MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Remember, it’s never too late to give LSD a shot.
I stood beside the booth and poured coffee into a beige cup that had the words FIRELIGHT GRILL written across it, wondering if I should tell my customer, Mr. Pettigrew, about the dead stripper sitting next to him. It wasn’t every day a dead stripper accosted one of my regulars, but telling Mr. P about her might not be a good idea. He could react the way I did the first time I saw a walking corpse a little over a month ago. I screamed like a twelve-year-old girl and locked myself in the bathroom.
For seven hours.
I admired the rascally old man, a decorated war veteran and retired NYPD detective. He’d seen more action than most. And with it, more atrocity. More depravity and desperation and degradation. He was a tough-as-nails, real-life superhero, and I couldn’t picture any situation in which Mr. P would scream like a twelve-year-old girl and lock himself in a bathroom.
For seven hours.
In my own defense, the first dead guy I saw had fallen to his death at a construction site in Kalamazoo. Thanks to a hundred-foot drop and an unfortunate placement of rebar, I had another image to add to my things-I-can-never-unsee collection. Silver linings, baby.
I pulled three creamers out of my apron pocket where I stashed them, mostly because keeping creamers in my jeans pocket never ended well. I placed them on the table beside him.
“Thanks, Janey.” He gave me a saucy wink and doctored his coffee, an elixir I’d grown to love more than air. And French fries. And hygiene, but only when I woke up late and was faced with the heart-wrenching decision of either making a cup of the key to life itself or taking a shower. Strangely enough, coffee won. Every. Single. Time.
Mr. P was a regular, and I liked regulars. Whenever one walked into the café I felt a little less lost, a little less broken, as though family had come to visit. As fucked up as it sounded, they were all I had.
A little over a month ago, I woke up in an alley, soaked to the marrow of my bones with freezing rain pelting my face and no memory of who I was. Or where I was. Or when I was. I had nothing but the clothes on my back, a honking big diamond on my ring finger, and a blinding headache. The headache disappeared fairly quickly. Thankfully the clothes and the wedding ring did not. But if I were married, where was my husband? Why had he not come for me?
I’d been waiting since that first day. Day One, I’d called it. I’d been waiting for four weeks, three days, seventeen hours, and twelve minutes. Waiting for him to find me. For anyone to find me.
Surely I had family. I mean, everyone has family, right? Or, at the very least, friends. It would seem, however, that I had neither. No one in Sleepy Hollow—or the entire state of New York—knew who I was.
But that didn’t stop me from digging in my raggedly bitten nails and clinging to the knowledge that almost everyone on the planet had someone, and my someone was out there. Somewhere. Searching for me. Scouring the galaxy night and day.
That was my hope, anyway. To be found. To be known. The spiderweb cracks in the shell holding me together were splintering, bleeding into one another, creeping and crackling along the fragile surface. I didn’t know how much longer it would hold. How much longer until the pressure inside me exploded. Until it shattered and catapulted the pieces of my psyche into space; to the farthest reaches of the universe. Until I vanished.
It could happen.
The doctors told me I had amnesia.
Apparently that shit’s real. Who knew?
While waiting for Mr. P to scan the menu he knew by heart, I looked out the plate-glass windows of the café at the two worlds before me. I’d realized very soon after waking up that I could see things others couldn’t. Dead people, for one thing, but also their realm. Their dimension. And their dimension defined the word cray-cray.
Most people saw only the tangible world. The world in which the wind didn’t pass through them but bombarded them, its icy grip only metaphorically slicing through to their bones, because their physical bodies would only let it penetrate so far.
But there was another world all around us. An intangible one where the winds did not go around us but passed through us like searing smoke through air made visible only by a ray of light.
On this particular day, the tangible forecast was partly cloudy with an 80 percent chance of precipitation. The intangible forecast, however, was angry, billowing clouds with a 100 percent chance of thunderous lightning storms and fiery tornadoes swirling in an endless dance over the landscape.
