As I’m getting ready for bed, my phone vibrates with a text from my cousin.
Malinda: YOUR GHOST BOY IS IN MY ROOM. GET HIM OUT BEFORE I KILL HIM A SECOND TIME.
It’s midnight and I have school tomorrow, but the dead don’t care. They’ll pop up anywhere from midnight to the bleak hours of the early morning. The planet can only handle one world at a time; the dead wake when the living sleep, and sleep when the living wake. Yin and yang.
I grab the sweater draped over my wooden desk chair, then shove my feet into socks and boots. I snatch my keys from the corner of the bulletin board hanging above my desk, then quietly make my way out the house. Mom and Dad are already sleeping, and they didn’t appreciate me leaving in the middle of the night to do ghost business on my own. They prefer to tag along, like chaperones on a field trip. I’m sixteen. I know how to free ghosts, and I’m better than the fakers on TV.
This is the third time this week I’ve walked down the street at midnight. I whistle as I walk down the middle of the road. Nobody drives in this small town this late on weeknights. My neighbors are already buried in their blanket cocoons, asleep and oblivious that a teen ghost is haunting the corner house on my street, where Malinda lives with my two aunts.
Her front door is unlocked; as it was the other times I came here this week. I enter without knocking, assuming her moms are also asleep. I leave my boots at the porch and quietly close the door. There’s no need to lock up. This should be a short visit.
Malinda is in her bedroom, furiously brushing knots out of her thick hair in front of her mahogany dressing table. She glares into her oval mirror, her plucked eyebrows scrunched together. If she could convert the fury in her eyes to holy rays, she could burn away the ghost who has been drawn to her room for the past few nights.
The ghost, a sixteen-year-old boy known as Hiroshi Ochi in his past life, sleeps on Malinda’s bed. Malinda’s puffy body pillow is tucked between his long arms and legs. Every time he comes, he gravitates to Malinda’s bed and pillow. The previous nights, I got him out by suggesting he tour the town. His unfinished business might not be in this house. But now that he’s here a third time, on Malinda’s bed third time, I’m starting to think his business is related to something in her room.
The dead usually sleep during the day, vanishing into thin air as if they never existed. Hiroshi has recently transitioned from the living to the dead. His soul still clings to the routine of the living. In time, if he isn’t freed, he will spend the nights wandering the planet until his business is complete.
I touch Hiroshi’s arm. A healthy chill crawls up my arm.
“Hiroshi,” I say softly. “Can you wake up for me?”
Hiroshi murmurs and turns his sleeping face into the pillow.
“He better not be drooling all over it,” Malinda says.
“It’ll go away in a few minutes,” I say. Spectral fluids don’t remain for long.
Hiroshi rolls to his other side, his face still buried in the pillow. He wears the same clothes he wore when he died: a pressed, white elbow-length shirt; blue-black slacks; and a thin, black leather belt. I’ve never seen him in shoes or socks before.
I tickle the undersides of his chilly bare feet, startling him awake. I pull the long pillow from his lax grip and toss it at the headboard. Hiroshi looks up at me with droopy eyes, too tired to be angry, then flops onto the bed and grabs the pillow.
“I’m certain now,” he says. “My business is connected to this pillow.”
“Your business is to leave me alone,” Malinda says.
“Give me the pillow and I’ll be gone sooner.”
“It’s my pillow.”
“I can bring it back tomorrow,” I say. “It shouldn’t take long.”
Malinda opens her mouth to argue.
“Don’t you want to help him rest?” I say.
She clicks her teeth together. She looks at Hiroshi, whose eyes are turned down to his lap. He looks like a kicked puppy.
Malinda pushes the pillow into my chest until I clutch it with both hands. “Just hurry up,” she says.
“Thank you,” Hiroshi says. “Can I have the honor of opening it?”
“Go ahead.” Malinda twists her wrist in the air. “But rip along the seams. I still want the case.”
I give Hiroshi the pillow. Malinda gives him a pair of scissors. He carefully cuts the pillow open and reaches inside, his lip caught between his teeth. He pulls clumps of stuffing out for Malinda and me to sift. Halfway through destuffing the pillow, he pauses with his hand inside. His eyes widen and he slowly pulls a rusty locket out.
Malinda recognizes it and holds out a hand. “Can I see that? I’ll give it back.”
Hiroshi pools the necklace in her palm.
“I was wondering where this went.” She opens the locket and shows me the two faces staring out. “I used it for an ancestry presentation in my Spanish class. It must’ve fallen in when I was stuffing. Weird.” She chuckles. “These are my great-grandparents.”
“It’s my family!” Hiroshi shoves his face in front of mine to get a look. “Those are my great-grandparents too!”
Malinda looks at him. “You’re related to them? You don’t look it.”
“Malinda,” I warn.
“Yes!” Hiroshi says. “That is why I was drawn here. You have a picture of them.”
“That’s your unfinished business? Finding pictures of your great-grandparents?” Malinda narrows her eyes at him.
“My family. Finding my family. You’re my family.” His eyes water. “I lost my parents and grandparents in an accident. You’re all I have left.”
Hiroshi grabs the locket and holds it to his chest. His black eyes fog over and his breaths become shallow. His body becomes transparent. He drops the pillow and wraps his arms around Malinda and me, then kisses our heads. His touch becomes soft, like a pillow I can sink my hands in.
“Thank you. Thank you so much.” He takes Malinda’s hand and pushes the necklace into it. He curls her fingers around it. His body fades until it’s barely there.
“Hiroshi!” I grab his wrist. It feels like thick vapor. “Do you see anything?”
“Huh?” he says.
I speak fast with the fear he will vanish before he can answer. “Ghosts see different things before they go. What do you see? I want to know.”
“Everything’s fading into white and I see a woman. She…looks like me.” The first tear slips down his cheek and then he’s gone.
I close my fist on air.
Malinda gets her laptop while I collect my thoughts. “What’s his last name?” she asks.
I hate the aftermath of a ghost’s departure. I always develop a bond with them, and though we rarely get to know each other, it always hurts to watch them fade. Hiroshi, unlike the other young ghosts, never told me how he died.
“Tomoko, you should see this,” Malinda says.
I scoot next to her and glance over the month-old news article. Hiroshi Ochi was a sophomore student at a private high school in New York. He had died on his way home from school after a drunk driver jumped the curb.
That explains his bare feet; sometimes people lose their shoes when they get hit.
“I don’t get his unfinished business,” Malinda says. “Finding a locket of his great-grandparents seems a bit…boring.”
“He was looking for relatives,” I say. “For us.”
Malinda picks up the fallen pillow. She puts it on her dressing table. Her mouth stretches into a long yawn. I expect her to tell me to leave so she can sleep. Instead, she says, “I hope he’s in a better place.”
“They all are,” I say.
I don’t know what awaits all the ghosts I’ve helped free, but I have a feeling it’s beautiful. Hiroshi seemed to think so, smiling at the woman he saw right before he faded.
Rachel lives and writes in California. Her debut novel, The Bridge, was published with Harmony Ink Press under the penname Rachel Lou, and her short stories, creative nonfiction, and fan writing have appeared in student literary magazines and fandom zines. She was an author panelist at SLJ Teen Live 2016, where she discussed cross-genre writing. When she’s not writing, she’s scrolling through her Tumblr dash, playing video games, training at her kung fu school, or working toward her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.