No Matter What
Family believes in the possibility of our greatness within,
Inspite of all outward evidence to the contrary.
The first clue I had that I was different was the dog. I mean it’s not unusual for strange dogs to show up at our farm. People know my mom’s a vet and drop their unwanted animals on the road by our house. It’s how I ended up with Porthos.
He was left tied to our mailbox with twine, just a puppy missing a front leg and one ear. Mom said he was born that way and that some people are not accepting of uniqueness. It made them uncomfortable. That was her nice way of saying people don’t like freaks of nature and go out of their way to avoid them. I’m thirteen, but I’m old enough to know there have been lots of times in history when discomfort with a certain group has turned really ugly really quickly. Just look at the American Indians, the Jews and the X-men.
It’s why I didn’t tell Dad when the goofy Golden Retriever showed up in my room one night. Porthos didn’t seem to notice the dog was slobbering on his favorite baseball, nor did he mind the fact the beast had claimed his spot at the end of my bed.
My hand moved right through the Retriever when I had tried to pet him. I remembered the picture of Pastor Jim from Dad’s study. Sure my family tended to embrace the unusual more than most, but Atticus Finch had been dead since way before I was born.
After a while I got used to it. I didn’t freak when I ran into Scout and Boo Radley at the pond, or when Harper Lee hung out under our kitchen table begging for scraps he couldn’t eat. I mean I knew ghost dogs should not have been tagging along with me on a daily basis. It was weird, but nowhere in the same vicinity as what had happened at school.
Nothing prepared me for Carrie Beth Fillers. She was the reason I stood at the door of The Hunters' Tomb waiting for my grandfather’s attention.
Mac had his reading glasses on, old journals spread around him. He was lost in his research, but it didn’t take long before he sensed my presence, glancing up with a smile that told me to come in. “James, don’t tell me I’ve worked through dinner again.”
Mac was staying a few days with JT and me at the farm while Mom was in Colorado at a veterinary conference and Dad was hunting with Uncle Caleb. “No, it’s still early. You have time to jump in before JT tries to play chef again.” My older brother had tried to cook dinner last night. I didn’t like spaghetti on a good day. Burnt spaghetti sucked.
“Good.” He slid his glasses off. “Jonathan was blessed with many talents, but is severely lacking in the culinary skills as was his namesake. Your grandfather John couldn’t work a toaster. Perhaps we’ll order pizza tonight.”
“Cool.” I’m pretty sure I could live on pizza.
“Esme frowns on takeout. It will be a treat for me.”
“She's trying to take care of you.”
“She does a good job of that, but I must say I like having a chance to do the same for you boys.”
“We’re glad you’re here, too.” It was true. Bobby was Dad’s backup plan and as much as I love my other pseudo grandfather, Mac is by far the easier to talk into things. He gets distracted by his work, and I’d already scored staying up way past lights out the last two nights.
“I was afraid you boys would be disappointed you couldn’t stay with your Uncle Sam.”
Uncle Sam lives in Louisville because of his work at the university, which isn’t far from the farm, but way out of the way for him to drive me and JT to school in New Haven everyday. I tried to convince Dad we could miss a week, but was shot down by JT who loves school. Did I mention both my older brothers are complete geeks? “Nah. Uncle Sam’s always around. New York is a lot farther away.”
“That it is.”
“So…” Now that I was here I wasn’t exactly certain how to begin. Starting with ‘I see dead people’ was completely lame, like the old movie Dad likes with the actor from the Die Hard classics. “I sort of had a problem at school today.”
“What sort of problem?” Mac looked at me with a raised brow. He was always up for a conversation, especially if it involved school or books.
“A very unusual problem.”
“You’re in good hands then.” He patted the seat beside him. “Thanks to your Uncle Caleb’s inventiveness, I have handled my share of unusual problems. Nothing you say could shock me.”
I have heard all about the things Uncle Caleb did while in school, tried a few of them in fact. My favorite was the goat in the classroom, but this wasn’t exactly in the same league. “Well, you see there’s this girl…”
“Ah,” Mac leaned back, a grin spreading across his face. “And do you like this girl?”
