If you think you know what it’s like to be dead—if you think it’s just an eternity of harp music and cloud lounging—well, think again.
Ever hear the saying, Life goes on?
Long past the point when everyone else thinks it stopped.
Take it from me, I’ve been dead for just over a year, and from the moment I crossed that bridge to the other side—well, that’s when things really got interesting.…
“Go on, Buttercup—go get it boy!”
I cupped my hands around my mouth and squinted into a blanket of gooey, white haze still hours away from being burned off by the sun. Gazing upon a beach that was just the way I liked it—foggy, cold, a tiny bit spooky even. Reminding me of our old family visits to the Oregon Coast—the kind I sometimes tried to re-create on my own.
But despite the infinite manifesting possibilities of the Here & Now, something about it just wasn’t the same. Sure, you could replicate similar sensations, the way the tiny, pebbly grains wedged between your toes, the way the cool ocean spray felt upon your face, but still, it didn’t quite cut it.
Couldn’t quite live up to the real thing.
And clearly Buttercup agreed.
He sprinted after the stick, running headfirst into a dad enjoying an early morning stroll with his son, before emerging on their other side. Causing the kid to stop and stare and gaze all around—sensing the disturbance, the sudden change in atmosphere, the burst of cold air—the usual signs a ghost is present.
The usual signs kids always tune in to, and their parents always miss.
I shut my eyes tightly, concentrating on mingling my energy with my surroundings. Summoning the vibration of the sand—the seashells—even the haze—longing to experience it in the same way I used to, knowing I’d have only a few moments of this before Buttercup returned, dropped the wet, slobbery stick at my feet, and we repeated the sequence again.
He was tireless. True to his breed, he’d happily retrieve for hours on end. A nice, long game of fetch making the list of his top-five favorite things, ranking right up there with dog biscuits, a warm patch of sun, bird chasing, and of course, his newest love—flying.
Nudging my leg with his nose, letting me know he was back, he stared up at me with those big brown eyes, practically begging me to hurl the stick even farther this time.
So I did.
Watching as it soared high into the sky before it pierced the filmy, white veil and was gone. Buttercup dashing behind it, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, tail wagging crazily from side to side—the furry, yellow tip the last thing I saw before the mist swallowed him whole and he vanished from sight. Leaving only a faint echo of excited barks trailing behind.
I turned my attention to the small flock of seagulls circling overhead, swooping toward the water and filling their beaks with unsuspecting fish, before taking flight again. Vaguely aware of the minutes slipping past with still no sign of Buttercup, I called out his name, then chased it with a spot-on imitation of my dad’s special whistle that never failed to bring Buttercup home. My feet carving into the sand, leaving no trace of footprints, as I pushed through a fog so thick, so viscous, it reminded me of the time I’d flown through a cloud storm for fun, only to realize it was anything but. And I was just about to venture into the freezing-cold water, knowing his fondness for swimming, when I heard a deep, unmistakable growl that immediately set me on edge.
Buttercup rarely growled.
He was far too good-natured for that.
So when he did, it was safe to assume he’d stumbled upon something serious.
Something very, very bad.
I followed the sound of it. That low, gravely rumble growing in intensity the closer I crept. Only to be replaced with something much worse—a horrible snarl, a high-pitched yelp, and a sickening silence that made my gut dance.
“Buttercup?” I called, my voice so shaky, so unsteady I was forced to clear my throat and try again. “Buttercup—where are you? This isn’t funny, you know! You better show yourself now,or you will not be flying home!”
The second the threat was out, I heard him. Paws beating against the hard, wet sand, his quick panting breath getting louder and louder the closer he came.
I sighed with relief and sank down to the ground. Readying myself for the big, slobbery apology hug that soon would be mine, only to watch in absolute horror as the fog split wide open and a large dog jumped out.
A dog that wasn’t Buttercup.
It was—something else entirely.
Big—the size of a pony.
Black—its coat matted and gnarled.
With paws the size of hooves that came hurtling toward me, as I screamed long and loud, desperate to get out of its way.
But it was too late.
No matter how fast I moved—it wasn’t fast enough.
There was no escaping the chains of its sharply barbed collar that clanged ominously.
No escaping the menacing glow of those deep yellow eyes with the laser-hot gaze that burned right into mine, right into my soul.…
I curled into a ball, pressed my nose against my knees, and covered my face as I waited for the impact.
Waited for the push of those paws, the bite of those razor-sharp teeth, the heat of that ominous gaze to sear straight into the heart of me.
But nothing came.
And, really, why would it when there was one major thing saving me from his attack?
One major thing saving me from any attack.
One major thing that I still hadn’t grown used to—or at least not when I was in the middle of being scared witless.
The fact that I was dead.
Dead as a doornail.
Dead and buried.
Dead as … well, pretty much as dead as it gets.
The irony being that while I may have felt more alive than ever, the truth was that my physical body had died just over a year ago. Leaving me with this new, light and filmy, somewhat translucent version that looked an awful lot like the original, gravity-bound version, except for the fact that things could easily pass through me now, whereas they couldn’t before.
