because the bus had hit Jenna as she walked to school, we were able to walk the rest of the way instead of having to use crazy ghost powers to zap ourselves there. That was for the best, since I wasn’t in the mood to teach her how to do that just yet. I had a feeling she would only use it for evil.
Jenna walked the whole way with her arms wrapped around herself, sniffling every once in a while. She had stopped with the questions about all of the things she’d never do, but she was still obviously upset, and I couldn’t exactly blame her. For all that she was actually taking her death pretty well, it was still pretty upsetting to find out that you’d kicked the bucket. In a moment of compassionate ghost guide-ness I decided to extend an olive branch.
“I know it sucks,” I told her, establishing camaraderie like Randy had shown me. “But at least I’m in this with you.”
“Oh, fantastic. Because all I wanted in the afterlife was a sarcastic stranger with horrible fashion sense,” she snapped.
“Well, it’s not like I wanted to be stuck here with Bitchy Barbie, but here I am,” I replied. She huffed at me but otherwise stopped speaking after that. Granted, that wasn’t a very nice thing to say, especially for someone trying to help her, but she started it. We ended up walking in silence the rest of the way, with me cursing Randy the entire time for not preparing me well enough for this.
I figured that her school was the best place to start, since any enemy she had would probably be her age. I know I wouldn’t have liked her in high school. Not that I liked her now, but I digress. Anyway, the only problem—aside from the fact that I had no idea what we were going to do when we found who killed her—was that I had forgotten that it had only been about five hours since Jenna had died, and since her death had been before school started, class was still in session. When we arrived, there were lines of people streaming into what I assumed was the auditorium. Jenna saw this and took off in that direction, calling out the names of classmates she knew like they were going to turn around and acknowledge her.
“They. Can’t. Hear. You,” I reminded her when I caught up. She ignored me. “Where are they all going?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m following them,” she said, rolling her eyes. I would have hit her if she wasn’t incorporeal. As it was, I just followed her and the other students into the auditorium. When I got inside, I saw that a short man in a suit—the principal, probably—was standing behind a podium on the stage, wringing his tie in his hands. There were high school students milling all around, and when I turned to Jenna, she was staring hard into the crowd.
“Do you see someone?”
She shook her head. “I thought I saw…Never mind. It was nothing.”
“Okay, let’s get up closer,” I suggested.
“There are people in the way,” she argued.
“Not in our way,” I said, rolling my eyes in what I thought was a decent impression of her. I turned and started making my way to the front of the crowd, passing through the mass of bored teenagers like they were air. If I had stopped to think about it, I might have been disturbed, but I chose not to. Jenna followed me and we stopped a little to the left of the stage, waiting for whatever was about to begin to begin. After a few minutes, everyone was settled in and the principal cleared his throat.
“That’s Principal Davies,” Jenna whispered. “He’s so weird.” I ignored this and focused on what the little man was saying.
“By now, some of you might have heard,” he started. “This morning, there was a terrible accident that resulted in the loss of one of our students.” There were a few gasps among the assembled students. I even heard a stifled sob. The principal continued. “I am sad to announce that the student was senior Jenna Marsh. I know that this news will be harder on some of you than others. Like last time, counselors will be available today all day and for the remainder of the week if any of you feel like you need someone to talk to. All of Glendale will mourn this loss.” At this, he fumbled with his tie a little more and shuffled off the stage with a muffled “thank you”. I glanced at Jenna, who was staring down someone in the audience.
“See anyone suspicious?” I asked.
“Her,” Jenna said, pointing at a tall girl toward the back of the room with badly dyed black hair and about a pound of makeup on her face. “That’s Rain.” Her voice wavered a little on the girl’s name. I glanced over to see that new tears were forming in her eyes, but she blinked them back. I felt a brief stab of pity for her. I remembered what it had been like to see the people I loved going about their lives, knowing that I would never be part of them again. It was hard. I thought about trying to extend the olive branch again, but since it hadn’t worked too well last time, I just moved on.
“Uh, okay. Who is she?” I asked, since all I knew about Rain so far was that Jenna had known her and her parents had probably been hippies.
“She’s supposed to be my best friend, and look! Not a single tear,” Jenna said, huffing as she tended to do.