“God, no,” I said quickly, but then felt bad when I remembered the look on Carrie Beth’s blue and bloated face when I told her she was a goner. “I mean not like that. She’s my lab partner in life science.” Besides, I already had a girlfriend in mind. Sydney Matthews might deny it, but in a few years she’d wise up about my brother and be begging to hook up with me.
“Okay.” Mac ran a finger over his brow, which was a sure sign his massive doctor brain had kicked into overdrive.
“She doesn’t have the best home life.” Carrie’s clothes were usually dirty and I’m not sure she had enough food to eat. “I saw bruises on her a few times.” I told Mom about it and she called the school nurse.
My grandfather’s face paled. I knew I was probably bringing up some bad memories. He used to work for the FBI finding missing kids. He was retired now, but still got called in on special cases. It was one of the reasons I needed his help. ”She didn’t come to school yesterday, or today.”
“And you’re worried something has happened to her.”
If the massive gash in her forehead was any indication, I was pretty certain of it. “I think she’s dead.”
“I know how quick that mind of yours works, but that’s a pretty drastic conclusion to jump to. I mean there could be other reasons she…”
“I saw her today.”
“But I thought you said she was not in school today?”
“I was the only one who saw her.” One of the things I love about Mac is he is super smart and talks to me as if I am on his level. I was hoping I didn’t have to spell it out for him, and he didn’t disappoint me.
“Are you saying you had a vision?”
“No. Not like the movie thing that Uncle Caleb has. Carrie Beth looked real, just like any other kid in the room. At first I thought it was some kind of joke, I mean she was all gross and stuff, but then she started freaking out because no one was listening to her.”
Mac put his elbows on the table and leaned closer to me. “And you could hear her?”
“Yeah. I tried to ignore her, but she cried all day.”
“Has this ever happened before?”
When I didn’t answer right away, Mac laid his hand on my arm. “Jimmy?”
The nickname usually annoyed the crap out of me, probably because Ben and JT liked to torment me with it, but today I didn’t mind it so much. “Only with the dogs.”
“Atticus Finch mostly. He likes to sleep on my bed.”
“I see.” Mac ran a hand through his hair. “He always liked to sleep in your father and Uncle Sam’s room.”
He didn’t seem too surprised by what I was telling him. “Does this mean I’m a necromancer?”
That got his attention. “I read about them in some of the journals. They can call upon the dead, communicate with them.”
“No. You are not a necromancer.”
Mac frowned. “Medium has a certain negative connotation to it.”
“Then what kind of freak am I?”
“You are not a freak. Do you understand me?”
When I shrugged he gripped my arm. “Do you think I’m a freak because I can touch an object that belongs to someone and discern certain information?”
“No, Sir.” In my mind Mac was a hero, just like my dad and my uncles.
“Or how about the fact that I can move things with only a thought?” To prove his point a journal levitated from the shelf across from us, landing on the table with a heavy thud.
I grinned. “That’s more like a super power.”
Mac sighed. “Then what about Caleb or Samuel? Are they freaks because they can read people’s thoughts or have premonitions?”
I wanted to say no, but honestly, Uncle Caleb and Uncle Sam didn’t exactly fall in the normal realm. “Am I a psychic, Grandpa Mac?”
My grandfather suddenly looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. For the first time, he seemed like an old man to me. “We think so.”
“Caleb could sense your latent abilities when you were just a little boy. We had no idea if they would ever manifest or in what manner.”
“Did he tell Dad?” For some reason the idea of Dad knowing was scarier than what was happening to me. It was already bad enough I had to compete with medical student Ben, and Saint JT. I got to be the freaky psychic son. Great.
“The Triad believes strongly in not keeping secrets from one another.”
Dad knew. “That sucks for those of us not in The Triad.”
“It wasn’t a malicious act, Son. There are those who never come into their potential and...”
Mac sighed, bringing his hand up to my shoulder. “It’s not as bad as it seems, James.”
“Tell that to someone who didn’t have a dead girl follow him home from school.”
“Carrie Beth is here?” Mac moved his hand from my arm, looking around us.
