Updated: Feb 27, 2019
To see the spins by which this chapter was plotted, scroll to the bottom for a list or click on the image below to see the original Live Spin video! Otherwise, keep scrolling past the photo to read Chapter 5!
Chapter 5 Spinner Story
Jay stopped home only long enough to grab her phone charger for the car and then climbed back into the vehicle, Roger’s incessant, nervous nagging in her ear the whole way.
“We have to hurry, Jay. What if she changes her mind? What if she won’t sell you the house? You’ve got the money, Jay, we can’t waste any more time. We have to go!”
“I know, Roger,” Jay said, her patience thinning. “But I need my phone operational, okay? The stop home was necessary.” She held up the car charger, waving it in front of Roger’s anxious, floating eyes. “Look. Got it. We can go now. Come on.”
Jay plugged in her phone in the car, watching the charging status eagerly. It would take a few minutes to charge up enough to turn on. Had Kyle tried to call? She was anxious to talk to him, to explain why she’d stood him up at the hospital. It can charge while you drive, she told herself.
“Jay, hurry up, why aren’t we driving yet?” Roger whined from the passenger seat.
Jay sighed and started up the car, resisting the illogical urge to tell him to put on a seat belt. He was just floating atop the seat, anyway... and he was already dead, so he didn’t exactly need the safety measures. “I’m going, just... chill. You’re making me nervous.”
Roger sank back against the seat and sullenly crossed his spectral arms as Jay plugged the address into her car’s GPS system, then pulled out of the driveway and headed for their destination. She was thankful her car had a built-in GPS, since the Maps app on her phone wouldn’t have done any good at this point.
From her peripheral, Jay saw Roger staring moodily out the window, and almost felt guilty. There was a lot riding on this object for him, she knew... even if she didn’t exactly know what the object was or why the ghosts needed it. “Hey, Roger,” she called gently.
Roger snapped his head toward her, eyes wide, innocently curious rather than angry. “Yeah, Jay?”
Jay turned her focus back to the road, glancing at Roger from the side. “What exactly is the deal with this object, anyway? Can you explain why it’s so important? And what does it have to do with me and my house?”
Roger narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow, an odd expression since his ghostly face lacked actual eyebrows. “No, Jay, you know better. I cannot tell you. It is forbidden.”
Jay came to a stop at a red light and turned toward Roger. “But you told me the object somehow lets ghosts interact with people physically, right? And the other ghosts – which you also still haven’t explained – want to use it for something. Surely if you told me that much, you can explain why I’m having to spend hundreds of dollars on chocolate just to get this precious object, and what you intend to do with it? I mean... I’m part of this now, right?”
“No,” Roger said, scowling. “Now stop asking.”
The light turned green, and Jay drove.
A few minutes later, they arrived at the woman’s subdivision.
“Ooh, fancy,” Roger exclaimed, his face pressed to the window... and partly passing through it out into the air outside the car. “They have a park, Jay! And a pool!”
“Get your face back in the car, Roger,” Jay muttered. “It’s... creepy.”
“No one else can see me, Jay,” Roger answered, pulling back in and turning to Jay with confusion. “Why would it matter?”
Jay glanced at Roger and was reminded of an excited puppy. She sighed. “Okay, Roger. Go ahead.”
Roger grinned, then stuck his head back through the window and watched the neighborhood roll past as Jay drove.
They must have a hefty HOA fee in this neighborhood, Jay thought. The yards were immaculately landscaped, the houses clean and free of dust or dirt with new-looking paint... even the pavement on the roads looked clean. Jay lived in a suburban neighborhood, too, but it was nothing like this. Jay’s was the type where half the houses were lucky to even have living grass, and at least one neighbor was probably keeping a broken-down car in his yard. But she loved her house. This neighborhood was impressive, but it didn’t have the same comfort. It felt foreign, but Jay’s house was... home.
Something clenched in Jay’s chest as the reality sank in once more that she might be about to lose that home. Whatever the ghost’s strange interest in Jay’s house and all their pressure and insistence that she save it, her efforts hadn’t amounted to much, even though she wanted to save the house, too. She still had to find the money to pay the back payments on the mortgage... and soon. She was running out of time.
“You have arrived at your destination,” the GPS voice stated.
Jay slowed and came to a stop in front of a large two-story house.
“Oh, Jay, look,” Roger said, pointing at the house. “They have roses! I love roses.”
“Let’s just get the dollhouse and get out of here,” Jay mumbled. The thought of having to spend most of her hard-earned cupcake prize money on a mountain of chocolate bars when she needed it toward her own house payments irked her, but apparently she didn’t have a choice. I hope this object is worth it, whatever it is.
Jay pulled her car into the house’s pristine driveway, hyper-aware of how beat-up her car seemed compared to everything else in the neighborhood. She grabbed her phone from the charger. It was charged up to about 40%, so Jay switched it on, cutting off the car’s engine as she waited for it to start up. The familiar flourish of notes and logo played on the start-up screen, and Jay watched the notification bar eagerly as the phone connected to the network and synced all her messages.
4 missed calls.
Jay’s heart skipped as she scrolled through them. They were all from earlier, and all from the hospital’s number. Kyle. But he’d left no messages.
“Looks like he was trying to get ahold of you, Jay,” Roger commented.
Jay bit back her sarcastic comment, knowing her frustration was more at the situation than at Roger. “Yes, and I don’t have his number to call him back,” she answered.
“Well, he has yours, right?” Roger said encouragingly. “Maybe he’ll call you again, Jay.”
Jay hoped so, but she wasn’t sure how likely it was. Kyle barely knew her, and right when they’d been beginning to build... something, Jay wasn’t quite sure exactly if it had been friendship or maybe more... she abandoned him. Injured. At a hospital.
Jay sighed. “Let’s just go inside, okay?”
Roger’s eyes widened. “You mean... I can come with you? You aren’t going to tell me to disappear?”
“I need you to verify I have the correct object, right? But please, no talking while I’m inside. This woman probably thinks I’m crazy enough without me trying to carry on two conversations at the same time.”
“Got it, Jay. No problem.” Roger nodded.
“You do know what the object looks like, right?”
“Uhhhh...” Roger said.
“Roger," Jay groaned, "please tell me you know what we’re looking for. I do not want to trade hundreds of dollars for a bunch of chocolate and an old dollhouse only to find it was the wrong one.”
“No, no, Jay, it’s the one,” Roger shook his head. “I think. I mean... they say it is.”
“Yes, Jay. The others. Well, not the other others, not the bad others, I mean... our others. The other ghosts from our house. They told me it was the right dollhouse, when you and I saw it at the store. The object must be inside.”
Jay stared. “Are they... here now?” She knew the ghosts watched her, followed her, but she’d always assumed they showed themselves when they did. The thought that they could be anywhere, watching her unseen, sent a chill down her spine.
“Oh, no, Jay, of course not. You’d see them if they were. They’re not here here, they’re in the in-between, watching.”
“They... what?” Jay’s heart raced to an unreasonable speed.
“Yes, Jay, how did you think we pop in and out so much? When we’re not with you, we’re there, and then when we need to be here, we come. Did you think we flew everywhere? That would be exhausting.”
“I...” Jay stopped, torn between wanting to ask more and afraid of hearing the answer.
The front door of the house swung open, and the woman from earlier glared out at Jay. “Are you here to see me or are you planning to just take a nap in my driveway?” she yelled from the doorway.
“We’ll continue this later,” Jay hissed to Roger, then dropped her phone and keys into her purse, slipped it on her shoulder, and stepped out of the car. “Yes, sorry, I’m coming! I was just... checking my missed calls.”
“Well, come on, then,” the woman said.
Jay hurried up the driveway and took care to step only on the paved stones through the immaculate grass on her way up to the front door. “Your yard and house are gorgeous,” Jay said as she reached the front porch. She smiled, hoping the woman didn’t completely hate her by now. That would make things awkward.
The woman eyed Jay a moment, then relaxed and smiled back. “Thank you. You know, you’re far less frightening when you aren’t covered in sauce. I’m sorry I overreacted earlier, but... you were a random stranger on the street and my kid was with me, you know? Can’t be too safe. But you seem normal enough now.”
“Um... thanks?” Jay answered.
The woman let out an amused huff. “Well, come on inside. You’re not a serial killer, are you?”
“No,” Jay answered. “Definitely not.”
“Good. Let’s take care of business then, shall we?” The woman stepped inside and gestured for Jay to follow.
