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Sleep my child, and peace attend thee,
All through the night;
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night...
All through the night...Melinda Gordon opened her eyes into bereft sadness. A sob filled her throat; her lashes stuck together with unshed tears. She lay in the silent darkness, struggling to separate the wash of inflicted, outside feeling from her own inner self. I'm in my wonderful bed with the castiron headboard, she told herself. I'm in my gorgeous old home, renovated by my amazing husband. The same husband who lay beside her, a warm, strong presence in the cool of this spring night, with a breeze from the barely cracked bay window blowing pale curtains into dancing shadows and drawing out a chill on Melinda's skin.
The tears spilled over anyway, even though they weren't quite hers; she let them run down to the pillow, but couldn't stop her sudden intake of breath, or the sniffle that came afterward.
Jim's voice was quiet in the night. "Again?"
She laughed a weak thing, not meant to convince either of them. "Looks that way."
He shifted up to his elbow, looking down on her. After a moment, he used his thumb to wipe away the tear lingering in the corner of her eye. "Still don't have a handle on this one?"
She shook her head, even so slightly. "Honestly, I'm not even sure this is a ghost reaching out to me. It feels more as though..." She hesitated, and shook her head again. "It's hard to explain. It feels as though I'm on the edges of something. As though...I'm coincidental."
He laughed, and it was a lot louder than hers had been. "Trustme," he said. "You are anything but coincidental." And he gathered her up into his strong arms and kissed the damp edge of her eye, then rested his face against her hair and pulled them both back into sleep.
Late, late, late! Melinda gave her reflection a dissatisfied look, leaning forward at the drop-front dresser across from the foot of the bed. Her eyes almond, long-lashed, and expressive were normally a morning routine no-brainer. A little soft mascara, a little smudgy liner, maybe some earthtone shadow. "The puffy look," she informed herself, "is not in. It will never be in." And she dabbed on a little more concealer.
But only a little more, because really, it was a lost cause. She set the little pot of makeup aside, stood up, and gave herself a critical inspection. On this spring day, the outfit would just have to speak for her sky blue top with spaghetti straps and a wide ribbon gathering the empire waist, snug jeans with slim legs that showed ankle above strappy sandals. Long, dark hair drawn up in an offset ponytail and falling in waves, a jeweled-clip accent perfectly matching the blue of the top. Cheerful, bright energy and maybe it would be enough to fool her way through the day.
And maybe tonight she would get the sleep she needed, after so many days of imposed sorrow brought her awake in tears that had at first been so obviously someone else's but now seemed more and more like her own.
Determined to think of better things for there was nothing she could do for this unhappy spirit until she had more information Melinda smoothed down her top, turned on her sandaled heel, and put energy into her step as she skipped down the stairs and snagged up her big satchel of a shoulder bag going for practical today, a decision that might or might not have anything to do with the fact she was running late, late, late.
Out into the bright, early morning, out to her jaunty red Saturn Outlook, and the remnants of the spirit's sadness slipped away. She slipped a CD into the player, sang along to the chorus of "Can I Go Now," and headed out from Hazen Street into Grandview. Delia had no doubt beat her to Same As It Never Was, Melinda's antique store, but she had keys, and Melinda would grab them coffee on the way in to make amends. And since she was running a little late, the line at Village Java wouldn't be as long. There, see? Everywhere, a bright side.
Of course, she didn't find quite the parking spot she wanted, but a walk on a fine spring morning wasn't to be spurned. Especially a walk through the carefully tended town square, with its impressive war memorial, plentiful flower beds, and lush green grass not to mention the smiles greeting her from those hustling along the sidewalks who were obviously just as late as she. She carefully didn't look at the charming old clock...it still carried memory shadows of the doomed Flight 395, and she didn't need to face those today.
Shine, little glow-worm, glimmer!
