"You need to leave this place."
Her head jerked up, lips curling back in a snarl, and I stepped back. The cold metal of the lockers pressed against my shoulders, and I swallowed hard. "You can't stay-" I started, and then there was a rush of wind as she suddenly surged forward.
It was like I'd been dunked into a tub of ice water. I couldn't see anything but that blue light, and all around me there was this horrible sense of pressure, like hands were pushing on me as hard as they could. But that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was her voice in my mind, shrieking so loudly I could barely make it out. Pay they have to pay have to pay, over and over again. Images played behind my eyelids. I saw blood on a microscope, saw Mary's ghostly hand clutched around the base. Then there was a cave, and fire? Something bright, something that burned.
And then suddenly the cold and the pressure were gone, the shrieking was silent, and Mary was no longer up against me, all around me.
She hovered there in front of me, chest heaving in and out as though she were still breathing, and she had a frantic look in her eyes. Her mouth opened in a silent scream, head tilting back to cry at the ceiling.
And then she rose up, hovering high over my head before vanishing.
I stood there against the lockers, nearly panting. My knees felt watery, but I made myself stay on my feet. Brannicks don't slump to the floor just because a ghost gets up in their face.
Still, as I pushed myself off the lockers and scrubbed a shaking hand over my mouth, I had to admit that that had not been your run-of-the-mill ghost. I'd seen ghosts before. I'd seen them sad and confused, maybe a little irate. But I'd never seen one as furious as Mary Evans, and I'd certainly never had one try to... God, what had she been trying to do? It had almost felt like she was trying to climb inside my skin.
Shuddering at that thought, I pushed open the bathroom door. Inside, I splashed cold water on my face and tried to get my heart rate back to something resembling normal. Reminding myself that coming face to face with Mary Evans was a good thing-hey, now I knew what I was up against-I stepped back into the hallway.
A shadowy figure suddenly appeared in front of me, and with a choked shriek, I reached out and grabbed the front of a shirt, slamming the person against the lockers.
Anderson blinked back at me.
"Oh!" Loosening my fingers, I let him go, smoothing his shirt out with the flat of my hand. "Sorry, you scared me. I startle kind of easily."
Tucking his hair behind his ears, he nodded. "I noticed that." I waited for him to give me the "You Violent Freak" Look Ben McCrary had given me, but to my surprise, Anderson just smiled and said, "I knew you dressed like a ninja, but I didn't think you actually were one."
I laughed. "I didn't hurt you, right?" I asked, but Anderson waved me off.
"No harm, no foul. Romy was looking for you. She took the gym while I headed up here."
"Where's Dex?" I asked before I could stop myself.
Anderson shrugged. "His Nana needed him, so he went home." He frowned, looking more closely at me. "Are you sure you're okay? You're kind of pale."
We opened the breezeway doors, stepping back outside. "Yeah, just..." I trailed off, and Anderson nodded.
"Overcome with the majesty of team sports. I understand."
Chuckling, I shrugged. "Something like that." The air didn't feel so cold now that I'd had a ghost trying to snuggle me, and I took a deep breath as we walked down the hill. We had just gotten to the gym when Anderson said, "Hey, Izzy."
I turned and he stood there, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. "Uh...thanks for being so cool with Romy. I know she likes hanging out with me and Dex, but with you...with you being, like, you know, a girl and stuff-"
I stopped Anderson before he could actually choke on his tongue. "It's easy to be cool with Romy. She's a cool girl."
Anderson wasn't as good-looking as Dex, but the goofy grin that spread across his face was seriously beautiful. "She's the coolest girl," he enthused, and even though I'd just been scared half to death not ten minutes before, I discovered I was grinning, too.
"Who is?" Romy asked, coming up behind him.
Anderson's ears reddened and he kicked at a nonexistent rock. "This girl," he babbled. "This girl who's cool."
Romy raised her eyebrows. "Huh. Informative, Anderson." Tugging at my hand, she started pulling me toward the parking lot. "Come on, Iz, my mom's here."
"Bye, Anderson," I called, waving to him with my free hand.
He gave a sheepish wave back and then turned away.
"So," Romy asked as we stepped into the parking lot, "other than getting ditched by Jerk-Face Adam, how was your first Official Mary Evans High Event?"
I looked back at the school, and even though I couldn't be certain, I thought I saw a flash of blue light.
Romy's mom drove a minivan, one of those fancy ones with the doors that open on their own and TV screens in the back of every seat. As we clambered into the back, I stepped on one doll, a handful of crackers, and a pile of Legos.
"My siblings are beasts, sorry," Romy said, flopping into her seat.
"They're also four," her mom informed me, catching my eyes in the rearview mirror. Her hair was a few shades darker than mine and pulled up in a haphazard ponytail. A large spot that looked like it might have been grape juice stained her T-shirt from the collar to the middle of her chest.
I noticed the booster seats and looked over at Romy. "You have three siblings?"