Jay cut a glance to Roger, but he was being calm and quiet, as instructed. “Yes, sounds good,” Jay answered with forced cheer. She followed the woman into the house, feeling strangely trapped as the woman stepped back and shut the decorative front door behind them.
“The dollhouse is this way,” the woman said, and Jay hurried to follow her as she moved from the foyer down a small hallway and into a large, open family room. The woman gestured to the dollhouse, which sat against the wall over in one corner, next to bins of other toys, then turned back to Jay. “So why do you need this dollhouse so desperately, anyway? Aren’t you a little old to care about toys?”
“It’s not for me, exactly,” Jay said. “At least, not to play with. I... recently found out that some important item that belonged to someone in my family was stored in an old dollhouse, and I’m pretty sure this is the one.”
“Like an heirloom?” the woman asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Yes, something like that.”
The woman tilted her head. “Is it valuable?”
Jay’s anxiety mounted. “Um, not that I know of,” she answered. “It’s just some old... object.” Way to sound suspicious, Jay chided herself, but since she had no idea what the object was, she couldn’t risk describing it incorrectly and then having the woman refuse to give her the house when what she’d described wasn’t in it. “It just means something to my family. You know, like sentimental value.”
“Oh,” the woman said. She watched Jay for a moment, then said, “Well... would you like some lemonade?”
Jay nearly sighed in relief at the end to all the questions. “No, thank you. I really can’t stay long.”
“Of course,” the woman said. “I’m sure you’re very busy.”
Jay wasn’t sure if that was sarcasm or not, so she just smiled and nodded.
“ So...” the woman continued. “If it’s just about this... heirloom... then you don’t necessarily need the whole dollhouse, do you? You could just look in it for what you need?”
“Well... yes, I suppose I could,” Jay said. “If you don’t mind.” Does this mean I don’t have to buy all that chocolate? Please let it mean I don’t have to buy the chocolate.
“Great,” the woman answered. “My daughter really had her heart set on that dollhouse. Well, there it is!” She gestured toward the house, then stepped back toward the door to the room. “I need to go help my daughter with her homework. Knock yourself out looking through it, and when you find what you need, maybe we can come to a deal?”
Jay’s breath caught in her throat. “Wait... a deal? I thought... I mean, I can buy the chocolate in exchange for the house, like we agreed, but... I don’t have much more money. I can only afford to pay what you said to buy the chocolate.”
The woman laughed in a mostly-friendly way, then waved a hand in dismissal. “Honey, forget the chocolate. Phoebe's grandfather called this morning and bought the whole lot for his new wife’s bridge club. If you find what you need, you can keep the money, and we’ll keep the dollhouse. How’s that sound?”
Jay’s heart rate restabilized, and she gave the woman a smile. “That sounds wonderful.”
“Excellent,” the woman smiled back, truly friendly now. Then her face turned serious. “One thing, though. Are you good at math?”
Jay’s nerves tightened. Where was this going? “Um... sort of?”
“Well,” the woman said. “Since you’re here... My daughter has this word problem that’s way too hard for second grade. I have no clue how to solve it, and the back of the book only gives the answer but she’s supposed to show her work. Maybe you could take a look? We’ll consider that your ‘payment’ and call the rest even.”
Jay was losing patience with the woman changing up their “deal” every few seconds, but what could she do? She was in the woman’s home, and she really needed to find that object. She forced a smile. “Sure. I’d be happy to.” It wasn’t exactly untrue; Jay liked kids, and she didn’t mind math... and all in all, it was a pretty low price to pay for what she needed.
“Fantastic!” the woman answered. “Go ahead and check the house, and then come find us in the kitchen when you’re ready. It’s just down the hall.” She pointed, then left in the direction she’d indicated.
Jay let out a relieved sigh. “Let’s do this, quickly,” she hissed, knowing Roger was nearby somewhere, though she couldn’t see him. Unless he’s in the in-between. Jay suppressed a shiver, still creeped out by that whole concept.
“Here, Jay!” Roger whispered, and Jay jumped as his eyes appeared directly in front of her.
“Sheesh, Roger,” Jay whispered back. “Please try to be less creepy, okay? Even dead people should know to respect personal space.”
“My bad, Jay,” Roger said, scooting back. “Now let’s get the object and get out of here!”
Jay couldn’t agree more, though she knew she was stuck at least long enough to do some elementary math with a stranger’s kid. She moved toward the dollhouse and knelt beside it in the corner. It was open on the front side, but the rooms had already been furnished with doll-size beds and tables and cabinets, and Jay wasn't sure what had been there before and what was new. There were tiny fake chandeliers and miniature doorways and windows, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary for a child’s dollhouse. “What am I looking for, Roger? Do your friends in the in-between have any kind of description for me?”
“Did you say something?” the woman called from down the hall.
“Oh... no, nothing! Just... talking to myself. I... do that sometimes,” Jay answered, a little piece of her dignity dying inside her.
“O...kay,” the woman responded, then her footsteps drifted away again.
“Sorry, Jay,” Roger whispered. “Let’s look quietly. Wait... I can talk. You just can’t. Do you want me to tell you what they said to look for?”
Jay nodded, her fingers feeling giant-size as she shifted doll furniture and opening tiny cabinets. “That would be great, Roger,” she whispered as quietly as she could manage.
Roger floated down beside her, sitting cross-legged on the carpet. “They said they don’t know.”
“They... what?” Jay muttered through clenched teeth.
“But I’ll know it when you find it, Jay,” Roger said.
A chill settled on Jay’s neck as Roger’s hand rested just above her shoulder.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“I’m focusing, Jay,” Roger said, staring intently at the dollhouse with his hand still hovering over her shoulder.
Jay rolled her eyes, resisting the urge to retort – she couldn’t risk looking even more crazy if the woman came back in – and continued searching the tiny house. Her fingers shifted doll-size chairs, a table, a bed, then brushed over a tiny sculpted chandelier as she moved toward another miniature cabinet.
“That’s it, Jay, that’s it! Go back!” Roger shouted, startling Jay and making her knock over a miniscule armoire.
“Roger,” Jay grumbled, turning to gripe at him for yelling in her ear, but she froze as her eyes caught on Roger’s hand, as solid as living flesh on her shoulder. Jay sucked in a breath and yanked away, fighting back a scream. “Roger, what the – what?”
Roger held his hand out, trembling, as his solid hand faded slowly back to a translucent one, then his wide eyes turned back to Jay. “Do it again, Jay. Do it again!”
“Do what?” Jay hissed. “I don’t know what I –“
“The chandelier, Jay, grab it! It’s the one! It’s the one! Get it, quick!”
Jay turned back to the dollhouse, spurred by Roger’s urgency. Was there really such a rush? Roger made it seem like someone else could come snatch the object at any second.
Then again... maybe they could. Maybe they were in the in-between, watching, waiting for their chance. An involuntary shiver traveled through Jay’s body.
“Jay, quick, take it! Once you have it, it’s safe. Take it, take it!” Roger urged.
Jay reached out to the dangling chandelier, noticing only on second inspection that it wasn’t a plastic toy sprayed to look like metal, it was metal, and what Jay had taken for tiny fake lights were actually dangling gemstones – not real ones, it seemed, but some kind of costume jewelry. It looked like a fancy necklace pendant or gaudy broach that had been strung up from the dollhouse’s ceiling.
Jay unhooked it from the small metal hook that held it, and removed it from the dollhouse. “Wait, what do you mean it’s safe once I have it?” Jay whispered, turning to Roger as his words finally sank in. “What if I... didn’t have it? How does me having it make it safe?”
Roger gaped at her. “Because you’re you, Jay. We trust you.”
Jay stared back. “I... okay,” she said. “But... what is this thing? And what the heck happened with your hand?”
Roger sighed, glanced back as though listening to someone, then sighed again. “The hand's not important, Jay. Focus, okay. The object is a very important thing, Jay. You cannot let anyone else have it. You have it, you control it. If you lose it, it’s open game. Don’t set it down, Jay. Put it... in your pocket. Your hand. Somewhere safe. Keep it safe!”
“Okay,” Jay whispered, tucking the whatever-it-was into her jeans pocket. “But... if me having it protects it, why didn’t the others just come take it before we got here?”
“We found it first, Jay... at the store. It was nobody’s, lost, given away... then the woman bought it. But once bought, it was hers. It could not be taken unless given. She’s given it to us, Jay, to you! It’s ours now! Keep it safe, hide it! If you lose it, they can say it's not yours anymore, they can take it. But as long as you own it, keep it, it’s safe.”
