Ross Wakeman succeeded the first time he killed himself, but not
the second or the third.
He fell asleep at the wheel and drove his car off a bridge into a
lake -- that was the second time -- and was found on the shore by
rescuers. When his half-sunken Honda was recovered, the doors were
all locked, and the tempered glass windows were shattered like
spider-webs, but still intact. No one could figure out how he'd
gotten out of the car in the first place, much less survived a
crash without even a scratch.
The third time, Ross was mugged in New York City. The thief took
his wallet and beat him up, and then shot him in the back and left
him for dead. The bullet -- fired close enough to have shattered
his scapula and punctured a lung -- didn't. Instead it miraculously
stopped at the bone, a small nugget of lead that Ross now used as a
The first time was years ago, when Ross had found himself in the
middle of an electrical storm. The lightning, a beautiful blue
charge, had staggered out of the sky and gone straight for his
heart. The doctors told him that he had been legally dead for seven
minutes. They reasoned that the current could not have struck Ross
directly, because 50,000 amperes of current in his chest cavity
would have boiled the moisture in his cells and quite literally
made him explode. Instead, the lightning had hit nearby and created
an induced current in his own body, one still strong enough to
disturb his cardiac rhythm. The doctors said he was one hell of a
They were wrong.
Now, as Ross walked up the pitched wet roof of the O'Donnells'
Oswego home in the dark, he did not even bother with caution. The
wind coming off Lake Ontario was cold even in August, and whipped
his long hair into his eyes as he maneuvered around the gabled
window. The rain bit at the back of his neck as he worked the
clamps onto the flashing and positioned the waterproof video camera
so that it was pointing into the attic.
His boots slipped, dislodging some of the old shingles. On the
ground, beneath an umbrella, O'Donnell squinted up at him. "Be
careful," the man called out. Ross also heard the words he did not
say: We've got enough ghosts.
But nothing would happen to him. He would not trip; he wouldn't
fall. It was why he volunteered for the riskiest tasks; why he put
himself into danger again and again. It was why he'd tried bungee
jumping and rock climbing and crack cocaine. He waved down to Mr.
O'Donnell, indicating that he'd heard. But just as Ross knew that
in eight hours, the sun would come up -- just as he knew that he'd
have to go through the motions for another day -- he also knew he
couldn't die, in spite of the fact that it was what he wanted, more
The baby woke Spencer Pike, and he struggled to a sitting position.
In spite of the nightlights kept in every room at the Shady Pines
Nursing Home -- nearly enough combined wattage, he imagined, to
illuminate all of Burlington, Vermont -- Spencer couldn't see past
the foot of his bed. He couldn't see anything these days, thanks to
the cataracts; although sometimes he'd get up to take a leak, and
in the mirror, as he passed by, he would catch a glimpse of someone
watching him -- someone whose brow was not spotted and yellow;
someone whose skin was not sighing off his bones. But then the
young man Spencer had once been would disappear, leaving him to
stare at the crumbs that were left of his life.
His ears, though, were sharp. Unlike the other sorry old morons in
this place, Spencer had never needed a hearing aid. Hell, he heard
things that he didn't even care to.
On cue, the baby cried again.
Spencer's hand scrabbled over the covers to the call button beside
his bed. A moment later, the night nurse came in. "Mr. Pike," she
said. "What's the matter?"
"The baby's crying."
The nurse fussed behind him, turning pillows and raising the head
of the bed. "There are no babies here, Mr. Pike, you know that. It
was just a dream." She patted the right angle that had once been
his strong shoulder. "Now, you need to go back to sleep. You've got
a busy day tomorrow. A meeting, remember?"
Why, Spencer wondered, did she talk to him as if he were a child?
And why did he react like one -- sinking back beneath her gentle
hands, letting her pull the covers up to his chest? A memory
swelled at the base of Spencer's throat, something that he could
not quite pull to the front of the fog but that brought tears to
his eyes. "Do you need some Naproxen?" the nurse asked
Spencer shook his head. He had been a scientist, after all. And no
laboratory had yet crafted the drug that could ease this
In person, Curtis Warburton was smaller than he seemed to be on
television, but he lacked none of the magnetism that had made
Bogeyman Nights the highest-rated show in its time slot. His
black hair was shot, skunklike, with a white streak -- one he'd
possessed since a night nine years ago, when the ghost of his
grandfather had appeared at the foot of his bed and led him into
the field of paranormal investigation. His wife, Maylene, an elf of
a woman whose psychic abilities were well known to the Los Angeles
police, perched beside him, taking notes as Curtis posed questions
to the owners of the house.
"First was the kitchen," murmured Eve O'Donnell, and her husband
nodded. A retired couple, they'd bought this home on the lake as a
summer retreat, and in their three months of tenancy had
experienced supernatural phenomena at least twice a week. "About
ten in the morning, I locked up all the doors, put on the alarm
system, and went to the post office. When I came home, the alarm
was still on...but inside, the kitchen cabinets were open, and
every cereal box was on the table, spilled on its side. I called
Harlan, thinking he'd come home and left behind a mess."