Okay, that perfectly suited the day she was trying to make. Perky and cheerful, with tones so round and full she expected to find musicians just aroundthe memorial. But so many years of experience lether know...no matter how close it sounded, nomatter how clear and true the harmony, it wasn'tcoming to her through her ears. Not really. And noone else heard it at all.
Wait a moment.
She stopped. She closed her eyes. She let herhead tip back slightly.
Lead us, lest too far we wander,
Love's sweet voice is calling yonder!
Perfect.Four part.Barbershop harmony.She said, "Oh, you must be kidding." And then, because she just had to, she turned around to find them.
Shine, little glow-worm, glimmer
Four of them. Four of them, beaming and delighted at the recognition in her eyes and apparently oblivious to the startling trauma wreaked upon their bodies. Broad red vertical stripes on their blazers, red bow ties, white pants with a crease pressed into the center of each leg, straw boater hats atop their heads. One of them of course had a handlebar mustache. One tall, one stout, two somewhere in between; two pale, one swarthy, one rich brown. They doffed their hats, held them before their chests as if readying for the big finish and then disappeared, just an instant of surprise presaging their abrupt departure.
"Kidding," Melinda informed the spring air, "would have been okay, too."
She made it into Same As It Never Was with coffee in hand, her mind's ear still echoing with the ringing harmonies of the old-time song, her thoughts racing ahead already picking at the puzzle of how she'd learn more about the four men with so little to go on. All four of them had died at one time...they had died in their barbershop quartet outfits. But that song...it was old, she was sure of it. Classic. As was the tradition behind the outfit. The men could well have died a century earlier.
So she needed to know more before she went poking around. Not to mention she needed to admit to herself that this sudden impulse to go straight to Penthius was an equally futile attempt to evade the effects of one ghost by burying herself in the needs of another. Or in the needs of four of them...
She pushed through one of the double doors, expertly employing her elbow as she kept the two coffees steady. "Good morning!"
Delia looked up from the counter where she multitasked: a cell phone at her ear, a tangle of tarnished jewelry at her fingertips delicate old stuff that contrasted with Delia's chic clunky look of the ay, bracelets and earrings and necklace all colorfully suited to her bold blouse, with its fitted upper bodice and flowing sleeves. "Melinda! I was just calling "
Within her purse, Melinda's cell phone rang. Delia snapped her phone closed; Melinda's silenced. Melinda said, "Ah-hah."
Delia's eyes narrowed slightly. "You all right? You look "
"I know, I know...tired. Sorry about the time..." She assessed the morning so far by an expert glance at the counter contents the jewelry, which meant there'd been time for make-work. There were also several sticky-note messages clinging to the counter beside the low-profile register, and otherwise...gleaming marble, with the leather pen holder off to the side, the trinket box at the corner, a small notepad and pen set neatly off to the side. "I brought amends." She pushed one of the giant Village Java cups across the counter toward Delia.
"Tired? I was going to say stunned. But that coffee looks as though it has my name on it, so who am I to argue?"
Stunned? Melinda couldn't help a glance over her shoulder. "I suppose you could say that."
Delia got it right away a ghost moment. And she changed the subject right away, too. Melinda could see it coming in her expression the instant of discomfort, the slightly too-cheerful moment that followed with her next determined intake of breath. "So what's keeping you up at night? Or shouldn't I ask?" Her voice grew more natural and more wicked. "You and your honeymooning hubby..."
Melinda laughed a protest. "The honeymoon was over ages ago!"
Delia shook her head, patently unconvinced. "That's what you say...."
"Hey!" Smiling, Melinda shook her finger. "We will now talk about something else."
"Fine," Delia told her, and swept away from the counter with drama, coffee in hand. "You choose."
"Oh my God, are we in third grade?" Melinda burst into true laughter, and Delia followed suit, and together they untangled jewelry until a van full of retirees who had seen far too many public television antiquing shows came in and haggled over pennies, eyes gleaming.