Jay blinked, trying to make sense of the complicated rules. “But, Roger... what does this thing even do? And you still didn't explain what happened to your hand!”
Roger opened his mouth, hesitated, then vanished.
“Great,” Jay groaned.
Jay jumped and spun to see the woman approaching.
“Did you find your heirloom thing?”
“Yes,” Jay said, smiling. “Thank you.”
“Can I ... see it?”
“Don’t let her hold it, Jay, don’t give it to her,” Roger’s voice moaned from a distance.
Jay met the woman’s eyes. “Um, sure,” she said. She pulled it from her pocket and held it out, her fingers still gripping it firmly as she displayed it. She tensed as the woman drew nearer. Was this some kind of trap? Was the woman working with the other ghosts? But, no... that made no sense. If so, she could have just taken it when she had it, and refused to give it to Jay... right?
The woman leaned in, inspecting the object. “Oh,” she said, her voice a mix of curiosity and disappointment. “The chandelier? It’s... rather ordinary, isn’t it? I can see now that it wasn’t originally dollhouse décor, it seems like a pendant or something, but... I’m sure it’s not very valuable. It looks like just a piece of old costume jewelry.”
“Like I said,” Jay answered. “It’s just sentimental value; that’s all.”
“I see,” the woman said, still studying the object. Then, to Jay’s relief, she stepped back. “Well, to each his own. Now, about that math problem...”
“I’m ready,” Jay said, slipping the object back into her pocket. “I hope I’m able to help.”
The woman chuckled as she led Jay toward the hallway. “Well, any help you can give will be more than I’ve given her, I’m afraid. My help has only confused her further.”
Jay followed the woman into the kitchen, where the little girl was sitting on a stool at the counter, math worksheets spread out in front of her.
The little girl turned as Jay entered, studying her curiously.
“You remember Phoebe, I'm sure,” the mom said to Jay, then turned to her daughter. “Phoebe, this is Miss...” she looked back to Jay. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I got your name.”
“Jayana,” Jay supplied.
“That’s a pretty name,” the mom smiled. She turned back to Phoebe. “Miss Jayana has offered to help you with that tricky problem.”
Offered wasn’t exactly how Jay would describe it, but she smiled nonetheless as the girl’s shoulders sagged in relief.
“Oh thank goodness,” the little girl moaned dramatically. “My mom has been no help.”
“Hey,” the mother teased, then chuckled as she looked at Jay, and shrugged. “She’s not wrong, though.”
“Let me see,” Jay said, stepping up to the counter.
Phoebe slid the papers toward Jay and scooted back, seeming happy to be rid of them. “It’s number nine,” she said, pointing at the top worksheet. “Right there.”
Jay scanned the page and located number nine, which appeared to be a complex word problem with some kind of drawing of a package and a clock. Jay’s eyebrows went up as she read the problem. “It’s about disassembling a bomb? What kind of math problems are they giving kids these days?” She blushed as she realized she’d said that aloud, but the mom only laughed.
“I have no clue,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder if I should just homeschool her, but then nobody would know how to do the math. Her teacher is usually great at explaining, but Phoebe is determined to do this problem before school tomorrow. She doesn’t want to get marked off for leaving it blank.”
“Well, I’ll give it a try," Jay said. "Do you mind if I figure it out on some paper myself, first, so that I can think through how to explain it once I solve it?”
“Of course,” the mom said. She slid Jay a sheet of paper and a pencil. “Good luck! I tried it several times myself before I finally gave up. Hopefully you’ll fare better.”
Jay lifted the pencil and set to work on the math problem. After a few moments, she gasped. “Oh! I see the problem... we need a ruler to measure the sides of the package. I’m not sure what in the world any of that has to do with the bomb; I think they just wanted an exciting context for the problem. But the problem is pretty simple, really. It’s just asking for the difference in the length between the package’s height and width.”
“Is that all?” the mom asked, leaning over the counter to see the page. “Oh, wow, you’re right! All the talk about explosions had me completely confused!”
Jay chuckled. “Yeah, that was... a very poorly constructed problem. But I can talk Phoebe through it, if you have a ruler... unless you want to take it from here?”
The mom shook her head. “Oh, no, I trust you more than myself. Phoebe, grab a ruler from the closet over there, would you?”
The little girl hopped down and headed to a closet on the far wall of the kitchen. She slid open the closet doors, revealing shelves with board games and boxes of art supplies and other things. On tiptoes, the girl reached for a box on a shelf just above her height, pulling at it.
“Oh, Phoebe, watch out for the – too late,” the mom said, as the box Phoebe yanked knocked down a box full of puzzle pieces, scattering them everywhere. “That was hundreds of pieces,” the mom sighed, heading for the closet.
It looked like far more to Jayana. The pieces were all over the shelves, floor, and spilled between other items in the closet.
“I’m sorry, Jayana,” the mom said as she knelt by Phoebe. “My mother-in-law collects stray puzzle pieces and uses the mismatched pieces to decoupage tables. Can you believe there's actually a market online for purchasing bags of random puzzle pieces that don't go together? It's a strange, hobby, I know, but... she's been working on this collection for years and asked us to store them for her here while she's in the middle of a move, and she'll kill me if any of them get lost. I'm pretty sure she knows them all by sight. Just... give us just a moment to clean this up and then I’ll help Phoebe find the ruler.”
“I’ll – “ Jay started to offer to help them pick up the mess, but her ringing cell phone interrupted her. She didn’t recognize the number. “I’m sorry, I need to answer, I’m waiting for a call.”
“Go ahead,” the mom said, busy picking up pieces.
Jay rushed out into the hallway and answered the call. “Hello?”
“Hi. Jayana?” a pleasant male voice asked.
“Kyle?” Jay asked. The voice sounded familiar, but not exactly like Kyle’s... but then again, she’d only spoken with him a few times.
“Uh... nope,” the voice answered, then laughed nervously. “Were you expecting... you know what, it doesn’t matter. This is Ryan. You know, the hot paramedic?”
“The... who?” Jay stammered, taken by surprise.
The voice groaned. “I’m sorry, my jokes get really awkward when I’m... ”
“He’s nervous! And don’t listen to him, his jokes are always this bad!” another voice yelled.
“Shut it, Bob! Mind your own business,” Ryan grumbled, then his voice lightened again.
“Listen, Jayana, I’m sorry... I should have asked before just calling you up, but... I wasn’t sure how to ask if I could call you without, you know, calling you... and... forget what I said about being hot, it was just a joke. Anyway... uh... how are you... feeling? Did you get home okay?”
Jayana’s head was spinning. She remembered Ryan, of course, but... “How did you get my number?” she asked.
“Oh. Uh...” Ryan paused.
“He stole it from the info on my exam sheet for you,” Bob yelled from somewhere.
“Isn’t that... I mean... can you do that?” Jay asked.
“No. Uh... yeah, I’m sorry, this was a bad idea. I was just worried about you, after what you’d been through, and I just wanted to make sure... you know what, I’m so sorry. Just forget I called. Bye.”
“No, wait!” Jayana said. “It’s fine. I mean... it’s a little weird... maybe sort of creepy? But also kind of sweet, I guess...” She smiled, though she knew he couldn’t see it. He had been really sweet to her when she needed help, and his stumbling phone call to check in on her was oddly endearing.
Ryan audibly sighed in relief. “That’s me. Sweet and thoughtful.” He let out an uncomfortable laugh. “Seriously, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have called, probably, but I really did want to make sure you were okay.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Jay said. “I mean, it’s been a weird few days, but... I’m okay. Thank you again, for driving me to my car and helping find my stuff.”
“You’re welcome!” Bob yelled from the distance again.
“Is he... do you have me on speaker phone or something?” Jay asked.
“Uh... actually, you’re on Bluetooth in the vehicle. It’s not safe to hold a phone while driving, you know,” Ryan answered.
“Right, sure,” Jayana said, thought the thought of being on an open call in the vehicle made her a little uncomfortable.
“Hi, Jayana,” Bob called from the distance.
“Bob’s in the back... being nosy. Find something else to do, Bob!” Ryan shouted.
Jayana chuckled, amused. “So... um... yeah. Thank you, and... I’m fine. Thanks for checking in.”
There was a short pause, then Ryan spoke, his voice suddenly nervous again. “Listen, Jayana, while I have you on the phone, I was wondering...”
“Say no, Jayana!” Bob yelled.
“I haven’t even... ugh. Just...” Ryan stammered, then paused again.
