“I’m a psychic medium,” the woman on the television stated. Her bleached hair surrounded her head like a halo. “I communicate with loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Side.”
I dropped onto the worn-out couch in our family's modified two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Television remote in hand, I was ready to change the channel, but I paused. My curiosity didn't stem from the woman's claim she could see ghosts. There was something about her confidence that intrigued me.
I kept my eyes glued to the TV as my best friend, Johnny, sat down next to me in ripped jeans that dragged under his sneakers. At ease with each other's presence, we watched in silence.
With one eyebrow raised, the host of the show nodded her head, like she expected a self-assured answer about the woman's special abilities, but didn't believe it. “Have you always been able to do this?” she asked with fake enthusiasm.
My little sister, Meggy, plopped on to the couch, wearing my army-green T-shirt that hung off her shoulder one size too big. I felt her thigh pressed against mine as if sitting on the cushion next to me wasn't close enough.
“Since I was four,” the kooky woman said without hesitation.
I laughed even though it wasn't a funny comment, and Meggy and Johnny joined in a beat later. Most likely, they were unsure of what I was laughing at, but were unwilling to be left out. I continued to watch without saying a word. It would have been hard to explain that I pictured a blonde baby sucking her thumb and shouting, “I see dead people.”
I dropped the remote in my lap as the peculiar woman continued, “I was given this life for a reason—to use my gift to heal people from the loss of their loved ones.”
The bored anchorwoman looked into the camera and recited, “Nashara Winklevoss is the star of the hit TV show, Channeling…”
As the lady chattered on, the camera focused on Nashara. Her gaze wandered away. As it fell to the space behind the host and out of the camera’s view, she stiffened. Her demeanor changed; anxiety filled her face, and she bit her bottom lip.
Unable to stop herself, Nashara cut the anchorwoman off. “Your sister!” The words rushed out. “She passed away when you were young.”
“Wha…what?” the journalist stammered.
“Your sister, she's here. How did she die?” The startled reporter blinked a few times, unprepared to have a psychic reading on live television. Nashara ignored the awkward pause and gazed at the emptiness in front of her. “She said it has to do with water.”
The anchorwoman took a deep breath and looked down at her hands in her lap. Her shoulders sagged. You could see the intense feelings, perhaps grief, or maybe guilt, weighing her down. The viewers in the audience were sitting on the edge of their seats. “She drowned,” she whispered. The studio gasped in unison. I felt Meggy's body jolt as well.
Nashara reached over and squeezed her hand. Her mournful eyes were sincere. “She says it wasn't your fault. You need to let go and stop blaming yourself.”
The scarred woman looked up. Her eyes were filled with heartfelt tears. Her moving response was so raw that I felt my own eyes stinging.
“Thank you,” was all she could respond. Nashara gathered her in a warm embrace.
I flipped off the television. “Come on, let's go,” I said, covering up my wave of emotion with curt commands to my band of loyal followers.
Johnny hopped off the couch. “Yeah, I don't believe in ghosts, either.”
“I never said that.” I focused on maintaining a bored tone. I grabbed my key chain from the arm of the couch, hustled out the door, and stepped into the elevator.
Johnny shook his mop of black hair. At fourteen and lacking a growth spurt, he was the same five foot six as me. His eyebrows furrowed, confused by my dismissal of the show. I shrugged my shoulders as if that was enough of an explanation. Johnny didn't press me.
As we descended, I glanced at my wavy reflection in the metal door. Despite my potentially pretty features, I had pulled my brown curly hair into a messy bun and wore the same neglected jeans as yesterday.
We were on our way to the Angelika Theatre to see the revival of the 1990s Goosebumps TV series based on the children's horror books by R.L. Stine. I concentrated on the movie to clear my head. The showing promised to be campy with outdated visual effects, which made it all the more worthwhile.
At this time of day, we were going to walk down Broadway, rather than pass through Washington Square Park, where upperclassmen from school pretended to be New York University students and followed celebrities into clubs.
