Jodi Hutchins © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Ten Years Earlier
“Margo, calm down. You can’t go killing someone just because they pissed you off.”
Margo Petrov pumped her arms, increasing her speed as she cut across the dead grass of the front lawn, though her initial fury had settled to a low broil. The cold metal of the baseball bat against her palm was soothing but not calming enough to ease the rage completely.
The sound of Luis’s sneakers pounding the asphalt behind her indicated he’d finally caught up. “I’m not going to kill them,” she grumbled.
Luis snorted. “Okay, well, when you storm out of your apartment, yelling, ‘I’m going to fucking kill ’em, Luis,’ I think I can safely assume you’re going to kill someone.”
She stopped abruptly, causing Luis to run into her chest as she turned to face him. “Fine,” she said, tossing the bat into the bushes lining the sidewalk. She grabbed his shoulders, lowering her gaze to his. “Nobody fucks with my brother without consequence. Nobody,” she said, shaking him slightly to emphasize her seriousness.
Headlights from a passing car gleamed in his wide brown-eyed gaze as he nodded.
“Besides”—she started, as she dropped her hands from him, quirking an eyebrow—“I just want to know if they’re afraid of the dark.” She’d been livid when Luis told her the resident group of asshats from their high school decided to give Luis hell on his way back from the library.
Without further discussion, Margo continued down the cracked sidewalks of downtown Philadelphia.
“They still hang out at the bowling alley on Daly Ave?”
Luis huffed a discontented sigh, eliciting a grin from Margo. “Dude come on. Think about this for a second; do you really want to risk another arrest? You’re almost eighteen, and you could be charged as an adult.”
He had a point, and she admitted that to herself, but she continued down the sidewalk anyway, cutting across the street, her feet displacing loose black asphalt pebbles on the worn roadway. “Yeah, but they need to leave you the hell alone. This is getting ridiculous.” For years, she and her brother experienced taunting for their otherness, Luis taking the brunt end most times. The basketball team tormented Luis for merely existing; however, Margo guessed they blamed their mocking on his differences. They needed a good scare, using a bit of magic, the otherness his tormentors weren’t aware of. She wanted to scare them so bad they’d piss themselves. If all else failed, she’d just beat the shit out of them.
Luis gave a shrug of nonchalance, something she instantly recognized as her brother’s passive language, which furthered the desire to teach the perpetrators a lesson. Instead of digging into his dismissal, she turned and continued her way toward downtown.
The streets were busy even though rush hour had ended a few hours prior. Cars zipped past, a stray honk resounding a few blocks away, voices rising in a cacophonous argument. The late-night city sounds were laden with a warning, hinting at the kind of night bad things happened, stirring a deep foreboding in the air around them.
Luis jabbed her in the ribs, ripping Margo from her eerie thoughts. “Hey, do you see that?” He pointed to LOVE Park on the opposite side of the crosswalk. Standing beside the water fountain was a child, their head turning from side to side in rapid succession. Luis was clearly pointing to the small person; however, the iridescent shift of air around the child indicated to Margo they weren’t alive.
Before meeting Luis, she agreed with the titles given to her—weirdo, crazy, psychic—the names condensing her down to a freak who could see ghosts with the only person to possibly believe her long dead. Of course, she’d been ecstatic to find kinship in another, to prove at least to herself she wasn’t crazy. That is until Luis stopped for every spirit in sight with their Sally-sob story. “Yeah, I see them, and no, we don’t have time.”
Luis scoffed just as the light turned, and he hurried across the street without waiting for Margo.
She rushed after him, forgoing her planned scare tactics on the basketball team in hopes she’d convince him to leave well enough alone.
They approached the park’s edge, Luis carefully watching the child. Luckily, the park held no other visitors, alive or dead. “We have to help her,” he whispered before he stuck his lower lip out.
She rolled her eyes. “They aren’t stray puppies, Luis. We can’t help every single one of them.”
Brows cinching, he met her gaze with an icy stare. “Maybe this is why we can see them, to help them move on.”
Though reluctant to admit it, she’d come to the very same conclusion herself a long time ago. With no way of knowing why they could guide ghostly apparitions to the other side, she couldn’t come up with a better reason herself. She glanced over at the redheaded girl and sighed. “Fine, but we need to be quick, and I still want to find those idiots so I can mess up their night.”
