Ghost, Chapter 1




Sometimes it seems like my entire life has been one long one.

Sometimes you rack up so many of them, you can’t work out where one mistake ends and the next one begins.

That’s how it feels right now, returning to Tanner Springs. The site of most of my biggest mistakes.

Once, it was home.

Then, it was anything but.

And now, I’m back. And I don’t know if it can ever be anything like home again.

* * *

“Oof,” Angel grunts as he drops the last of the boxes onto the old moth-eaten sofa. It’s a big, heavy paper ream box full of books — one of a few I’ve been lugging around from place to place for the last few years. Old college textbooks, mostly. The remnants of a dream I should have given up on by now.

“Is that the last one, I hope?” he says. It’s pretty evident by the look on his face what he hopes my answer is.

“Yeah, that’s it,” I nod, and resist the urge to apologize. Even though he offered to help me move in to my new apartment, I still feel guilty accepting the favor.

I watch my brother pull up the front of his black T-shirt, revealing a snarl of tattoos on his stomach and chest. He wipes the sweat from his face with the fabric, then pulls it back down. “You want something to drink?” I ask him. “I think I can find the box of glasses in the kitchen.”

“You got any beer? I sure could use one.” He raises his arms out in a massive stretch.

“Sorry, no,” I say regretfully. “I haven’t had time to go shopping yet.” One more thing on my mental list of things to do, I remind myself. There’s no food in the house, either, and it’s getting close to supper time. I’ll need to find something for Noah and me to eat.

I heave an exhausted sigh at the thought of trying to make a grocery run with a wound-up and hungry four year-old. Hell. Maybe I’ll just give in and order a pizza, I reason. I can take care of the grocery shopping tomorrow, when I’ve had a good night’s sleep.

Speaking of the wound-up four year-old, my son Noah emerges from what will be his new bedroom. His arms are out in a T and he’s making a buzzing noise with his lips as though he’s a prop plane. He “flies” around the room, circling the boxes and crates, then crashes into Angel’s legs as he turns toward the kitchen.

“Hey, easy, buddy,” Angel said, looking slightly annoyed. “Look, go play somewhere else, okay?” Angel shoots me a glance. “He sure is keyed up.”

“He’s been cooped up all day,” I explain, again resisting the urge to apologize. “First in the U-Haul and now in here. He’s bored.”

Noah flies back down the hall toward his room. I know my brother doesn’t have a lot of experience with kids, so he probably doesn’t realize how easily they get antsy. Actually, I’ve been pretty impressed at how little Noah’s been acting out today, given the circumstances. “He’s only four,” I tell Angel. “He doesn’t have great impulse control.”

I wander the few steps into the kitchen and look around for the box labeled “glassware.” Pulling off the tape, I grab one of Noah’s plastic glasses with a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine out of the box. I turn to the sink and hold it under the faucet. Water sputters violently when I twist the handle, and I start and take a quick step back. Brownish liquid begins to run out of the tap.

“This apartment hasn’t been used in a while, the landlord said.” Angel comes up behind me and peers at the dubious-looking water. “You probably want to run that for a few minutes.”

As I wait for the water to turn clear, I look around me at the dingy tile floor and dusty, grease-tacky counter tops. This entire place needs a good scrubbing from top to bottom. Still, I have no business complaining. Noah and I are lucky to have a roof over our heads at all, given everything that’s happened in the last few months. It isn’t paradise, but it’s home for now. More importantly, it’s all I can afford.

“Thanks for helping me, Angel,” I murmur. “Moving all these boxes up a flight of stairs wouldn’t have been easy with just me and Noah.” I fill up the glass with now clearish water and hand it to him.

Angel takes the glass and frowns at it. “No worries,” he shrugs, then takes a long drink of water, his Adam’s apple moving as he gulps it down. When he’s finished, he sets the glass on the counter and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “You sure you don’t want to tell me what happened back in the city, to make you come back to Tanner Springs?” he asks, eyeing me curiously.

I take in a deep breath and let it out. “Yeah,” I say. “I’m sure.”

I don’t want to talk about it. Just more mistakes, more bad choices. This one involved taking a job at a place I shouldn’t have, even though my warning bells were going off the second I noticed the boss’s eyes roving over me during the interview. When he tried putting his paws all over me one night after hours, I fought back, and he fired my ass on the spot. Not only that, he stiffed me out of my final paycheck, knowing it would take a lawyer I couldn’t afford to get it back from him. A couple months later, I was late on my rent one too many times, and got evicted. What kind of heartless asshole evicts a single mother with a four year-old child?

My shoulders sag with fatigue just thinking about it all. I’m so tired of looking back at the past and regretting things. I want a fresh start, eyes pointed toward the future. And I’m determined to have that fresh start, too. Even if it has to happen here, in a place that’s full of all sorts of memories both bad and good.

Angel sighs. “Okay. No skin off my nose.” He glances toward an ancient-looking, yellowed phone sitting on a ledge between the kitchen and the living room. “By the way, Jenna, Dad wants you to call him when you get settled in. He left his phone number over there in case you needed it.”

Somehow, I hadn’t noticed the phone at all when we’d been moving boxes and furniture in. “Oh, my gosh, is that a land line?” I say in disbelief. “I haven’t seen one of these things in a house in years.”

“Yeah,” Angel laughs. “I tried it. It even works.” He picks up the receiver and holds it out to me so I can hear the drone of the dial tone. I look closer. Wow. It’s even a rotary phone, not a push-button one.

I shake my head and laugh. “That’s so weird. I wonder if the last person to live here just forgot to shut it off?” I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth, though. My cell phone service is pretty basic, so being able to make some local calls from home without wasting my minutes will be kind of nice.

I pick up the stickie note that’s been stuck next to the phone. On it, in my dad’s unmistakeable handwriting, are the words: “Jenna. Call me as soon as you’re able. Dad.” The phone number for his office is scrawled underneath. I make a mental note to call my dad and thank him for setting me up with a place to live. As much as I hate to be in anybody’s debt, it’s only fair that I express my gratitude.

Though, by rights, I’m not really sure whether I owe the cheap apartment find to him, or to the Lords of Carnage.

And I don’t know which debt would be worse.