Meggy pointed to the ordered numbers adorning the elevator wall. “Hey, Jules. Why is there a button for thirteen, but no actual floor for thirteen?” she asked, looking up at me.
“There is a thirteenth floor,” I said, remembering the story a kid from floor seven told me. “But no one is allowed on it.”
Meggy's eyes widened. “Why not?”
“Because a long time ago there was a little boy on the thirteenth floor, who pressed the button to go down, and when the elevator doors opened, he stepped inside.” I paused for dramatic effect, and then added, “But there was no elevator, and he plummeted to his death.”
Meggy's mouth hung open in disbelief. “Why didn't the elevator come?”
“No one knows, but the boy began haunting the floor, so they closed it off, and banned everyone from entering.”
Meggy turned to Johnny for confirmation. “It's true. Thirteen is an unlucky number,” he verified.
The elevator wobbled as it landed at the first floor. A freaked-out Meggy held out her hands to steady herself. When the doors opened, she released her breath.
Johnny and Meggy made a beeline for the building's front entrance. Neither of them paid any attention to the frightened boy who hurried into the elevator after us. A cold chill tickled my spine. There was something curious about him, so I turned back to look.
“What's wrong?” Johnny asked.
Pulling my attention away from the boy, I squinted at Johnny standing in the doorway against the streaming light from the setting sun. “Nothing,” I lied and heard the elevator door shut behind me. I could have sworn the boy was reaching for button thirteen.
* * * *
Chapter One: Johnny
I twisted my hair around my fist and held it away from my face as Johnny and I strode down Delancey Street without saying a word. My fingers brushed the sweat-drenched strands at the back of my neck. The muggy air suffocated New York City in August.
Johnny and I were heading home after a concert at Bowery Ball Room. The band had been dull, but my eyes were glued to the pictures on my phone. My act of excitement was a little too intense, considering how terrible the concert was. Fine, my excitement was outright fake, and Johnny knew it.
I needed an excuse to put space between us. There was an awkward moment in the mosh pit when Johnny grabbed my hand, and I didn't mean brushing fingertips or pulling me out of the way of an oversized crowd surfer. As the singer belted the chorus of a romantic song, Johnny reached over and linked our fingers.
I let him hold my hand for the remainder of the song, and then I insisted I needed to search for my phone. That was an hour ago, and I hadn't let go of my mobile device yet. His sudden display of affection caught me by surprise. I've known Johnny for so long, and I never considered him anything but a friend. Apparently, he didn't feel the same way.
The sound of my foot tapping was the only noise in the empty Spring Street subway station. In my head, I was screaming for the train to come and end the awkward silence. Perhaps some Cupid love god was dragging out my discomfort with the hope I would change my mind about Johnny.
Johnny stood a few feet behind me with his hands shoved in his pockets and his eyes on the ground in front of him, like I had scolded him for breaking the number one rule of our friendship. If he could disappear into the grimy tiles that lined the walls, I was sure he would have. I felt guilty just looking at him, so I focused my attention on the impending train down the track.
An orange glow twinkled against the pitch-black tunnel. “Do you see that?” I asked Johnny, happy for the diversion. Johnny joined me on the edge of the platform and looked into the tunnel. The twinkling ball of light was gradually growing larger.
“See what?” Johnny asked. He bit his lip in concentration.
“The orange light,” I replied, like it was obvious.
Noticeably taking a beat to smooth his facial features, Johnny turned to me and said, “Sure, Jules.” It was clear he didn't see it.
I centered all my attention on the orange blur. I had ridden subway trains my entire life and never had I seen a light like that before. Most trains had two bright white headlights that shined forward like massive flashlights.
As we stood there, staring into the darkness, a cool, crisp wind howled down the corridor. The change in the air was distinct. It tingled against my skin, and caused the hair on the back of my neck to stick up.
“Did you feel that?” Johnny asked. He looked a little spooked, and seemed pleased to prove he believed there was something strange happening. I nodded, trying to make sense of it. There was rarely construction in the dead of summer.
Johnny pulled his arms across his chest. His eyes widened as we heard an odd scratching noise. I looked around the dank station. It was abandoned, except for us.