And the colors. The colors were stunning. Oranges and reds and purples, the likes of which were not found in the tangible world, glistened around me, whirled and melded together with each reaction of the capricious weather, as though battling for dominance. Shadows were not gray there but blue and lavender with hints of copper and gold. Water was not blue but variegated shades of orchid and violet and emerald and turquoise.
The clouds parted a few blocks away, and a brilliant light shot down to welcome another soul, to embrace the fortunate spirit that had reached the expiration date of its corporeal form.
That happened fairly often, even in a town the size of Sleepy Hollow. What happened less often, thank goodness, was the opposite. When the ground cracked and parted to reveal a cavernous chasm, to deliver a less fortunate soul—a less deserving one—into darkness.
But not just any darkness. An endless, blinding void a thousand times blacker than the darkest night and a million times deeper.
And the doctors swear there is nothing wrong with me. They can’t see what I see. Feel what I feel. Even in my state of absolute amnesia, I knew the world before me was unreal. Unearthly. Unnatural. And I knew to keep it to myself. Self-preservation was a powerful motive.
Either I had some kind of extrasensory perception or I’d done a lot of LSD in my youth.
“He’s a doll,” the stripper said, her sultry voice dragging me away from the fierce world that raged around me.
She leaned her voluptuous body into him. I wanted to point out the fact that he was old enough to be her father. I could only hope he wasn’t.
“His name is Bernard,” she said, running a finger down the side of his face, a spaghetti strap slipping down a scraped-up shoulder.
I actually had no idea what she’d done for a living, but from the looks of it, she was either a stripper or a prostitute. She’d caked on enough blue eye shadow to paint the Chrysler Building, and her little black dress revealed more curves than a Slinky. I was only leaning toward stripper because the front of her dress was being held together with Velcro.
I had a thing for Velcro.
Sadly, I couldn’t talk to her in front of Mr. P, which was unfortunate. I wanted to know who’d killed her.
I knew how she’d died. She’d been strangled. Black and purple splotches circled her neckline, and the capillaries in her eyes had burst, turning the whites bright red. Not her best look. But I was curious about the situation. How it had evolved. If she’d seen the assailant. If she’d known him. Clearly I had a morbid streak, but I felt this tug at my insides to help her.
Then again, she was dead. As a doornail. In winter. What could I do?
My motto since Day One was to keep my head down and my nose clean. It was none of my business. I didn’t want to know how they died. Who they left behind. How lonely they felt. For the most part the departed were like wasps. I didn’t bother them. They didn’t bother me. And that was how I liked it.
But sometimes I felt a tug, a knee-jerk reaction, when I saw a departed. A visceral desire to do what I could for them. It was instinctual and deep-seated and horridly annoying, so I crawled into a cup of coffee and looked the other way.
“Bernard,” she repeated. “Isn’t that the cutest name?” Her gaze landed on me in question.
I gave her the barest hint of a nod as Mr. P said, “I guess I’ll have the usual, Janey.”
He always had the usual for breakfast. Two eggs, bacon, hash browns, and whole-wheat toast.
“You got it, hon.” I took the menu from him and walked back to the server’s station, where I punched in Mr. P’s order even though Sumi, the line cook, was about five feet from me, standing on the other side of the pass-out window, looking slightly annoyed that I didn’t just tell her the order since she was about five feet from me, standing on the other side of the pass-out window, looking slightly annoyed.
But there was a protocol in place. A strict set of guidelines I had to follow. My boss, a sassy redhead named Dixie, was only slightly less procedural than a brigadier general.
The stripper giggled at something Mr. P read on his phone. I finished up the order so I could move on to other vexations.
Vexations like LSD, Slinkys, and capillaries. How was it I could remember words like capillaries and brigadierand, hell, vexations and not remember my own name? It made no sense. I’d been going through the alphabet, wracking my brain for a candidate, but I was running out of letters. After S, I had only seven left.
I sought out my coffee cup and picked up where I left off.
Sherry? Not even close.