Things like oversize hellhounds with matted black fur and deep menacing growls, for instance.
And, as luck would have it, I’d failed to remember any of that until Bodhi had already caught up with me.
Or, rather, make that Bodhi and Buttercup, my sweet yellow Lab, who’s not only known me for almost all of my life, but who died in the car accident right alongside me, which, all things considered, you’d think would result in some serious loyalty.
There were no loyalties where Buttercup was concerned. He was all too eager to sniff and lick the fingers of just about anyone willing to pet him, feed him, or play fetch with him—including my ghost guide Bodhi. And as Bodhi laughed himself silly at the way I cowered on the sand, all coiled up into my own tiny, blond, ghost-girl ball of fear, Buttercup barked and drooled and tail-wagged happily beside him, carrying on in a way that seriously made me rethink my loyalty to him, and pretty much had me hating Bodhi as much as I did the first time we met.
The first time he pushed me (literally!) into that awful room, where I was forced to undergo a super-embarrassing, completely agonizing life review.
A super-embarrassing, completely agonizing life review where I discovered that my whole entire existence, my brief twelve years on the earth plane, had amounted to little more than a joke—and that the joke was on me.
The whole thing had been a wash.
A decade-long exercise in trying to emulate my older sister, Ever, in hopes of being just like her.
Only to result in some seriously ridiculous, seriously bratty, seriously stalkinglike behavior that, in the end, was pretty much impossible to defend.
A super-embarrassing, completely agonizing life review presided over by various members of the Council, who informed me that based on the amount of time I’d lingered on the earth plane—stubbornly refusing to cross the bridge to the Here & Now in order to stay behind and spy on my sister, celebrities, former teachers, and friends (along with anyone else who might prove interesting but was otherwise unsuspecting)—I had a job to fulfill, one where I was expected to “coax and convince” lingering spirits to cross the bridge to their new home, acting as a Soul Catcher, if you will. And even worse, I’d also been assigned a guide/teacher/coach/counselor/boss (or at least that’s how Bodhi likes to describe himself), who I was expected not only to answer to, but maybe even learn from.
Despite the fact that he no longer dressed like the big dork he did then, despite the fact that he’d swapped the nerd wear for some much cooler clothes, despite the fact that he’d let his hair go all shaggy and loose to the point where it curved down into his face in that cool guy, slightly windswept, effortless way, despite the fact that every time I looked into his brilliant blue eyes I was totally reminded of the Zac Efron poster that used to hang on my old bedroom wall, it still didn’t make it okay for him to laugh at me the way he did.
I continued to lie there, every single part of me just wishing he’d stop and move on already. But when it became clear that he wouldn’t, when it became clear that he was trying to calm down just enough, to catch his breath just enough, so that he could make the switch from laughing at me to making fun of me verbally, I jumped to my feet. I straightened my white cotton dress that, in my haste, had gotten all twisted around, tugged on the straps of the pink and turquoise swimsuit I wore underneath, and glared at him as I said, “Yeah, yeah, laugh all you want.” I shook my head and scowled, first at him, then at Buttercup who promptly lowered his head, tucked his tail between his legs, and gazed up at me with those big brown eyes that were impossible to resist. “But I’m telling you, if you’d seen what I’d seen … well…” I shook my head and made my mouth go all tight and grim, forcing the words between gritted teeth, “I know for a fact you would’ve screamed too.”
I was ready for a fight, ready for some more of that not entirely good-natured ribbing, when instead he just placed his hand on my shoulder and peered at me in this highly serious way that he had.
“I did scream.” His gaze locked on mine. “But instead of the stop, drop, and roll action that you just did, I ran like the wind.”
I narrowed my eyes and shrugged myself out from under his grip. Not quite sure what he was getting at, and still not convinced he wasn’t trying to poke a little fun at my expense.
“It was back in England, in Devon, if I remember correctly.” He squinted as though trying to remember the exact date, like it’d been centuries ago or something, when we both knew he’d kicked it just over a decade ago, back in 1999, courtesy of bone cancer, and just days away from the millennium too. Then lifting his shoulders, he added, “Anyway, they’re most often seen in Devon, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex, but still, I—”
“Wait—what do you mean, they?” I asked, aware of Buttercup creeping toward my side, nuzzling my leg in a desperate attempt to ease his way back into my good graces. “You mean there’s more than one?”
“Snarly Yows?” Bodhi tilted his head in a way that caused his bangs to swoop into his eyes. “Yeah, lots more.” He nodded, combing his fingers through his hair and pushing the strands back into place.
“Snarly—what?” My voice squeaked, unable to make sense of the word.