I shrugged. “Upstairs in my closet. I tried to tell her to go home, but she said she didn’t know how, that she was lost. I was hoping maybe you could help find her…you know, her body.”
“And you told her to wait in your closet?”
“That’s where Ben used to hide the girls he snuck in the house.”
Mac rubbed his eyes. “That is a discussion for another time. Let’s see what we can do about the current situation.”
I was glad JT was holed up in his makeshift dark room. My brother was one of the few holdouts that still used film because he liked the graininess of it. I could definitely do without him knowing about the crying dead girl. Not that I really cared what the jerk thought of me, but really who wants a freak for a little brother?
Porthos jumped from his spot on my bed as we entered the room, doing his usual bouncy dance around our feet, snorting and blowing for what he was worth. He pranced back and forth from the closet to where we stood as if he knew what was up.
“Interesting.” Mac stroked his chin. “It’s documented that dogs are usually sensitive to spirit activity.”
I opened the closet door and Porthos’s baseball rolled out. He latched onto it and returned to the bed to continue his quest to unravel the stitching. Eating, sleeping, and chewing were on my dog’s to do list. “I think Porthos is an exception to the rule.”
Mac patted my shoulder. “Perhaps that’s for the best considering the amount of trouble he finds on this plane.” He glanced over my shoulder to peer into the closet. “Is she still here?”
“Yeah.” Carrie Beth was sitting cross leg in the clutter of my soccer cleats and comic books with Atticus Finch by her side.
“I like your dog.”
“He was actually more my Dad’s dog.” I looked up at Mac to explain. “Atticus is with her.”
“He’s dead too, isn’t he?”
She seemed resigned to her fate, but tears pooled in her eyes. It was worse than when Mom cried at sappy movies. “Sorry.”
“Ask her what the last thing she remembers.”
“Is that your grandfather? The one you said could help me? ”
Carrie stood up, running her fingers over the wrinkles in her dirty bloodstained t-shirt.
“Yeah. Mac finds missing things.” I didn’t really have the heart to tell her what he usually looked for.
“Can he see me?”
For someone who seemed to spend a whole lot of energy trying to be invisible when she was alive, Carrie Beth put a lot of importance on being seen now. “No.”
She sniffed. “Then why can you see me?”
“I’m different.” It hurt to say, a real pain like a dirty tackle in football. “I see dead people.”
Mac guessed her line of questioning because he placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “It’s called clairvoyance and clairaudience, meaning communication with the dead. It’s a form of extrasensory perception. A very unique gift.”
There was that word again. Unique. Go me.
“He talks funny.”
“He knows his stuff.”
“Me too. I was really hoping for a cool power like flying or super strength.”I looked at Carrie Beth hoping for at least a half-hearted smile.
Instead she looked sadder.
“Then no one would have been there to help me.”
It felt weird for a dead girl to be offering her sympathy for me, trying to make me feel better. It made me feel worse for not trying harder to get to know her when she was alive. “Mac might be able to help you find your way home.”
“That would be good.” She brought her hand up, twisting her fingers in her blond hair. “My mom must be really worried by now.”
A lump crawled up the back of my throat as I thought about my own family. Mom, Dad, and even my brothers would be wrecked if the worst happened to me. It suddenly made being a freak not such a big deal. “Yeah.”
“What’s the last thing you remember, Carrie Beth?” Mac asked. He had bent to one knee and was using what Dad liked to call his headshrinker voice. He was looking in the closet, but Carrie Beth had moved to my side now. “I know it might not be easy, but telling someone could be the key to getting you home.”
I met her gaze and Carrie shook her head. “It’s okay, you can trust him.”
“I can’t tell.”
Tears were falling now, and she was trembling. “Yes, you can. No one’s going to hurt you here.”
“He’ll hurt my mom and my little sister.”
I turned to Mac. “She’s afraid to tell.”
I translated again. “She promised.”
Mac stroked his eyebrow. “The last words of the dying can be a binding. It might be possible that she really can’t tell you.”
“Then how do we help her?”
“I know.” Carrie bounced on her toes. “I could show you. I didn’t say I wouldn’t show anyone.”