"I was at the Elks Club the whole time," her husband interjected.
"Never came home. No one did."
"And there's the calliope music we heard coming from the attic at
two in the morning. The minute we went upstairs, it stopped. Open
the door to find a child's toy piano, missing its batteries,
sitting in the middle of the floor."
"We don't own a toy piano," Harlan added. "Much less a
"And when we put in the batteries, it didn't even play that kind of
music." Eve hesitated. "Mr. Warburton, I hope you understand that
we're not the kind of people who...who believe in this sort of
thing. It's just...it's just that if it's not this, then I'm
losing my mind."
"Mrs. O'Donnell, you're not going crazy." Curtis touched her hand
with trademark sympathy. "By tomorrow morning we'll have a better
idea of what's going on in your home." He looked over his shoulder
to make sure Ross was getting this on camera. Depending on what
happened later, the O'Donnells might find themselves featured on
Bogeyman Nights, and if so, this footage was critical. The
Warburtons received over three hundred e-mails a day from people
who believed their houses were haunted. Eighty-five percent of the
claims turned out to be hoaxes or mice in the rafters. The rest --
well, Ross had been working with them long enough to know that
there were some things that simply could not be explained.
"Have you experienced any spectral visions?" Curtis asked.
"Our bedroom will be hot as hell one minute, and then we'll be
shivering the next," Harlan answered.
"Are there any spots in the house in particular where you feel
"The attic, definitely. The upstairs bathroom."
Curtis's eyes swept from the hand-knotted Oriental rug to the
antique vase on the mantel of the fireplace. "I have to warn you
that finding a ghost can be a costly proposition."
As the Warburtons' field researcher, Ross had been sent to
libraries and newspaper archives to locate documents about the
property -- and hopefully the bonus information that a murder or a
suicide might have occurred there. His inquiry had turned up
nothing, but that never stopped Curtis. After all, a ghost could
haunt a person as well as a place. History could hover, like a
faint perfume or a memory stamped on the back of one's
"Whatever it takes," Eve O'Donnell said. "This isn't about
"Of course not." Curtis smiled and slapped his palms on his knees.
"Well, then. We've got some work to do."
That was Ross's cue. During the investigation, he was responsible
for setting up and monitoring the electromagnetic equipment, the
digital video cameras, the infrared thermometer. He worked for
minimum wage, in spite of the money that came in from the TV show
and from cases like this one. Ross had begged the Warburtons for a
job nine months ago after reading about them in the L.A. Times on
Halloween. Unlike Curtis and Maylene, he had never seen a spirit --
but he wanted to, badly. He was hoping that sensitivity to ghosts
might be something you could catch from close contact, like chicken
pox -- and, like chicken pox, might be something that would mark
"I thought I'd check the attic," Ross said.
He stood in the doorway for a moment, waiting for Eve O'Donnell to
lead the way upstairs. "I feel foolish," she confided, although
Ross had not asked. "At my age, seeing Casper."
Ross smiled. "A ghost can shake you up a little, and make you think
you're nuts, but it's not going to hurt you."
"Oh, I don't think she'd hurt me."
Eve hesitated. "Harlan said I shouldn't volunteer any information.
That way if you see what we do, then we'd know." She shivered,
glanced up the narrow stairs. "My little sister died when I was
seven. Sometimes I wonder...can a ghost find you, if she wants
Ross looked away. "I don't know," he said, wishing he could have
offered her more -- a concrete answer, a personal experience. His
eyes lit on the small door at the top of the stairs. "Is that
She nodded, letting him pass in front of her to unlatch it. The
video camera Ross had mounted outside watched them from the window,
a cyclops. Eve hugged herself tightly. "Being here gives me the
Ross moved some boxes, so that no shadows would be caught on tape
that could be explained away. "Curtis says that's how you know
where to find them. You go with what your senses are telling you."
A wink on the floor caught his eye; kneeling, he picked up a
handful of pennies. "Six cents." He smiled. "Ironic."
"She does that sometimes." Eve was edging toward the door, her arms
wrapped around herself. "Leaves us change."
"The ghost?" Ross asked, turning, but Eve had already fled down the
Taking a deep breath, he closed the door to the attic and shut the
light, plunging the small room into blackness. He stepped off to
the side where he would not be in range of the video camera, and
activated it with a remote control. Then he fixed his attention on
the darkness around him, letting it press in at his chest and the
backs of his knees, as Curtis Warburton had taught him. Ross
cracked open his senses until the lip of disbelief thinned, until
the space around him bloomed. Maybe this is it, he thought.
