I was on my way home when I saw one of Mrs. Yannon's cats crossing the street.
She was a mottled tortoise shell who was medium in skinniness but had extra longness to her that made her seem underfed. She trotted across the street (managing to avoid several cars while she did), underneath Mr. Corbet's parked van, and onto the sidewalk right in front of me. Once there she sat. Not just regular sitting, but the kind of deliberate sitting that I've only ever seen cats do.
"Hi, Thirty-Six," I said.
Thirty-Six blinked at me and yawned.
"Does Mrs. Yannon want me to count cats again for her?"
Thirty-Six started licking herself in a way mom would have called inappropriately.
"Okay," I said, turning back the way I came, towards Mrs. Yannon's house. Thirty-Six waited a respectable few seconds before getting up and following me. Then, because she was a cat and cats are kind of snotty like that, she ran ahead of me, walking fast enough to pretend we weren't together.
Mrs. Yannon's place is in an especially cramped building that looks like it got squozen so hard from the sides that it had to be taller to make up for it. Her home is above an old shop that used to sell shoes, and then after used to be where teenagers would go to smoke pixie dust, but now is just full of cobwebs, spiders, and cat hair.
The upstairs is almost as bad. The only light comes from a giant, circular, and utterly filthy window in the front of the living area. A window, I might add, that is most certainly not on the outside of the building. No matter what time of day it is, the window always looks out to the top of an old-looking city at night, giving the impression that Yannon's room was much higher up than it really was. The full moon that's always there is what lights the room.
That means the middle of the living area- the place you first see when you come in, is lit well enough, but everywhere else is dark. All the antique-looking furniture is covered in cat hair and cat barf that never got cleaned up. There wasn't any cat pee or poop, though, so I guess either Yannon cared enough to clean that up, or the cats were smart enough not to do that upstairs.
There were new faces in Mrs. Yannon's apartment that day. Sometime in the past three weeks since I'd last went to count Mrs. Yannon's cats for her, a dainty persian named Twenty-Two had finally given birth and was now proudly grooming a litter of four. Four little scraps of fur- one pure white and pink-pawed, one ridiculously fluffy calico, one gray tabby and one pitch black.
Mrs. Yannon was in her rocker, staring at the blank wall across from her and not moving at all.
"Hi, Mrs. Yannon," I said. "Are you dead?"
I didn't think she was, but it was always good to double check these things.
"No," she rasped. A puff of dust came out of her mouth.
"Okeedokee," I said. "Just checking. D'you want some water or anything?"
Again, I was pretty sure the answer to this would be a negatory, but it was always good to ask in case maybe today she changed her mind.
"No," she said again. "Count."
So I started to count.
It's hard work counting cats, especially when there's a lot of them that need counting. By now, I've figured out a few tricks, like breaking out the food so a whole bunch stand still long enough for me to get them, and herding the ones I've done already into another room, but it still takes forever, especially since most of Yannon's cats are ridiculously clever. I'm pretty sure at least some of them know how to walk through walls.
I tried naming the cats before, a long time ago. At first with normal cat names like Whiskers and Shadow and Fiddlesticks and then people names when I ran out of those like Bonny and Sam and Jeremy and Tom, and then when I ran out of those names, I just started calling them things like Toaster and Sofa and Little Guy and One Ear.
The names never stuck. I forgot who was who, and the cats ignored the names, anyway. But they all knew their numbers, and for reasons I didn't understand but didn't question, I knew their numbers too.
"Eighty-three," I said finally. "Eighty-three cats, counting the kittens."
"Fifteen wandering out," she said. "Fifteen absent."
"So ninety-eight cats, then."
She cackled, but the sound went from something like a raspy laugh to the noise an angry cat makes. "Two more! Two more I'll never see!"
"You're missing some?" I said. How could she even tell?
"Missing missing never seen." She closed her eyes.
"Uh. Do you want me to put up posters or something? I can ask Mr. Gregor if he can find them-"
She sighed. "Get out of my house, ghost girl. Two cats short and one girl to spare. Get out.”
It was best not to argue with Mrs. Yannon, not that I would have argued anyways. I was solid and the smell of so many cats in one place was starting to get to me.
"Okay. Seeya later, Mrs. Yannon. Good luck with the last two."
I made myself vanish and reappeared just outside her door. Thirty-Six came out through the cat-door and rubbed against my leg. I bent down to give her ear-scratchies.
When I finally got outside to the real world, I was surprised to see so much time had passed. The sun was up pretty high and it probably was around maybe two.
I perked up. Mr. Jackson would be home. And he’d probably have something to eat. And since I’d just thought about food, I was suddenly really really hungry. So I started off towards Mr. Jackson’s house.