“Look!” Johnny shouted and pointed at the track. A foot-long chubby gray rat scampered past us. He didn't stop to nibble on an apple core or check for crumbs in an open bag of Doritos. It looked like he had his mind set on the same direction as the howling wind. Away.
I took a deep breath. Rats were a regular occurrence underneath Manhattan's skyscrapers, but something irked me. I glanced down the tunnel once more. The orange brightness was larger, but still too far away to make out any details. It hung in midair, drooping every once in a while.
The scratching sound buzzed louder. My heart pounded inside my chest as Johnny and I remained frozen. I reminded myself there were no flesh-eating predators roaming the subway tracks at night. However, I gasped as a pack of rats passed our feet at a dizzying speed.
Johnny moved closer to my side. “What are they running from?” he whispered, like he was afraid to raise his voice. I shrugged my shoulders, attempting to look nonchalant, but I had a terrible feeling the rats were escaping from the fiery light.
Hoping to feel some of the confidence I was projecting, I stepped to the edge of the platform. Maybe I could get a picture of the light and zoom in to analyze it. I focused the camera app on the bright spot at the back of the tunnel. Snapping a photo, I turned toward Johnny to examine it.
“Huh?!” I shouted in disbelief. The screen was pitch-black. There was no burning orange menace. “It was right there,” I objected. Johnny leaned in to get a better look at my phone.
Craning my neck over Johnny's shoulder, I caught a swish of curly brown hair in my peripheral vision. I turned my head to see a girl rush down the stairs twenty feet behind us. Her steps were stealthy. I wouldn't have known she was there if I had kept my gaze on the tracks.
The girl caught me looking in her direction. Our eyes locked, and her butterscotch irises and dilated pupils pierced me with shocking, intense loathing. The jolt of it paralyzed me. Did she know me? Nothing about her looked familiar.
In the back of my mind, I heard the painful screech of the train's metal wheels against the tracks. The chilled air escaping the tunnel pricked my skin. The sensation felt wrong for an August night, and alarm bells rang in my head.
Before I could comprehend what was happening, the train and the livid girl were headed in our direction. I stepped forward and began shouting for Johnny to get out of the way. He didn't need to get hurt. It was obvious her death stares were meant for me, but Johnny planted his feet between us anyway.
In one swift movement, she rammed her shoulder into Johnny's gut and sent him flying sideways, out of her way. He teetered and tottered, throwing his arms out in an attempt to balance himself.
“Johnny!” I screamed, worrying if he was hurt, but my eyes were pinned to the girl. It seemed like removing Johnny from the battle was a means to an end, since she never lost focus on me.
With a final push, the train broke through the cavernous tunnel. A penetrating, disturbing, and frigid aura saturated the station. Filling my lungs with icy air, it shocked and choked me.
Fear layered on top of the ice as intolerable, dark, and heinous laughter echoed from somewhere on top of the train. It must have been related to the foreboding orange glow, but I didn't dare turn to look.
The noise seemed to ignite a do-or-die sort of fight in the brown-haired fiend's action. Even though we were the same height, she was able to slam two hands into my chest with as much force as a linebacker. I stumbled backward from the blow, away from the subway tracks.
“Consider yourself lucky, Juliandra,” the devil child snarled at me. How did she know my name?
The train's horn wailed, and my heart pounded in my ears. Our female attacker growled at the oncoming train like a wild animal toying with its enemy, and then she ran for the exit.
What I sensed next was intrusive and foreign. Someone or something caused me to feel overwhelming hate, like a bizarre out-of-body experience. The thing threatened to suffocate me in dark and evil thoughts. Somehow, I understood it was angry because I was out of harm's way.
A final blast of freezing air blew through the station at hurricane speeds. I struggled to maintain my balance and watched in horror as Johnny tripped over the cautionary yellow line, just out of my reach.
I shouted for him, but it was too late. Johnny tumbled over the edge, in the path of the oncoming train.