Maybe the coming of ghosts feels like a sob at the back of your
Somewhere off to the left was the sound of a footfall, and the
unmistakable chime of coins striking the floor. Switching on a
flashlight, Ross swung the beam until it illuminated his boot, and
the three new pennies beside it. "Aimee?" he whispered to the empty
air. "Is that you?"
Comtosook, Vermont, was a town marked by boundaries: the dip where
it slipped into Lake Champlain, the cliffs that bordered the
granite quarry where half the residents worked, the invisible
demarcation where the rolling Vermont countryside became, with one
more step, the city of Burlington. On the Congregational church in
the center of town hung a plaque from Vermont Life magazine,
dated 1994, the year that Comtosook was lauded as the most
picture-perfect hamlet in the state. And it was -- there were days
Eli Rochert looked at the leaves turning, rubies and amber and
emeralds, and he simply had to stop for a moment and catch his
But whatever Comtosook was to tourists, it was Eli's home. It had
been, forever. He imagined it always would be. Of course, as one of
the two full-time police officers in the town, he understood that
what the tourists saw was an illusion. Eli had learned long ago
that you can stare right at something and not see what lies beneath
He drove along Cemetery Road, his usual patrol haunt on nights such
as this, when the moon was as beaded and yellow as a hawk's eye.
Although the windows were rolled down, there wasn't much of a
breeze; and Eli's short black hair was damp at the nape of his
neck. Even Watson, his bloodhound, was panting in the seat beside
Old headstones listed like tired foot soldiers. In the left corner
of the cemetery, near the beech tree, was Comtosook's oddest
gravestone. winnie sparks, it read. born 1835. died 1901. died
1911. Legend had it that the irritable old woman's funeral
procession had been en route to the cemetery when the horses reared
and her coffin fell out of the wagon. As it popped open, Winnie sat
up and climbed out, spitting mad. Ten years later when she died --
again -- her long-suffering husband hammered 150 nails to seal the
lid of the coffin, just as a precaution.
Whether it was true or not didn't much matter to Eli. But the local
teens seemed to think that Winnie's inability to stay dead was good
enough reason to bring six-packs and pot to the cemetery. Eli
unfolded his long body from the truck. "You coming?" he said to the
dog, which flopped down on the seat in response. Shaking his head,
Eli slipped through the cemetery until he reached Winnie's grave,
where four kids too wasted to hear his footsteps were huddled
around the blue-fingered flame of a Sterno burner.
"Boo," Eli said flatly.
"It's the cops!"
"Damn!" There was a scuffle of sneakers, the ping of bottles
clinking together as the teens scrambled to get away. Eli could
have had them at any moment, of course; he chose to let them off
this time. He turned the beam of his flashlight onto the last of
the retreating figures, then swung it down toward the mess. They
left behind a faint cloud of sweet smoke and two perfectly good
unopened bottles of Rolling Rock that Eli could make use of when he
went off duty.
Bending down, he pulled a dandelion from the base of Winnie's
headstone. As if the motion had dislodged it, a word rolled into
his mind: chibaiak...ghosts. His grandmother's language,
which burned on Eli's tongue like a peppermint. "No such thing," he
said aloud, and walked back to the car to see what else this night
might hold in store.
Shelby Wakeman had awakened exhausted after a full day's sleep.
She'd been having that dream again, the one where Ethan was
standing beside her in an airport, and then she turned around to
find that he'd disappeared. Frantic, she'd run from terminal to
terminal looking for him, until at last she flew out a door onto
the tarmac and found her nine-year-old standing in the path of an
It terrified her, no matter how often Shelby told herself that this
would never happen -- she'd never be in an airport with Ethan in
the middle of the day, much less lose sight of him. But what
frightened her most was that image of her son standing with his
arms outstretched, his buttermilk face lifted up to the sun.
"Earth to Mom...hello?"
"Sorry." Shelby smiled. "Just daydreaming."
Ethan finished rinsing his plate and setting it into the
dishwasher. "Do you think it's still daydreaming if you do it at
night?" Before she could answer, he grabbed his skateboard, as much
an appendage as any of his limbs. "Meet you out there?"
She nodded, and watched Ethan explode into the front yard. No
matter how many times she told him to be quiet -- at 4 a.m., most
people were asleep, not racing around on skateboards -- Ethan
usually forgot, and Shelby usually didn't have the heart to remind
Ethan had XP, xeroderma pigmentosum, an incredibly rare inherited
disease that left him extremely sensitive to the sun's ultraviolet
rays. In the world, there were only a thousand known cases of XP.
If you had it, you had it from birth, and you had it forever.
Shelby had first noticed something was wrong when Ethan was six
weeks old, but it took a year of testing before he was diagnosed
with XP. Ultraviolet light, the doctors explained, causes damage to
human DNA. Most people can automatically repair that damage...but
XP patients can't. Eventually the damage affects cell division,
which leads to cancer. Ethan, they said, might live to reach
But Shelby figured if sunlight was going to kill her son, all she
needed to do was to make it infinitely dark. She stayed in days.