* * *
Mr. Jackson is medium oldish, super nice, and sort of built like the gawkier kind of bird. Like a turkey, maybe. Partly it's because his head and neck and, to be honest, the rest of him is shaped in that narrow-skinny-gawky way, but partly it's because he's got these wide goggly kind of eyes and a hooked nose. Him starting to bald on top doesn't help, either.
I know it sounds mean, but it's true, and I guess it just goes to show what a nice person he is that when I told him so, he laughed and said, "Well at least I'm not a vulture." (And since he mentioned it, yeah, he kinda had a vulture-y look too, but turkeys are nicer than vultures, so I didn't say anything.)
His house is small and full of earth tones, dark colored furniture, and thick carpets. Every time I go over there, he's always got a tray of cookies and some milk in the fridge, both of which I can have whenever I want- I don't even have to ask. I think this is because he still feels bad about killing me that one time, for all that I've told him not to.
Here's how it went:
Five or six years ago, Mr. Jackson was getting off work about the same time I was getting out of school. His job was farther away than my school, but he had a car and I had my feet, so we wound up in Market Street around the same time.
The street wasn't at all busy: it was that rare point in the day where everybody who worked was out and everybody who didn't was at home, meaning the street was pretty clear. I ran across the street for something. I don't remember why. Probably something stupid. The same time I ran out was the same time Jackson took his eyes off the road to look at something in his car. I asked him what it was, once. He said he couldn't remember either, but that it too was probably something stupid.
So I got hit. I died on the street, with Jackson holding my hand and screaming for an ambulance.
I woke up on the street a week later and had no idea what was going on. And, as I found out once I arrived home that day, neither did anyone else. After that there was a very confusing week filled with yelling and crying and urgent phone calls from my parents and surprise visits from relatives I didn't know I had. There was general gawking from about one-fourth the people in our building and complete unquestioning acceptance from everybody else. Somewhere in the middle of the weird mix of normal and crazy, it occurred to me that somebody ought to let the man who killed me know I was alright. Or, you know, as alright as I could be while still being dead.
Mom and Dad didn't tell me much about what happened the week I was gone. I had to hear it from Mrs. Durant when she and The Ladies came around with platefuls of food to pay their respects.
Mrs. Durant was and still is a firm believer in Telling It Like It Is, and so held nothing back. She told me about the yelling and screaming and crying from everybody involved. She told me about the cops that were called in and made their reports, but then never showed up again, even though it was vehicular homicide and somebody should have been arrested. (She blamed a combination of the inherent evils of lawyers and the shady practices of the local police force for this, and assured me that she and the Ladies would be looking into matters most thoroughly. I myself think maybe the Street knew I would be coming back, and so didn't want anybody to get into too much trouble while I was gone.)
I found out that his name was Dominic Jackson. I found out where he lived. And, after I'd gotten rid of Mrs. Durant and I went to visit him, I found out that he's terrified of ghosts and faints when he's afraid.
"Hi," I said once he woke up.
He'd been too heavy for me to move onto the couch or anything, so I'd just left him on the floor and went poking through his stuff while he was zonked out. His house was full of books. Big books with leather covers, little books in canvas, thick ones that are sometimes wider than they are tall and stuffed with post it stickers that stick out the tops and sides, thin ones that are taller than all the other books and have to have their own shelf 'cause they won't fit on any of the others, and a whole wall dedicated to paperbacks that are all worn from being read too many times.
I dunno how it's organized; even now I can pick out one book and have it be about philosophy and the role of women in the English canon (which Jackson had to inform me was not about shooting ladies out of pirate ships), and the next book down the shelf would be on Norse or Egyptian or Greek mythology. There was not a bare wall anywhere in his house because they were all covered in book shelves.
There were also a lot of neat knick-knacks on his shelves just waiting for me to look through them.
He saw me and his eyes, already wide, went almost the size of saucers. "Oh God," he said. "Oh my God." He scrambled backwards on the floor until he ran into the coffee table.
"Hi," I said again. I put down the stone jar thing I was looking at and picked up a cool fossil thing.
"Oh my God. Is it really you?"
"Oh God. Oh hell." He stared and went paper-white. "I'm so sorry."
"For what?" I said. "What's this made out of?" I held up a little Thing that was like a tiny book, but the covers were made of weird material. I never did find out what it was, come to think of it.
"I'm so sorry!" he said again.
"For killing me? Don't be. I feel great."
He seriously looked like he was about to cry. He had that watery-eyed, scrunched-up-face thing going on, like he was trying really hard not to cry, but it was going to happen anyways.
