The next morning being Friday and all, I realized I'd better get my ass to work. I had told Grandpa I'd think about protecting the girl, but how much trouble could one little girl get into overnight? Dead or not I still had bills to pay. I got out of bed (yeah, I know I said I couldn't sleep, but you've got to admit, I had a hell of a lot to think about and bed's as good a place to do it as any) and ripped the bandages off the wounds figuring I'd need fresh ones. Guess what? Yup, no wounds. Not even a scar. Just for the hell of it, I took my pulse. Still nada. Well, you can't have everything, I figured.
I took another shower--this time without the dead relatives to interrupt me--got dressed, made myself some toast, and headed for work. By the way, I was totally relieved to find out that I could still eat, 'cause I really like food. That's one thing I have to give the vampires; all that blood must get monotonous after a while, no matter how much you like it.
I got to work early, made it to my cubicle without bumping into anyone--as if anyone else would get to work early--and started going over yesterday's reports. The rest of the office sort of filed in slowly and I got away with a few mumbled "mornings" and "how's it goings." I guess it was about 9:20 when I saw the gremlin taking a leak in the coffeemaker. He shushed me, and seeing as I don't drink coffee anyway, I let it pass. If I had known what was going to happen next, I'd have helped him.
"Decker, could you come in here a minute?"
James Decker--that's my real name. What, you don't think I still went by Bumper, do you?
"Sure, Joe, be right there," I said, then tidied up the files I was working on and stepped into Joe Spence's office.
Joe was upper-middle management, and my boss. He was one of those fortyish balding guys with a bad comb-over, pasty face, and pear-shaped body. He kept a little treadmill in the corner of his office, but by the look of his paunch I'd say he used it as a conveyer belt to get the food from the door to his desk quicker.
"Have a seat, James," he said, so I did. I could tell by the way he kept glancing at the picture of his fat little wife and his pudgy little kids that this wasn't going to be pleasant. It was as if he was thinking, "Thank God it's him and not me!"
"You know how much we all think of you here, James. I mean, you're the highest-paid floor manager at the plant."
Oh-oh, I thought. Here it comes.
"Unfortunately, that's the problem. The company feels they can increase efficiency if Benny and Mack take over your responsibilities. I'm sorry, James, but you're being downsized."
The problem was I knew he meant it--that he was sorry. Physical appearance aside, Joe was a pretty decent guy.
"I managed to con them into six months wages as a sort of buyout package, and of course you'll get your severance pay, and..." Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I won't bore you with the details. Joe had done right by me, and I walked away a lot better off than the last couple of guys they shaft...downsized. I had until noon to clear out my desk; it didn't take that long. The gremlin mooned me on the way out.
I went down to the parking garage, climbed into the Jeep, and just started driving. I thought maybe I'd head to the park, but Dad had something else in mind.
"Why don't you drive by the school and check on Alex," he suggested. He sat in the passenger seat in his dress blues and medals, the same uniform we'd buried him in eighteen years ago. He'd been thirty-four when he died, two years older than I was now.
"She's probably pretty safe for the moment, it being daytime and with her surrounded by all those people, but it never hurts to stay on top of things." To hear him, you'd think kids talked to their murdered dads every other day.
Well, two could play that game. "Sure, Dad. Do you know what school she goes to?"
Dad grinned, and it was almost like looking in a mirror. Mom always said I took after him. We both had the same dark hair and brown eyes, the same high cheekbones and thick lips, and that same stern look that only let up when we smiled. Dad was a lot taller though--almost six foot two, but I was more muscular.
"Meadowdale High," he finally answered.
There was so much I wanted to say to him. After all, my dad had died when I was only fourteen, but all I could think of was, "I missed you, Dad."
"Me too, Bumper," he answered, but when I turned to look at him, he was gone.
I parked the Jeep on a side street just outside the school’s fence and tried looking for anything suspicious, like trolls or gremlins or what have you. After about fifteen minutes I figured the only thing suspicious-looking was me. People tend to get a little antsy when you sit in your car outside the school grounds and watch the kids. I can’t say as I blame them. I figured I’d better get out of there before I got myself into any more trouble--yeah, right--and headed for the library.
I suppose I should have been getting my resume together, but somehow in light of everything that had happened it just didn’t seem all that important. Besides, with the buyout package the company had given me and what I had in my savings, I’d have enough to get by for a little over a year.