Before I could agree or relay to Mac what she said, Carrie Beth reached out and grabbed my hand. I expected her fingers to brush through me, like mine had with Atticus Finch, but instead they latched on with a strength I totally didn’t expect. The words ‘death grip’ would forever have a whole new meaning for me. I wanted to laugh at my own joke but a pain like touching a hot pan stopped me, taking my breath. Carrie Beth’s skin was super cold, like dry ice. The burn of her fingers spread from my wrist, rushing over my body like a killer wave at the beach until every inch of my body was on fire. I thought about Rogue from X-men and how she could steal life force with her touch. That’s what it felt like. Carrie Beth was killing me.
“James? Can you hear me?”
The words were muffled, like someone was talking and I was under water.
“What’s wrong with him, Mac?” JT’s voice was clearer. “Why won’t he wake up?”
I blinked, forcing my eyes open because my brother sounded scared. Mac’s worried face came into view. He was leaning over me, and it took a second to realize where I was. JT was standing behind him, peering over my grandfather’s shoulder, staring as if I had suddenly grown another head, which from the way mine felt, having it split in two was a definite possibility.
“Dad?”Everything was tingling and I really wanted my father to suddenly appear to make it all go away.
Porthos jumped on the bed, his cold nose nudged my arm. Mac rested a hand on my forehead and a fear I couldn’t explain had me jumping, trying to pull away. “Easy, Son.”
Hot tears slid down my face, and my chest burned. The sob was embarrassing, but I couldn’t stop it. I so didn’t do the crying thing, not since I was a kid. JT practically climbing onto the bed with me didn’t help.
“Jimmy? Are you okay?”
“Jonathan, get your brother some water, please.”
I waited for JT to disappear into our bathroom before completely losing it. It was too much to ask, but I held out hope Mac and I could keep this whole freaky ghost talking between us. “He…he hurt her, Grandpa.” Mac’s face blurred as more tears came despite how hard I tried to blink them away. “He killed her.”
Mac reached out, lifted me up, and pulled me into his chest. It was a hard, crushing hug and I’m not sure whose heart was beating faster as he held onto me. I didn’t pull away, although at any other time it would have been totally embarrassing to be acting like a girl. “It’s okay, Son. It’s okay.”
The thing was it wasn’t okay. I wasn’t sure anything would ever be okay again. “It was her step dad. I couldn’t do anything. I just…watched.” It was worse than the movies Max, JT and I sometimes sneaked into after buying PG tickets at the theaters.
“I was afraid of that.” Mac eased away from me. His fingers slid to my throat, pressing lightly against my neck. “I’ve came across research on similar situations. The dead can relate memories telepathically if they have the right conduit.”
“Conduit?” I didn’t want to be a crappy conduit. I wanted normal.
“What’s wrong with him?” JT came out of our bathroom. He sat the water on my nightstand. Standing there with his hands on his hips, a scowl on his face, he looked a lot like our dad. Ben did too. Everyone said I looked like Uncle Sam and my grandfather John. I guess me and Uncle Sam had a lot of things in common.
Mackland gave him a quick glance but then turned back to me. “Just calm down, take some slow breaths.”
I tried to do what Mac said, but my racing heart wasn’t cooperating and I was freezing. Mac took Miss Emma’s quilt from the bottom of my bed and wrapped it around my shoulders.
“You were unconscious,” Mac explained. “I needed your brother’s help.”
Mac was apologizing for letting JT in on my dirty little secret. At the moment I couldn’t find the energy to be mad about it. “It’s okay.” I hated JT knowing what I was, but having him close made me feel better.
“Did the ghost hurt him?” JT looked around. He stepped in front of me. “Is it still here?”
“She’s gone.” Mac and JT looked at me. “I don’t think she’ll be back.”
“Her unfinished business was taken care of.” Mac nodded. “You know where she is?”
I closed my eyes, remembering what Carrie Beth had shown me. “In the woods by her house. She’s buried under some leaves and brush beneath an old car hood.”
I felt JT’s hand on my back, rubbing circles like he used to when I’d gotten scared and snuck into his bed after a bad dream or during a thunderstorm.