Jayana waited patiently, unsure what was going on or what to say.
Ryan finally spoke again. “Would you, maybe, be interested in going to dinner with me... sometime?”
Jayana froze, her eagerness to hear from Kyle swirling around with her growing fondness for the sweet, somewhat-awkward but attractive paramedic. “I... uh...”
“I’m just kidding, say yes,” Bob yelled. “Put the boy out of his misery, he’s been trying to work up the nerve for this all day!”
“Bob! Seriously!” Ryan yelled. “I’m so sorry, Jayana. I’m really starting to wish I’d waited until after work to make this call.”
Jayana let out a soft laugh. “No, it’s okay. It’s just... I was...” She hesitated, uncertain why waiting for Kyle’s call was any reason to turn Ryan down. It wasn’t, really... but... it sort of felt like it was.
“Oh, Jayana... you said another guy’s name when you answered, are you... do you already have a boyfriend? I’m so sorry. I should have asked first,” Ryan said.
“No, no, he’s not... I mean...” Jayana tried to focus her thoughts into something coherent. “He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just... a friend. Sort of. He’s the guy I was in the accident with at the pageant, and I’ve been trying to get back in touch with him. I’ve kind of been waiting for him to call.”
“Oh,” Ryan said. “Well, if he hasn’t called, he must have gotten in another accident or something.”
“What?” Jayana said, her pulse ramping up again.
“No, no, I didn’t mean...” Ryan sighed. “Gosh, this is an epically bad phone call. I’m so sorry... again. I just meant, any guy who wouldn’t jump at the chance to call you when you’re waiting for him to is clearly unable to call for some reason. Or maybe he’s just dumb?”
Jayana laughed again in spite of herself, though she still felt unsettled by his comment. “No, I think... I probably upset him. I was supposed to give him a ride from the hospital earlier and I was so late that he’d already left by the time I got there.”
“Ah,” Ryan said. “Well, don’t worry. If he’s got half a brain, he’ll call you. Maybe he’s worried you don’t want him to.”
That possibility hadn’t occurred to Jay. “Oh,” she said.
“Anyway, you seem like you’ve maybe got something going on with this other guy, so I’ll just...” Ryan paused. “Well, actually, I need to be sure – Do you have something going on with this other guy?”
“Not... exactly,” Jay said. “I thought maybe we did. But now I don’t know. I barely know him.”
“Well you barely know me, either, so if that’s your thing...” Ryan said.
“You’re ruining every shot you’ve got, kid,” Bob yelled from somewhere.
Jayana swallowed. “Ryan, it’s not that I... I mean... you’re great, I think, but... I’m just not sure right now, and... I don’t want to lead anyone on.”
Ryan sighed. “I’m glad you’re okay, Jayana. But I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I’ll let you go now. Unless...”
“Unless... what?” Jay asked.
“Unless you’d be open to that dinner, after all? It could be just as friends, if you like. I like you, Jayana, but... if you’re ‘sort of, maybe’ involved with this other guy, then... let’s call it just a dinner. It doesn’t have to be a date. Think of it like a friend checking in on a friend who just had a really bad, really weird week. No pressure. I just enjoy your company.”
Jayana chuckled. This guy was persistent... but he seemed sweet, and in reality she really didn’t have any reason to think she had any kind of relationship with Kyle. As she’d said, she barely knew the guy. “Alright,” she said. “Sure, as friends.”
“Great,” Ryan said. “No pressure, I promise. When would you like to do it? Are you free tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” Jay asked. She wasn’t even sure what day it was anymore, with the kind of week she’d had so far... but she didn’t think she had anything going on the next day. “Yeah, sure.”
“Awesome,” Ryan said, and Jayana could hear the smile in his voice. “Do you want me to pick you up, or would you prefer to meet there?”
“I’ll... just meet you there,” Jayana said, unsure that she wanted to invite a guy she barely knew to her house full of ghosts. She hadn’t had any visitors at all, actually, since the ghosts had shown up, and she preferred it that way.
“Okay. How’s 6PM? Do you like Italian?”
“Yes... and yes,” Jay answered.
“Great! I have the perfect place. And don’t worry about cost... I’ll pay, since I invited you. Not because it’s a date... at least not this time.”
“Okay, but you don’t have to... what?” Jayana asked, his words catching up to her.
“I’m looking forward to it!” Ryan said. “I’ll text you the address. Bye, Jayana.”
He hung up, leaving Jay staring at her phone in shock.
“I think you just got a date with the cute paramedic,” Roger whispered from behind Jay’s shoulder, making her jump.
“It’s not a date, Roger,” she hissed, though she wasn’t exactly sure she was happy about that. She almost wished she’d just said yes to the date; she was really starting to like Ryan. But it would be nice to hang out with him as friends, first, anyway, and see how it went... which would also give her time to figure out what in the world she felt for Kyle and why the thought of him had given her such hesitation. Maybe she was just worried about him. After all, she felt like she’d let him down by not picking him up. It could just be guilt and concern. Either way, she’d have to figure it out later... right now she was in a stranger’s house, and she needed to finish helping them with the math and make a graceful exit before anything else happened.
She slipped the phone into her pocket and went back into the kitchen. “Hi, I’m sorry; I had to take that call.”
The mother looked up and smiled. “No problem. We decided to go ahead and give the math a try while we waited, and thanks to your advice, we solved it!”
“Oh!” Jay said. “That’s great.”
“Thank you, Miss Jayana,” Phoebe said.
“You’re welcome, but I didn’t do much,” Jay answered.
“Don’t be silly,” the mom said. “If you hadn’t figured out what the problem was really asking, we’d still be stuck. Anyway, we’ve kept you long enough... I’m sure you have places to be.”
Jay figured that was the mom’s polite way of telling Jay to get out of her house, but she was more than happy to oblige. She grabbed her purse from the counter and moved toward the kitchen door. “Absolutely. Yes, thank you for letting me retrieve my... heirloom. But yeah, I should get going.”
The mom stood and walked Jay down the hallway to the front door. “It was nice to meet you, Jayana. I’m glad you found what you were looking for.”
“Me too,” Jayana said. “Thank you. Goodbye!”
Jay hurried back to her car, hearing the woman shut the front door behind her. As soon as Jay reached her car, she unlocked it and sank into the seat with relief. She had done it. She had the object. She had so many questions about so many things now, but... she had done it.
Roger popped up in the passenger seat as Jay backed the car out of the drive. “Where to now, Jay?” he asked.
Jay glanced at him. “You aren’t going to bark orders at me, or tell me there’s some urgent thing I have to go do right now? That’s new.”
Roger frowned. “Why would I? You already have the object.”
“Oh. But... isn’t there something I need to do with it?”
“Of course.” Roger rolled his eyes. “But you’ve had a long day, Jay, and I thought maybe you’d want to get home first. Besides, I figured you’d be busy getting ready for your date.”
“The date’s not until tomorrow, Roger.”
“Home it is, then,” Roger said, settling back into the seat. “Can we order pizza?”
“You don’t even eat. You’re a ghost,” Jay said, turning her attention back to the road.
“But I like to look at it and pretend I’m eating it,” he said.
Jay shook her head. “Fine, okay. We’ll order pizza. I’m too tired to cook, anyway.”
Jay drove the few miles home in silence, her mind spinning with all the questions she had about the object and what it did... and about Ryan and Kyle. She couldn’t help but still be worried about Kyle, despite the fact he might have brushed her off as some flaky girl who couldn’t even show up to give him a ride when she’d promised to. He’d been injured, and most of it was her fault... she’d feel better if she could just talk to him, at least, and make sure he was okay. More than once, she almost asked Roger about the object... or his hand... but she knew he'd try to skirt her questions and she wanted to figure out a way to ask that he might actually answer.
To Jay’s surprise, Roger stayed quiet for the drive, too, staring out the window without his usual animated commentary. What’s with him? she wondered. She almost just asked him that, but decided she couldn’t really handle a full Roger conversation at the moment, and let the silence linger instead.
When they reached her house and pulled into the driveway, Roger slipped out through the car door without opening it and floated into the house without a word.
Now I know something’s wrong, Jay thought. She turned off the car and went inside, intending to find him and check on him. He might be a ghost, but he was the closest thing she had to a friend. That’s a sad commentary on my life, she realized. She was suddenly grateful she’d said yes to Ryan’s ‘friend’ dinner. Clearly, she needed more friends.
Jay entered the house, which was eerily quiet. “Roger?” she called, hanging her purse on the hook by the front door. “You here?”