The library had its own fair share of gremlins. Strangely enough, they seemed to congregate mostly around the computer terminals and photocopy machines. Who’d a thunk it? I found a nice quiet corner (as opposed to those grungy, noisy corners in the rest of the library) and read up on everything I could find about ghouls and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. You know, a lot of the stuff was bang on. I found a picture of a troll that was a fair approximation of the one I’d seen the night before, and the gremlin that ran around the library rearranging the books could have posed for the print in “Baker’s Guide to Supernatural Creatures." Six inches tall, short stubby legs, knobby knees, large pointed ears and matching teeth, red glowing eyes, no nose, no clothes, and no genitalia. And that green, scaly skin--yup, that was him all right. I tend to think of anything that ugly as him; call me a sexist if you want to.
After a few hours, I’d absorbed as much as I cared to--"absorbed" being the operative word. Being dead had done wonders for my memory. I found I could recite anything I’d read word for word. Hell, I almost wish I’d have died last week. Then maybe I’d have remembered what I did with Penny’s phone number.
School would be letting out in about twenty minutes or so, and I figured I’d grab a Pepsi and head back over there. I was just leaving the library when this mouthy little brat yelled out, “Hey, nice floods buddy!” At first I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Then I looked down at my feet. Sure enough, my pants didn’t even make it down to my ankles. The brat rode off on his bicycle, and I got into my car. I wasn’t sure what was going on--they’d fit well this morning--but I figured it could have been worse. My fly could have been down. That’s when I noticed my shirtsleeves had shrunk also. At least that was easily taken care of; I rolled them up.
I got back to the school just as it was letting out for the afternoon. I could only hope that Alex didn't have a last period spare. I sat there watching the mass exodus and pretty much thinking that finding her in that crowd was hopeless. The school had several exits; if she had left by one on the other side of the building I'd miss her completely.
"You should have gone in earlier and gotten her class schedule," Dad said from the passenger seat.
"They'd never have given it to him, him being a stranger," Grandpa answered from the back. "Schools are a lot more careful these days."
Just seeing my dad and my grandpa together gave me a kind of warm fuzzy feeling, even if they were both dead. I have to admit, though, that I still wasn't used to having them just pop in and out like that.
"Well then, what do you suggest, Sherlock?" Dad said, and turned in his seat to face Grandpa.
"Don't take that tone with me, boy! I've been doing this kind of work since before you were in diapers."
"Yeah, well if I'd have lived longer you'd have been the one in diapers.
"There she is," I interrupted their little tirade.
"I don't know why I have to sit in the back. After all, I'm the oldest," Grandpa grumbled.
"But I've been dead the longest," Dad answered. That must have settled that, because they both faded out on me again.
I followed Alex home to an apartment building a few blocks from the school, then parked across the street between a Lexus and a Lincoln. It seemed like a nice place. As a matter of fact it looked downright pricey. It was only about ten stories, and the other side faced a park with a nice little duck pond, a playground, and a cobblestone jogging trail.
A doorman greeted her and even held the elevator while she helped an older woman with her groceries. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but Alex smiled and they all laughed as the elevator doors closed. It seemed she was well liked.
I sat in the Jeep for about twenty minutes wondering what to do next. So far I hadn't really seen anything she needed to be protected from--well, except for maybe the troll. I guessed the creepy crawlies would probably be a lot more plentiful at night. It was going on four o'clock. At this time of year it gets dark by about six thirty. If I was going to protect her, I'd have to come up with a better plan than this. I decided to call home and check my messages to relieve the monotony, and the answer just fell into my lap. Aside from several phone calls from my buds expressing their condolences at my losing my job--bad news sure travels fast--there was a call from Alex's mom and a number where I could reach her. I punched in the number, and she picked up after two rings.
"Hello, Mrs. Faye? This is James Decker."
"Oh, Mr. Decker. I'm so glad you called. I just wanted to thank you for what you did for Alex. It just makes me sick when I think of what might have happened if you hadn't have shown up when you did, and--"
"I'm just glad I could help. And please, call me James." I had to cut her off. I get embarrassed when they gush like that.
"That's very kind of you, James."
It was obvious the woman had class. I mean, "That's very kind of you?" I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that except for in the movies.
"I was wondering, if you're not too busy, if maybe you could drop by later tonight. Alex has a little something she'd like to give you. It would really mean a lot to her...well, to both of us."
We made a date for six, which meant I'd only have a couple of hours to kill. She gave me directions to the place, and I assured her I'd have no trouble finding it. Oh yeah, she asked me to call her Sabrina. I assumed that was her name.
Grandpa dropped in to keep me company. "Looks like you'd better do some shopping soon, Bumper. Those clothes are getting kinda snug."
"I've been meaning to ask you about that." I started the Jeep and headed for the nearest Wal-Mart. (Hey, I'm unemployed now, remember?) My pants only reached down to about mid-calf, and the shirt was straining at the buttons.
