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Dead Endings: Chapter 3

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #007 back issue.

Sandy shores hugged the warm, inviting ocean on a packed beach in Miami. Dozens of skiffs cavorted near the shore, their bright, colorful sails a riot of colors jostling for position. Small rafts and boogie boards dotted the rippling waves, and here and there parasailers soared above the boats. It was a lively, chaotic scene, framed by the deep blue of the sea and sky.

Cailen lazily paddled out into the sea on an inflatable tube. Seagulls wheeled and called overhead as she slowly, but surely, left the crowded waterfront behind. It was just after she’d passed even the farthest swimmers, however, that Cailen realized that her tube was leaking air.

Annoyed that the cheap device had fallen apart just as she’d claimed a section of ocean, Cailen sighed and began the slow paddle back to shore. With each stroke, the tube seemed to deflate further, and soon she was left clutching at a much diminished, barely-floating piece of rubber. Seeing no other choice but to swim, she cast the tube aside and carried on.

After ten minutes, it seemed she’d hardly crossed any distance at all. After fifteen, she’d reached the outer edge of the circle of smaller rafts, but her stamina was quickly fading. Cailen’s muscles started cramping with a regularity that alarmed her.

She was barely halfway back when her limbs seized her body into tight knots that refused to uncoil without great effort. Small noises slipped through Cailen’s gritted teeth as the spasming went on longer and longer. She forced her clenched fingers to open and paddle, her rigid legs to kick. The shore was still very far away.

Cailen’s fear overcame her pride as she became certain that she wasn’t going to make it. It was too far, and her body was failing her. 

“Hey! Hey!” she shouted at the nearest cluster of boats. Waving an arm took more strength than she could spare.

A girl on one of the closer rafts turned at the sound of her shouts and waved back cheerfully. A pair of jet skis zoomed by, the sound swallowing her follow-up cries for help. Cailen thrashed, both hands grasping at the clear blue sky. Her next shout was drowned by the water that filled her mouth as she slipped again.

The girl on the boat frowned and nudged the boy next to her. They pointed. Cailen slipped farther under the water.

Cailen felt crushing, black terror as her tired arms and legs flailed helplessly. Suffocating pressure swallowed her up as water filled her lungs and nose. Her fear, regret, and disbelief twisted into a cry she couldn’t make. The bright, tiny bubbles of her last breath arrayed above her in a winding trail back to the surface.

Her next conscious thought was of a line snapping, a rubber band pulled tight and then recoiling with a crack. Snap, and she existed again.

Briny puke erupted from her mouth and seared her nose. She retched as several strong pairs of hands turned her onto her side. People shouted and a small child cried thinly in the background.

Cailen heaved and expelled more water. The helpful hands thumped her back, and the pressure in her chest subsided. Finally able to drag clean breaths of blessed air into her sore lungs, she opened her burning eyes.

A confusion of color greeted her. Feet, towels, bright sandals, and patterned board shorts. Several people surrounded her, some kneeling, others watching.

“–ou okay? Hey!”

“Make way! Make way!” other voices shouted.

She stared blearily at the crowd. One small boy looked back without blinking. He stood near a fat man in the gaggle of people surrounding her, but not with him. The boy had dark, nearly black eyes and short brown hair. A striped bathing suit covered his small body, and he clutched a small inner tube that resembled the one she had lost. Moisture appeared to drip from him as though he had just emerged from the water. Cailen couldn’t break away from his solemn gaze.

More strong hands helped her into a sitting position and a paramedic kneeled in front of her, probing her chest and saying something. Cailen craned around him in her attempt to look at the little boy, afraid he would disappear if she blinked or looked away. He hadn’t moved, though, and his eyes remained locked on hers.

She opened her mouth to say something–what, she wasn’t sure–but he turned and started walking away. The paramedic grabbed her chin and peeled back her left eye to shine a light in it, but she managed to follow the little boy with her right.

He walked daintily away, small bare feet light on the sand. She expected him to turn one last time and look at her, but he never did. Through her free, burning eye, she watched him walk into the ocean and vanish into the waves. It wasn’t until months later that she realized he was the first dead person she’d ever seen.

***

Cailen awoke with a start to the smell of brewing coffee. The comforting sounds of percolation crept into the gray recesses of her room. She lay there for a while, listening, and rubbed a hand over her eyes to sweep away the last remnants of her dream. The salty crackle of frying bacon lured her out of bed just a little bit later.

Bleary-eyed, she slouched into the kitchen. Pale morning light shone through the open windows and the sturdy little coffee maker burbled happily in the background. A familiar tawny face with long, bronze curls studied an open newspaper spread across the countertop. Unable to function quite yet, Cailen pulled up a stool and stared blankly at the cabinets until a steaming mug was set in front of her. Cailen looked down at the coffee, but her synapses weren’t firing yet.

The newspaper rustled.

“Milk?” asked a rich voice.

“Uh.”

Milk was poured.

“Spoon?” the voice inquired after a few minutes of non-activity.

“Uh.”

Long, brown fingers stirred Cailen’s coffee before returning it to her.

More time passed.

“You can lift it your damn self,” the voice said with a chuckle.

Cailen stretched and made a heroic effort at the mug. Eventually, she ingested some of its caffeinated contents and her brain cells started pinging.

Gabriella scratched at the newspaper’s crossword puzzle. “I swear, I always expect to find you dead in front of the coffee maker when I get back from my trips, pot full but just out of reach. You have a real problem, you know. No one should drink eight cups a day. It’s not right.”