“Here, Jay,” he said, appearing beside the couch. “Something wrong?”
“With me? No. But... what about you?” Jay asked.
“What do you mean, Jay?” Roger asked, but even his curious face looked sadder than usual.
“It’s just... ever since we left that woman’s house, you've seemed upset. Is something going on?”
Roger opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “Jay, I – “
Jay’s cell phone rang. She reached for her pocket to pull it out, then stopped, turning her attention back to Roger. “It can wait,” she said. “Roger, what’s wrong?”
Roger shook his head and waved a spectral hand. “No, no, it’s fine, Jay. Go ahead and answer. We’ll talk after. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Are you sure?” Jay asked.
“Yes, Jay, now answer before you miss the call,” Roger said. “It could be important.”
Jay watched him for a moment, then pulled her phone from her pocket just in time to see the call end. “It was a number I didn’t recognize,” Jay said, “but not Ryan’s, I don’t think. A different one.”
“Maybe Kyle?” Roger suggested. “Maybe he finally called you.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Jay said. She watched her phone, but no voicemail popped up. “I’m not sure. Whoever it was didn’t leave a message.”
“Then call back, Jay,” Roger said. “This time it wasn’t the hospital, so... if it was Kyle, you can call him back.”
Jay’s pulse sped slightly. “You’re right,” she said. “But... it can wait.” She lowered her phone and looked back to Roger. “Talk to me, Roger. What’s going on?”
Roger shook his head. “Nonsense, Jay. Call Kyle back. If it’s not him, no harm done. If it is him, you’ll finally get a chance to put your mind at ease. Then we can talk. Okay?”
Jay eyed him, unsure why he was so insistent, but she could tell he would only keep arguing. “Okay, Roger. Thanks. I’ll call first... but then we talk, okay? I want to know what’s going on.”
“Of course, Jay. I’ll just go for now, and let you have your privacy.”
That wasn’t like Roger at all. “What? Roger, what’s – “
But he was already gone.
Jay sighed, then decided to go ahead and make the phone call. Knowing Roger, he’d refuse to come back until she had.
Jay pulled up the missed call and hit “Call back.”
After a few nervous seconds, someone answered.
Jay’s heart squeezed at Kyle’s familiar voice, and for a moment her mind blanked.
“Hello?” he said again.
Jay took a sharp breath. Get it together. “Yes, it’s Jay. Hi, Kyle.”
There was a short pause, then, “I thought maybe you were ignoring my calls.”
“What? No, of course not,” Jay answered.
“Well, I’ve called like... a lot of times,” Kyle said, “first from the hospital and then just now, and you didn’t answer any of them.”
“Oh,” Jay said. “Yeah, I’m so sorry. My cell phone died, and I got stuck at this thing and I was trying to be on time to pick you up, I promise, but I couldn’t call anyone and by the time I got there, you were already gone, and I didn’t have your number because even once I charged my phone, the calls were all from the hospital phone, and then just now when you called I didn’t know it was you but I also didn’t get to the phone in time and...” Jay paused, realizing she was rambling. “I’m sorry for not showing up. I feel terrible.”
“It’s okay,” Kyle said. “Actually, I’m kind of relieved.” He let out a short laugh. “I thought I’d done something to upset you.”
“No, not all! Really, I’m so sorry. I’m... really glad you called.”
“Me too,” Kyle said. He paused again, and Jay was beginning to feel awkward about not knowing how to fill the empty space, when suddenly he said, “Would you be willing to go to lunch with me and then maybe hang out for the afternoon?”
Jay smiled into her phone. “Yes, I’d love to.”
“Great!” Kyle said. “How about tomorrow?”
Jay hesitated. “Um...”
“Or we could do it another time, if you’re not free. Or... not at all. Really, I don’t want you to feel pressured,” Kyle blurted.
“No, I want to,” Jay said. “It’s just that... well... I sort of already have plans for tomorrow evening, so... lunch would be great! I just... might not be able to stay very long into the afternoon.”
“No problem,” Kyle said. “Whatever works for you is fine. Would you rather do it another day?”
Jay knew it probably was a bad idea to try to pack meals with two different guys into one day, but her desire to see Kyle outweighed her sense of reason. “No, tomorrow is great.” She faltered, feeling suddenly guilty. “I... need to explain something, though.”
“Oh,” Kyle said. “Okay... shoot.”
“The dinner plans I have tomorrow, they’re... with another guy.”
There was a moment of silence. “Like... a boyfriend?”
“No, not at all, he’s just...” Jay paused, trying to figure out how to explain it. “He’s a guy I think is interested in me, but it’s not even a date. We’re just meeting up as friends. Really, I barely know him, but he helped me out when I needed it and he's a nice guy.”
Kyle chuckled. “Hey, no worries. I’m not the jealous type. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t putting you in a weird position if you had a boyfriend or something. I can’t speak for this other guy, but... if you’re okay with it, I’m okay with it. I’d love to take you to lunch.”
“Then yes,” Jay said.
“Just for clarity,” Kyle said, “is this a date, or is it a ‘just friends’ thing like with the other guy? Either is fine! I’d just like to, y’know, behave appropriately.”
“Is there a risk of you behaving inappropriately if I answer a certain way?” Jay asked, curious.
Kyle laughed. “No, no, I just mean I don’t want to go in all platonic if you’re expecting romance, but I don’t want to sweep you off your feet if you’re not ready. That could be catastrophic, trust me.”
“Catastrophic? Really?” Jay teased.
“Oh, totally. Swooning, pining... you just never know what might happen if I hit a girl with the romance and she’s unprepared. It’s like playing with fire.”
“Well, in that case, we better do friends. I’m not sure I can handle swooning and pining,” Jay said.
Kyle fell silent a moment. “Really?” he said, his tone disappointed.
Jay felt suddenly guilty for teasing him. “No, no, I’m joking. Actually, I would love for it to be a date. Go ahead, sweep me off my feet.”
“You sure?” Kyle asked, and for a moment Jay worried that she’d completely ruined the mood. Then he added, “You may not know what you’re in for.”
Jay smiled, relieved. “I’ll risk it.”
“Great,” Kyle said. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow. Can I pick you up?”
Jay started to say yes, then changed her mind. “Actually, I’d better drive... that way if you’re still wanting to hang out after lunch, I can stay as long as possible before needing to leave for my other plans.”
“Ah, right, the dinner with the guy-who-isn’t-a-date. Poor sap,” Kyle laughed.
“Hey, he’s nice,” Jay said. “He’s just... only a friend.” For now, she almost added, then froze, shocked that she’d nearly said that. You like Kyle. You’re going on a date with Kyle, Jay reminded herself. What’s wrong with me?
Kyle continued on, oblivious to her near-statement. “But yes, staying as long as possible sounds great to me. So, is it okay if I text you the time and location later? I like to maintain a sense of mystery.”
“Sure,” Jay said.
“You’ve got my number now, so feel free to call if you want... for anything, really. I’ll answer.”
“Thanks,” Jay said. “You too.”
“Nice to know you’ll answer me next time,” Kyle laughed, then his voice turned serious. “I’m really glad I called, Jayana. I’m looking forward to seeing you again.”
“Me too,” she answered.
“Bye, Jay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kyle hung up.
Jay slipped the phone back into her pocket, then walked back toward the kitchen counter. “Roger?” she called out. “I’m done with the phone call now. Are you here?”
There was no answer.
Roger and the other ghosts were eerily silent the rest of the evening and into the next morning. By the time Jay left for her lunch date with Kyle, she had become rather unsettled by their silence, but she figured Roger would turn up again eventually. He always did.
Jay pulled up to the address Kyle had texted her that morning, expecting a restaurant of some kind... and found a park instead. Maybe it’s a picnic? she wondered as she parked and got out of the car. The park seemed to be mostly nature trails, though there were signs indicating picnic areas and an observation tower down some of the trails. The small, graveled parking area where the GPS led Jay was mostly deserted, with only one or two other cars and no people in sight.
As soon as Jay shut her car door, a dog came trotting up from the wooded area.
“Hey,” Jay cooed, kneeling down. “Where’s your person? Are you lost?”
The dog pranced straight up to Jay, wagging its tail and turning sideways so she could pet its back.
He’s got a collar, Jay noticed, and he looks healthy. But he had no leash. Had he gotten away from his owner? There were letters written on the collar and Jay reached for it, spinning it to see if it had the dog’s name, or maybe – if she was lucky – information on its owner. To her surprise, it had neither. The words, written in permanent marker, said, Hi, Jayana. Follow me!
