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And here we have Amanda Brown. Slouching in her seat, eyes unfocused, makeup smudged, she is doodling circles in her notebook in pink gel-pen and twisting one strand of frizzy red hair around her finger. The teacher drones on and she does not listen.
Amanda Brown, 13 years old and never been kissed, is pudgy and red-faced and short and dressed in a black sweatshirt, pink tee, with holes in her blue jeans and white dimpled knees poking out. She is sweating and the A/C is broken, the windows bolted shut, door closed; teacher dearest is reptilian and permanently chilled, frigid May breeze too much for her tender constitution.
Somewhere buried in the drawers and cabinets of Ms. Reptile’s desk is a pile of smudged ungraded papers from the first week of school. She has never thrown them away. (Mostly, because she has never been able to find them.) The third paper from the top reads, “What is your full name? Amanda Rose Brown. What are you looking forward to in English this year? Learning and stuff. Shakespeare. On a scale of one to ten, rate your literary abilities. Six. List some hobbies, sports, or extracurricular activities you are involved in. What is the scariest dream you’ve ever had? I don’t know. What is one interesting fact about yourself that I would not be able to tell just by looking? This classroom is haunted.”
Amanda Brown closes her eyes and lays her head down and doesn’t watch the ghosts play tag through the wall. She is so very tired today. The ghosts confuse her. She started seeing them on the first day of school and didn’t know what to think. No one else noticed the small, blond boy sitting on the filing cabinet in sixth period English. Either that, or the other students are much less easily distressed than Amanda. And better liars. (Amanda has to admit that this is a distinct possibility.)
She tried ignoring the boy, and after a while he simply faded out of (non)existence. Amanda Brown has an overactive imagination. Her mother told her so.
The next day, the boy was back. He was seven or eight years old, quiet, smiling, transparent. Amanda finally smiled at him, and he stared and looked like he had seen a ghost.
No one has ever given Amanda Brown a nickname. She has never been called Amy, or Mandy, or even Brown (last names are often a last resort for the socially inept). The little ghost-boy was no different.
The period is over, the teacher hunches over her desk, and there’s no one nearby but blondie here. Amanda blinks. “What?”
“Hello,” he says, and giggles. Cute, mischievous little boy who will get away with the world and then some and never hear “no,” never behave, and never grow up – she stops. Never is a long time, she thinks. Or is that always? Always to be a little boy-ghost. Figment of her imagination, that’s what he is.
Who can resist the smile? “Hello,” she says, and he is already gone. Is it schizophrenia when you hear voices? Or psychosis? Psychotic? Psychic Sandra, from midnight radio? Something like that.
Amanda comes to realize that the ghosts are making fun of her. It is unexpected, to say the least. Though perhaps this is the wrong term, because it seems as though the games really are “all in good fun” and “only teasing,” old phrases that she has heard but never quite believed.
They are educated ghosts, apparently; up-to-date, caught up on all the latest lore. Comes from living in a school, Amanda thinks. The sounds of rattling chains and haunting moans follow her from class to class, though she notices that the pained screams seem to dissolve into something rather like giggles as time goes on. Lights tend to flicker and cell phones lose frequency in every room she enters, and she has a bruise from dropping a textbook on her foot at the unexpected slamming of a door. (“Are you all right, Amanda? How strange, it’s not even very windy today, and that door was wide open. Who can understand the weather?”)
Her papers, pens, and backpack are lost and returned so often that Amanda is no longer surprised when she reaches for a notebook and looks up only to discover that it is sitting ten feet away on a window ledge. The back of her neck has a permanent prickle from the weight of so many eyes. And no one but she can make any sense of the weird new graffiti on the bathroom wall. “Yea, though I walk through valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (I don’t get it. Is it some sort of gang symbol? A wacked out religious group? Who writes Scripture on the wall of the girls’ bathroom?)
Later she sees more. A tall girl her age with spiked hair and a sarcastic smile. A man in his thirties, balding, glasses balanced on the tip of his prominent nose, “teacher” branded on his forehead. An older boy covered in acne. A cat, two dogs. There is a ghostly songbird that perches outside her second-period window and sings. Many more escape description, or at least memory. All drifting, translucent, and dreaming.
This school, Amanda thinks, is haunted. Amanda Brown: clairvoyant extraordinaire. Or is that psychic? Not like Sandra, she hopes, whose voice is high and nasal and who once gave her a nightmare involving sharks and mermaids, a nuclear-powered yacht, blood, drowning, and icebergs (perhaps watching “Titanic” had something to do with it). Terrifying in the extreme.
“Why are you here?” she whispers, not expecting an answer – her imagination has never obliged before. They whisper back, “Because. Why not? This is our place. This is my home. This is the land of the dead.”
“This is where I died,” the boy tells her and smiles.
Lori McKay is Amanda’s closest almost-friend. A good acquaintance, she is thin and blonde and by all rights should spend her time in the girls junior high clique of the Thin and the Blonde. However she is afraid of this clique and prefers the unthreatening Amanda. Lori is afraid of everything and admires Amanda, who is afraid of nothing but heights and nightmares. Also, tall dark men with guns and knives and blindfolds, and the time her mother went to the hospital for a hip replacement, but they don’t talk about those fears. Some are private, they agree.