"Sorry, Bumper, when you're dead-dead memory's one of the first things to go--simultaneous timelines and all that."
Apparently coherence was the second thing to go, because I wasn't following him at all.
"You're a spiritual being now, Bumper. The mind controls the flesh, and not the other way around like before. By the looks of you I'd say you have a pretty good self-image."
He was right. I'd never really seen myself as being short. I mean, I knew I was, but mentally I could look anyone in the eye. Apparently my physical self now more closely resembled my mental self.
It took me about forty-five minutes to pick out some new clothes: a couple pairs of black jeans, a few shirts with those military-style collars, a couple of T-shirts, and a sweater--mostly in earth tones and burgundies. I could have finished sooner, but Grandpa kept trying to help. I wasn't about to take fashion advice from a man who wears polyester pants with black and brown suspenders. This is the same guy that used to tell me that the FTL on his Fruit of the Looms stood for Faster Than Light, although why any guy would want to make that claim about anything he kept in his pants was beyond me.
Healthy self-image aside, I seemed to have stopped growing at about a little over five feet ten. It's funny, but when I looked in the mirror I didn't see the difference--but then I guess that's the whole point, isn't it?
I got back to the apartment at about five minutes to six, then decided to head on up. Grandpa had vanished again. As I crossed the street to the apartment building I saw a little flicker of movement in my peripheral vision. When I turned to look, there was no one there. It was getting monotonous.
The doorman gave me this queer look when I told him who I wanted, but he buzzed the apartment and got the go-ahead to send me on up. Something about the guy gave me the creeps. The hair at the nape of my neck actually stood on end until the elevator doors closed and I'd left him safely behind in the lobby.
Sabrina and Alex lived on the eighth floor and had a corner apartment near the back of the building. I found the door I was looking for and knocked. There was a wild shriek, and then a stampede, followed by the clatter of chain locks and deadbolts. The next thing I knew the door flew open wide and Alex was grabbing my hand and dragging me inside and shouting, "Mom, he's here!" at the top of her lungs.
The apartment looked more like a VIP suite at the Ritz, or the Hilton, or one of those other places where I couldn't even afford to stand in the lobby. It was very tastefully furnished. I think it's called "modern"--you know, where they take huge rooms and put hardly any furniture in them, and not because they can't afford to, either. There was a crackling fire blazing in the fireplace, and the far wall had to be at least eighty percent window and looked out over the park. A few tasteful paintings decorously graced the remaining walls, and the odd statuette perched atop stands made for just that purpose. Off to my left I saw a big-screen TV set--at least sixty inches. Finally, something I could relate to.
Alex led me over to the couch in front of the fireplace, where a bunch of her schoolbooks were heaped in disarray. I guess I'd interrupted her homework. No wonder she was so happy to see me.
Mrs. Faye--Sabrina--stepped into the room. While Alex was beautiful, Sabrina was more...well, just more. It was as if someone had taken Alex's youthful splendor--her exquisite cheekbones, her eyes, her lips, her curves--and somehow refined them. Sabrina reminded me of those models in the glamor mags--not that I read those things--where they've gone and airbrushed out all the tiny imperfections, like zits and warts and stuff. She could have been Alex's older sister. Hell, she could have been Alex's younger sister. I stood as she came over to us and tried to keep my mouth shut, mostly so as my tongue wouldn't hang out.
"I'm so glad you made it, James. We really can't thank you enough." She extended her hand, and I took it and shook it lightly, not wanting to contaminate the dainty thing with my ungainly mitt. At least my palms weren't sweaty--just another advantage of being dead, I guess.
"Alex, honey, why don't you go and get Mr. Decker the present you made for him?"
Alex didn't say a word. She just raced from the room on those long, coltish legs of hers. The floors must have been kind of slippery, because by the sound of the thump I'd say she failed to negotiate the turn at the end of the hallway.
Sabrina took a seat on the couch, and I sat down next to her--not too close, mind you. She flashed her perfectly even white teeth in a smile, and said--as if it were something that came up in conversation everyday, "So, James, how long have you been dead?"
"Um, since last night," I told her, only momentarily taken aback. The way things were going for me lately, for all I knew I had the words "Walking Dead" tattooed on my forehead.
"That explains a lot," she went on, more serious now. "Your aura's all over the place. It would have settled down by now if you had died a while back."
I simply nodded as if I knew what she was talking about.
She smiled again. "I'm sorry. I probably shouldn't have startled you like that, but I have to admit you handled it very well."
"I'm getting used to it," I said. "As a matter of fact I can't believe I'm taking this whole "dead" thing so calmly."