Intrigued, Jay stood, glancing around. Was Kyle watching from somewhere? But there was no one in sight. “Okay, boy,” Jay said to the dog. “I guess I’m... following you?”
The dog barked and dashed for one of the trails, stopping at its entrance to look back at Jayana and bark again.
“Okay, okay, I’m coming,” Jay laughed. She jogged toward the dog and followed him into the woods.
The dog led her down a trail, then veered off through the trees.
Jay hesitated only a moment before following, too curious not to. She had only long enough to wonder whether the dog had gotten distracted by a squirrel or something and taken her nowhere before the trees thinned out into a clearing, where filtered sunlight dappled the surface of a table and chairs covered in a solid white tablecloth and set for two with fine china, a covered metal tray and steaming teapot in its center.
The dog trotted over next to the table and flopped down, clearly feeling his job was done.
Jay stared at the table, taking it all in. Kyle had outdone himself. The picnic she may have anticipated, but she’d expected a blanket on the ground. The full table set-up and the dog had definitely taken her by surprise. But... where was he? “Kyle?” she called softly, moving toward the table.
There was a rustle in the trees and Kyle stepped out... supporting his weight on a cane. “My lady,” he said, bowing, then he straightened. “Oh man, now there are grass seeds all over my pants! I should have waited in the clearing.” He looked up at Jay and smiled. “I mean... forget I said that part. Here, let me help you.” He hobbled toward the table and pulled out a chair, then gestured for Jay to sit.
“Thank you,” Jay said, returning his smile as she sat. “This is... wow.”
“A good wow, I hope,” Kyle said as he lowered himself into the chair across from her.
The dog thumped his tail and rolled over, draping his head over Kyle’s feet.
“Yes, a good wow,” Jay answered. “This is... beautiful. Seriously, I’m impressed.”
Kyle smirked, raising one eyebrow. “Then my plan is working. Would you like some coffee? It's still hot. I have water, too; there’s a cooler over here by me.”
“Coffee would be great,” Jay said, and Kyle grabbed the metal teapot and poured some into her white-china mug.
“I wasn’t sure what you like to eat, so... there are fancy sandwiches on the tray, but I also have some fast-food burgers stashed down here somewhere... Mac, cut it out, those aren’t for you!” Kyle nudged the dog away with one hand as the dog tried to shove his face into the insulated bag Kyle had opened next to his chair.
“I’m fine with either one,” Jay said. “Or both?”
Kyle glanced up from trying to keep the dog’s nose out of his bag and grinned. “This just keeps getting better. Both it is!” He lifted two paper-wrapped burgers from the bag and plopped one on each of their plates, then lifted the lid to the metal tray, revealing a pile of delicate triangle-cut sandwiches. “Take your pick. I’ve also got fruit... and salad... and some chocolate cake. I really wasn’t sure what you’d want so I tried to cover my bases.”
Jay took a sandwich from the tray and set it on her plate, then looked up at Kyle. “This is perfect. Thank you. I mean... you really did way more than I was expecting... you didn’t have to do all this.”
“I wanted to,” Kyle said, his face serious.
“Well... thank you,” Jay said again. “I love it.”
Kyle smiled. “Then it was worth it.”
“I have to ask,” Jay said. “How did you train your dog to bring me here?”
“A man has to have secrets.” Kyle grinned, then shoved a bite of sandwich into his mouth.
Jay laughed. “Fair enough.”
The sun drifted across the sky above them as they ate and chatted, shifting the light through the trees. Kyle was surprisingly good at making small talk, asking questions about where Jay had grown up, how long she'd lived here, and more, without Jay feeling the discomfort small talk usually brought her. When they finished eating, Kyle suggested they walk the trails.
“Is that okay for your leg?” Jay asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Actually, I’m supposed to be getting light exercise. Walking will be perfect... as long as you don’t mind stopping for some rests here and there?”
“Not at all,” Jay answered.
Mac happily jogged ahead of them, exploring then drifting back to check on them occasionally, as they made their way down the board-walked paths, stopping here and there at benches to rest or to take in an especially nice view of the river that wound alongside the path.
Jay found that time with Kyle passed quickly, the conversation flowing easily about all sorts of things – first with Jay checking up on his leg and how he was recovering, then with Kyle wanting to know more about Jay and what she did besides pageants. Jay felt comfortable with him and answered most of his questions, though of course in her explanation of running her in-home marketing business and baking competitive cupcakes, she left out any mention of the ghosts.
Kyle laughed as Jay described the cupcake competition and the child’s exploding volcano, completely engrossed in her story.
“I’m really sorry I was late picking you up, though,” Jay added when she finished.
“Please, Jay... don’t worry about that. We’re here now, right?” Kyle smiled. “Anyway, you won! That’s awesome. What do you plan to do with your prize money?”
Jay hesitated, uncertain how much she was ready to reveal. “I... well, I sort of need it to pay some bills,” she said after a moment. Since she hadn’t spent the money on chocolate in trade for the dollhouse like she’d expected, she planned to use it to pay part of the outstanding mortgage payments she owed.
Kyle nodded, his expression empathetic. “Bills. Why is adulting so hard? It’s not nearly as fun as they make it seem,” he said. “Well, except for this part.” He gestured between him and Jay. “This part is pretty great.”
“Yes,” Jay agreed. “It is.”
Jay’s phone alarm buzzed and she jumped, then pulled it from her pocket. “Oh!” Her phone said it was nearly five o’clock. How had time passed so quickly? “I’m so sorry... I need to go.”
She also had a missed text message, which a quick glance revealed was the text from Ryan with the name and address of the restaurant for dinner.
“Your other date,” Kyle said, a vein of disappointment in his voice.
“I’m sorry,” Jay said, looking up at him. “I just... I would feel bad cancelling. Like I said, he’s sort of a friend; he helped me out when I really needed it.”
Kyle shook his head and smiled. “Of course you shouldn’t cancel,” he said. “Please don’t feel bad about that. I’m just sorry I can’t spend more time with you, that’s all. But maybe we can do this again soon?”
“Yes.” Jay nodded. “I would like that.”
Kyle held out his hand that wasn't holding his cane. “Can I walk you to your car?”
Jay placed her hand in his. Kyle’s warm fingers closed around hers as he moved beside her, and stayed that way as they walked in comfortable silence back toward the parking lot, Mac trotting happy circles around them.
When they reached the car, Jay dug out her keys and pressed the unlock button.
Kyle dropped her hand and hobbled forward, opening the car door for her.
“Thank you,” Jay said as she slid into her car.
Kyle leaned into the open doorway. “It was my pleasure,” he said. “I’ll see you soon, Jayana.”
“Yes, see you soon.”
Kyle smiled and shut the door gently behind her, then stood and waved goodbye as she pulled out, Mac sitting obediently by his side.
Jay felt a twinge of regret as Kyle disappeared in the rear-view mirror. He would be staying to break down all the set-up of their date, while she pranced off to meet another guy. But he hadn’t seemed to mind... he’d been perfect, really. So nice and easy to talk to, and so... gentlemanly. A burst of nervous-happy butterflies broke loose in Jay’s chest. She really liked Kyle. Maybe this was turning into something... it was too soon to know for sure. But she definitely liked him.
As soon as Jay reached her first stop light, she pulled up the GPS for the address Ryan had texted her. It was good she’d left when she did; the restaurant was thirty minutes away, and Jay still needed to run home and change into something more dinner-appropriate – the restaurant Ryan named was definitely too fancy for Jay's jeans and blouse.
A ten-minute drive and Jay reached home, where she freshened up, brushed her hair, reapplied lip gloss, and traded her jeans for a slightly-nicer pair of pants. She had no intention of going totally fancy for the date – it was just as friends, after all – but she also didn’t want to stick out too much at the restaurant.
She grabbed a glass of water before heading out, then stopped at the edge of the kitchen. Her house was still eerily quiet, though her cat made an appearance to meow for dinner, which she quickly poured him. “Roger?” Jay called, feeling increasingly uneasy at her ghostly friend’s sudden absence.
Still no answer.
Something wasn’t right, but Jay had no idea what to do about it. “Roger? Are you there?” she called again.
When he still didn’t answer, she grabbed her keys and left, shoving her sense of foreboding down to deal with later. She had no way of getting in touch with Roger other than waiting for him to reappear.
Jay tried not to worry about Roger on the drive, though she couldn’t help expecting him to pop up in her passenger seat at any moment.