Lori is too shy. She is too thin and too blonde and too frightened of her species to become a real friend, though at times she thinks that she would like to. Amanda is very nice, she tells them. Really a very nice person. The clique does not need to dignify this with an answer.
“Have you ever seen a ghost, Lori?” Amanda asked her once. Lori is used to her changes of subject.
“No. One time I thought I did, but it turned out to be my brother dressed in a bed sheet trying to get me back for using up his toothpaste. He made me cry,” she adds reflectively, then half smiles in embarrassment (ha ha, such a little crybaby. Isn’t the past amusing? As long as we laugh we are safe). “Mom grounded him for a week.”
Amanda has no siblings. “Never a real ghost, though?”
“No. Why, have you?” She laughs again. (Amanda has always wondered why Lori covers her mouth when she laughs; is it the polite thing to do, a manner she never learned, or just Lori hiding again?)
Amanda laughs too. She is starting to get scared.
“Why am I here?” she asks the ghosts. “Why can I see you?” Amanda Brown is finally so far gone (she thinks) that she talks to ghosts expecting answers. And worse still – she gets them. “Because. Why not. This is your home. This is the land of the dead.
“This is where you will die.” And he is still smiling, her smiling little boy, but it is no longer funny, a weird secret that grates occasionally but keeps her entertained (ha ha, I see ghosts; can you? What fun – no).
Amanda Brown has been having nightmares again. The cold dread of running faster and faster, and dear-God-wish-I-could-go-faster, hope-I-can-make-it, what-will-I-do-if-they-catch-me, and she wakes up shaking; this is wearing on her. Bad skin and bruised eyes.
The year continues, and our heroine braves homework and lunch lines and math tests, the Thin and the Blonde, physical education. She reads ghost stories.
Today, the day we find her hot and tired and sweating in English with broken A/C, Amanda Brown also has The Headache. She hates The Headache. She hates it with a passion and intensity; with a feverish zeal unmatched by any other loathing ever experienced in this, the life of Amanda Brown.
It is always the same, a low, dull throb starting behind her eyes and slowly working its vile way into her temples and her forehead and her brain. It pounds, a hundred tiny men with hammers banging mercilessly at her skull from the inside out, until she wants to scream or cry or just rip her head off and be done with it, once and for all.
She hates The Headache almost as much as she hates the people who have never had The Headache. With their sympathetic smiles and grimaces and their little white pills (“Try one. I swear it works. It’s cured all my headaches in a flash and don’t you know how they’re really just all in your head, ha ha”). That is, when anyone cares to make-believe concern at all. Most have trouble pulling it off. “Oh, you have a headache? That’s too bad, isn’t it?” And attention wanders off again.
Amanda bears her suffering in tragic silence. Finally, blessedly, the last bell rings. Free at last. She grabs her backpack before it can disappear and hurries out the door. Her parents are working, and she has to take the bus home. It is pulling up just as Amanda reaches the line, and she is congratulating herself on making it when she sees the little boy standing in the middle of the road.
Oblivious is the word; the boy does not see the bus, and the bus does not see the boy, and no one else seems to see or be paying any attention whatsoever to either.
“Look out!” she finally remembers to scream. He looks up, and smiles when he spots her. She sees him mouth a word. What?
“Look out! There’s a bus coming!” The girl next to her turns and gives her a weird look.
The bus is almost on top of him now and Amanda starts to run. She is too late and too slow, but if she could just move faster, then she might make it in time … She leaps forward and stretches out an arm to knock him out of the way and save him, her smiling little boy, and all that she can hear is the bus engine and all that she can see are his eyes, huge and round and startled.
Her hand passes straight through him with little more than a tingle. The bus hits.
“What is the scariest dream you’ve ever had?”
“I don’t know.”
The little boy is sitting next to her, curious and confused and smiling. Also much more solid than she is used to.
“Stupid,” he tells her.
Amanda sits up slowly and seems to pull free of something with a strange, reverberating snap. The rocky feel of the cement beneath her hands is missing. Her headache is gone.
She looks down, and winces. The shock is much less than she would have thought, muffled or blocked, but it is still strange looking down at herself, her body all bloody and bruised and sleeping. (Sleeping?)
Human beings, she thinks, are painfully fragile. And painfully unreal and painfully ignorant about the fact. Just generally painful all over the place.
The little boy looks at her. “Well?”
Amanda Brown looks back. She can see the others waiting for her in the schoolyard, and today, for some reason, they come across as peaceful and very welcoming. She remembers the graffiti on the bathroom wall. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Why not, though? Something about God, she thinks, or shepherds, or maybe Jesus. Religious stuff like that.
Amanda Brown makes a decision. “Thanks,” she says to the boy (don’t forget to smile). “But no thanks.”
And there we have Amanda Brown. Who opens her eyes to squint against a throbbing headache of epic proportions, and sighs.
It was such a nice day, but she could barely see anyway and the overbright sun was playing havoc with these sunspots in her eyes.