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Authors: Katie Alender

Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Young Adult, #Fiction - Young Adult

As Dead as It Gets

BOOK: As Dead as It Gets
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For my parents

Text copyright © 2012 by Katie Alender

All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.

ISBN 978-1-4231-3472-5

Visit
www.un-requiredreading.com

Acknowledgments

Thank you to my husband, who inspires, supports, and challenges me.

Thank you to Matthew Elblonk, who gets right to the edge of “I told you so” but doesn’t ever say it, and the rest of the excellent folks at DeFiore and Company.

Thank you to Abby Ranger, Stephanie Lurie, Laura Schreiber, Hallie Patterson, Marci Senders, Ann Dye, Dina Sherman, and all of the wonderful people doing their collective thing at Hyperion, for your constant and much-appreciated support.

Thank you to my whole entire ginormous family; I love you dearly (all nine hundred of you).

Thank you to my friends, who are like a second ginormous family; I love you guys, too (but I’ll mostly only say so behind your backs).

And thank you, thank you, thank you to the people who have made it possible for me to continue to follow and live this dream: readers, bloggers, fellow authors, librarians, teachers, booksellers, fans and followers, and parents who teach their children to love reading.

I literally couldn’t do it without you…and I mean the real kind of literally, not the fake kind.

T
HE BAD NEWS IS
, ghosts are everywhere.

They’re in your kitchen, your garage, your school cafeteria. They sit dumbly through your pool parties and your fights with parents and make-out sessions with your boyfriend. They hover in the background while you watch scary movies with your friends. You scream when the bad guy in the mask jumps out, but all the while, two feet away from you, a horrible spirit is breathing ectoplasm down your neck.

The good news—for you—is that you’ll never know it.

Even if you’re careless enough to tempt them with your stupid games, spinning around in a dark bathroom, chanting the name of a ghost who would just love to show up and rip your head off your body—and I mean literally pop that nice, round cantaloupe head right off your skinny neck—you’ll probably never, in your entire life, so much as see a ghost.

But I do.

I see them all the time.

The first one I ever saw was at a funeral—appropriate, right? Funerals aren’t exactly awesome to begin with. But they get way less fun when the ghost of the dead girl decides to show up and try to knock you into her open grave. This makes everyone at the funeral think you’re crazy, on top of the fact that they all secretly suspect you’re the one who killed her in the first place.

You spend a day or two wondering if you really saw what you think you saw, and you suspect that the people who think you’re crazy might actually be on to something. Then you start noticing things—
weird
things that seem to appear and disappear in your peripheral vision—odd, smudgy shapes. Gradually, you realize the weird things are only in photos and on TV, and one day you wake up and realize the shapes and smudges have form, and they’re not just shapes and smudges—

They’re dead people.

At this point, you pretty much know you’re crazy.

That’s how it happened for me, anyway.

For instance, in a snapshot that used to hang over my desk, among the “say cheese” grinning faces is also an old dead woman with oozing sores on her face. Living in the local TV news studio is a man with a railway spike through his chest. And in most of the photographed step-by-step lab instructions in my science book, there’s a pair of petite twin girls with sunken cheeks and hollow-looking eyes, who always have their arms wrapped around each other’s waists. The ghosts in the images are just like regular people—perfectly still, unmoving, caught in a fraction of a moment of their undead lives.

Have you ever tried to go a day without looking at a photograph or seeing a television? My whole existence has become one extraordinarily un-fun game of spot-thes-pirits. But school portraits, the latest issue of
Cosmo
, the evening news—those don’t mean a thing. Because at the end of the day, the pictures I
really
care about are the ones I take with my own camera.

Since I was twelve years old, photography has been like a part of me—the best part. When everything else in my life was going wrong, I could retreat into my own little universe and see the world as I wanted to see it.

And now I don’t even want to go near my camera. I don’t want to look at my photos.

Because they’re full of dead people.

So here I am. Life spectacularly in ruins, but nowhere to run. No place to hide. From the stares, the whispers, the suspicion…the ghosts…and worst of all…

From my own thoughts.

J
ARED MOVED LIKE A HUNTER
, light on his feet—branches and leaves barely crackled beneath him. And he was always looking, listening, waiting for the right moment to soundlessly lift his camera and shoot.

Watching him work was like a tiny window into my old life.

“So I said, yes, I’d be glad to respect a substitute teacher, providing she had at least a
partial
understanding of the scientific method. And then—” His gaze traveled up over my head. He raised his camera and flashed off a quick sequence of photos as a shadow swept over the trail.

A moment later, he turned the camera to show me the viewfinder. “An owl. What’s it doing out during the day? Something must have disturbed its nest.”

My basic rule is: I don’t look at pictures if I don’t have to. But I figured it was a safe enough bet that there weren’t any ghosts hovering above us in midair, so I took the bait and scrolled through Jared’s images. They were perfect: the owl’s belly was striped in vivid black-and-white lines, and its wings were outstretched, the feathers at their edges spread like fingers.

“I love these,” I said.

