Eventually, however, she found us.
“Are you the ghost hunters?” a little girl asked as she walked toward us. I noticed an orange rubber ball in her hands. The sunshine in her blonde hair and the green freshness of the grass made everything look so wholesome, but that damn ball was a weighty reminder of what was always present at this place.
“That we are,” Dex said with a wide, welcoming smile. “And who might you be?”
“I’m Jody,” she said, rubbing at her nose. She was a cute kid with big blue eyes, a little on the short side for her age, dressed head to toe in a matching pink leopard sweat suit. “Miss Brenna went home sick today.”
“We heard,” Rebecca said. I was surprised to see how warm her features became as she addressed her. “But the nurse Kelly said she would be fine. She’ll probably be back tomorrow, feeling as good as new.”
Jody shrugged and started twisting back and forth at the waist. “I guess. I was sick for a while.”
“Were you?” I asked, even though Brenna had told us.
“Yes,” she said. “I had consumption.”
I nearly spit out my orange juice. Rebecca recovered faster than I did.
“Consumption?” she repeated. “I don’t think you had that.”
“I did,” Jody said like it wasn’t a big deal. “The nurse said it wasn’t and my doctor Willard said it wasn’t, but Elliot said it was. I was coughing up blood. He said that’s how it happened to him.” She stopped twisting and looked me right in the eye. “Shawna told me I’d never see my family again.”
She kept staring at me to the point where Dex and Rebecca glanced over to see what was going on.
“Who is Shawna?” I asked gingerly, trying to keep my voice light and breezy.
“Shawna isn’t my friend. She doesn’t like that Elliot pays attention to me. And she doesn’t like you.”
I felt like walls were closing in on me. “She doesn’t like me?” I barely got out. “I’ve never met her. We just got here yesterday.”
“She says she saw you earlier when you were looking in her room,” Jody said matter-of-factly. “She’s looking at you right now.”
Oh, Jesus. Oh, just no. “What?”
Jody pointed at the building. I followed her finger to the second floor windows. I didn’t see anything there; the sun was shining off the broken panes. “I…I don’t see anything,” I told her.
“She’s there,” she said assuredly. “You just have to look for her.”
Fuck that. I leaned forward, looking at Jody more closely. “Why doesn’t Shawna like me?” I whispered.
She shrugged again and went back to twisting. “I dunno. Maybe you won’t play with her. Or maybe the bad thing is telling her not to like you.”
My eyes flew over to Dex. I could see his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, worry in his eyes. I looked back at Jody. “What is the bad thing?”
“I dunno,” she said again. Then her face brightened. “I used to be afraid of it, but then one day Shawna said it was her pet, and she had it on a leash. I was more afraid when it was running around loose. That’s how it got Miss Brenna one day.”
I was speechless. Speechless and scared absolutely shitless, sitting here on a picnic table in a sunny fucking meadow.
“Jody,” Rebecca said delicately. “You know it’s wrong to lie about things.”
“I know,” she said. “But I’m not. If I lie, I’ll go to hell. So I tell the truth. I don’t want to go to hell. Shawna says the bad thing will take me there if I misbehave.”
I pictured Shawna standing in the room, the way her smile didn’t reach her eyes, the way the leash went off and I couldn’t see what was on the other end of it. But my brain wanted to go there. It wanted to fill in the blanks. It wanted to see the bad thing.
I had to get fucking out of there.
“You’re an awfully morbid little kid, aren’t you?” Dex said to Jody.
Jody stuck her tongue out at him. “No, you’re morbid.”
“Do you even know what morbid means?”
“Dex,” I said sharply before he could start an argument with a child. I hopped off the picnic table. “You know, I think I’m done here.”
He looked at me in shock. “What? For good?”
“Perry…” Rebecca cautiously.
I rubbed my arms, feeling a sudden chill, and eyed the building. “I don’t know. But if I don’t get away from this place for a few hours, I’m going to lose my mind.”
Rebecca looked at Dex. “Why don’t you take her into town,” she suggested. “I’ll stay here and talk to some people, film some things.”
Dex gave her an odd look, then nodded as if he was just realizing something. “Sounds like a plan, boss.” He got up and came over to me, taking my hand in his. “I’m just going back to the room to get something. Need your purse?”
I nodded. “Can you bring me my sweater too?” I figured it was warmer down by the water but the chill had its sudden hold on me, so that even in the sun I couldn’t imagine warmth.
I looked back at Rebecca who was smiling at me.
“What?” I asked, frowning.
“Nothing,” she said, still smiling.
“Did you want to play a game with me?” Jody asked her.