“I’m down to six,” Cailen hoarsely corrected her, throat still raw from sleep.

“Six still sounds absurd. It’s no wonder you don’t sleep well.”

Cailen shrugged and drank. “Welcome back,” she added from over the lip of the cup. “How was your trip?”

Gabriella grinned broadly, her heart-shaped face tanned and glowing despite the ungodly hour. Voluminous hair in artistic disarray framed her big, brown eyes. At twenty-three, she could have easily passed for an undergrad fresh from high school.

Cailen rubbed her puffy eyes and envied her friend’s seemingly boundless energy.

“Even you would have loved it,” Gabriella reminisced. “The hiking, the wine, the locals… Ah, truly Spain is where I wish to be buried.”

“You said the same thing about Ireland and Portugal.”

“It does lack one crucial thing,” her roommate confided.

“Ignorance of your graffiti crimes against park sculptures?”

Chinese food,” Gabriella corrected. “They just can’t do it properly. It’s a damn shame because I love the place with all my heart. We’re just not meant to be, I guess.”

Cailen didn’t want to live anywhere that didn’t have Chinese, either. She considered pork fried rice an essential food group.

“Anyway, it was lovely. Take me up on my offer and come with me next time. I’ll show you what a real holiday’s like.”

“My liver can only take so much.”

“Grow a new one.”

“Point.”

“So,” Gabriella said, folding up the newspaper, “anything interesting happen while I was away?”

Cailen took a long sip to fortify herself. “You have no idea…”

One very long explanation and two cups of coffees later, Gabriella leaned against the counter, surprise, concern, and laughter warring against each other across her face. “Let me get this straight. He marched in here–”

“After creeping outside all day.”

“–and then marched your ass out into the field? To an actual spirit? And you went?!”

“Hey, you’ve been telling me for years that I need to be more proactive about this sort of stuff.”

“Yeah, and if I’d known a man would get you out the door, I would’ve tried that years ago!”

Cailen snorted. “I didn’t do it because of that. He wanted you, but somebody was sleeping through every bartender in Spain and couldn’t be here.”

Gabriella laughed. “Not every bartender.” Her brown eyes twinkled. “But Everett does sort of have a way of getting what he wants, I guess.”

Thai iced coffees, Cailen thought. My kryptonite.

“You’ve got that right.”

“And he has such a weird ability,” Gabriella added. “Never seen anything like it before.”

“Better than ours, I’d say. At least he only has to smell them.”

Gabriella smiled, but shook her head. “If God gives you something, Cailen, you should accept it and do something good with it.”

“The Flying Spaghetti Monster saddled me with ghost vision. Who knows what that pasta monster wants me to do with it?”

Their old argument. It was comfortable, redundant territory in their friendship at this point.

“All I’m saying,” Gabriella offered, hands spread wide, “is that you should do something with it. Better than dodging every ghost that you run across. All you need is a little practice, and this is a good start.”

“I’m not sure I liked the knifing and bleeding parts.”

Gabriella’s brown eyes hardened. “Yeah, that worries me. When normal people get possessed–”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Fine. When regular people get possessed, they usually just see what the deceased saw. Sometimes they’ll work as conduits and say or write out what the spirit was trying to communicate. Experiencing their death first hand, though…”

Cailen murmured her agreement and rubbed her back where the first knife had gone in. “I really, really don’t recommend it.”

“That other thing you mentioned…”

“The ghost playback?”

“Yeah. That…is something I’ve never heard of before. Spirits just don’t travel like that. I mean, it’s not unheard of for one to haunt an object and get dragged around with the object, but with these murders tied in…? Totally strange.”

“Everett’ll be disappointed to hear that. He thought you’d have all the answers.”

Gabriella tugged on her ear lobe. “Well, I need to go visit those sites first. Speak to Warner, maybe.”

“He was saying something back when we were there. I couldn’t catch any of it, obviously.”

“I guess that’s a start. You free to go later?”

Cailen first considered her movie backlog, and then more seriously considered the aching spots in her chest. She saw Jacob Warner sitting on the floor in her mind’s eye, scared and dying.

“Yeah. I’m free.”

“Good. Just let me catch a few hours of sleep. Wake me when you feel like going.”

With a wave, Gabriella disappeared down the hall to her bedroom, and Cailen was left alone with the coffee maker still sputtering its happy sounds.

Several hours and the rest of the packet of bacon later, Cailen zoned out on the couch in a pleasant state of sodium delirium.

“Oy, weren’t you supposed to wake me?” said a voice in her ear.

Cailen jolted to life and nearly fell off the couch. She caught herself on the coffee table and watched her roommate amble into the kitchen. A quick glance at the clock confirmed that they’d lost most of the day and that coffee didn’t work the way it used to. She heard the fridge open.

“Dear Father Above, did you even eat any real food while I was away? Please don’t tell me you were drinking this chocolate milk, either…”

Cailen rolled into a sitting position and yawned. The fridge slammed shut.

“Fine,” Gabriella said. “Shopping tomorrow, shawarma tonight.”

Cailen yawned again.

“Get your ass dressed and tell me where we’re going, because the trains’ll stop in a few hours, and we’ll be stranded if it’s far.”

“Bronx,” she managed, through another yawn.

“Lovely,” Gabriella replied.

Proceed to Chapter 3, page 2–>