Nothing felt right. Nothing fit. I just knew if I heard my name, my real name, I’d recognize it instantly and all of my memories would come flooding back in a shimmering tidal wave of recollection. So far the only tidal wave in my life resided in my stomach. It did flip-flops every time a certain regular walked in. A tall, dark regular with jet black hair and an aura to match.
The sound of my coworker’s voice brought me back to the present.
“Lost in thought again, sweetie?” She walked up to stand beside me and gave my hip a little nudge. She did that.
Cookie had started working at the café two days after I did. She’d taken the morning shift with me. Started at 7:00 a.m. By 7:02, we were friends. Mostly because we had a lot in common. We were both recent transplants. Both friendless. Both new to the restaurant business and unaccustomed to having people yell at us because their food was too hot or their coffee was too cold.
Okay, cold coffee I understood.
I glanced around my section to make sure I hadn’t abandoned any of my customers in their time of need. All two of said customers—three if I included the dead ones—seemed pretty content. Especially the stripper. We were smack dab in the middle of the midmorning lull. It wouldn’t last long, however. The lunch crowd would be arriving soon.
“Sorry,” I said, busying myself with wiping down the counter.
“What did you say?” She glowered playfully before stuffing a bottle of ketchup into her apron and grabbing two plates off the pass-out window. Her thick black hair had been teased and tugged into a spiky masterpiece that only feigned disorder, but her clothes were another matter altogether. Unless she liked colors bright enough to blind her customers. There was no way to tell, really.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” she said in her stern mommy voice. Which made sense. She was a mother, though I had yet to meet her daughter. She was staying with Cookie’s ex while Cookie and her new husband, Robert, got settled into their new digs. “We talked about this, remember? The whole apology thing?”
“Right. Sor—” I stopped mid-sorry, catching myself before I could complete the thought and incur her wrath.
Her scowl turned semi-serious, anyway. One more “sorry” out of me and she’d turn downright nettled.
She bumped a generous hip against mine again and took her customers their lunch. Like me, she had two living customers and one dead one, since the departed man in the corner booth was technically in her section.
It would do him little good. Cookie couldn’t see dead people like I could. From what I’d gathered over the recent weeks, no one could see dead people like I could. Seemed like that was my superpower. Seeing dead people and the strange world they lived in. As far as superpowers went, if a vengeful madman hopped up on 24-Hour Sudafed and wielding a broadsword named Thor’s Morning Wood ever attacked us, we were screwed. Six ways to Sunday.
I took Mr. P his order while watching Cookie refill her customers’ water glasses. They must’ve been new to the world of Cookie Kowalski-Davidson. She wasn’t the most graceful server. That fact became exceedingly evident when the woman reached over Cookie’s arm to grab a French fry off her beau’s plate. Big mistake. The movement surprised Cookie, and a second later a wall of cold water splashed out of the pitcher and onto the guy’s lap.
When the icy liquid landed, he bolted upright and shot out of the booth. “Holy shit,” he said, his voice cracking, the sudden chill to his twigs and berries taking his breath away.
The horrified look on Cookie’s face was worth the price of admission. “I’m so sorry,” she said, trying to right the situation by blotting the large wet spot at his crotch.
She repeated her apologies, frantic as she poured all of her energy into drying the man’s nether regions. Either that or she was serving off the menu.
The woman opposite him began to giggle, hiding behind a napkin shyly at first, then more openly when she saw her boyfriend’s shocked expression. Her giggles turned into deep belly laughs. She fell across the seat of the booth, her shoulders shaking as she watched Cookie see to her boyfriend’s needs.
Yep, they were definitely new. Most of our customers learned early on not to make any quick movements around Cookie. Of course, most wouldn’t laugh when a waitress tried to service their lunch date either. I liked her.
After several painfully entertaining moments in which my guileless friend changed her technique from dabbing to outright scrubbing, Cookie finally realized she was polishing her customer’s erector set.
She stilled, her face hovering inches from the man’s vitals before she straightened, offered the couple a final apology, and returned to the prep area, her back two-by-four straight, her face Heinz-ketchup red.