Melinda helped them load up their purchases while Delia bagged the last-minute item brandnew bags, they were, complete with hang tags printed with the same antiqued S set against a three-leaf clover that adorned the bag. Tasteful earth tones, a modest spray of flowers beneath the S, the store's name scripted across the top within a peach border...Melinda loved them. Nonetheless, as the van pulled away from the curb, she joined Delia in the doorway with a sigh of relief. "Okay, that was stunning, in a scary kind of way."
"What's that?" A voice a little deeper than it had been only a few months ago spoke out from down the sidewalk Ned approaching. "Another ghost?"
Delia's good humor vanished at her son's question; she turned to him tall, filling out into heartthrob material, backpack slung across his shoulder and his grin fading into uncertainty and Melinda took advantage of the moment to make an exaggerated wincey face at him. For if Delia hadn't quite gotten over the whole I-see-dead-people thing hadn't truly accepted it she really hadn't gotten over the fact that Ned had known of Melinda's gift months before she did, or that he'd accepted it unconditionally. So before Delia could say anything, before Ned's expression fell any further as he realized his error, Melinda stepped up. "No, the scaryfervent antiquers who just drove away. They've seen every Antiques on the Road show ever made, been on eBay, and they were so very certain they would find some cheap hidden treasure that they could flip for big bucks."
Okay, that got Ned's attention pretty quickly, too. He slipped the backpack off his shoulders, letting it slump to the sidewalk beside his feet and next to Melinda's flower boxes; his maturing features took on the little-boy look of any young man secretly thinking pirate booty! "And did they?"
"Are you kidding?" She dismissed the thought with an airy wave of her hand. "We've got plenty of treasure in here, but I'm afraid I've already found it. And half of it even came complete with undeniable provenance." Well, undeniable if you could see and hear the former owners explaining the history of the thing. Not so much, otherwise.
Delia held the door open for them all, but her gaze narrowed down on Ned. "Aren't you supposed to be at that reading program?"
"Reading program?" Melinda said, deliberately oblivious to Ned's grimace. "Do tell."
"Not for me," he told her, quick to get that part out of the way. "It's one of those buddy reading programs. You know, like the Paws to Read program. Some kids get to read with dogs, and some kids get us."
"From school." He dug into the backpack and pulled out a brochure, which he held up without looking up; once she took it, he dug further until he came up with a thin coil-bound notebook with a colorful cover that struck Melinda as
"Whoa," she said. "They're trying just a little too hard, aren't they?"
"The whole thing makes me want to grind my teeth," Ned admitted.
"Oh, no, you don't!" Delia said. "We paid good money for those teeth!"
Melinda flipped through the brochure. " 'Teen Reader Leaders.' "
"Yeah." Ned squirmed a little something he did less and less these days as he grew into himself and his confidence. "Like you said...they try too hard. But it's a good program. It pairs us up with little kids who aren't reading so well."
"And it gets you out of gym class," Delia said, going straight to the bottom line but not without a smile that was both understanding and proud.
"Gym?" Melinda sent him a puzzled look. She might have understood it before, when he was clearly still a boy, slight and a little gawky. But little of that remained, and Ned's interest in school teams had grown right along with his bones. "I thought you liked "
"Sports," Ned said, seeing her question coming. "I like sports. That's not anything the same as gym class, really."
"Ah." She smothered a smile at this earnest explanation. "So you go to the elementary school after classes once a week and work with the at-risk readers?"
"Right. It's not so bad. The kids are cool, mostly. Though today...okay, that was scary. Don't you guys have anything to eat around here?"
"Us guys," Delia said, "are in a place of business, not a cafeteria. But I happen to know there's a plate of homemade granola crunch cookies waiting at home. If you can last that long."
Ned straightened, striking something of a heroic posture. "I'll wait," he declared.
"And the crowd cheered!" Delia said, making mock cheerleading-spirit finger gestures.