She read Ethan bedtime books by candlelight. She covered the
windows of her house with towels and curtains that her husband
would rip down every night when he came home from work. "No one,"
he'd said, "is allergic to the goddamned sun."
By the time they were divorced, Shelby had learned about light. She
knew that there was more to fear than just the outdoors. Grocery
stores and doctors' offices had fluorescent fixtures, which were
ultraviolet. Sunblock became as common as hand cream, applied
inside the house as well as out. Ethan had twenty-two hats, and he
donned them with the same casual routine that other children put on
Tonight he was wearing one that said i'm with stupid. The brim was
curled tight as a snail, a shape Ethan cultivated by hooking the
lip of the hat beneath the adjustable band in the back. When Shelby
saw the caps being stored that way, she thought of swans tucking
their heads beneath a wing; of the tiny bound feet of the
She finished cleaning up the kitchen and then settled herself with
a book on the edge of the driveway. Her long, dark hair was braided
into submission, thick as a fist, and she was still hot -- how on
earth could Ethan race around like that? He ran his skateboard up a
homemade wooden ramp and did an Ollie kickflip. "Mom! Mom? Did you
see that? It was just like Tony Hawk."
"I know it," Shelby agreed.
"So don't you think that it would be totally sweet if we -- "
"We are not going to build a half-pipe in the driveway,
"But -- "
"Jeez. Whatever." And he was gone again in a rumble of
Inside, Shelby smiled. She loved the attitude that seemed to be
creeping into Ethan's personality, like a puppeteer throwing words
into his mouth. She loved the way he turned on Late Night with
Conan O'Brien when he thought she was somewhere else in the
house, to try to catch all the innuendoes. It made him...well, so
normal. If not for the fact that the moon was riding shotgun
overhead, and that Ethan's face was so pale the veins beneath his
skin glowed like roads she knew by heart -- if not for these small
things, Shelby could almost believe her world was just like any
other single mother's.
Ethan executed a shifty pivot, and then a Casper big spin. There
was a time, Shelby realized, when she couldn't have distinguished a
helipop from a G-turn. There was also a time Shelby would have
looked at Ethan and herself and felt pity. But Shelby could hardly
remember what her existence had been like before this illness was
flung over them like a fishing net; and truth be told, any life
she'd lived before Ethan could not have been much of a life at
He skidded to a stop in front of her. "I'm starving."
"You just ate!"
Ethan blinked at her, as if that were any kind of excuse. Shelby
sighed. "You can go in and have a snack if you want, but it's
looking pink already."
Ethan turned toward the sunrise, a claw hooked over the horizon.
"Let me watch from out here," he begged. "Just once."
"Ethan -- "
"I know." His voice dipped down at the edges. "Three more
"Two." Without waiting for agreement -- she would concede, and they
both knew it -- Ethan sped off again. Shelby cracked open her
novel, the words registering like cars on a freight train -- a
stream without any individual characteristics. She had just turned
the page when she realized Ethan's skateboard was no longer
He held it balanced against his leg, the graphic of the superhero
Wolverine spotted white. "Mom?" he asked. "Is it
It did, quite often, in Vermont. But not in August. A white swirl
tipped toward her book and caught in the wedge of the spine; but it
was not a snowflake after all. She lifted the petal to her nose,
and sniffed. Roses.
Shelby had heard of strange weather patterns that caused frogs to
evaporate and rain down over the seas; she'd once seen a hailstorm
of locusts. But this...?
The petals continued to fall, catching in her hair and Ethan's.
"Weird," he breathed, and he sat down beside Shelby to witness a
freak of nature.
"Pennies." Curtis Warburton turned over the coin Ross had handed
him. "Anything else?"
Ross shook his head. It had been three hours, and even with a
raging storm outside providing a well of energy, the paranormal
activity had been minimal at best. "I thought I saw a globule on
the screen at one point, but it turned out to be a smoke alarm hung
in the back of the attic."
"Well, I haven't felt a damn thing," Curtis sighed. "We should have
taken the case in Buffalo instead."
Ross snapped some used film back into its canister and tucked it
into his pocket. "The wife, Eve? She mentioned a little sister who
died when she was seven."
Curtis looked at him. "Interesting."
The two men walked downstairs. Maylene sat on the living room couch
in the dark with an infrared thermometer "You get anything?" Curtis
"No. This house is about as active as a quadriplegic."