* * * *
Chapter Two: The Wake
On the corner of Bleecker and McDougal, I hid in the shallow entrance of Percy's Pizza with my hood pulled tight. I spotted mourners dressed in black and caught Johnny’s name in whispered conversations. Wishing I could stay within the wafting comfort of garlic and pepperoni, I checked the time on my phone.
With a deep breath and one last look around, I crossed the street and entered the Greenwich Village Funeral Home. The drab room with stained carpets and colorless walls had a foreboding chill so I crossed my arms.
Through eyes blurred with tears, I watched hordes of feet shuffle by in the crowded space. The reaction to my appearance at the funeral home was immediate. I heard whispers and felt stares from all over the room. Their eyes were on the hapless girl who witnessed the tragic death of her best friend. I was on display and unprepared for the half-hearted and unwelcome condolences. They would forget Johnny in a week, but I would carry the hole in my heart forever. I refused to meet a single person's eye. I hated letting anyone see me cry.
I clenched my jaw. Johnny wouldn't have wanted this: fake grief from aunts who had forgotten to buy him Christmas gifts, uncles who had ignored him when they came to visit, cousins who had played pranks on him, and kids who happened to have gone to the same school. They didn't pay attention to him when he was alive. Why would they care about his death?
Johnny's mother sobbed from the front row in her expensive black dress, bought specifically for the wake. Each cry for her Johnny caused my nails to dig deeper into the palms of my hands. She spent more time turned toward Johnny's father, who was consoling his blonde goddess, than she did facing the casket.
I pushed anger out of my mind, focused on the simple wood box at the end of the aisle, and forced my feet to keep moving, reminding myself I was there for Johnny.
Mom had her arm draped protectively around Meggy where they sat in the second row. Damp tissues were balled in her free hand. She leaned forward to make eye contact with me in the aisle. Her lips struggled to stay set in a tight pout, preventing the flood of sobs sure to rush out if she spoke. She nodded at me once, and I knew I had to keep walking.
Two large vases with white gladiolus, drooping from the weight of summer humidity, were placed in front of the casket and flanked the sides of an easel, which held a blown up school picture of Johnny. Tipped up on one side, his smile appeared coerced and ill-at-ease. The photograph was a manufactured memory, and I didn't need it like everyone else in the room. I had a lifetime supply of the real thing.
I approached the two steps before the raised platform, and felt a small tug in my chest at the thought of being near him. My Johnny was waiting for me.
No, that was wrong. I bit my bottom lip. What was I thinking? This wasn't like skipping out of gym class and hiding together under the bleachers. Johnny was dead. His empty, motionless body was the only thing left in the casket. Another rush of grief threatened to overtake me.
Wiping my eyes, I had no other choice but to see him. I willed myself to keep moving. The whispers died down. Even Johnny's mother was silent. Everyone was holding their breath.
What were they expecting to see? Did they know I would break down? Did they pity me? I tried to forget about the room as I rose onto the last step and looked into the casket.
I took a ragged breath in. There he was, Johnny, my best friend, looking peaceful, like he was sleeping. Except, those eyes would never see my face, and his voice would never speak my name, and his hand would never hold mine, again.
I let out a hysterical laugh that sounded more like a sob. He was wearing khakis and a blazer over a striped collared shirt with every last button fastened. It was exactly the opposite of what he would have thrown on and proof that no one knew Johnny like I did.
Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out a collection of creased tickets, including one for Goosebumps at the Angelika and the horrible band at Bowery Ball Room the night he died. I had found most of the tickets in a plain black box his mother had given me the previous day. I remember taking the box without saying a word, feeling dumbfounded because Johnny wasn't even buried in the ground, and she had already emptied his room.
My matching stash of tickets was displayed across my mirror at home, the corners tucked into the gaps of the wood frame. Inching closer, I placed the stack inside the pocket of his blazer. It was a token of our friendship, and I wanted it to be buried with him.
I gazed at the boy who had felt like a brother to me. As far back as I can remember, he had agreed to do everything I did. He hadn't been talented at any of the sports or arts, but it didn't matter. They were fleeting interests of mine, and I was happy just to be doing something with Johnny by my side.