Sabrina leaned forward and put her hand on my knee to comfort me, which only made me all the more nervous. "Maybe you've become what you have because you're not the type of person who is easily thrown. I've always though it was the shock of death that forced the spirit from the flesh. Besides, spiritual beings are naturally more at peace with themselves and the universe. Maybe it's because you are dead that you're taking it so calmly."
Well, that made about as much sense as anything else I'd heard so far. It still didn’t explain how she had known I was dead, however.
"Are you dead, too?" I asked her. It would certainly explain why she looked so great. You know, the self-image thing and all.
"Nope, not me," she said, her smile a little more mischievous. "I'm a Sensitive. I have been ever since Alex was born. She's an Innocent, you know."
"So I've been told." The more I learned, the more confused I became. "You wouldn't happen to know where I could find a glossary on this stuff, would you? I seem to be the only one at the play without a program."
Sabrina laughed, but before she could answer Alex bounded around the corner with something clutched in her hands and stopped in front of us.
She seemed nervous, which was understandable, and glanced at her mother for moral support before she spoke. "I made this for you...for helping me the other night, Mr. Decker. I hope you like it." She held a tiny crystal in her hand, set in a silk cradle and suspended from a thin, silk necklace.
"It's beautiful," I told her, and her face lit up as I took it from her and slid the necklace over my head. The crystal settled just above my solar plexus.
"It's a double-terminated clear quartz crystal," Alex said, all businesslike now. I could tell by the way she said it that it was important. "Double-terminated crystals are believed to symbolize the balance of spirit and matter, and we call clear quartz the mirror of the soul, because it reflects and radiates the divine inside us. After all, we're not human beings trying to be spiritual; we are spiritual beings trying to be human."
I looked over to Sabrina. "How old did you say she was?"
Sabrina laughed. "She understands a lot more than probably either of us. Innocents are like that. But she's still just a kid, and she needs to be protected."
"Listen up, Son. This is what you came here for," my dad said, popping in out of nowhere as usual and almost giving me a heart attack in the process.
"You must be James' father," Sabrina said.
"You can see him?" I asked her. Who knows? maybe I wasn't crazy after all.
"They both can, Bumper. She's a Sensitive, and the little one's an Innocent," Dad answered for them, then disappeared again. Both Sabrina and Alex tried valiantly to suppress giggles when Dad called me "Bumper." I vowed I'd get even with him for that later.
"He never stays around long," I told them.
"It's difficult for him," Sabrina explained. "He's been dead a long time. He's probably been reincarnated by now, and what you see is merely a reflection of the essence of your father."
"Now you sound like my grandpa."
"Is he dead too?"
"Yeah," I told her. "Just not as long. They were both cops."
Alex took a seat beside her mother, then looked up at me. "It was their idea that you protect me."
I nodded. I guess it wasn't until that moment that I really decided that I was going to protect her. Up until then I'd just been going with the flow--letting Dad and Grandpa lead me around by the nose, so to speak. At least protecting Alex gave me some sort of purpose or direction, and it seemed more worthwhile than anything I'd done while I was alive. The management job had always seemed rather pointless to me. It paid the bills, but I'd always felt like I was just spinning my wheels and not really accomplishing anything relevant. I wasn't really sure what an Innocent was yet, or even what the hell I was, but somehow the thought of watching out for Alex just felt right. Besides, these people knew what was what, which was more than I could say, and it's not like I had anything else to do.
The intercom buzzed, interrupting my train of thought, feeble as it was. "Sabrina?" It was the doorman. "We really should be heading for the safe house now. The moon will be up in another half-hour."
Sabrina walked over to the wall unit and flipped the call switch. "We'll be right down, Josh," she told him, then turned to me. "This apartment is normally secure. There are warding spells and protections built into the architecture, but even they're not enough during the three or four days surrounding the full moon." She walked to the hall closet and retrieved a couple of bags stowed there--Louis Vuitton if I wasn't mistaken. "Something about the increased gravitational pull weakening the barrier between the realms."
I simply nodded, filing another bit of information away for further reference. I found lately that the less I said, the more intelligent I seemed. I offered to take the bags from Sabrina, but she just smiled and shook her head, and handed the smaller one to Alex. "You should keep your hands free," she explained.
I blushed, feeling rather foolish. "I'm kind of new to this security thing."
"You'll learn," Alex piped in.
It was nice to know they had such confidence in me, misplaced though it might have been. I tried to redeem myself by being first through the door and checking out the hallway before I let them out of the apartment. It seemed like the sensible thing to do, and when I determined it was safe, I motioned for them to follow.
"Nice work, Bumper," Sabrina whispered as she locked the door.
I gritted my teeth and muttered, "There's a name that will inspire fear and respect in the hearts of my enemies."