"How is it going?" Eve O'Donnell interrupted. She stood at the
doorway of the living room, her hand clutching the collar of her
"I think it's safe to say that you're not alone in this house. In
fact," Curtis held out the penny Ross had given him, "I just found
"Yes...sometimes there are coins lying around. I told Ross
Ross turned, frowning. But before he could ask Curtis why he was
playing dumb, his boss started speaking again. "Ghosts can be
mischievous that way. Especially the ghost of a child, for
Ross felt the charge of the air as Eve O'Donnell lay her trust at
Curtis's feet. "I have to tell you," Curtis said. "I'm getting some
very strong sensations here. There's a presence, but it's someone
you know, someone who knows you." Curtis tipped his head to one
side and furrowed his brow. "It's a girl...I'm getting the sense
it's a girl, and I'm feeling a number...seven. Did you by
any chance have a younger sister who passed?"
Ross found himself rooted to the floor. He had been trained to
consider the fact that 85 percent of the cases they investigated
were hoaxes perpetrated by people who either wanted to waste their
time, or get on national TV, or prove that paranormal investigation
was anything but a science. He couldn't count how many times they'd
found a speaker hidden in the moaning wall; fishing line wrapped
around a quaking chandelier. But he'd never considered that the
Warburtons might be putting on a show, too.
"It would be an additional charge, of course," Curtis was saying,
"but I wouldn't rule out holding a séance."
Ross's head throbbed. "Curtis, could I speak to you
They put on their coats and went out, standing under the overhang
of the garage as the rain poured down. "This better be good,"
Curtis said. "You interrupted me as I was hooking her."
"You don't think there's a ghost here. The only reason you know
about her sister is because I told you."
Curtis lit a cigarette; the tip glowed like a slitted eye.
"So...you can't lie to that woman just to make a few bucks and get
her reaction on camera."
"All I'm doing is telling the O'Donnells what they want to hear.
These people believe there's a ghost in this house. They want to
believe there's a ghost in this house. Even if we're not getting
much activity tonight, that doesn't mean a spirit isn't laying low
with visitors around."
"This isn't just a ghost," Ross said, his voice shaking. "This was
someone to her."
"I didn't peg you for such a purist. I figured after all these
months, you'd know the routine."
Ross did not consider himself to be particularly gullible. He'd
seen and done enough in his life to always be on the lookout for
what was real, because he so often felt like he wasn't. "I know the
routine. I just didn't know it was all fake."
Curtis whipped the cigarette to the ground. "I'm not a fake. The
ghost of my grandfather appeared to me, Ross. I took a goddamned
photo of him standing at the foot of my bed. You draw your
own conclusions. Hell, remember that shot you got of a face rising
out of the lake? You think I set that up? I wasn't even in the same
state you were in at the time." Curtis took a deep breath, calming
himself. "Look, I'm not taking the O'Donnells for a ride. I'm a
businessman, Ross, and I know my clients."
Ross couldn't answer. For all he knew, Curtis had managed to slip
the penny he'd found beneath the tripod, too. For all he knew, the
past nine months of his life had been wasted. He was no better than
the O'Donnells -- he'd seen only what he wanted to believe.
Maybe she was psychic, because at that moment Maylene
stepped outside. "Curtis? What's going on?"
"It's Ross. He's trying to decide what road to take home -- I-81,
or the Moral High Ground."
Ross stepped into the driving rain and started walking. Let them
think what they wanted; they'd certainly encouraged Ross to do the
same. He didn't bother to return for his digital camera or his
knapsack; these were things he could replace, unlike his composure,
which he was fast in danger of losing. In his car he turned the
heater on full blast, trying to get rid of the chill that wouldn't
let go. He drove a mile before he realized that his headlights
weren't on. Then he pulled off to the side of the road and took
great, gulping breaths, trying to start his heart again.
Ross knew how to scientifically record paranormal phenomena and how
to interpret the results. He had filmed lights zipping over
graveyards; he had taped voices in empty basements; he had felt
cold in spots where there could be no draft. For nine months, Ross
had thought he'd found an entrance to the world where Aimee
was...and it turned out to be a painted door drawn on a wall.
Damn it, he was running out of ideas.
Az Thompson awoke with his mouth full of stones, small and smooth
as olive pits. He spat fifteen into the corrugated leather of his
palm before he trusted himself to breathe without choking. He swung
his legs over the side of the army cot. He tried to shake the
certainty that if buried in the packed earth beneath his bare feet,
these rocks would grow into some cancerous black thicket, like the
ones covering the castle in that White Man's fairy tale about a
girl who couldn't wake up without being kissed.
He didn't mind camping out; for as long as he could remember he'd
had one foot in nature and one foot in the yanqui world. Az
stuck his head out the flap of the tent, where some of the others
had already gathered for breakfast. Their signs -- placards to be
worn around the neck, and picket posters tacked onto wood -- lay in
a heap like ventriloquist's dummies, harmless without some spirit
behind them. "Haw," he grunted, and walked toward the small
campfire, knowing that a space would be made for him.