Rebecca hesitated. I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t staying behind to play a game – it was probably hide and go seek out the dead kids.
“Of course,” Rebecca said.
“Do you know any?” Jody asked, putting her hands on her little hips.
“Well, in England I used to play a game called ‘What Time is it Mr. Wolf.’ Do you fancy you’d like to play that?”
I rolled my eyes. Of course she had to choose one of the more disturbing children’s games but Jody seemed game.
Soon enough though, I was in the Highlander with Dex and we were cruising down the road toward the coast. I hated being trapped in my head but all I could think about – all I could see – was Shawna’s face and the black shape of the bad thing.
“Baby?” Dex asked gently. “Are you okay?”
I shook my head, staring out the window as the trees went past. “No.”
“Do you want to quit and go home?” I turned my head to look at him. He looked so damn sympathetic. “You know I’d understand. I just want to make you happy.”
Ugh. My heart started to swell like a warm balloon. I gave him a small smile. “I don’t know what I want, Dex.”
He swallowed. “Do you still want me?”
Everything inside me melted. I twisted in my seat to face him and reached up to touch his cheek. “Of course I still want you. Dex, I love you. You know I do. I’m just…really freaked out. Everything that’s going on in that place is…”
“Yes. Too much.”
“Tell me about the dream you had. The one where you saw the girl.”
“Oh, I don’t want to think about that now,” I said. “Really, I just want to pretend for the next while that the sanatorium doesn’t exist. Pretend I’m back in our normal life.”
“You’re right,” he said and suddenly he was pulling the car over by a scenic lookout. He put it in park beside a low stone wall that overlooked the cliff and the town below. It was so clear you could see the tiny cars making their way on 101 through Gary, see the shimmering ocean and the endless blue sky. I immediately felt better just seeing that, feeling the warmth of the early summer air that was blowing through the open windows.
Dex reached over and unbuckled his seat belt, then he unbuckled mine. “Come on,” he said, lifting it over me. “It’s too nice to be inside the car.”
Though we were halfway down the mountainside and not in civilization like I wanted to be, I got out of the car. He took my hand and led me over to the low stone wall and sat me down. He glanced out at the bright horizon, his eyes squinting, the eyebrown ring on his dark, arched brow shining in the sun. Like I had so many times before, I was struck dumb by how handsome he was. Sometimes it really snuck up on me.
“This coast, kiddo,” he said, voice low and rough. “This coast is where we first met. All because I had this strange feeling that I had to go visit that lighthouse. I just had to. And then I saw you. And that was it. I knew why I’d been brought there.”
I couldn’t help but smile. I didn’t know why Dex was reminiscing so much lately, but I liked it a lot. “You’re turning into quite the romantic lately.”
He raised his brow coyly. “That’s a new one. Do you prefer that Dex or the crude Dex?”
I put my hand on his. “It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same. They’re all you.”
He turned my hand over so that my wrist was facing up, the anchor displayed. “This is looking real good, baby. Real good.” He took in a deep breath and glanced up at me with intensity. “You still don’t regret it?”
“No fucking way,” I assured him, unable to look away from his gaze.
“You know that’s going to be on you forever.”
“That was the point.”
He squeezed my wrist. “We don’t know what the future holds for us. I see you here, now, you’re scared, you’re frightened. I don’t want to keep doing this to you.”
I watched him quizzically. “What are you saying?”
He licked his lips. “I’m saying…I want you around for the long haul. By my side. But I don’t want to keep doing this show. I think I want out. For the both of us.” My mouth dropped slightly. He went on, “What you said the other day about this show not going on forever, about doing something else instead. I think you’re right.”
“Well what would we do?”
“I don’t know, kiddo,” he said. He reached up and cupped my face in his large hands. “I don’t know. But I guess we’ll just sort it out along the way, together. I have money. I will take care of you – take care of us – until we figure it out.”
His words coated me with a heady mix of relief and apprehension. “So this is the end of Experiment in Terror?”
“I think this should be the last episode,” he stated. “And I think we should commit to it, go out with a bang. But yes, I think it should be the end.”
He let go of my face and bit his lip anxiously as he gauged my reaction. “So? What do you think? I can’t make this choice alone.”
The end sounded so final. I’d only known Dex through this show. I didn’t know what our lives would be like without it. The unknown – whether with ghosts or with life – scared me.
He leaned in and brushed his lips against mine and I breathed in that comforting, familiar musk of his, the mint and Old Spice. “This is only the end of the show,” he murmured. “This is the beginning of us.”
“You promise?” I purred back.
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