They cut through the grass, making their way to the child cowering beside the placid pool in a few strides. Years before, Margo had visited LOVE Park with a foster family; she couldn’t remember who they were as the names and faces all meshed together, but she recalled the beautiful water spilling from the fountain, countless skateboarders cruising the sidewalks, and scents of French fries and hot dogs wafting from the closest wheeled food cart. The atmosphere was one Margo wanted to stay in forever. During the night with a cold winter chill in the air, though, she wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there. They approached the spirit, Margo shoving her hands into her pockets. The child dipped her head as if downcast, her crimson ringlets shielding her face.
Luis knelt, head tilting to the side to catch her gaze. “Hi, there, kiddo. Are you lost?”
Margo stayed back and observed her brother at work. If this were an occupation, he was made for it. His soft voice and calm demeanor combined with his eager desire to help others and the sometimes nauseating greater-good complex slated him perfectly with helping spirits cross over. When they first met, neither had a clue they shared such a monumental power. The discovery of their mutual energy was happenstance; Luis saw a spirit in their foster home, as did Margo, and they helped them move on to the other side, wherever the shimmering doorway led the person.
The origins of their talents differed; Margo drew hers from instinct, the budding energy filling her after losing the closest thing she had to a parent as a child, aiding her foster mother to the other side shortly after her death. Luis experienced a similar situation after a death in the church his foster family attended when he was six. The only difference between them was Margo’s extra ability.
The child’s face lifted, the light catching the faint glittery aura around her. “My mommy told me to stay here and not move a muscle. Sisie ran into the park and Mommy had to catch her. They ran over there,” she said, pointing in the direction of the deserted park. “I saw this coin in the water, and it was so pretty, so I climbed into the fountain to get it. I heard mommy calling me, and I was scared she would be really, really mad so I tried to jump out, but I slipped.” She glanced at Margo, her face disconcerted. “I think I hit my head.”
The back of the child’s head opened on a massive wound, blood glaring and glistening. Margo bit back her gasp. She pretended she was used to seeing the morbid displays some ghosts showcased from their deaths, but in reality, a wave of nausea rocked into her each time. She turned to Luis again, listening to their conversation. A shiver ran through Margo, and she shook her head.
“I bet that hurt,” Luis said, seemingly unphased. He took the ghost’s hand in his own. “Why are you still here?”
With a scrunch of her nose, the little girl shrugged. “I dun know. Mommy told me not to move, so I have to stay here till she gets back.”
A car slowed as it drove by the park, and Margo yanked her hood over her head. This was a bad idea. Most times, the two were discreet when they aided souls in abandoned buildings, graveyards, or at least indoors, fearful of curious passersby potentially calling them crazy or calling the police. She didn’t want someone assuming their presence in the park at such a late hour was suspicious. “Luis, hurry up.”
He ignored her, his full attention on the child. “I think it’s okay for you to go. I think just this once she wouldn’t get mad at you for leaving this spot.” His warm smile eased even Margo’s anxiety. Only slightly.
“Are you sure? Mommy told me not to talk to strangers or go with them.” She kicked the ground, tilting her head so her hair concealed her face again.
Margo cleared her throat. “Smart mom. Thing is, you aren’t of this world anymore, kid. I think when you hit your head things changed for you.”
A glare crested Luis’s face before he looked at the child again. “Did your mommy ever tell you about life and death?”
Grass filled the cracks in the cement of the sidewalk, and the little girl kicked the blades with her dirty tennis shoe. “When my fish died, we flushed it down the toilet.” She peered up at Luis so fast her hair whipped her in the face, and her forehead creased dramatically. “You’re not going to flush me down the toilet, are you?”
He chuckled. “No, we aren’t going to flush you. So, you know you aren’t alive anymore?”
She pursed her lips and nodded.
“We want to help you to the other side.” He jerked his thumb in a vague gesture behind them.
“What’s that?” the girl asked.
“Luis, we don’t have time—”
He raised his hand to silence Margo. “We aren’t sure. All we know is that it’s better than waiting here for your mommy who isn’t going to come.”