The others treated him the way they would if Abe Lincoln got up and
walked out of that tent -- with humility, and no small amount of
awe, to find him alive after all this time. Az wasn't as old as
Abe, but he wasn't off by much. He was 102 or 103 -- he'd stopped
counting a while ago. Because he knew the dying language of his
people, he was respected as a teacher. Still, his age alone made
him a tribal elder, which would have been something, had the
Abenaki been a federally recognized tribe.
Az heard the creak of every joint in his spine as he settled
himself on a folding chair. He grabbed a pair of binoculars from
beside the fire pit and peered at the land, a parcel located at the
northwesterly intersection of Montgomery Road and Otter Creek Pass.
At its crest sat the big white house, now an eyesore. It would be
the first thing to go, Az knew, just like he knew everything about
this property, from the surveyor's measurements to the recorded
number of the deed plan. He knew the spots where the ground froze
first in the winter and the section where no vegetation ever
managed to grow. He knew which window in the abandoned house had
been broken by kids running wild; which side of the porch had
fallen first; which floorboards on the stairs were rotted
He also knew the license plate numbers of every vehicle the Redhook
Group had parked on the perimeter. Rumor had it that Newton Redhook
wanted to build himself Comtosook's first strip mall. On one of
their burial sites.
"I'm telling you," said Fat Charlie, "it's El Niño."
Winks shook his head. "It's screwed up, is what it is. Ain't normal
to rain roses. That's like a clock running backward, or well water
turning to blood."
Fat Charlie laughed. "Winks, you gotta switch back to Letterman.
Those horror flicks are getting to you, man."
Az looked around, noticing the light dusting of flower petals all
over the ground. He rolled his tongue across the cavern of his
mouth, tasting those stones again. "What do you think, Az?" Winks
What he thought was that trying to explain rose petals falling from
the sky was not only useless, but also futile, since the things
that were going to happen had already been set into motion. What he
thought was that rose petals were going to be the least of their
problems. Az focused the binoculars on a bulldozer chugging slowly
up the road. "I think you can't dig in the ground," he said aloud,
"without unearthing something."
This was how Ross had met Aimee: On the corner of Broadway and
112th, in the shadow of Columbia University, he had literally run
into her, knocking all of her books into a murky brown puddle. She
was a medical student studying for her anatomy final, and she
nearly started hyperventilating at the sight of all her hard work
being ruined. Sitting in the middle of the street in New York, she
was also the most beautiful woman Ross had ever seen. "I'll help
you," Ross promised, although he didn't know a fibula from a
phalanx. "Just give me a second chance."
This was how Ross proposed to Aimee: A year later he paid a cab
driver to take them past Broadway and 112th en route to dinner at a
restaurant. As instructed, the man pulled to the curb, and Ross
opened the door and got down on one knee on the filthy pavement. He
popped open the small ring box and stared into her electric eyes.
"Marry me," he said, and then he lost his balance and the diamond
fell down a sewer grate.
Aimee's mouth fell open. "Tell me," she managed finally, "that
didn't just happen."
Ross looked down the black grate, and at the empty box. He tossed
it into the sewer, too. Then he pulled another ring, the real ring,
from his pocket. "Give me a second chance," he said.
Now, in a deserted parking lot, he tipped the bottle up to drink.
Sometimes Ross wanted to scratch himself out of his skin, to see
what was on the other side. He wanted to jump off bridges into seas
of concrete. He wanted to scream until his throat bled; to run
until his soles split open. At times like this, when failure was a
tidal wave, his life became a finite line -- the end of which,
through some cosmic joke, he could not seem to reach.
Ross contemplated suicide the way some people made out shopping
lists -- methodically, with great attention given to detail. There
were days when he was fine. And then there were other days when he
took census counts of people who seemed happy, and those who seemed
in pain. There were days when it made perfect sense to drink
boiling water, or suffocate in the refrigerator, or walk naked into
the snow until he simply lay down to sleep.
Ross had read of suicides, fascinated by the creativity -- women
who looped their long hair around their own necks to form a rope,
men who mainlined mayonnaise, teenagers who swallowed firecrackers.
But every time he came close to testing a beam for the weight it
would hold, or drew a bead of blood with an X-Acto knife, he would
think of the mess he'd leave behind.
He didn't know what death held in store for him. But he knew that
it wouldn't be life, and that was good enough. He had not felt
anything since the day Aimee had died. The day when, like an idiot,
he had chosen to play the hero, first dragging his fiancée
from the wreckage and then going back to rescue the driver of the
other car moments before it burst into flames. By the time he'd
returned to Aimee, she was already gone. She'd died, alone, while
he was off being Superman.
Some hero he had turned out to be, saving the wrong person.
He threw the empty bottle onto the floor of his Jeep and put the
car into gear, tearing out of the parking lot like a teenager.
There were no cops around -- there never were, when you needed them
-- and Ross accelerated, until he was doing more than eighty down
the single-lane divided highway.