I realized I was still holding on to the camera, and therefore still holding on to Jared, who had the strap looped around his neck. He didn’t seem to mind being so close, but I gently handed him the camera and took a step back.

He gave me a quick smile. I turned away.

It was a blindingly bleak day. The sky was thick with clouds, and the weekend’s cold snap had scared off the nature preserve’s usual contingent of casual hikers. We’d been following the trail for an hour and passed only two joggers. It was the second day of winter, and the high that day hovered under forty degrees. I was bundled up three layers deep, but Jared just wore a thin jacket over his usual hipster-chic uniform: jeans and a flannel shirt with polished brown shoes.

“Did you get in trouble?” I asked.

He blinked, not remembering what we’d been talking about. “Oh…I got sent to the headmaster’s office.”

“That sucks.”

“Nah.” He shrugged. “Father Lopez gets it. He just told me to be nice.”

I was only half listening. I was still thinking about the owl—the way its wings cut into the gray winter sky. The way you could see its knobby feet tucked up against its body. Cold, miserable envy consumed me.

You might wonder why a person who’s afraid to even look at a photograph would go out specifically to take them. But my afternoons with Jared weren’t really about pictures. They were about hanging out with someone who knew me—but not
too
well. Who was interested in me—but not
too
interested. He was kind of the only person I could bear to be around. Besides, he was the only non–blood relative who ever asked me to do anything.

Even if I didn’t want to take photos, I still needed the air and the distance from my suffocating home and my suffocating (though well-meaning) family. I always brought my camera, because I was afraid that if I didn’t, Jared would think I was weird and stop inviting me to go with him. So it was basically a prop. My entrance fee. I rarely took pictures, but I got pretty good at faking it—taking just enough to avoid suspicion.

But thinking about the swooping arc of the owl’s flight made me reckless. I raised the camera to my eye, and Jared fell silent and wandered away, as if he knew this was something I needed to do by myself.

First, I aimed my lens at the sky, toward the spindly, bald branches of the trees. I liked how they seemed to grow from the bottom of the frame like blades of grass.

I lowered the shot slightly and took another exposure. Then I let it fall a little lower and took another. I kept checking for the first hint of a ghost, but there was nothing. Relief washed over me, and I fell into a rhythm as natural to me as breathing—
click
, move,
click
, move. Jared was a few feet away, and we were like two dancers onstage—always aware of each other, but focused on our own work first.

Gradually, I forgot to worry about ghosts.

Then, as we rounded a bend in the trail, I scrolled back through the frames and glanced down at the display screen.

There was a person in my photos.

It took my brain a moment to catch up and process the sight of him: a little boy in a faded winter jacket, dark blond hair combed neatly across his forehead. He couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. The knees of his light brown pants were muddy, like he’d fallen. He was looking off the path into the distance.

In the next picture, he stared at the lens through angelically big blue eyes, like a young Carter Blume—who was kind of the last person on the planet I needed to be thinking about at that moment.

In the third photo, he was gone.

“Um…” I said, suddenly feeling totally off balance, like one of my legs had shrunk six inches. I glanced at Jared to see if he’d noticed anything, but he was honing in on the gnarled trunk of an old tree.

I looked around again—and heard the sound of rustling leaves in the distance.

I can’t
hear
the ghosts I see in pictures. I can only see them. So if I’d heard the boy walking—could he have been real? He certainly looked like a real boy. No oozing anything or deathly gray skin. Nothing seemed to be wrong with him—except that he was out in the wilderness all by himself.

“What’s up?” Jared asked.

“I—I think I might have seen someone,” I said. “A little kid.”

Jared’s eyebrows went up. “Out here? Alone?”

“Maybe.” I gazed doubtfully down the path. “Do you think we should look for him?”

“Of course,” he said, capping his lens and letting the camera hang around his neck. “Let’s go.”

I tried not to notice the sensation of his hand pressing gently on my lower back as we walked.

Jared and I had met when we were finalists in a photography competition back in September. Even after a few months of hanging out two or three times a week, we’d never come close to having any kind of romantic episode. The couple of times he’d dropped a hint, I’d replied with a carefully clueless response. And things never went further than that.

Which, honestly, was just the way I liked it. A rebound relationship was out of the question. Just the thought of being close to anyone but Carter made my whole body go numb.

We rounded a corner. Still no sign of the boy. My heart sank at the prospect of yet another crushing paranormal smackdown. If I’d been alone, I would have stopped.

But Jared was hurrying now, urging me along. “It’s too cold for a little kid to be outside.”

We walked so fast that I began to get hot under all of my layers, and my worn old thrift-store satchel-slash-purse banged against my side painfully. Jared kept searching the distance, as if the boy would pop into view at any moment. His unquestioning belief half convinced me that it had been a real live child I’d seen, not some ghostly apparition.

Call me foolish, but I felt like if I wanted it bad enough, he really would appear on the trail ahead of us.

Only he never did.

“Wait.” I slowed down. “I think maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw.”

Jared turned to me, his face flushed pink from exertion. “What does that mean? You
imagined
seeing a little kid?”

