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Queen of the Dead

To Mom and Dad,

thanks for endless readings of Go, Dog. Go! and Little House on the Prairie, all the trips to the library and bookstore, and not freaking out when all I wanted to read were stories about ghosts, witches, haunted houses, and other scary things. And special thanks for all the phone calls and Gmail chats this year. Love you guys!

1

Will

On television, ghost-talkers run antique stores, solve crimes, or stand on a stage in a nice suit giving the teary-eyed audience a toothy, yet sympathetic grin.

I, however, was entering my second hour of hiding in a prickly tangle of brush with an increasingly cranky spirit guide, all for a ghost who might not even show up.

The Gibley Mansion in Decatur’s historic district had been falling apart for years. But it was officially scheduled tobe torn down tomorrow morning, which meant tonight was Mrs. Ruiz’s last chance to make peace with the place where she’d served as a housekeeper for most of her life. So, we werewaiting (and waiting and waiting) for her on the east side of the house, in the former rose garden, where she’d keeled over twenty some years ago while digging a hole for a new bush.

Unfortunately, ghosts don’t always do what you expect.

“Can we go now?” Alona nudged me, sounding annoyed. “I have to pee.”

Case in point.

I just looked at her. Since she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in well over a month, I seriously doubted that was a genuine concern. Besides which, I hadn’t ever heard of any ghosts visiting a bathroom unless, of course, they’d died there. (No, I’ve never met Elvis, but it’s an educated guess.)

Alona tried again. “I’m cold?”

That was at least possible, especially given what she was wearing. Alona Dare, former Homecoming Queen, varsity cheerleading cocaptain, fashionista and mean girl supreme of Groundsboro High, had died in her gym clothes — short red shorts and a cheap white shirt. If you don’t believe in karma, that alone should give you cause for reconsideration.

But given that it was an early Monday evening on what had been a blazing hot June day and I could still feel the heat rising from the ground beneath us, she was probably more comfortable than I was in jeans and the long sleeve T-shirt I’d worn to protect myself from rampant thorns.

“Fine.” She dragged out the word on an impatient sigh. “I’m dead and I’m bored. How much longer do we have to wait?”

“She’ll be here,” I whispered. “Soon.” I tried to sound more certain of this than I actually was.

“Why are you whispering?” she asked with a frown.

“Because unlike you, I can still be arrested,” I pointed out.

Apparently fearing that the mansion might be a target for last-minute vandalism or pranks, the city had boarded up all the windows, hung about nine hundred NO TRESPASSING signs, placed caution tape around the entire perimeter, and hired security guards to make regular patrols. We’d slipped onto the property when the guards changed shifts.

Alona waved my words away. “Dopey couldn’t catch his own ass if it was on the seat next to him.”

She might be right about that. In fact, I was kind of banking on it. Dopey, as Alona had dubbed the security guard on duty, was currently dozing behind the wheel of his rent-a-cop car, which was parked in the driveway about twenty yards away. Loud snores emerged from the open car windows. I just hoped he would keep on snoring until after our business with Mrs. Ruiz was done, assuming she even showed up. Sometimes ghosts, when faced with final resolution of their earthly issues, panicked.

“Did you, by any chance, think to find out what time she died?” Alona asked with just enough sarcasm to suggest she already knew the answer.

“No.” Which I could see now had been an oversight. But Mrs. Ruiz had caught me off guard by approaching me at the grocery store. It had been challenging enough to find out what she wanted without freaking out the entire produce aisle, including my mom.

“I would have,” she muttered.

“You were unavailable for consultation,” I said through gritted teeth.

For somebody who was dead, Alona had an active social life. She was forever dropping in to spy on living family and friends, despite my warnings against that, and attempting to socialize with other ghosts.

The latter, I suspected, had not been going so well. Most ghosts moved on to the light too quickly to concern themselves with making friends while in this in-between place, what I called Middleground. The ones who remained tended to be a little too obsessed with whatever was keeping them here — an injustice, unrequited love, finding their murderer, etc. — to be good company for very long. Trust me, I know — from years of overhearing them.

But I also thought it might be because Alona did not really make friends easily. In life, she’d collected followers. There was a big difference between the two, as she’d found out after she’d died a couple of months ago and had to hear all her former “friends” talking about her.

There were a few ghosts who hung around her — like the sorority girl from Milliken who’d drowned in a hazing accident and now walked around with lake weed threaded through her hair and left wet footprints everywhere. Sometimes I wondered if they thought being friends with Alona would earn them a higher place on the running list of spirits we were trying to help attain closure. Sometimes I think Alona wondered about that, too.

But she kept trying, which I had to give her credit for, even though that meant she was gone sometimes when Ineeded her, like at the grocery store with Mrs. Ruiz. If Ididn’t know better, I would have suspected she staged herabsences deliberately to remind me how much I was dependent on her help to keep the ghosts at bay.

Alona had gotten bounced from the big white light about a month ago, and helping other ghosts who were stuck in-between earned her the karma points, for lack of a better term, to allow her to regain entry someday. At least that was the theory. I got the impression that Alona’s sources in the white light hadn’t been all that specific. She refused to talk much — at all, really — about her time there. As she told me once, it wasn’t like she’d been greeted at the gates by some big guy in white robes and Jesus-type sandals. It was more a feeling than anything else.

Alona shifted impatiently. “Why do we need Mrs. Ruiz anyway? Can’t we just go in and get the thing, whatever it is, and bring it to her?”

I shook my head. “She didn’t say what or where it was.” Mrs. Ruiz’s ability to make peace with her past was evidently tied to some object that was still hidden inside the house. “So, unless you want to search under every floorboard and in all the walls—”

She sighed. “Okay, okay.”

But she wasn’t done yet. I could sense the wheels turning in her mind. Even though we’d gone to school together for years, I’d only known Alona — as in actually having spoken to her — since she’d died. But that was long enough to know she didn’t give up that easily.

She stood abruptly.

“What are you doing?” I hissed.

She looked down at me, unconcerned. “What? If we’re staying, I need to stretch. We’ve been sitting here for hours. And Dopey couldn’t see me even if his eyes were open, which”—she glanced in the direction of the security guard’s car—“they’re not.”

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