He maintained a smile each time I suggested a new activity, but it wasn't his stamina to keep up with my new-hobby-whiplash that awed me. Somehow, our trending activity always ended in tragedy. Everyone dismissed it as an accident, but was it?
“Johnny…,” I whispered. I wanted to explain how much I missed him and to say I was sorry, because it should have been me lying in the casket.
With my birthday one day before his, Mom told me that I was in the hospital the day Johnny was born. She said the nurses insisted we reached our chubby baby arms toward each other.
A sob caught in my throat. Johnny and I were inseparable from cradle to grave, and just like in the nursery, I was reaching for him the day he died.
Instead of telling him how I felt, I brushed his black hair off his forehead and gazed at his sweet face. As I lightly touched him, his expression changed, ever so slightly. It was nothing more than a fraction of an inch, but his eyebrows definitely pulled together. My heart jolted in my chest.
I yearned for another moment with him. One sentence. One word. One smile. Was I so desperate for more time with him that I was seeing things? I traced my fingers down his arm and placed my hand in his. I gasped. The muscles in his arms began to tighten. Instead of gently folded hands, his fingers grasped mine into his fists.
I checked over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching, but no one was on the platform and able to see into the casket. My gasp was lost in the chatter of the room that had resumed once they saw I wasn't going to be a train wreck.
Was I dreaming? I tried to remember what the doctors stated as his cause of death. Broken spine. Head trauma. Failure of vital organs. Did they miss something?
I looked back at Johnny. His eyelids popped open, revealing cat-like green slits that were barbaric and turbulent. Within seconds they adjusted to the light and morphed into his familiar kind brown eyes.
I stood stock-still as they turned slowly in their sockets and focused on me. The chill I had felt when I walked into the room intensified, prickling down my back. He was alive!
“Johnny!” I yelled and placed both hands on his chest. A couple of women seated in the front started whispering at the sound of my outburst. The lights flickered once, and then all brightness was sucked out of the room. I felt Johnny arch his back like someone had stabbed him.
The sudden darkness frightened the people in the room. Behind me, an old lady let out a high-pitched screech and a toddler began to cry. Velvet-covered chairs and displays of flowers crashed to the floor as shocked mourners rose to their feet in confusion. No one approached the platform, and I wondered if anyone had seen what happened to Johnny, that he had moved.
My fingers tingled with pins and needles on top of Johnny's bent body. In the near blackness, I watched his face twist into an agonizing grimace. His mouth was O-shaped, like he was letting out a blood-curdling scream, only there was no sound. Frozen with fear, I couldn't say or do anything.
Seconds passed by. A burst of cold air hit me in the face, and then Johnny's body went still and lifeless again. I yanked my hands off his chest and toppled down the platform steps.
Pandemonium surrounded me. Children and parents, old and young, were groping the fallen chairs in an effort to escape the dark room. A roar of nervous conversation exploded. No one was paying attention to Johnny.
“Jules, come here!” Mom shouted from a few feet away.
I stepped forward to tell her about Johnny, and there he was, surrounded by a slight glow with his back to me at the end of the aisle. A gray-haired man wearing puffed sleeves that gathered at the wrists and neck was guiding Johnny to the exit. Their pace was calm and straight forward, somehow avoiding the rampant disarray in the room. Not a single person tried to grab his attention.
Was I seeing things? How did he jump out of the casket so fast? I shook my head to clear it. Maybe I was going crazy, but I would recognize him anywhere. I knew exactly how he hunched over and shuffled his feet.
I launched into the chaotic aisle toward him. “Johnny!” I shouted for the third time that night. He didn't turn around.
“Jules,” Mom begged. Her voice was laced with panic and fear. I didn't turn around. Didn't she see Johnny?
My movement through the crowd was heavy, like I was in the ocean fighting against a tide of people who were only concerned with themselves. Chairs and limbs materialized in my path and kept tripping me up. I pushed toward Johnny with all my effort, catapulting over fallen furniture and knocking obstacles out of my way.
I finally escaped the frigid room and saw the outline of the Manhattan skyline with black haunted windows against a burning, starless night.