The hair on the back of Margo’s neck stiffened under her hood, and she turned around. A light fog had begun to roll in, lingering between the scant trees. Luis and the child continued their conversation, but Margo tuned them out. Somebody was watching them. How she knew this, she wasn’t sure, but someone or something was among the trees, and she didn’t want to find out what was lurking back there. “Luis.”
He was smiling when she turned back to them. “She’s ready to go.” Iridescent light flickered at his fingertips.
Margo rubbed her hands together, casting a glance over her shoulder. “All righty, I think we should move this little shindig somewhere we’re not, you know, right out in the open.” Before she could continue with her warning, Luis began to form the portal on the ledge of the fountain, which in Margo’s mind was a little too morbid for her liking.
Despite her own feelings on the portal formation, the little girl glanced up, her face alight in the glowing doorway, eyes widened and mouth ajar. “So pretty!” she squealed.
Margo and Luis lifted their hands in unison, their teamwork flawless from helping so many spirits over together. If she had to guess, the little girl had to have been their seventh crossover just that month. Margo conducted a handful on her own as a child, the very first being a foster mother who’d nearly adopted her before her unexpected illness and death.
The child clambered onto the ledge of the fountain, her head wound visible again as she faced the portal forming. The portal shuddered to a stop. Tentatively, the little girl touched the doorway with her finger, the movement sending out ripples to the edges. “Can I…can I go?”
“It’s all yours,” he answered. “We made this just for you.”
A thin shadow crept back into Margo’s periphery, and she dared a glance behind them. Nothing was there save the same trees, mist coiling around their bare limbs.
The child swung her arms from side to side. “Thanks.”
Margo turned around just in time to see her disappear into the shimmering surface of the portal.
Luis clasped Margo on the back and chuckled with a glance at his watch. “See? She didn’t take us more than twenty minutes, and now she’s off to…what, heaven?”
She snorted. “Brother, you know my own views on what lays beyond that door.” She didn’t judge his beliefs, but his didn’t mingle with her own views, or lack thereof. To Margo, the spirits didn’t go to a big beautiful beyond like he believed, though she refused to rain on his positive outlook of the afterlife. She wiped sweat from her brow. Opening a portal wasn’t as hard as it had been when she was younger, but the act still brought on mild fatigue, something akin to how she felt after a double shift at the gas station. “Now, let’s get the fuck out of here.”
They needed to move, and fast. The creeping sensation plagued her, and she was unsure who or what had watched them open the portal. From experience she’d become aware that, although extremely rare, she and Luis weren’t the only individuals in the world who could see spirits and the rest of the sometimes-sickening things they’d witnessed. Before she’d turned seven, she’d seen a monster—a real, true to form monster—a ravenous sharp-toothed beast in the sewers at the end of town. Red eyes glared at her. Clawed hands reached for her. Saliva dripped from their gnarled mouth. The moment was all too comic-book-worthy in Margo’s opinion.
“Can’t we share a tiny moment of pride for helping her? I mean, how long do you think she’s been standing there waiting for her mom, knowing she was dead? You should be happy she’s off to whatever afterlife she earned,” he rambled, bringing Margo back into the world.
Luis’s smile was infectious, and Margo found herself grinning as she noticed the unsettling sensation had ceased. “Fine, fine. I’m in a better mood than I was before we communed with the dead, but now I’m hungry. Let’s steal some doughnuts from the Tastykake factory.”
Mist gathered below the streetlights, hanging loosely a foot above the ground, the effect causing the red hand to glow at the crosswalk. Margo tapped her foot on the sidewalk, and the shadows from her movements danced on the white cement. She stopped. Faint footfalls piqued her attention, and she glanced back.
Her smile faltered. “Someone watched us open the portal, and now they’re following us.”
“What?” Luis whispered. He started to turn his head, but Margo stopped him.
“Who do you think it is?”
“More like what,” she whispered. The white walk sign appeared. “I don’t know. Come on.” She slipped her arm around his elbow and steered him down a different street. A dark-suited figure followed them, proving her original assumption correct.
Her heart hammered in her chest as she picked up speed, and Luis kept up with her. The footsteps grew closer, causing her to bite her lip. Not only were they walking into a really bad part of town, but their stalker was also making progress, their footsteps echoing louder off the brick and plywood-covered windows.
“Hey, you,” a voice echoed off the abandoned buildings lining the street.