"I'm fine!" I said again. "I came to tell you it's okay. Everything's okay, see?"
I went over to him and helped him to his feet. He didn't want to touch me at first, I could tell, but I grabbed his hands anyways and pulled him up.
"Can you ever forgive me?" he said.
We went into the kitchen. For the first time, I noticed the strong smell of alcohol that permeated the air, but I didn't think it important at the time. Nor did I particularly notice all the empty bottles lying around.
"Sure," I said. "My parents might take some convincing, though. They did not have anything nice to say about you."
"I'd imagine not," he said faintly.
There was a glass in the sink. Lots of glasses, actually. He pulled one out and, without bothering to rinse it out, shakily poured himself a drink from one of the open bottles on the counter.
"Can I get you anything? Is there anything at all you need?"
"Nah," I said. "I should probably be heading back now- are you okay?"
His hand had jerked, toppling the glass and sending drink spilling across the counter. "Fine!" he said a little too loudly. "Fine! Back, you said? Back to where, exactly?"
"My house? Mom and dad are kind of paranoid about me being gone for too long. I wasn't even supposed to come here, but I wanted you to know that you didn't, you know, kill me too hard or something."
"Oh." he said. "Right." He was still shaking a little. I wished he would stop. It reminded me of the way mice shook when they were too afraid to run.
"Well, bye!" I said. And then I did the invisible trick and snuck out of the house.
So that was the first time I met Jackson. It was almost the last, I think. I don't know why I went back the next day, except that there was something about him that bugged me. Like dull itching in the back of my head that kept pointing back to him and saying, 'look'.
I found him in the kitchen, drinking straight from the bottle this time.
"Hi," I said, appearing in the doorway. He made a strangled noise and almost fell out of the chair. The bottle toppled over, spilling all over the table.
"Yep. You spilled your drink."
"I just wanted to say hi. Should I have knocked first? Only I'm really liking the going-through-walls-thing and I figured it would be like a neat surprise, you know?" I grinned and he gaped like a fish.
"Here," I said, vanishing over to the counter to pick up a dishrag there, then popping back right next to him and the spill. "Here you go. Cool trick, huh?”
He took the rag and, after a second, got to his feet. "I thought I'd imagined you," he said, wiping up the mess. "It wouldn't have been the first time."
"Really?" I said. "You've got a boring imagination. Is your house always this dark? You've got windows, mind if I open them?"
"Go ahead. Whatever you want."
I went and opened the curtains and let some light into the place. Poor Mr. Jackson; he looked worse in the light. Sallow-faced, hollow cheeked, and he had that scruffy look that happens when someone who usually shaves suddenly stops. I probably wouldn't have noticed this if not for the tugging in my head telling me to pay attention.
"So," I said. "How've you been?" He opened a bottle of wine and poured himself a glass. His hands weren't as shaky as last time.
"I'm talking to a dead little girl I hit with my car."
"A bit." He slugged the drink down. "I'm not drunk yet. That's the problem."
"Mrs. Sherazi says people who drink to get rid of their problems usually have a bigger problem they don't notice."
"And I can drink that one away, too. Why are you here?"
I shrugged. "I dunno. I was bored and-"
"Why are you here, in my house? Talking to me? Why aren't you in- in wherever you're supposed to be?"
"Who says I'm not supposed to be here?"
He stared at me for a minute and then slugged down another drink.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," I said. I dislike it when people drink like that.
He stopped mid-gulp and, slowly, put the glass down. "I'm talking to the dead girl I hit with my car. Are you here because I killed you? Is this revenge? I'm losing my mind. You're not real. But you're right there!"
He was starting to panic. I was starting to worry. I'm no good with calming people down- that's mom's thing. All I'm good at is talking a lot.
"I'm not revenging at you, I promise!"
"You're dead," he said. I didn't know if he was listening or not. He wasn't even looking at me: he'd collapsed onto the counter top. "You're dead because of me. I'm sorry."
He reached for the bottle of pills and the tugging in my head became a great big blaring sign of LOOK AT THAT. I poofed over and grabbed the pills before he could take them. He looked up at me and his eyes were all red.
"What do you want from me?" he said. I didn't know what to say, so I said the only thing I could think of.
"It's lunchtime," I said, "and I kind of don't want to walk all the way home. Do you have anything to eat?"
He sat up. "You can eat?"
"Yup. Sleep and go to the bathroom, too. I told you, you didn't kill me that badly."
He made a choking sound that took me a second to recognize as laughter.
"You want lunch?"
"Yes please." I went over to the counter and sat on the opposite wide on a stool. "Anything's fine so long as there's no mushrooms in it."
"Yeah. Those are gross. Did you know they're fungus?"