Melinda smiled at them and their mother-son silliness, her fingers running across the glossy brochure. "What happened today?"
Ned sobered quickly. "The kids, that's what. I mean, they're just kids. Second grade, mostly. So it's not like they were grrr, tough-scary. They were " He looked at her. "Can I use the word spooky around you?"
She laughed. "Sure, why not?"
"Well, that's what they were. Spooky. They all looked drugged or something, and out of nowhere, they'd start humming the same tune together. I mean, seriously we had them split up into groups, and they weren't talking to each other, but then all of a sudden they were all humming the same tune."
"They heard a radio," Delia said, matter-offactly. "Sharp little ears."
Ned gave her an impatient look. "There was no radio," he said. "And they weren't pranking on us they were trying to be good. I mean, get real. One of the guys is on the football team, and all the boys want to be just like him. And the little girls all suck up to Amy."
"Goth must be in for the tender set," Delia observed drily, apparently familiar with the Amy in question.
But when Ned would have protested, Melinda shook her head. "No, I get it," she said. "The kids try to impress you, not pull tricks on you. And they weren't in a position to pull this particular trick on you anyway."
"Right," he said.
"Can you hum it?" she asked him, on a sudden impulse.
"Hum it?" Delia asked, though in truth she looked no more puzzled than Ned. "Why?"
Tricky, this. "Aren't you even the least bit curious what song a classroom full of kids would suddenly start humming together?"
Delia shrugged. "Whatever they heard on the radio."
"That no one else could hear. Right."
Ned shifted uneasily. "Hey, never mind, it doesn't matter I can't give you the tune." And when Melinda turned to him in surprise, he grinned. "What, you think a bunch of zoned-out kids sound like a school choir? They weren't very good. It was hard enough to tell they were humming the same thing."
"Well, there you are, then," Delia said, satisfied. "They probably weren't."
Ned struggled visibly with the impulse to turn sullen at this blatant doubt. "Whatever. They let us go early, anyway. Said the kids weren't in a place to learn." With perfect timing, he waited until Delia bent to straighten the shelf of disarrayed bags and still-flat gift boxes behind the counter, whereupon he made a face at Melinda. They were spooky, that face said.
Melinda widened her eyes slightly, an all-purpose response that meant both that she understood him and also that he was playing with fire. Out loud, she suggested, "Maybe you'd better go get those cookies before it gets any closer to dinnertime."
"Yeah, wouldn't want to miss out on the cookies." He returned to his grin, the one that would no doubt shortly be driving young women quite mad, and shouldered his pack. "See you at home, Mom."
"Pull the chicken out to thaw, will you?" Delia called from behind the counter.
"Got it," he said, the door already closing on his voice.
"That kid," Delia said, standing to flip long, sleek, dark hair back behind her shoulder. "Too much imagination."
"Hey," Melinda said, a verbal poke. "It's a good thing he's doing. The reading." She didn't mention that the teacher had been the one to let the class go that whatever had happened there, Ned hadn't been the only one to observe it.
"You know, you're right. Definitely a good thing. A good kid. As long as he doesn't ruin his appetite with those cookies."
"Hey, we could have kept him here and put him to work. Those antiquers cleaned out enough of the small stuff....I think I'm going to consolidate that corner over there and bring up the washstand I've almost got cleaned up. It might make a conversation piece if I worked on it right here...but still, it's mostly done."
"Sure, and if someone wanted it, you could finish it up in no time. Get Jim here tomorrow afternoon, and I'm sure Ned would be happy to help."
"Great!" Melinda flipped her offset ponytail back over her shoulder, surveyed the store with hands on hips and narrowed eyes, and began the process of mental rearrangement. This here, that there...It would fit.
And if most of her attention lingered on the weird juxtapositions of her day of the spooky kids and the jaunty barbershop quartet, the grief- stricken spirit brushing up against her dreams andthe determined, overinformed shoppers of theday...