I realized it was no use. Johnny was gone.
* * * *
Chapter Three: The Unnatural Guard
Johnny was buried in Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Cemetery. The historic site touted heroes from every American conflict since the Civil War and twenty-five Medal of Honor recipients. Each grave held the remains of a person more famous than the next, and none of it had to do with Johnny, so why was he there?
With rolling hills and centuries old Cypress trees, it didn't even feel like we were in the city. Johnny loved cramped subways, towering skyscrapers, and strange street performers. What part of honoring his memory didn't they understand?
By the time I tottered through the rows of gravestones, I was numb, slipping away from reality. For the twenty-minute ceremony where the ground swallowed the person who knew me best, nothing emotional registered. Thankfully, Johnny's casket was closed.
Eventually, the white flowers and stiff hugs ceased and the torturous customs and religious formalities ended. For everyone else, the tragedy was over, but I felt like I had barely begun to say goodbye.
Two days later, a black sedan with tinted windows and a stiff capped and suited driver sat idly on Tenth Street near our apartment. A red, white, and blue frame proudly held the license plate to the bumper.
Bright and early, my parents shuffled me out of the house and into the car. The summer sun bore down on me. I had been hibernating in my room, and the brightness was an unwelcome reminder that there were people eating Italian ices as they walked the Highline, or playing a game of Kickball in the park, or just enjoying the warm, lazy season, something I used to share with Johnny. I shielded my eyes.
Inside the car, I rested my chin against the ledge of the window. The dark glass dulled the sun and skewed my view, but it did nothing for my broken heart. Everywhere I looked, I saw disturbing eyes: a pair of glaring butterscotch and another with two cat-like hazel slits. Both stirred strong emotions. Anger, sadness, remorse, and guilt had me shuddering, and I struggled to hide my physical reaction.
As the car circled Central Park, the memory of the moments leading to Johnny's death haunted me. The brown-haired devil had wanted to kill me. I could feel it in my bones, but my best friend had died instead.
We stopped in front of the Pierre, a national landmark hotel like the Plaza that housed many of New York's social elite since the 1930s. The checkered marble floor and decadent chandeliers made me dizzy. A tuxedo-wearing doorman pointed us to the elevator with his gloved white hand, and Mom and Dad thanked him.
In under a minute, the elevator opened. A severe-looking security guard wearing a black suit and a headset opened the door a crack and scanned us from head to toe. “Can I help you?”
My dad leaned forward. “James, Emily, and Jules Jones to see the mayor.”
“Let them in,” instructed Mayor Sanchez, looking distracted and impatient on the other side of the door.
We stepped into his expensive top floor penthouse with walls of windows, shiny countertops, and the latest home automation technology. Dad started to thank him for the car that picked us up, but the mayor's cell phone rang. The mayor held up his pointer finger to silence us. Then, he checked the number on his phone, cursed under his breath, and took the call. “Yeah?” he barked at the person on the other end.
Forgetting about his invited guests, the mayor turned into the apartment, and the security guard ushered us inside. Laptops and white boards littered the living room. Men and women in black slacks, loosened ties, and bags under their eyes barely noticed our entrance. It looked like the mayor brought his work and the entire office staff home with him.
In a daze, I let my parents guide me into a massive, ornate office. The mayor and two security guards in matching suits and headsets followed us inside. Gold crown molding outlined the room, and cherry wood bookshelves held various trophies and awards. I sat down in one of three brown leather guest chairs set up in front of the mayor's desk and ran my fingers along the brass studs without much interest. Mom and Dad sat on either side of me. They each placed a hand on the respective arm of my seat and looked stiff and uncomfortable.
“The city is crazed from the eight-hour blackout,” the mayor shouted into his phone. “Restaurant owners are complaining they lost millions of dollars in spoiled food and projected revenue. Mom and Pop corner stores insist their merchandise was looted, and police are working overtime to enforce the traffic laws.” The mayor's complexion was red and blotchy as he paced the small space behind his desk and in front of floor to ceiling windows overlooking Central Park. He hiked his pants up over his beer belly.