"Yes," He was looking a little more lively now. The chair creaked and he stood up. "Yes, I'd heard that before."
"Totally gross, right? And people still eat them! And Jason told me that they grow on poop."
He was in the kitchen now, looking through the cupboards, but stopping frequently to look back at me, like he was checking if I was still there. "Jason?"
"Jason from school. He's in my class. Once he jumped off the very top of the jungle gym on a dare and broke his ankle. Then he got suspended. But then he came back and said that he'd done nothing but watch the science channel while he was gone because his parents locked the TV to teach him a lesson about jumping off things and he knew all this random stuff."
"Like the mushrooms."
"Like the mushrooms," I agreed. "Can I have a glass of water please?"
He poured me a glass and got back to cooking stuff on the stove.
"What else did Jason learn?" he said.
"Did you know that rats are actually smart?"
"Yeah! Like, if a mommy rat dies, other mommy rats will take care of the babies? And that the babies are actually called puppies. Or sometimes kittens. Can you believe that? Kitten-rats. It's like, ironic or something."
He turned around and held out two bowls of macaroni and cheese. "Here," he said. "Tell me more about the rats."
"That's all I remember about the rats," I said. "But did you know octopuses are even smarter?"
"Smarter than rats?"
"Smarter than rats. They filled these jars with food- not octopuses, the aquarium people- and then the octopus figured out how to open it, but then it taught another one how to open it, and they both got the food!"
And so on. I spent a half hour talking about octopuses and magpies and how shoelace ends are called aglets and how egresses are exits and not girl eagles, and anything else I could think of, and Mr. Jackson looked less and less washed out and more and more awake, and we had such a good talk that he didn't even notice I'd put the pills in my pocket. When I left, I threw them into the gutter. If he ever noticed they were gone, he never said anything.
And that was how I appointed myself Mr. Jackson's guardian angel. He's kind of a recluse and doesn't go out much, but I'm sorta hoping he and Tansy hit it off, because she's so alive I'm sure she can drag him out of his shell faster than I can.
* * *
That was all a long time ago, though. That day, after I met the Man in Black and counted Yannon's cats, I went to Jackson's and found him pulling a tray of chocolate cookies out of the oven with a bowlful of dough on the counter ready for the next batch.
"Hello, Drea," he said, not even looking.
"Hiya Mr. Jackson." I reached out to take a cookie. He batted my hand away.
"Have you had lunch yet?"
"Maaaaaybe. . ."
He tried to frown at me, but his face really isn't made for frowning. "Have some lunch first. Then you can have a cookie."
"But I'm in a really bad mood!" I said, suddenly remembering that I was supposed to be in a bad mood. I'd forgotten about it when I was counting Yannon's cats.
"Well have some lunch first and maybe you'll feel better."
There was no arguing with him when he was going to be reasonable like that. Which of course only served to feed bad mood. I poofed over to the fridge and started looking around.
"So why are you in such a bad mood?"
"Because a stupid exerciser guy says wants to get rid of me."
"Exerciser? You mean an exorcist?"
"Something like that." I scowled at the food in the fridge and grabbed an apple. "This good enough?"
"That's not lunch, that's a snack. Why don't you make a sandwich and tell my about this exorcist. There's a new jar of peanut butter in the cupboard."
I got the bread and peanut butter out. All of Jackson's food is different than the stuff we have at home, but it's still good, even if the bread has oats on the crust and the peanut butter has chunks of nut in it.
I cobbled together a sandwich and told him about the man in black. By the time I finished the story, I'd finished the sandwich and the cookies had finished cooling. We both sat on opposite sides of the counter and were having after-lunch cookies.
"And then I poofed away. He was so rude, telling me to leave like that."
Jackson sipped the coffee he'd made before I got there and looked thoughtful. "I don't think that's what he was trying to say," he said. "It sounds like he was a little unbalanced by the street. He probably didn't mean to offend you."
"Well he did, dangit. Don‘t you go being on his side, you didn't even meet him."
“I'm not taking sides," Jackson said. "I'm just saying it's no use getting mad at somebody when they probably don't even know what they did wrong."
"So I should tell him what he did wrong, then be mad at him. Got it."
Jackson tried not to smile, but it wiggled out of him.
"You know what I meant," he said.
"Yeah, yeah." I got up. The bad mood had mostly died again- that was partly Jackson's fault and partly the cookies' fault.
"Going so soon?"
"If you're just gonna be all logical at me, then I'm gonna go home and be mad in peace."
"Alright, then. Good luck with that," he said with a little wave. "Tell Tansy I said hi."
"Will do," I said. And then I poofed out of the house.