“Snarly Yow, Black Shuck, Phantom Dog, Galleytrot, Shug Monkey, Hateful Thing, Hell Beast…” He shrugged, instantly manifesting a long green straw he started to chew as he looked all around. Face arranged as though he expected to find a whole pack of them storming the sand, but coming away with little more than a heavy shroud of mist, he just looked at me and said, “They go by a lot of different names. And though the legends slightly differ, when you get right down to it, it all amounts to basically the same thing. A big, black, menacing dog with glowing eyes—sometimes one in the middle of his forehead, sometimes where his head would’ve been if it weren’t missing—” He looked at me. “That sort of thing. Though they’re not relegated to just England. Once, while I was on assignment in Egypt, I spotted a really big one, much bigger than the one you just saw. I mean it was fierce. I thought for sure it was some kind of crazed black stallion. You can’t even imagine the size of that thing.” He shook his head at the memory. “Anyway, it was guarding some centuries-old tomb. That’s what they like to do, you know—guard old graves and tombs and such.”
He peered at me from under a thick set of lashes, lashes he probably enhanced in some way in order to make himself appear irresistible. From what I saw at graduation—or whatever they call that day when he first started to glow in that deep greenish shade that was enough to signal to whoever was in charge of these things that he was ready to serve as my guide—from all the catcalls and wolf whistles that followed him right from his seat all the way down to the stage, well, it clearly was working.
Or at least on some less-discerning spirits anyway.
Me, I was pretty much immune to it.
He continued to look at me, practically begging for me to be impressed with his exotic journey. But no way would I give that to him. No way would I give him the satisfaction.
So he’d traveled to Egypt. On assignment. Where he’d faced down some phantom dog that was even bigger than the one I just saw.
In the short amount of time since I’d crossed the bridge to my new home in the Here & Now, I’d already aced an assignment at a pretty impressive castle in the English countryside, had already soared directly above the bustling streets of London, and was at that very moment enjoying a nice little vacay on one of the Virgin Islands—all of that happening within a very short,very brief, amount of time, thankyouverymuch. Which left me with no doubt that there’d be plenty more travel in store for me, what with all the assignments I’d have, and all the lingering souls I’d be expected to cross over.
“Anyway,” he said, still chomping away, that green straw bobbing up and down in his mouth in what was clearly an annoying habit held over from his time on the earth plane, “even though legend says that coming across one is a bad omen—a portent of death—”
“A portent?” I looked at him, my brow rising, convinced he was trying to show off again.
“An omen, a sign, a—”
“I know what it means.” I rolled my eyes and waved it away, waved away his lame attempt to impress me, to lord his oh-so-big vocabulary over me.
“Anyway, the thing is,” he continued, squinting as he gazed up and down the mostly empty beach, “even though the legends all claim that whoever sees a Black Shuck will be dead within a year, that’s obviously something you don’t have to worry about. I mean, seeing as you’re already dead and all…”
“So that’s it, then?” I placed my hands on my hips and stared. “You’re just gonna let this psycho phantom hellhound run amok, and basically terrorize all the people on the beach, and do nothing to stop it?”
He shrugged, obviously not nearly as alarmed by the prospect as I was. “Guess I don’t really see the point,” he said. “I mean, face it, Riley, the only one who seems to be terrorized by the dog is you.”
I searched his face, searched for obvious signs (portents!) of mocking, but came up empty. So then I said, “What about Buttercup, then? What about that yelp that I heard? He sounded scared to death—so to speak.”
But Bodhi just laughed. “Mad maybe, but definitely not scared. That was my bad. I caught his ball in midair and flew with it. He wasn’t too pleased, but you got over it, didn’t you, boy?” His voice grew all soft and mushy as he reached down to give Buttercup a good scratch between the ears. And it was all I could do not to cringe when I saw how quickly my dog abandoned my side in order to scooch back toward Bodhi’s, where he sat, happily gazing at him, all drooly and goo-goo eyed.
“Besides, whatever lingering spirits you find here are to be left alone. No matter what. Just remember, if it’s not assigned by the Council, then it’s none of our business.” His face grew all serious, wanting me to know just how much he meant it. Then assuming his job was done, assuming he’d waged the winning argument, he added, “So come on, what do you say we forget the beast, ditch this fogged-out beach, and go check out the town?”
I placed my hands on my hips and gazed into a mist that seemed as though it wasn’t about to burn off anytime soon. Still, if you knew where to look, you’d find a few patchy bits here and there, and I took them to be a promise that a beautiful day might be in the works.
And even though we were there on vacation, even though this little trip was awarded to us by the Council for a job well done after crossing over some ghosts who’d been haunting a castle for way too long (ghosts that no other Soul Catcher had been able to move on, including Bodhi, until I came along), even though Bodhi was nice enough to let me choose the place and didn’t lodge even a single complaint when I picked St. John (the island my parents had honeymooned on—solely because I’d heard them talk about it so often, and so wistfully—I just had to seize the chance to see it for myself), even though we only had a little time left before we’d have to return to the Here & Now, appear before the Council, and get back to the business of our next assignment—even though I knew all of that—I still looked at him and said, “I’m not going anywhere till I convince that dog to move on.”
Copyright © 2011 by Alyson Noël