"Triplets," she said with a nod. "Three boys. Adorable and evil in equal measure."
"Romy," her mom admonished, and Romy leaned forward, holding on to the back of the seat in front of her. "Mom, I love them, you know I do. But even you have to admit they are five parts cute to five parts holy terror."
I could hear her mom sigh as she glanced down at the dark purple blob on her shirt. "All right, you may not be entirely wrong."
Settling back in her seat, Romy fished a sippy cup lid out from behind her back and tossed it to the floor. "At least I had nine years as an only child. My parents adopted me when I was two," she told me. "I was eleven when the triplets were born, and nothing in my life has ever been quiet again." But even as she said it, there was a kind of softness in her smile, and it twisted something in my chest.
A sensation that only got worse when Romy's mom asked, "What about you, Izzy? Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"No," I told her around the sudden lump in my throat. "Just me and my mom." What else could I say? "My sister disappeared" was too bizarre and opened the door to too many questions. "My sister died" wasn't true. Or at least I hoped it wasn't. So this was the easiest answer I could give, no matter how much it sucked to say it.
"Your house must be super quiet, then," Romy said. "Now I know where I'm going the next time I need to escape." Her grin was bright.
"Sure," I said, even as I tried to imagine Romy in my house. I'd never had company before. Would Torin behave? Maybe if I talked to him beforehand...
"We may need to grab ice cream before taking Izzy home," Romy informed her mom. "She had a rough night."
I jerked my head in Romy's direction. I hadn't told her about seeing Mary's ghost, so what did she-
"Some jerk boy stood her up."
"I didn't get stood up," I said quickly, but Romy waved her hand.
"Okay, so technically you told him to get bent, but that in no way negates the need for ice cream."
"I think I'm good," I told her, but I was smiling.
"Are you sure?" Romy's mom asked. "Because I've taught my daughter well. When boys are jerks, only ice cream will suffice. Or shopping, maybe."
"Ooh!" Romy sat up in her seat. "Yes, shopping. That's what Izzy needs. I mean, not right now, obviously, but sometime in the very near future. No offense," she added, "but while I appreciate this whole goth thing you have going, you could seriously use some color."
Seeing as how tonight Romy was wearing a sweater such a bright shade of yellow that it practically glowed in the dark, I was a little nervous about what her idea of "color" might mean. But hadn't I just been worrying that my normal Brannick wardrobe wasn't going to hack it at Mary Evans High?
"Okay," I said slowly. "I could...maybe get behind a shopping trip."
"Excellent!" Romy said. "Next week. Mom, can you take us? On Thursday?"
"I can," her mom agreed before catching my gaze in the rearview mirror. "Romy tells me you've joined her club. Are you into all things supernatural, too, Izzy?"
"You could say that," I told her. "Mostly I was just excited the school had something as cool as a Paranormal Management Society."
"Well, I'm glad you joined. Romy could use some girlfriends. Not that Anderson and Dex aren't nice boys; it's just that it's so hard for Romy to find girls who share her interests."
"Mom," Romy said, embarrassed.
I looked over at Romy, and felt guilt wash over me. I liked her, I did. But it wasn't like I was being her friend just because she was a cool person. I was...using her.
What was it Mom has said? Remember, don't get too close. These people are a means to an end.
That thought was still bothering me when Romy's mom pulled up in our driveway, but I tried not to let it show. Instead, I put on my brightest voice, told Romy I'd see her tomorrow, thanked her mom for the ride, and went inside.
Mom was sitting at the kitchen table when I came in, one of those ancient books in front of her. She barely glanced up as I took the seat across from her. "How did it go?"
I shrugged. "Okay. I saw the ghost we're dealing with, and let me tell you, she is one seriously unhappy chick."
"Dangerous?" Mom asked, linking her fingers on top of her book.
"I can handle it," I said automatically, even as I remembered just how full of rage Mary had been. I thought about asking Mom if she knew much about ghosts possessing people-if that had been what the whole pushing thing had been about-but decided against it. Mom needed to think I could do this on my own.
Because I could.
So before she could ask me anything else, I said, "I think I cemented my friendship with the ghost hunter kids, but..."
"But?" Mom prompted.
Sighing, I propped my chin in my hand. "I think I'm really bad at dating."
Mom huffed out a laugh and turned her attention back to her book. "Is it awful that I'm kind of thrilled about that?"
I wanted to ask her more about it. Like, had it been wrong to sit with PMS? Was Adam being a jerk, or was that just teenage boys? I mean, sure, Dex didn't seem like that, but he wasn't a regular teenage boy, and...
"Did Finn ever date? When you guys had those longer jobs that took a few weeks. Was there ever, like, a guy or anything?"
Surprised, Mom looked up. "I...I honestly don't know. She never mentioned anyone."
If we found Finley-when we found her-I would ask her.
There were a couple of pens on the table, and I picked one up, poking at Mom's book. "So this research. What is it about?"