Well, the lost-in-thought narrow-eyed look coveredmore than just how to shift the stock around.
Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee,
All through the night.
Melinda woke with familiar tears drying on her face, lilting melody lingering in her mind. She didn't hesitate this time; she slid out of bed and grabbed the oversize shawl at the bedside, wrapping it tightly around herself as she padded out into the hall far enough from the bedroom so Jim wouldn't wake, not quite so far that she ended up going down the stairs.
"I hear you," she said. "I'd like to help you. Won't you talk to me?"
Sorrow whispered in the hallway, a cold breeze coiling loosely around her. A shushing noise changed from tender to harsh, a hissing demand with an edge to it. Melinda's skin tingled, then prickled; she drew back, pulling the shawl closer, searching the hallway for any signs of the spirit herself. "Please," she said. "I want to help."
Nothing. No emotions, no warnings...no prickling breeze.
"Mel?" Jim's sleepy voice filtered out into the hall, a tinge of alarm to his question.
And because he had good reason because there had been plenty of nights when she'd welcomed his willingness to leap from the bed to be with her, to comfort her, or offer himself as a sounding board, or take her back to bed and hold her into sleep she was quick to say, "It's nothing. I'll be right there."
But as she looked at the empty hallway, she knew it wasn't nothing. She just didn't know how long it would take before it became definably something.
As if Jim Clancy didn't know what was still going on. As if he hadn't known even the night before, when he'd woken to that empty bed, just as much as now, when that distant expression drifted over Melinda's features clean, classic, Audrey Hepburn mixed with sexy, twenty-first-century girl next door, and always a balm to his eyes.
But not so much when they held that particular look to them. "You okay?" He sat down on the park bench with the meatball sub he'd brought from the fire station, a dripping concoction with giant meatballs sliced in half, smothered with sauce and cheese. "Because I'm thinking that face isn't completely about how much you want my food."
"Not completely," she admitted, sitting beside him with her chef 's salad fresh from the seasonal market just down the square but not without looking around, and not without frowning. Jim looked around with her, but he knew enough about that expression that he didn't expect to see anything just as he didn't doubt that she would.
The square was its usual gorgeous self, in spite of the veiled nature of the sky thin clouds dulling the sun's light without obscuring it completely. It wasn't as warm as the day before, and she'd worn a cute little cable-knit cardigan with a scoop neck and snug bodice, all full of flatter and flow. Jim thought quite highly of the sweater, in fact, and of the way the lowest button, placed so high just under the bodice, let the breeze catch the lightweight knit and expose pale skin.
"You don't hear it, do you?" she said.
"Hmmm?" he said, the meatball sub in foil untouched at his side.
"I didn't think so. I'm not even sure I " She realized, then, where his attention had gone, and drew herself up, rather primly at that, folding her hands to pin down the wayward sweater at her trim waist. "Did anyone ever tell you that it's insulting to be considered nothing more than a belly button? Especially when you're trying to have a conversation?"
"A conversation about something that no one can hear, maybe not even you?" But he drew his gaze up to her eyes, trying to gauge if they werelaughing or held true annoyance in the deep brown beneath the sweep of those dark lashes. Some of both, he thought. That's not good.
She sighed. "I thought...maybe I heard the melody I've been hearing in my sleep. You know. The one..." She hesitated, but he didn't needto hear the rest of it. The one that makes me cry were her unspoken words, and he knew it clearly enough. She looked away, over into the square. "I was kind of hoping you could hear them. Because I hate to think that they might be coming from inside my head."
That startled him. "What, you mean that she's gotten to you? Planted that much of herself there? Does that happen?"
Her shrug was rueful. "It never has. But I don't take anything for granted these days."
Not since Romano and his Laughing Man sidekick had shown up. Not since a whole planeload of people had died in a field outside of Grandview, and that dark spirit had lured so many of them away. Not since before then, when the lines between living and dead seemed too thin somehow, affording spirits an access to Melinda to her home, her shop, her life that they'd never had before.