He came to a stop at the railroad bridge, where the warning gate
flashed as its arms lowered, slow as a ballerina. He emptied his
mind of everything except inching his car forward until it broke
the gate, until the Jeep sat as firm on the tracks as a
The train pounded. The tracks began to sing a steel symphony. Ross
gave himself up to dying, catching a single word between his teeth
before impact: Finally.
The sound was awesome, deafening. And yet it moved past him,
growing Doppler-distant, until Ross raised the courage to open his
His car was smoking from the hood, but still running. It hobbled
unevenly, as if one tire was low on air. And it was pointed in the
opposite direction, heading back from where he'd come.
There was nothing for it: with tears in his eyes, Ross started to
Rod van Vleet wasn't going home without a signed contract. In the
first place, Newton Redhook had left him responsible for securing
the nineteen acres that comprised the Pike property. In the second
place, it had taken over six hours to get to this nursing home in
Nowhere, Vermont, and Rod had no plans to return here in the
"Mr. Pike," he said, smiling at the old man, who was plug-ugly
enough to give Rod nightmares for a week. Hell, if Rod himself
looked like that by age ninety-five, he was all for someone giving
him a morphine nightcap and a bed six feet under. Spencer Pike's
bald head was as spotted as a cantaloupe; his hands were twisted
into knots; his body seemed to have taken up permanent position as
a human comma. "As you can see here, the Redhook Group is prepared
to put into escrow today a check made out to you for fifty thousand
dollars, as a token of good faith pending the title search."
The old man narrowed a milky eye. "What the hell do I care about
"Well. Maybe you could take a vacation. You and a nurse." Rod
smiled at the woman standing behind Pike, her arms crossed.
"Can't travel. Doctor's orders. Liver could just...give out."
Rod smiled uncomfortably, thinking that an alcoholic who'd survived
nearly a hundred years should just get on a plane to Fiji and the
hell with the consequences. "Well."
"You already said that. You senile?"
"No, sir." Rod cleared his throat. "I understand this land was in
your wife's family for several generations?"
"It's our belief, Mr. Pike, that the Redhook Group can contribute
to the growth of Comtosook by developing your acreage in a way that
boosts the town economy."
"You want to build stores there."
"Yes, sir, we do."
"You gonna build a bagel shop?"
Rod blinked, nonplussed. "I don't believe Mr. Redhook knows
"Build it. I like bagels."
Rod pushed the check across the table again, this time with the
contract. "I won't be able to build anything, Mr. Pike, until I get
your signature here."
Pike stared at him for a long moment, then reached out for a pen.
Rod let out the breath he'd been holding. "The title is in your
wife's name? Cecelia Pike?"
"It was Cissy's."
"And this...claim the Abenaki are championing...is there any
validity to that?"
Pike's knuckles went white from the pressure. "There's no
burial ground on that property." He glanced up at Rod. "I don't
"I'm getting that sense, sir."
"The only reason I'm going to sign this is because I'd rather give
that land up than watch it go to the State."
Rod rolled up the signed contract and rapped it against the table.
"Well!" he said again, and Pike raised one eyebrow. "We'll be doing
our due diligence, and hopefully we'll finish this deal as soon as
"Before I die, you mean," Pike said dryly as Rod shrugged into his
coat. "You don't want to stay for Charades? Or lunch...I hear we're
having orange Jell-O." He laughed, the sound like a saw at Rod's
back. "Mr. van Vleet...what will you do with the house?"
Rod knew this was a touchy subject; it always was for the Redhook
Group, which usually razed whatever existing properties existed on
the land before building their own modern commercial facilities.
"It's actually not in the best shape," Rod said carefully. "We may
have to...make some adjustments. More room, you know, for your
"Bagels." Pike frowned. "So you're going to tear it down."
"Better that way," the old man said. "Too many ghosts."
The only gas station in Comtosook was attached to the general
store. Two pumps from the 1950s sat in the parking lot, and it took
Rod a good five minutes to realize there simply was no credit card
slot. He stuck the nozzle of the pump into his gas tank and pulled
out his cell phone, hitting a preprogrammed number. "Angel Quarry,"
answered a female voice.
Rod held the phone away from his ear and cut off the call. He must
have dialed wrong; he had been trying to reach the home office to
let Newton Redhook know the first hurdle had been cleared.
Frowning, he punched the buttons on the keypad again.
"Angel Quarry. May I help you?"
Rod shook his head. "I'm trying to reach 617-569 -- "
"Well, you got the wrong number." Click.
Flummoxed, he stuffed the phone in his pocket and squeezed another
gallon into his tank. Reaching for his wallet, he started toward
the store to pay.
A middle-aged man with carrot-red hair stood on the porch, sweeping
what seemed to be rose petals from the floorboards. Rod glanced up
at the sign on the building -- abe's gas & grocery -- and then
back at the shopkeeper. "You must be Abe?"