I used all my energy to hold back the laughter threatening to burst from my chest like a baby alien, but inside I lay in a fetal position, teary and aching from the spasms racking my body. I sobered when she got close. Cleared my throat. Offered her my condolences.
“You know, if you have to keep buying your customers’ meals, you’re going to end up paying the café to work here instead of vice versa.”
She offered a smile made of steel wool. “I am well aware of that, thank you.” To suffer her mortification alone, she called out to Sumi, letting her know she was taking a break, then headed to the back.
I adored that woman. She was fun and open and absolutely genuine. And, for some unfathomable reason, she cared for me. Deeply.
My one female customer, a shabby-chic blonde with a bag big enough to sleep in, paid out and left. About two minutes later, Mr. P wandered to the register, ticket in hand, his face infused with a soft pink, his eyes watering with humor. Cookie had entertained the whole place. The stripper followed him. He thumbed through some bills, shaking his head, still amused with Cookie’s antics. The stripper took advantage of the moment to explain.
“He saved my life,” she said from beside him. She’d wrapped her arm in his, but every time he moved, her incorporeal limb slipped through. She linked her arm again and continued. “About a year ago. I’d … had a rough night.” She brushed her fingertips over her right cheek, giving me the impression her rough night involved at least one punch to her face.
My emotions did a one-eighty. My chest tightened. I fought the concern edging to the surface. Tamped it down. Ignored it the best that I could.
“I’d been roughed up pretty bad,” she said, oblivious to my disinterest. “He came to the hospital to take my statement. A detective. A detective had come to see me. To ask me questions. I figured I’d be lucky to get a patrol officer, considering … considering my lifestyle.”
“Here you go, hon,” Mr. P said, passing me a twenty. He folded up the rest of his bills and pocketed them as I punched a few buttons on the cash register, then began pulling out his change.
“It was the way he talked to me. Like I was somebody. Like I mattered, you know?”
I closed my eyes and swallowed. I did know. I had become acutely aware of the nuances of human behavior and the effect it had on those around them. The smallest act of kindness went a long way in my world. And there I was. Ignoring her.
“I cleaned up after that. Got a real job.”
She’d probably been ignored her whole life.
She laughed to herself softly. “Not a real job like yours. I started stripping. The place was a dive, but it got me off the streets, and the tips were pretty good. I could finally put my son in a private school. A cheap private school, but a private school nonetheless. This man just—” She stopped and gazed at him with that loving expression she’d had since she’d popped in. “He just treated me real nice.”
My breath hitched, and I swallowed again. When I tried to hand Mr. P his change, he shook his head.
“You keep it, hon.”
I blinked back to him. “You had coffee and ate two bites of your breakfast,” I said, surprised.
“Best cup I’ve had all morning. And they were big bites.”
“You gave me a twenty.”
“Smallest bill I had,” he said defensively, lying through his teeth.
I pressed my mouth together. “I saw several singles in that stash of yours.”
“I can’t give you those. I’m hitting the strip club later.” When I laughed, he leaned in and asked, “Want to join me? You’d make a killing.”
“Oh, honey, he’s right,” the stripper said, nodding in complete seriousness.
I let a smile sneak across my face. “I think I’ll stick to waiting tables.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, his grin infectious.
“See you tomorrow?”
“Yes, you will. If not sooner.”
He started toward the exit, but the stripper stayed behind. “See what I mean?”
Since no one was paying attention, I finally talked to her. Or, well, whispered. “I do.”
“My son is with his grandma now, but guess where he’s going to school.”
“Where?” I asked, intrigued.
“That private school, thanks to Detective Bernard Pettigrew.”
My jaw dropped a little. “He’s paying for your son to go to school?”
She nodded, gratitude shimmering in her eyes. “Nobody knows. My mama doesn’t even know. But he’s paying for my son’s schooling.”
The tightness around my heart increased threefold as she wiggled her fingers and hurried after him, her high heels eerily silent on the tile floor.
I watched her go, giving Mr. P one last glance before he turned the corner, wondering for the thousandth time if I should tell him about the demon coiled inside his chest.
Copyright © 2015 by Darynda Jones