I shrugged. “Maybe it was a shadow.”

“But I’m sure I heard something ahead. Didn’t you?” He stood still. “Listen—there it is again.”

And sure enough, I heard snapping twigs.

A surge of hope traveled through my chest. “Okay,” I said.

But as we went around the next curve, we stopped.

Ahead on the path was an opossum. It saw us and scurried noisily away into the brush.

“Oh,” Jared said.

Before he could say more, I lifted my camera and took two pictures. As I looked down at the readout, all the muscles in my body tensed.

There he was. Five feet away, staring up at us.

The little boy.

So he
was
a ghost.

Of course he was.

I veered to the outside edge of the path, well clear of the ghost, then swung around and clicked off a few more exposures. As I looked at them, the breath caught in my throat.

The back of the boy’s head was caved in.

What did you expect?

“Alexis? Are you all right?” Jared stood on the other side of the boy. Then he walked straight forward, right through him.

I stiffened.

Jared pulled his jacket around himself tightly. “I just got cold. Did you feel that breeze?”

That’s what happens when you pass through a ghost. I nodded and hugged myself, even though I was still sweaty after rushing up the trail.

“The sun’s going down, I guess,” he said.

I didn’t want to stick around and talk about the weather. The only thing worse than seeing dead people in photos is
them
seeing
me
and getting in my face. I grabbed Jared’s arm and pulled him along with me, away from the little boy.

After a hundred yards or so, I stopped and stuck my shaking hands into my pockets. “I was wrong,” I whispered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you when you were working.”

“There’s no need to apologize.” Jared’s voice was soft and urgent. “Alexis…I’m worried about you.”

I was embarrassed and miserable and still freaked out by the sight of the boy’s caved-in head. “I don’t know—I’m sorry—”

Jared stood right in front of me, his brown eyes as gentle as a deer’s, and put his hands on my shoulders. “It’s okay. Calm down. It’s okay.”

Without meaning to, I burst into tears.

Ugh.

I never would have done this before, not in a million years—cried like a maniac in a public place, especially in front of someone else. It was as though, along with losing control over my pictures, I’d lost control over myself.

Jared pulled me close, let me rest my head against his shoulder, and stroked my hair with his cold, gloveless hands.

“Cry if you need to,” he said. “It’s all right.”

A second later, I swallowed hard and backed away.

Jared’s fingers remained lightly on my upper back. “Were you thinking about Lydia?”

He knew I’d been there when a girl from my school had died. And he knew that my whole life had changed because of that day. He assumed, as did the rest of the world—including my parents, sister, and guidance counselors—that all of my issues stemmed from the trauma of witnessing Lydia’s death.

And, yeah, okay, I’m sure a lot of them did. But it went so much deeper than that.

You know that saying
Pride comes before a fall
? Well, for me, it wasn’t just pride. It was…happiness. Security. Comfort. Contentment. I’d been so positive I knew what I was doing. How can you be that confident and still be wrong? And then, once you’ve realized how horribly wrong you were…how can you ever be confident again?

The fact is, you can’t. You just spend your whole life waiting for the next piano to fall out of the sky and smash you.

“You lost someone.” There was a gruff intimacy in Jared’s voice. He brushed the hair away from my eyes. “And that hurts. A lot. But it’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”

I sniffled and nodded, then looked up into his endlessly deep eyes. It was as if there were ten layers of Jared behind the one he showed the world. When he gazed at me like this, it was like a few of the layers had been peeled back, revealing some hidden, tender thing.

He seemed to be holding his breath. He tucked my hair behind my ear…and then his fingers continued along my jawline, lightly lifting my chin.

There was a sudden heaviness in the air between us—that moment where things get fuzzy and the universe takes over.

Then we were kissing.

It was unlike any kiss I’d ever experienced. When Carter and I were a couple, it was all about the happy. Kissing was an extension of that, a celebration. A little party between us, amplifying our naive joy, our faith that the world was delighted to give us just what we wanted.

Between Jared and me, I felt a different kind of amplification, an ache inside my chest. It was like a fight for survival—two people coming together because they need to be touching to keep from fading out of existence. It was as if we were trading sad secrets.…

And I
totally
didn’t want it to stop.

Then I realized what I was doing and jerked out of the kiss, holding my hands up like a robbery victim.

“My
God
.” Jared jumped back and stared at me, horrified. “Alexis, I’m
so sorry
. I didn’t mean to—I mean, you were sad, and I—I shouldn’t have.…”

I took a dizzy step away, unable to tear my eyes away from his. Should I tell him not to blame himself? Could I do that without somehow implying that the kiss was a good thing?

All right, yeah, it was
good
—but that didn’t make it a good
thing
.

“I should go,” I managed to say. “We’ve been gone for a long time. My parents will worry.”

He was watching me, still in shock. Then he collected himself. “Of course,” he said, straightening his already-straight jacket. And just like that, the moment was gone.

To my utter surprise, I felt a pang of regret.

I mean, it wasn’t like I hadn’t kissed back.

BOOK: As Dead as It Gets
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