"You guessed that right."
"Is there a pay phone around here?"
Abe pointed to the corner of the porch, where a phone booth tilted
against the railing, right beside an old drunk who seemed
disinclined to move aside. Rod dialed his calling card number,
feeling the shopkeeper's eyes on him the whole time. "Angel
Quarry," he heard, a moment later.
He slammed down the receiver and stared at it. Abe swept once,
twice, three times, clearing a path between Rod and himself.
"Problem?" he asked.
"Must be something screwed up in the phone lines." Rod dug a twenty
out of his wallet for the gas.
"Must be. Or maybe what those Indians are saying's true -- that if
they don't get their land back, the whole town'll be cursed."
Rod rolled his eyes. He was halfway back to the car by the time he
recalled Spencer Pike's comment about ghosts. He turned around to
ask Abe about that, but the man was gone. His broom rested against
the splintered porch rail; with each breeze, the neat pile of
flower petals scattered like wishes.
Suddenly a car pulled up on the opposite side of the gas pumps. A
man with shoulder-length brown hair and unsettling sea green eyes
stepped out and stretched until his back popped. "Excuse me," he
asked, "do you know the way to Shelby Wakeman's house?"
Rod shook his head. "I'm not from around here."
He didn't know what made him look in the rearview mirror after he
got into the car. The man was still standing there, as if he did
not understand what should happen next. Suddenly Rod's cell phone
began to ring. He dug in his breast pocket, flipped it open. "Van
"Angel Quarry," said the woman at the other end, as if he'd been
the one to call; as if that made any sense at all.
"Yeah, I'm coming," Shelby muttered, as the raps on her front door
grew louder. It was only 11 a.m. If this moron woke Ethan...She
knotted her hair into a ponytail holder, tugged her pajamas to
rights, and squinted against the sun as she opened the door. For a
moment, backlit by the daylight, she didn't recognize him.
It had been two years since she'd seen Ross. They still looked
alike -- the same rangy build, the same intense pale gaze that
people found it hard to break away from. But Ross had lost weight
and let his hair grow long. And oh, the circles under his eyes --
they were even darker than her own.
"I woke you up," he apologized. "I could..."
"Come here," Shelby finished, and she folded her baby brother into
"Go back to sleep," Ross urged, after Shelby had spent the better
part of an hour fussing over him. "Ethan's going to need
"Ethan's going to need you," Shelby corrected. "Once he
finds out you're here, you might as well forget about getting any
rest." She set a stack of towels on the end of the guest room bed
and hugged him. "It goes without saying that you stay as long as
you like." He buried his face in the curve of her shoulder and
closed his eyes. Shelby smelled like his childhood.
Suddenly she drew back. "Oh, Ross," she murmured, and slipped her
hand beneath the collar of his shirt, pulling out the long chain
that he kept hidden underneath. At the end hung a diamond
solitaire, a falling star. Shelby's fist closed around it.
Ross jerked away, and the chain snapped. He grabbed Shelby's wrist
and shook until she let go of the ring, until it was safe in his
hand. "Don't," he warned, setting his jaw.
"It's been -- "
"Don't you think I know how long it's been? Don't you think I know
exactly?" Ross turned away. Why was it no one spoke of how
kindness can cut just as clean as a knife?
When Shelby touched his arm, Ross didn't respond. She didn't force
the issue. Just that one small contact, and then she backed her way
out of the room.
Shelby was right -- he ought to sleep -- but he also knew that
wouldn't happen. Ross had grown used to insomnia; for years it had
crawled under the covers with him, pressed the length of his body
with just enough restless indecision to keep him watching the
digital display of a clock until the numbers justified getting out
He lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. He held the ring
so tightly in his hand that he could feel the prongs of the setting
cutting into his skin. He would have to get something -- string, a
leather cord -- so that he could wear it again. Wide awake, he
focused his attention on the clock. He watched the numbers bleed
into each other: 12:04; 12:05; 12:06. He counted the roses on the
comforter cover. He tried to remember the words to "Waltzing
When he startled awake at 5:58, Ross could not believe it. He
blinked, feeling better than he had in months. He swung his feet
over the side of the bed and stood up, wondering if Shelby might
have a spare toothbrush.
It was the absence of the slight weight against his chest that
reminded him of the ring. Ross opened his fist and panicked. The
diamond he'd fallen asleep clutching was nowhere in sight -- not
under the covers, not on the carpet, not even behind the bed, which
Ross moved with frantic haste. I've lost her, Ross thought,
staring blankly at what he'd awakened holding instead: a 1932 penny
-- smooth as a secret; still warm from the heat of his
Excerpted from SECOND GLANCE © Copyright 2003 by Jodi
Picoult. Reprinted with permission by Washington Square Press, an
impring of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.