Margo turned her head toward the voice. The person’s shadow dragged over the damp asphalt, the tail of their suit jacket lifting as they advanced. Scoffing, Margo turned and looped her arm under Luis’s once again. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Wait!” the stalker yelled.
Luis quickened his pace next to her as their follower’s footfalls grew closer. “Margo, they’re chasing us.”
“No shit,” Margo breathed. She yanked him down an alleyway, the stench of rotting food in the dumpster barely perceivable as they ran. Thoughts raced through her head. Had he seen what they’d done in the park? No, no one ever noticed before, how would they now? An average person would’ve written them off as a couple of kids on shrooms talking to a hallucination, or they would’ve simply called the police on them, not chase them through the worst streets of Philly. A chain-link fence stretched out between the brick buildings and the two halted, effectively cornered.
“Would you two slow down?” Their assailant’s voice was gruff and winded as they spoke.
Margo turned, ready to fight the stranger. “What the fuck do you want?”
He wasn’t much taller than Margo, his russet skin dark in the scant lighting of the alleyway. A gold wristwatch glistened in what little light was shed by the bare incandescent bulb from the flickering streetlight above them. Bent at the waist, he heaved shallow breaths as he spoke, “I don’t run often, and you two are very fast.”
Luis puffed out his chest, his shoulder bumping Margo’s. “Yeah? Well, you’d probably run, too, if you had some weirdo chasing you down in the middle of the night.”
A chuckle filled the alleyway, haunting as it reverberated off the walls. “Isn’t that what one would come to expect when they’re walking in this neighborhood at almost one in the morning?”
Margo took a step forward, fists clenched at her sides. In her periphery, spilled light stirred and slithered, moving from the shadows hidden in the grout of the wet bricks, soaking in the anger permeating from her. Her skin chilled in anticipation.
The man raised both of his hands in surrender. “Look, I’m here to help you. If you’d give me a second to offer an explanation before you two go all macho on me, maybe we could get somewhere.” He couldn’t have been much older than the two of them, perhaps mid-to-late twenties, but his attire screamed affluence, and his words were tinged faintly with an accent.
Margo didn’t trust him. “Help us with what?” she snapped.
He dropped his hands, blinking in a thoughtful manner. “I’ve been watching you two for a few months now, and there’s something I need to share with you.”
Luis snorted and took a step back. “You’ve been stalking us?”
“Not specifically. I’ve admired your work from afar.”
“That’s basically the same damn thing,” Luis remarked.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Margo played dumb, knowing damn well his reference pertained to them opening portals. What good would it do to admit to opening the portal? Who was this dude, and what kind of consequences could they face? Her questions were muted by a primal fear and the need to protect not only herself but her brother.
Margo drew a deep breath, succumbing to the familiar sensations. She flicked her wrist and the light abandoned the shadows, the various shards mixing as they crawled toward her, becoming a glowing mass. She reached her arm to the ground and closed her eyes. The mass wrapped around her fingers, coiled up her arms like a frigid snake, twisting and tightening until icy power thrummed through her. Her arms glowed in a vibrant incandescence, subduing the chilled pain. “Back off,” she growled.
Luis sidled up beside her—evidently aware of her intentions—and touched her shoulder, whispering, “Margo, don’t.” She shrugged him off, her gaze set on the man before them. The power she held over light was one Luis didn’t possess, fueling his apprehension of its use along with the cost Margo endured in the form of bone-deep weariness.
The man gasped, stumbling over a crushed can as he stepped backward. “I didn’t expect this.” He appeared amused, his eyes ablaze, perhaps even awestruck, rather than fearful. The sight infuriated her, and she shed the light like a pair of frozen gloves. The glowing mass recoiled, dispersing sporadically to the darkened locations from which it came.
“Let’s go,” she said, tugging Luis’s arm. She steered them around the stranger, whose gaze was still glued to the light as it resumed its original positions.
Margo and Luis headed to the opening of the alleyway, the street beyond as still and barren as the dark depths behind them.
The stranger cleared his throat and pitched his voice louder. “Haven’t you ever wondered why you’re able to see the macabre of the world when no one else can?” Margo bit her lip at the question. How had the man known enough to follow them in the first place? “What you did with that little girl—it’s who you are.”