Jay arrived at the restaurant right on time, and was greeted by a valet who insisted on parking her car even though Jay would have preferred to do it herself.
She entered the restaurant, and a tie-wearing host greeted her. “Do you have a reservation?”
Jay glanced around, taking in the fancy lighting and glistening tables. “Um... I’m meeting someone. His name is –“
“She’s with me.” Ryan appeared from around the corner, saving Jay the trouble of figuring out what name he’d left the reservation under or explaining that she didn’t know his last name.
“Okay, Mr. Monroe,” the host said, smiling eagerly. “I’d be happy to show you both to your table.”
“I know where it is, Joseph,” Ryan smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’re busy.”
“Thank you, Mr. Monroe. Your server should be with you momentarily,” Joseph said.
“Thanks, Joseph.” Ryan turned to Jay and smiled, offering his hand. “Shall we?”
Jay hesitated only a moment before taking his hand. It seemed like more of a logistical gesture than a romantic one, as he led her gently through a maze of mood-lit tables and bustling servers before landing at a quiet table in the back corner, where he dropped her hand and pulled out a chair for her.
“This is us,” he said, waiting for Jay to sit and then pushing her chair in a bit before settling into his own. “Have you ever been here before?”
“Never,” Jay answered, shaking her head. “But you seem familiar with things. Do you come here a lot?”
Ryan grinned. “You could say that.” He handed her a menu. “Everything here is good, but if you don’t immediately see something you want, let me know and maybe I can help you figure out what you might like the best. And don’t worry about cost... things here are expensive, but I’m paying.”
Jay glanced at the menu and then flicked her face back to Ryan. “I – are you sure?” The prices were way higher than Jay was accustomed to paying, high enough that the sight of them had formed a tight ball of anxiety in her gut.
Ryan smiled gently. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. My parents know the owners, and we barter services with them between our families' businesses. Let’s just say I never pay full price for anything here. Order whatever you want, trust me.”
Jay relaxed. “Oh... okay, if you’re sure.”
“Definitely.” Ryan grinned. “What would you like to drink? I had them bring water, but if you want something else, just let me know.”
“Water’s great,” Jay said.
“Alright. I’ll let you look at the menu.” Ryan smiled, then buried his face in his own menu, his eyes drifting over it absent-mindedly.
Jay focused on her own menu, trying to make sense of all the fancy names and descriptions while also deciding what she was in the mood to eat. Regardless of what Ryan said, she had no intention of ordering anything on the high-end of the menu. She perused the middle section, which – comparatively speaking – held the more reasonable options, and settled on some kind of lasagna dish.
A few moments later, a server appeared, politely taking their orders then refilling their waters before removing their menus and disappearing into the kitchen.
Ryan leaned forward, his eyes studying Jay’s. “So,” he said, “How... was your day?”
“Um... good,” Jay said.
“What did you do?” Ryan asked, seeming truly interested.
“Uh... I... had a date,” Jay answered, feeling intensely awkward.
Ryan paused. “Oh. Really? Well... was it a good one?”
“Actually, yeah,” Jay said. “I like him.”
Ryan nodded slowly, his eyebrows furrowing, then smiled. “Well, I’m glad. You had a good time, and he treated you well, so – he did treat you well, right?”
“Yes,” Jay smiled. “He did.”
“Great. That’s what matters,” Ryan said. “After all... we’re, you know, not on a date, so... going on a date earlier is totally fine.”
Jay wasn’t sure if he was being sincere, but he didn’t seem upset. “That’s... decent of you,” she said. “Thanks for not making a big deal of it.”
“I’m just glad to be here with you,” Ryan answered, leaning toward her, “whatever the circumstance.” He held her eyes for a minute, sending Jay’s heart fluttering nervously, then leaned back suddenly. “So... tell me about yourself. Other than getting trapped in collapsing buildings and having vats of spaghetti dumped on you, what do you do in your spare time?”
Jay chuckled. “Well, I don’t usually do either of those.”
“That’s good to know." Ryan smiled. “So what do you do?”
“Um... marketing?” Jay said. “I work from home.”
“Really?” Ryan grinned. “An entrepreneur! That’s awesome. Do you enjoy it?”
“Sometimes,” Jay said. “But it pays the bills... usually.” Not so much lately, but Jay didn’t feel that was something to go into at the moment.
The server appeared, placing the food before them and refilling their waters. “Anything else I can get you?” he asked.
“I’m fine. You?” Ryan asked Jay.
Jay shook her head. “No, I’m good.”
The server nodded and smiled, then rushed away.
“Their lasagna is one of the best in town,” Ryan said, seeing Jay’s plate. “You’ll have to let me know what you think of it.” He spread his napkin in his lap and began cutting his Chicken Parmigiana with his knife and fork. “So what do you enjoy? Do you have any hobbies?” he asked, glancing up at her.
Jay hesitated. Did she? She felt like she used to, but lately all she had time for was work and hanging out with ghosts. “Um... not really.” She took a small bite of the lasagna, and sighed. It was good.
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you get bored?”
A laugh escaped Jay, and she hurried to swallow her bite so she could answer. “Boring isn’t exactly how I’d describe my life.”
Ryan face-palmed. “Right, of course, I forgot I was talking to the woman who makes survival a full-time job!” He laughed. “Seriously, I take it back. Hobby or no hobby, your life is definitely not boring. But... is it always so full of danger?” He narrowed his eyes. “Are you an adrenaline junkie?”
Jay shook her head, laughing. “No. Not at all. I’d prefer my life to be far more boring than it is, actually.”
“Hmm,” Ryan said. “Well, then I guess I should throw out my plan for inviting you to come with me after dinner.”
“Come... where?” Jay said, suddenly nervous.
“Well, you said you’re an entrepreneur, right? There’s an event tonight, sort of like a competition.”
Jay set down her fork, uncertain she was ready for a repeat of the pageant or the cupcake contest.
“It’s a friendly one, all in fun,” Ryan said hurriedly, seeming to sense her nervousness. “It’s a promo event for a local investor. He wants to donate a sum of money to a small business owner in the area to help them fund their business, or pay off living expenses, or whatever they need. It’s for P.R., really, because he has a business of his own and is launching some new product line. But this money is free of strings, just a donation to help a local entrepreneur grow their business. I’m planning to go, and I thought you might want to come along. I got the impression from your expression earlier that you might need a little financial injection for your business, and there’s still room for a few more entrants. Besides, it could be fun.”
Jay had picked up another bite on her fork, but her hand lingered halfway to her mouth as she eyed Ryan. “What’s the competition,” Jay asked, still wary. “I don’t really have a wide array of talents.”
Ryan chuckled. “Somehow I doubt that. But it’s not that sort of competition. The winner is drawn randomly, actually... it’s more of a raffle, really. There’s just a qualifying event the entrants all have to participate in to get an entry.”
Ryan’s nebulous explanations weren’t helping ease Jay’s nerves. “What, exactly, does this event entail?”
“Nothing major.” Ryan shrugged. “You just have to sky dive with some fire-breathing chickens.”
Jay gaped, her fork clattering to her plate. “What?”
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s mostly a publicity stunt, and besides... I’m one of them. I could make sure you’re safe.”
“You’re... what?” Jay said again. Fire-breathing chickens? Surely she’d misheard.
“I'm a fire-breathing chicken,” Ryan answered, shrugging again. “Me and a few other firefighters and paramedics. We volunteered to help the entrants on their sky-dives, since we’ve all been trained and certified.”
Jay couldn’t decide what to ask first. “Wait... paramedics are trained to sky-dive? And... chickens? Breathing fire? Why? Are you going to be in like... a chicken suit or something? I’m so confused.”
Ryan laughed. “No, paramedics don’t train to sky-dive... usually. But a group of us did it together, for fun. We’re all trained instructors now. I mean... you never know when you might need it, right?”
“Sure...” Jay answered.
“And the chickens are really all about getting attention, but yeah, we’ll all be in costume.”
“And the fire?” Jay asked, her mental image spiraling out of control.
“Fake, of course... it’s just strands of plastic flames attached to the chicken beaks so they’ll look like fire when they flutter in the air, though I think they have pyrotechnics set up at the landing area for show.”
Jay stared. “I... just... why? Fire-breathing chickens, that’s...”
“Weird, I know,” Ryan shrugged. “But this business guy is just strange, and it’s what he wanted. I think it ties in to his branding for the new product he’s planning to launch. Anyway, are you interested? It’s not for another couple hours, but we could head down there as soon as we finish eating and I could show you a few things to make your jump less stressful.”