“That’s not really hard evidence,” I argued. After all, although I felt a little bad for her, Jenna was pretty terrible. I was thinking Rain was probably not a likely suspect.
“Well then let’s follow her around and see if she does anything suspicious,” Jenna said.
“Like what? Running through the halls, cackling maniacally because her murder plan worked?”
“How should I know?” Jenna snapped. “I’ve never tried to solve my own murder before.”
I sighed. I had been doing a lot of sighing lately. “Let’s do some investigation.”
As it turns out, Rain was a supremely boring human being. We followed her through the rest of her classes, where she sat still and did nothing, then sat through tennis practice, where she stayed off to the side the entire time. If I could have died again, I might have died of boredom. After an hour of watching her not play tennis, I couldn’t take it anymore. I moved away from the fence we stood by and started pacing. After a few minutes of this, I started messing with the tennis equipment. I knocked over a bucket of tennis balls, then kicked a racket across the court, just because I felt like it.
“How did you do that?” came the shocked sound of Jenna’s voice behind me.
“How did I—oh yeah, you can kind of touch stuff for a second if you try hard enough,” I told her. It was hard, but it could be done. I just hadn’t bothered to tell her because, you know, she was irritating.
“Why didn’t you tell me that sooner! Here I was, thinking—“ she exclaimed, but I cut her off with a shushing motion.
“Shut up a second, they’re talking about you,” I told her, pointing at Rain and some other tennis girl.
“Maybe it was Jenna,” the other girl was saying. She was picking up the racket I had kicked.
“What is wrong with you?” Rain demanded. “She just died today.” If I wasn’t mistaken, I heard her voice catch on the last word. Maybe she had actually cared about Jenna after all. Weird.
“Yeah, okay, sorry,” said the other girl meekly. “I guess I just don’t really know how to react to this.”
“I don’t think any of us do,” said Rain. “I feel like this is all a dream. I don’t want to believe that she’s gone, but I guess I’m going to have to.”
“Hey, maybe she’s with her boyfriend now. She was so devastated.” Wait, what?
I turned back to Jenna. “Your boyfriend died?”
“Uh, yeah,” Jenna admitted. “We were in a car accident. I asked him something and he looked at me for half a second and a deer jumped out in front of us. I screamed and he swerved and we ended up hitting a guardrail on the driver’s side. They…said it was probably fast,” she finished lamely.
“Oh,” I said, because I didn’t feel like there was anything else I could say. I actually felt bad for Barbie. That must have been pretty scarring. I had met someone who had been in a similar situation before and… Oh, shit. “Was your boyfriend on the football team?” I asked, seemingly out of the blue.
“Y-yeah,” she said, surprised. “How did you know?”
“I just had a feeling. His name wasn’t Randy, was it?”
“Yeah. It was,” she confirmed. Oh, shit.
“That’s it. That’s him,” I said a few minutes later. We were standing in front of a case in the school’s main foyer. In it was a memorial to Randy McMill, the football star who had been killed in a car accident a few months prior. It was full of his trophies and pictures of him with various teammates and coaches. They would put up a memorial for Jenna, too, I imagined. Maybe with pom-poms and lip gloss or something.
“How do you know him?” Jenna asked, confused.
“He was my…me, I guess. Like I came for you when you died, he came to me. He helped me sort things out with my family and then he was just…gone. And then I was there in the road with you.”
“So what does this have to do with anything?” Jenna asked.
“I think…I think that maybe Randy was the one who pushed you,” I said. It didn’t make sense, but once I had said it aloud, I believed it. Randy had told me that once you helped someone else, you moved on. Since he had helped me, he theoretically should have left the building, so to speak. But then again, he had told me he was almost done with his unfinished business. He had told me he’d been murdered, not that he’d died in a car accident. That meant that he blamed someone else for his death, and that person must have been Jenna. But then why had he helped me sort out my problems, and most importantly, how had he been able to stick around once they were solved?
“What. Do. You. Mean?” Jenna demanded, like she had already asked a few times.
“I mean that I think Randy blames you for his death, and so he pushed you in front of a bus,” I said bluntly. Her mouth dropped open into an almost comedic “O”.
“She did it! She solved it!” came a voice from across the room. Walking toward us was none other than Randy, the psycho ghost jock, grinning like a T.V. villain. Honestly, he was trying too hard, what with the dramatically timed entrance and crazy act.