Cautiously, Margo looked at the man, really looked at him. Light glinted off his dark-rimmed glasses, and his slight smile was warm, welcoming even. He met her gaze, undeterred from her menacing stance.
“He’s…he’s like us,” Luis murmured.
She crossed her arms over her chest and muttered, “Even if he is, he could be dangerous.”
As they stood staring at each other, a police cruiser slowed as it rounded the corner, heading toward them. “We need to leave right now,” she grumbled, inclining her head toward the cruiser. From an outsider looking in, Margo figured their little gathering in the neighborhood appeared all too similar to an impromptu drug deal. “Come on,” she said before heading down the street. Luis followed, as well as their newly acquired shadow. She’d fallen on the tactic of using her light conjuring to protect them and possibly freak the man out, and as the man continued to follow them through the city streets, she realized her plan had backfired.
Though the cop car slowed as it passed them, the vehicle continued to the traffic light and turned left away from them. Margo let out a long sigh, thankful for avoiding the law. She talked up her arrogance a bit too much, but she was truly terrified of being arrested so close to eighteen.
They continued around the corner in the direction leading back to the park where they’d aided the child’s spirit. The shady buildings around them were gradually replaced with closed shops, a couple all-night minimarts, and bars. After a few blocks, she admitted to herself their follower wasn’t going to leave them alone. She wasn’t sure she wanted him to. “Would you get the hell away from us?”
He chuckled. “Not until you give me a moment to explain.”
“Maybe we should hear him out,” Luis whispered.
The glow of a late-night diner shined in Margo’s eyes as they passed the windows, causing her to squint at the peeling white paint on the sign. “Let me buy you some dinner,” the man offered.
As if on cue, Margo’s stomach growled. Payday from the gas station she worked at wasn’t for another day and a half, and Margo’s depleted pantry caused her to answer without preamble. “Deal.” Letting the weirdo explain why he thought he knew anything about them was worth a free meal. Plus, she needed to know how he knew what they could do.
The trio walked into the Denny’s knockoff restaurant, stale coffee and maple syrup eliciting a second, louder growl from Margo’s stomach. They were seated by the window; Luis and Margo in the same booth, and the man on the other side.
The dark stranger tossed a messenger bag on the seat beside him and then tented his fingers together on the table between them, glancing from Luis to Margo. “Let’s start with names. I know you’re Margo and Luis. I’m Brent Caspian.”
A waiter stopped by their table and took their orders. When he left, the man named Brent took a tin from his messenger bag and opened it in the middle of the table. An unfamiliar aroma wafted from the muffins within the tin, a spicy, biting scent making Margo’s mouth water. Brent offered the tin to them with one hand, taking a muffin in the other before biting a piece off. “Want one? These help with the crash.”
The crash? Could he mean the fatigue washing over them after opening a portal? “No.” Though the muffins smelled good, she was not about to take food from a stranger, especially one who admitted to stalking them. Margo leaned back against the booth and crossed her arms, the cracked plastic seat groaning under her weight.
How dare this dude hunt them down and act as if they were good friends? Margo chewed the inside of her cheek as she glared at him, finally saying, “So, you admit to being a stalker?”
Grinning, Brent shook his head. “I wouldn’t call myself a stalker, more of an investigator trying to locate specific individuals.”
“Is that supposed to mean something to us?” Luis asked. “What kind of individuals?”
“Psychopomps. What you did with the child in the park—how often do you do this sort of thing?”
Luis glanced at Margo, face questioning, and looked back to Brent. “A few times a week. How do you know what we did?”
“As I said, I’m an investigator searching for individuals who possess the same qualities as me and the rest of the Grim.”
Luis leaned forward, intrigue clear on his face. “The Grim?”
“Yes, a subset of preternatural people who aid the recently deceased and the lingering through the veil to the other side. The Grim is all of us collectively, but individually, it’s just Grim: you’re a Grim, I’m a Grim, we’re all Grim.”
A smile broke across Luis’s face as he turned to glance at Margo. She clenched her jaw, drawing a sharp breath through her nose. All this time, she’d ignored the internal intuition that they belonged somewhere, shoving the juvenile idealistic notion deep in her mind. But now, she couldn’t deny it.
“If you’ll let me, I’d like to show you the world you’ve missed out on.”