“Um, I...” Jay really wanted to say no, but thoughts of Roger and the house rose up, pressing her to at least get more info. “How much money did you say the prize is?”
“One-hundred thousand dollars,” Ryan said. “Cash. No strings attached.”
Jay gaped, her heart racing. That was enough to pay off the back payments on the mortgage, her car, and a good chunk of her student loans. It was enough to get her on her feet and back to a place of stability, one where her house would no longer be at risk and ghosts tormenting her about paying the mortgage could be a thing of the past. After what she’d been through with the ghosts at the pageant, the hospital, and everything over getting the dollhouse, skydiving one time for a lump payout actually seemed like a decent alternative to the ghosts’ continued meddling. She swallowed. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but... yes. I’m in.”
Two hours later, Jay stood, petrified with fear, near the open door of a moving airplane, feeling the biggest regret of her life. I never should have done this! Why did I agree to do this?
“You ready?” Ryan yelled over the sound of the plane, plastic flames fluttering from the open chicken-beak that covered everything but his face. His yellow feathers flapped in the wind from the moving plane.
“No!” Jay shouted back. “I change my mind!”
“You can do this, Jay,” Ryan yelled, moving closer. “I’ll be right here with you. Trust me!”
Jay peered out the door then sank back, her head swimming. She could back out. She could stay on the plane, drop out of the contest, and go home. That was the sane thing to do. And yet... part of her balked at the fear, desperate to know what it would be like to take the leap. Would it feel like flying? I could die, Jay thought. Maybe. But she probably wouldn’t...
“Jay,” Ryan called. “If you really don’t want to – “
“No, I’ll do it,” Jay answered, latching onto a sudden burst of courage. “Now, let’s do it now!” Before I change my mind.
“Alright, here we go!” Ryan moved up next to her, securing their tandem harness.
Jay tensed as she felt him behind her, glad he was jumping with her but still fighting to keep her panic at bay.
Ryan leaned his face toward her ear. “Three, two, one! “ He leaped forward, throwing them off the plane.
Jay’s heart flew up into her throat and she was more terrified than she’d ever been in her life... for a moment. And then she was flying.
The air caught them and she felt weightless, magical, invincible, a human with wings. Somewhere in her mind she realized she almost literally had wings, since Ryan’s chicken-feathered arms were spread out behind her, shadowing her own arms. She felt a laugh bubble up, part amusement but a large part joy, as the sky spread out around her.
In the distance, the setting sun blazed orange and red and purple across the sky and from up here it was breathtaking – awe-inspiring. Everything looked so small below... the city, the woods... somewhere down there was her house, the pageant site, the hospital, the park where she’d met Kyle, but up here was a whole different world, and all the stress and pressure of her normal life felt so far away. She was flying. She was free.
Ryan opened their chute, and they were drifting, a slow descent back down to reality.
Somehow the land beneath her seemed to grow larger both slowly and quickly, and though Jay felt anxiety creep in about their landing, mostly she felt sorry to be leaving the air. Coming back to the ground felt... disappointing.
Ryan shouted some instructions to Jay about landing, and she did her best to follow them, hoping she survived it, but before she knew it she was meeting the ground and other chicken-suited fire-breathers were rushing in to support their descent, then her feet were on the ground and it was over.
Ryan unhooked them from each other and turned to her. “Everything okay?”
Jay nodded. Her whole body was trembling, a mixture of fear and exhilaration. “Yeah,” she said, breathless. “Actually, I... that was... amazing.”
Ryan pulled off his chicken-head and moved toward her. “Really?” he asked, his eyes studying hers. “You liked it?”
“Yes,” Jay breathed. “I’m not sure I ever want to do it again, but... yes. I loved it.”
Ryan broke into a grin. “Awesome!” He moved closer. “Jayana, you just keep surprising me.”
Jay felt a flutter of nerves as his eyes locked onto hers again. “I, um... thanks... I think?” She could feel herself blushing, and stepped back, smoothing down her wind-blown hair.
Someone tapped on a live microphone, the sound echoing across the field. “Now that everyone’s here, it’s time to announce the winner! We’ve done a random drawing, and the winner of the $100,000 business fund is... Martin Scordani!”
Across the field, a random guy whooped and threw his fist in the air while the rest of the gathered crowd broke out in applause.
Ryan turned to Jay. “I’m so sorry. I had hoped...”
“It’s okay, really,” Jay said. “I’m glad I did it anyway. It’s an experience I’m sure I won’t ever forget. Thank you for bringing me to do this.”
Ryan smiled, moving toward her again, then glanced down. “I... uh... maybe I should change out of this chicken suit? It made sense before, but now I just feel awkward.”
Jay wasn’t sure the chicken suit had ever made sense, but she just laughed and nodded. “Okay, sure.”
Ryan jogged off to a closed-off tent in the field, and Jay gazed up at the last bit of sunset as she waited for him to return, reliving the skydive in her mind. A few minutes later, he jogged back, once again in normal clothes. He came to a stop in front of her, hanging back a little bit, almost seeming nervous.
Jay watched him, unsure what was happening.
“So, um, Jay,” he said, running a hand through his wind-mussed hair. “I was wondering if you might... I mean, I know you had a date earlier, but... would you possibly be interested in doing this again, but as an actual date? Not the skydiving,” he added quickly. “Just the dinner and the talking and stuff. I mean, unless you want to go skydiving again...”
Jay shook her head, her sense of reason returning full-force now that the adrenaline had faded. “No. It was amazing, but... I’m pretty sure that was a once in a lifetime thing for me.”
Ryan furrowed his eyebrows. “You mean the skydiving, right? Not... the dinner?”
Jay laughed. “Yeah, I meant the skydiving. But...” She hesitated, unsure how to answer. She and Kyle weren’t exclusive, exactly, but... she had the feeling he might want to be. But then again, tonight’s date with Ryan had been surprisingly great, too, and as his eager eyes studied hers, she found herself feeling some distinctly not just-friends feelings for him. “I... can I think about it? I’m sorry, but... I had that date with the other guy, and I’m not sure what it... I mean... I just don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression.”
Ryan stepped back and nodded. “Say no more. I don’t want to make anything uncomfortable for you. I’ll leave the ball entirely in your court. But... if you decide you want to, maybe give me a call?”
Jay nodded. “Yes. Okay.”
Ryan smiled. “Then, Jayana, would it be alright if I escort you back to your car? Can’t be too safe, with all these fire-breathing chickens around.”
Jay laughed. “Sure, that would be great.”
Jay pulled up to her house thirty minutes later, still feeling strangely fluttery, though she wasn’t sure if it was the aftermath of the skydiving or the date or a combination. Darkness had moved in on her drive home, but Jay was surprised to see a light on inside her house as she pulled into her driveway. I don’t remember leaving a light on. She parked and climbed out of her car, holding her car key between her knuckles warily as she approached her front door.
It was locked, as it should be, so she unlocked it and eased it open, stepping cautiously inside.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Maybe she’d just left the kitchen light on without realizing it.
Suddenly a figure burst out from nowhere and Jay screamed, dropping her keys, then groaned as she recognized the figure. “Roger? What in the – please don’t do that ever again! You scared me to death!” She shut the front door behind her, then turned back to him. “I’m glad you’re here, though. Where have you been? I was worried.”
Roger swayed slightly, staring at her with wide, wild eyes.
“Roger? What's wrong?” Jay asked, her heart lurching as she took in his panicked expression.
“Do you have the object, Jay?” Roger asked, his voice an urgent whisper.
Jay patted the zipper pocket of her pants, where she’d placed the object after changing out of her jeans. It had made a small lump, but her blouse covered it, and after all the warnings about the object, she hadn’t wanted to leave it anywhere. “Yes,” she said warily, moving toward him. “It’s here. Why?”
Roger’s eyes dropped closed and he sighed in relief.
“Roger,” Jay said, her anxiety mounting. “Why? What’s going on?”
“I’m in trouble, Jay. I need your help.” He looked desperate, uncomfortable in a way Jay had never seen from him before. Something was clearly very, very wrong.
Jay’s heart raced, fear for both herself and Roger, who she now thought of as a friend. “What is it, Roger? What do you need?”
Roger took a breath, then met Jay’s eyes with a look of pleading. “I need you to make me human again.”
Chapter 5 Spins:
Goal: Solve ridiculous math equation to prevent an explosion
Obstacle: Army of missing puzzle pieces
Catastrophe: Sky-diving with fire-breathing chickens