“Randy?” asked Jenna in a small voice.
“How are you even here?” I demanded before he could address her. “You were my guide and I got all of my business finished. I saw you go into the light.”
“He didn’t,” said a new voice. I turned around—again—to see the middle-aged man who was now approaching our little circle of fun. And if I wasn’t mistaken, he was the littlest bit…shimmery.
“Okay, now who the hell are you?” I asked, exasperated. What kind of terrible movie was I stuck in?
“Mike,” Randy and the newcomer said in unison.
“Randy is my charge,” said the newcomer, who I supposed was Mike. “He got away from me, and I’ve been tracking him ever since. He led me here.” At this, he stopped, so that was apparently all of the detail he was going to give me. Very dramatic. And then, because he was playing the supervillain in this trainwreck of a movie, Randy chose this moment for his evil monologue.
“The only thing I needed to finish was this,” he said, motioning toward Jenna, who looked shell-shocked. “I wanted her to die, and I wanted her to know who killed her. And Mike over here was going to stop me, so I took off and tried to find Jenna, but I somehow ran into you instead,” he continued, nodding at me. “So I told you all of that stuff about guides and crap and listened to you whine about your family and then used some flashy stuff to make it look like I left and got you at the scene of Jenna’s murder when she became a ghost. I was originally just going to kill her and appear to her myself, but I thought it might be more fun if I dragged it out a little longer.”
“Fun?” I asked, incredulous. “The ghost guides and unfinished business…all of that was made up? Because you thought it would be fun? You’re—“
“Insane,” Mike finished. “Yes. Which is why I’ve been going after him in the first place. There are those that don’t make the transition from living to dead particularly…intact. Death warps them, makes them act in ways they never would have acted when they were alive. And, in this case, gives them abilities that most don’t have. Randy is one of them. I find them and I take them somewhere they can be contained. That’s my job.”
“Contained? Like, a prison for ghosts? Are you serious?” I asked. This was getting beyond ridiculous. “So you’re like, what, a ghost cop?”
“Something like that,” said Mike. “And I’m taking him back now.”
I was struggling between whether to laugh or cry at this—for lack of a better word—insane turn of events, when Jenna finally cut in. “You did all of this to get back at me? For killing you?” she asked Randy, who was still smiling like a lunatic.
“And because it was fun,” he answered.
“But I didn’t kill you, Randy,” she said. “I blamed myself for a while because I thought it was my fault, but it wasn’t, really. It was a freak accident. It wasn’t my fault,” she repeated. And then, a very weird thing happened. Jenna’s expression abruptly changed from one of dismay to something much calmer. “It wasn’t my fault,” she said again, and vanished. It was kind of like when Randy had blipped out, but there was a finality to it that felt different. I guess it was the guilt she had been carrying that had been keeping her from moving on, and she couldn’t do it until she admitted to herself that she wasn’t to blame.
But really? That was all it took?
Mike smiled. “May she be at peace,” he said. I gagged. This was too much.
“I’m out,” I declared. I could not take psychopaths and middle-aged men and irritating cheerleaders that got to go to the great beyond. It was all too bizarre. And corny.
“Wait one second,” Mike said. He turned to Randy and held out a hand, freezing him in place. Because of course.
“What?” I snapped.
“Don’t you want to go, too?” he asked.
“Are you saying I can just decide to go? I could’ve just snapped my fingers and went this whole time?”
Mike shrugged. “Basically, yes. Although you had to be sure you were ready. Do you feel sure?”
“I think so,” I said. “But wait a second. What’s going to happen to Randy? And who are you, by the way?”
Mike smiled. “I’ll take care of Randy. He won’t be able to bother anyone else for a long time. And as for who I am, I’m just Mike.” Somehow, I doubted that, but I let it go because for whatever reason, I trusted him, stranger or not.
That being said, I also trusted what he said about moving on. If it was that easy, then I figured I should just do it. I mean, honestly, what more could I possibly do here? My business was finished, Jenna was gone, and even though it had all been a trick, I felt…at peace. It was nothing short of sappy, but hey, if I was going to be in a bad movie, I figured I should do it right. With one more look at Mike and Randy, frozen with his lunatic smile, I snapped my fingers.