To Jim's life, too.
She took a deep breath, flipped the plastic lid from her salad, and tore open the packet of dressing. "Let's eat," she said. "This one's going to come to me in her own good time...I don't even have enough to start research yet."
"Eating," he proclaimed, "is a good thing. Now tell me you aren't going to try to weasel a bite of this sub from me."
"Weasel? " she repeated, and he knew he was in trouble if exactly the kind of trouble he'd gone looking for. The kind that lit that particular fire in her eye. The kind that would carry over until they got home and would lead to a certain amount of chasing around the living room, complete with growling and helpless giggles and eventually tangled limbs.
Except at just that moment her gaze went distant, and this time she seemed to be looking at something, and he couldn't help himself as much as he expected to see nothing, he turned his head to look. And saw, in fact, something. Heard something, a woman's voice rising across the distance as she turned to the five- or six-year-old child sitting beside her in another section of the square. "Eileen!" the woman said, and the edge in her voice sounded like panic and not anger, even as she took the child's arms and gave her a little shake. "Eileen, what's wrong?" And shook her again, a little harder this time enough so Jim found himself on his feet and cutting across the grass to reach that side-walk and that bench, with Melinda only half a step behind him.
He might have warned the woman; he might have asked if she needed help. He didn't need to do any of those things. She looked up as he approached, the perfect picture of a harried caretaker too young to be this girl's mother, but not too young to be her nanny. Face flushed against a coffee-and-cream complexion, curly strands escaped from caramel-black hair classically gathered at her nape, eyes a little wild but not so wild they didn't instantly take in Jim's paramedic uniform. "Oh, good," she said. "She won't answer me she's just sitting there "
"I'm right here," the little girl piped up, her voice full of bossy querulousness, her frown making it clear that the grown-ups were being annoyingly incomprehensible again. "I thought we were going to get ice cream."
"But " the young woman said, looking at the girl with confusion, and then back to Melinda and Jim, baffled and embarrassed. "I swear, I mean, I was really frightened. There's no way I would have shaken her " She stopped short, looking at them with an entirely new kind of fear. "Oh, this must look really bad."
The little girl took over a moment fast turning awkward. "It is bad," she said, standing up on the bench to stomp her foot. "I told you I heard some-one singing, and you got that look on your face that means you think I'm making it up, and then you said we'd get ice cream, like it would make me forget what I was talking about. That means you owe me ice cream! You owe me ice cream twice because you said we would get it and then for not believing me! And I want Smurf!" But at the tail end of that spoiled-sounding demand, Eileen cast her nanny a quick, michievous look; the woman gave the child a gentle poke in her tummy, the affection and the game between them obvious.
"Well," Melinda said, and although she smiled at the girl, Jim thought he saw a sadness there. "She certainly looks fine now. In fact, she looks like a little girl who thinks she should have ice cream." She lowered her voice slightly. "Don't worry. It's obvious you were looking for help."
Relief washed over the woman's features at their understanding...if a relief tempered by worry. "I just don't know what happened."
"She's probably fine," Jim said. "But you should have her seen. There are certain kinds of epilepsy that can present the way you describe."
The woman thanked them, but didn't linger her hand, in fact, had been claimed by the little girl, who already tugged her toward the end of the square that offered ice cream. And while Melinda stared after them, Jim watched Melinda her thoughtful expression, that little bit of tension around her ever-expressive mouth. He moved closer, one hand landing gently on her shoulder. "Well?" he asked, and they both knew what that meant. Was it a spirit ? The influence, somehow, of a troubled Earthbound Spirit trying to find his or her way to the Light?
But she only shook her head. "I don't know," she said, and briefly met his gaze with troubled eyes before returning her attention to the retreating girl and her nanny. "I just don't know."
He didn't say it out loud; he didn't need to. If it was a spirit, they'd find out soon enough.
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