“Why’s he shaking?”
“He’s had a shock to his system.” Mac stood and I looked up at him. “But he’s going to be just fine.”
“Tell her mom she’s okay and that she forgives her.” It’s the one thing Carrie Beth asked of me. “Tell her she’s not hurting anymore and that she’ll see her again someday. Okay?”
Mac knelt in front of me again, his hand warm against my cheek. “I promise I’ll tell her.” His attempt at reassurance didn’t really help me. “And I promise you we’ll make sure that the next time this happens you’ll be ready. Your Uncle Caleb can help with this.” He turned to JT who was still hovering. “Watch him and keep him warm. I’m going to get my bag and make a few calls.”
Porthos had crawled into my lap, licking the saltwater from my face. I cleared my throat, feeling JT’s eyes on me, but unable to look at him. “Mac told you about me?”
“Yeah. You were out of it for a while. He was worried.”
“So you think I’m a little freak now?”
“Nothing new.” He bumped my shoulder. “I’ve always thought you were a little freak.”
I finally found the nerve to look at him. “Now you have proof.”
He wasn’t grinning like I expected, instead he looked hurt. One thing about my brother, he’s not very good at hiding what he’s feeling. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Did you miss the part where I’m a ghost whisperer?” I rolled my eyes. I might as well dress up in one of Mary’s pink tutus and let him take pictures.
“Wasn’t that an old television show?”
“No. I’m being serious. We could download it from archive and watch it. Maybe it would help.”
He was being serious. I wiped my eyes. “You just want to watch it because there was a hot girl on it.”
This time he was smiling and I felt my mouth twitch. “She’s probably like Mom’s age now.”
“Seriously, Brat. You should know you can tell me anything.” When I didn’t reply quickly enough he pulled a total chick-flick move by putting his arm around me, and the surprising thing was I didn’t mind. “Whatever happens, we’ll work it out.”
“Don’t tell Ben okay?”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
I nodded, my throat trying to close up again. “I wish Dad were here.”
“He’ll be back soon. Then he'll fix this. Until then, I’m here and I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“But what if he freaks out?”
“Dad wouldn’t do that. It'll all be alright. I promise.”
“But I’m not normal, JT!” I pulled away and Porthos jumped to the floor. “I’m something supernatural, something our family might hunt.”
“Don’t say that!” He was pissed now, too. “So what if you have abilities, so does Dad’s brother and his best friend. Dad loves them. He loves you. We’re family. That makes anything alright.”
I wanted to believe him; to believe in my heart what I knew was true. But the thing with me is, unlike my brother, I’m ruled by my head. Spock to his Captain Kirk. “So none of this bothers you? I can see and hear ghosts!”
“Dude, my best friend is a witch; my girlfriend can tell if I’m lying just by touching my hand. None of this is any big surprise to me.”
I let the fact that Sydney was not technically his girlfriend slide, along with the fact she didn’t need to have a psychic gift to know when JT wasn’t being truthful. “But everyone knows what a sucker you are.”
He rolled his eyes. “You’re still the same person you’ve always been, an annoying pain in the ass little brother. Nothing could change that.” He nudged me with his elbow. “Besides, think of all the good things you can do with this gift when you get older. Most hunters would kill to be able to pick up the ghost line and figure out what was going on in the spirit world without having to work the long way around.”
Hunters and killing were two of the things I was kind of worried about. See my earlier note about mutants and other outcasts. Still, I understood my brother’s sentiment, despite his faulty logic, and appreciated the effort. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” He reached out and ruffled my hair. “And next time there’s a ghost around, you tell me. Got it?”
“Fine.” I knocked his hand away. “FYI. You’re sitting on Atticus Finch.”
The look on his face as he jumped up from the bed was priceless. Even Atticus, still lying by my closet, was grinning. I laughed, feeling much better. “Some freaking ghost hunter you’re going to make, JT.”
“Shut up.” He growled, but couldn’t quite stop the smile that spread across his face. “Brat.”
And just like that, I realized clairvoyant kid or not, things would be okay again because unlike Carrie Beth I had a family who loved me and would protect me no matter what life threw my way.